The Rev. Canon Bernard Iddings Bell and seems to have been something all too rare in the history of America: a wise and presient Episcopalian cleric (which is not to say we have had any more than a mere handful of wise and presient Catholic clerics in this land). Bell served as Warden of St. Stephen’s College – situated on the Hudson River here in New York – from 1919 to 1933, and is widely considered responsible for turning it into what was one of the best collegiate institutions in the country. In 1928, under Bell’s tenure, St. Stephen’s became a college of Columbia University, and this period of the College’s history was highly praised by the great Russell Kirk.
Kirk, in Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning, after positing his view of the ideal undergraduate college as a place of classical and liberal learning, takes note of St. Stephen’s. “There have been such colleges in this country,” Kirk wrote. “One such was St. Stephen’s College… when Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell was president. (He told me once that he gave up the presidency when strong objection was raised to his rule that the students should dress decently and rise when professors entered a room.)”
Of course, such arcadian days did not last. Only a year after Bell gave up the wardenship of St. Stephen’s in 1933, the college changed its name from honoring Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, to the more secular Bard College honoring the founder of the institution, John Bard. A mere ten years later in 1944, Bard College became coeducational and as such severed its relationship with Columbia University, becoming independent as a secular, nonsectarian liberal arts college ‘affiliated’ with the Episcopal Church. The once-great college has now declined to such an extent that a professorship there is now named in honor of Alger Hiss, the man who betrayed America to spy for Soviet Russia. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Kirk relates another anecdote of Dr. Bell:
“Yes– a new one, ‘distressed’ to appear old,” Dr. Bell replied.
“Indeed! Who is the headmaster?”
“There is no headmaster.”
“Curious! A kind of soviet of teachers, I suppose.”
“There are no masters at all.”
“Really? Do the boys teach one another?”
“As yet, there are no students. Here in the United States, we proceed educationally in a way to which you are unaccustomed,” Canon Bell told his friend. “First we erect a building; then we obtain pupils; next we recruit teachers’ then we find a headmaster; and at last we determine what is to be taught. You begin at the other end in England.”
Again, a quote from Canon Bell: