Centre College is now known for hosting vice-presidential debates, but the school has a tradition of discussing big issues that was passed on to Kentucky School for the Deaf by one of the college’s prominent former students.
Literary societies began forming at Centre in the early 19th century, as they had at other colleges around that time. For a country dealing with its growth and moving toward civil war, there was plenty of heady subject matter.
“At the time, classes were primarily rote memorization and recitation,” said Bob Glass, special collections librarian at Centre’s Grace Doherty Library. “Part of the impetus was that you had a lot of students who were planning on going into law or other fields where it was important to be well spoken. It gave them a way to hone their public speaking skills.”
Glass said the debates within the literary societies didn’t closely resemble the competitive debate teams that would develop later in the 19th and early 20th century. They didn’t compete with other groups, instead dividing up in to two sides, with a committee determining a topic. Each would deliver a paper for their side and the society’s president decided who made the better argument.
Programs from some of the societies’ events indicate the debates usually were held in connection with commemorations such as George Washington’s birthday.
Not unlike the Greek organizations that would eventually supplant them, the societies were exclusive, insular and held secretive induction rituals. Despite the high-minded objectives many of the groups espoused, teachers at the time were not overly enamored with them.
“The faculty was iffy about the literary societies, because they wanted the students to conform,” Glass said. “I would say they mostly tolerated them, while they were adamantly opposed to fraternities when they started to form.”
Centre student Brittany Burnett studied the formation of the groups at Centre and focused her junior thesis paper on the how debates held by the Agore Adelphon society — later Philologoi society — in 1856 helped illuminate what students thought and why during the hectic pre-Civil War years.
Like their contemporaries at other colleges in the 1800s, Burnett found many Centre students were seeking a return to classical Greek and Roman learning styles through pursuits like oratory and debate.
Before the Agore Adelphon was established, the college also sustained the Athenaen Literary Society, and the two major groups, the Deinologian Literary Society and the Chamberlain Philosophical and Literary Society. The latter counted among its regular or honorary membership future Gov. James McCreary, Dr. Ephraim McDowell and James G. Birney, a Danville native who became a prominent lawyer, politician and abolitionist.
Burnett wrote that Agore Adelphon had tackled mostly subjects less fraught with controversy, such as like wither love could exist without jealousy or who was a better general, Washington or Napoleon Bonaparte. That changed as fractures developed in the union that would lead to a war that would shape many of the students’ young lives.
In 1856, when the group debated the Brooks-Sumner Affair, in which pro-slavery South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts congressman Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the U.S. House. The society debated whether Brooks should be expelled from Congress.
The group, with a heavy contingent from the border south, ultimately concluded Brooks should stay.
One of the Chamberlin society’s members during the 1850s was John William “Billy” Jacobs, son of the school’s Superintendent John Adamson Jacobs, whose name was given to the school’s iconic building Jacobs Hall. William Jacobs would go on to become a beloved KSD figure in his own right, who formed a literary society that existed in some form into the late 20th century.
KSD was inextricably linked to Centre since it was founded in 1823, when it was known as the Asylum for the Tuition of the Deaf and Dumb. The first state-funded school for deaf in the country, the name was changed to The Kentucky Institution for the Education of Deaf-Mutes in the 1880s before finally becoming Kentucky School for the Deaf in 1904.
After the school for deaf students was set up by the state legislature, the board of trustees for Centre also acted as trustees for KSD until 1870.
The person responsible with bringing the debating tradition to KSD was Jacobs, who graduated from Centre in 1854 at 17 and became a teacher at KSD. According to the school’s annual report in 1863, he “established a literary society for the students for mutual instruction and self-improvement,” which was unique among deaf schools.
Brad Nystrom, an emeritus professor of education at Centre, was asked by JoAnn Hamm of the Jacobs Hall Museum to write a series of plays. He relied primarily on yearly reports on the school and the school’s newspaper, the Kentucky Standard. Although he didn’t focus on William Jacobs or debate, Nystrom found plenty of information about both.
The newspaper indicated the literary societies also included activities like storytelling and recitation of speeches, much like present day forensics competitions.
Hamm also has done extensive research into William Jacobs’ role in the life of the school. She said the debates would have been moderated by teachers, which would have included the noted instructor and printer George M. McClure Sr. A Centre graduate, McClure also published the Kentucky Standard for more than five of the eight decades he spent at the school as a student, teacher and administrator.