Thorstein Bunde Veblen: A Marginal Student
It is hard to say what would have become of him had he stayed in the Norwegian settlement. As it was, his father, now relatively well-to-do, decided that the road to self-improvement was through education. He would not exploit his children on the farm, as was the wont throughout the community, but he sent them to the higher institutions of learning of alien America. In 1874, when he found that the local preacher considered his son Thorstein a suitable candidate for the ministry, he decided that the boy should enter nearby Carleton College. Thorstein himself was not consulted. He was sum- moned from the field and placed in the family buggy with his baggage already packed. The first he learned that he was to enter Carleton was when he arrived there; then he was told that he was to live in a log cabin his father had built for his children on the edge of the campus. For seventeen years, Thorstein Veblen had lived in a cultural enclave, speaking little or no English; now he was suddenly being projected into the surrounding American culture from which he had been almost completely insulated.
Carleton College had been founded just a few years before Veblen's arrival by Congregationalists who attempted to build on the prairies of Minne- sota a replica of New England gentility. It was a thoroughly Christian and earnestly evangelical school where intemperance, profanity, and the use of tobacco were strictly forbidden, as was "all Sabbath and evening association between the sexes, except by special permission." In teaching, the classics, moral philosophy, and religion were stressed and the natural sciences were slighted. English literature was taught during one quarter of the senior year only, and American history was not taught at all. The really important courses were those in moral philosophy. The reigning doctrine was Scottish Common Sense, as first expounded by Thomas Reid and developed by Sir William Hamilton. This safe philosophy cast no doubts upon the literal in- terpretation of the Bible and religious orthodoxy and was meant to counter the scepticism of Hume and his school. Reid taught that fundamental and self-evident truths were enshrined in the common sense of mankind and that "anything manifestly contrary to them is what we call absurd."
Quite predictably Veblen, already a village sceptic at home, took badly to the spirit of Carleton. He spent six years there, but the education he acquired stemmed in the main from his voracious independent reading rather than from his teachers. The only faculty man who seems to have impressed him was John Bates Clark, in later years a major figure in economics at Columbia, but at that time a professor of odds and ends who taught everything from English composition and moral philosophy to political economy. Clark, whose melioris- tic and mildly socialist ideas appealed to Veblen, was probably the only teacher who liked this youth with a "mind clothed in sardonic humour," as a faculty member described it. That Norwegian bull in the genteel china shop of New England culture disturbed his elders no end. Refusing to take seriously all the pieties he was supposed to absorb, he defended himself by mordant wit, cor- rosive satire, and just plain cussedness.
The dignitaries of Carlton were undoubtedly relieved when Veblen gradu- ated in 1880. Although he is probably Carleton's most famous alumnus, to this day there is no hall or building named in his honor--not even a plaque com- memorating him on campus. Veblen, in his turn, was glad his Carleton days were over. While he had fun delivering a "Plea for Cannibalism" before the faculty and students earnestly concerned with the conversion of the heathen, or pronouncing an "Apology for a Toper" before scandalized teetotalers, such prankishness was really only a desperate defense against his repugnant sur- roundings. He left Carleton with a fine, mainly self-acquired, education, and with an enduring love of his fellow student, Ellen Rolfe, the niece of the president, whom he was to marry a few years later.
From Coser, 1977:276-278.