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On This Hill: A narrative history of Hampden-Sydney College

1 rating: 3.0
A book by John Luster Brinkley.

On the Hill: A Narrative History of Hampden-Sydney College is a book by John Luster Brinkley about the history of first 200 years of a Virginia college from 1774 to 1994, and its Presbyterian heritage.

Tags: Books, John Luster Brinkley
1 review about On This Hill: A narrative history of Hampden-Sydney...

Defeated 62 - 5 by UNC Chapel Hill, 1924 basketball at Hampden-Sydney college began badly. Yet ..!

  • Jan 30, 2010
  • by
 I read this 880 page monster history of Virginia Hampden-Sydney College 1774-1994 for no better reason than that a respected neighbor (presumably an alum) asked me to. I don't recall ever hearing about Hampden-Sydney (H-S) before. The author, John Luster Brinkley was an Associate Professor of Classics there at the time of publication, 1994.

Professor Brinkley is notably self-conscious about his writing methods, as he explains in some detail in his Foreword. He prides himself on not drawing explicitly on earlier histories of H-S while favorably comparing his product to the histories of other colleges. Unlike some of them, he includes both footnotes and a bibliography. My personal impression is that he simply loosely organized his materials in rough chronological order with focus on the presidents and acting presidents of Hampden-Sydney College.

There are many factual nuggets in this mammoth book. Thus, in 1924 this tiny, still Presbyterian-related private college for men, lost 62 - 5 (sic!) in basketball to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, yet recovered and went on to win the Virginia State basketball championship.

The college was founded by Presbyterians and Episcopalians in 1774, when Anglicanism was still the established religion of the Colony of Virginia. Yet its founding impulse was distinctly non-conformist, dissenting, Scotch-Irish Presbyterian. H-S College was modeled upon Presbyterian The College of New Jersey (today's Princeton) and, the author thinks, was named by Princeton president Dr. John Witherspoon, an invited immigrant from Scotland. His heroes: anti-Royalist 17th Century Whig rebels: John Hampden, died in battle 1643, and Algernon Sydney, executed for treason by King Charles II in 1683.

The ideas behind the new Presbyterian college were pure Scottish Enlightenment. And yet the college has moved slowly but steadily for 216 years away from its narrow sectarian base towards pure secularism. I wonder if the initial Episcopalian seasoning didn't sweeten the dour Calvinist recipe.

The author makes much of H-S College's fraternities, its refusal to this day to go co-educational, its problems with drinking, dancing and girls visiting campus. Professor Brinkley is remarkably reticent about slavery and desegregation. Sticky subjects are often relegated to brief footnotes. Still, the first black student was admitted in 1968, the first black professor joined the faculty in 1973, as did the first two women teachers.

Early support (and students) came from prominent "Southside" Virginia families both Presbyterian and Episcopalian. Students were generally affluent and, in the judgment of some administrators, trained to idleness by growing up in slave-holding Virginia families.

The school was downright poor from the beginning through the wars between the states, with Spain and with the Kaiser and Hitler. Things began to perk up financially and perceptibly in November 1930 with publication of an impartial study of the 1928-29 issue of WHO'S WHO IN AMERICA. With 7.45% of its graduates listed in WHO'S WHO, tiny (around 300 students) Hampden-Sydney was ranked number one in the country percentage wise! Enrollment soared. [NOTE: today, 2010, Forbes.com has ranked Hampden-Sydney # 4 among private colleges and #6  among all colleges and universities in the South.]

From the 1970s onward, Hampden-Sydney enjoyed steady budget surpluses and is today safely endowed and much sought after. 

Who is likely to read ON THIS HILL: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF HAMPDEN-SYDNEY COLLEGE 1774 - 1994 by John Luster Brinkley? Faculty, students and alumni, obviously.

Who else? I am not sure.

The long but loosely focused book is well written, though largely dodging topics like slavery, desegregation and sexism in higher education. It is also of interest, I suggest, to students of the Scots-Irish, of American Presbyterians, of the steady drift towards pure secularism in American education. You can also watch in considerable detail the college's struggles to pay its faculty adequately, to provide health insurance, pensions, and, rather late in the day, faculty tenure. 

For the longest time, the college's self-image was proudly ultra-conservative and anything but progressive. The tone of the author's treatment of the turbulent 60s might make you think the campus was ultra-subdued, with, for instance, only one panty raid on a nearby girls' college (since gone co-ed). The girls' college protested. The H-S biggies smugly noted that boys will be boys and that the student government had rapped all the knuckles that needed rapping.

The author stresses the physical isolation of the college. (See the area map of Virginia on the inside back cover). But he tells you almost nothing of the geology, agriculture or economy of the surrounding area. You do not get a feel for the landscape or its "Hill." At times the book seems downright quirky in what is selected for show-casing. It is not a book I personally would choose to read more than once.  -OOO-

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