Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/June 1903/University Tendencies in America




THE business of the university is to train men to know, to think and to do. To be will take care of itself, if the others are provided for. Wisdom is knowing what one ought to do next. Skill is knowing how to do it. Virtue is doing it. Religion is the working theory of life. It deals with the reasons why one ought to do. To all these ends the university is devoted. It does not make men. It remodels them to bring the powers they have to greater effectiveness. It brings, according to Emerson, 'every ray of varied genius to its hospitable halls,' that by their united influence 'they may strike the hearth of the youth in flame.'

Most precious of all possessions of the state is the talent of its citizens. This exists not in fact, but in possibility. What heredity carries over is not achievement, but tendency, a mode of direction of force which makes achievement possible. But to bring about results training is necessary. There can never be too many educated men, if by education we mean training along the lines of possible individual success. With birth, Emerson tells us, 'the gate of gifts is closed.' We can no longer secure something for nothing. The child's character is a mosaic of unrelated fragments, bits of heredity from a hundred sources. It is the work of education to form these into a picture. It is the art of living to range these fragments to form a consistent and effective personality.

It is the duty of the university among other things to take hold of these fragments of human possibilities and to arrange them so as to fit them for achievement. It is another duty 'to bring men to their inheritance.' This inheritance consists of the gathered experience of the past, that truth which is won through contact with realities, and with this the knowledge of the methods by which men have tested truth. Again the university has the public duty of preparing the instruments of social need.

The kings have recognized the need of universities and university men. In this need Alfred founded Oxford and Charlemagne the University of Paris. The Emperor William is quoted as saying that 'Bismarck and von Moltke were but tools in the hands of my august grandfather.' To furnish more such tools and in all the range of human activity, the University of Berlin was established.

In like manner the great historical churches and their lesser branches have founded universities each in its degree, because of the church's need of men. It has demanded trustworthy agents, expert dialecticians, great persuaders and spiritual leaders, and these have arisen in the church universities in obedience to the demand.

A like need of leaders is felt in democracy. It has a work to do greater than that of king or church and this work must be done by skilful and loyal hands. Democracy means opportunity. The greatest discovery of this most democratic twentieth century will be that 'the straight line is the shortest distance between two points.' This is a geometric definition of democracy. It trusts not to Lord this and the Earl of that. Its leaders are not chosen arbitrarily as the earliest offshoot from each link in the strain of heredity. When democracy has a man's work to do, it calls on the man who can do it. Such men it creates, and wherever they spring up they are developed in the sunshine of popular education. Democracy does not mean equality, a dead level of possession, happiness or achievement. It means equality before the law, that is the abolition of artificial distinctions made in the dark ages. It means equality of start, never equality of finish, and the most absolute equality of start makes the final equality the greater. As democracies need universities, so do universities need democracy as a means of recall to duty. Lincoln used to say that 'bath of the people' was necessary now and then for public men. This 'bath of the people' the university needs lest it substitute pedantry for wisdom, or lest it become a place for basking instead of an agency for training.

An Oxford man said not long since: 'Our men are not scholars; our scholars are not men.' Those we call scholars are bloodless pedants, finical and ineffective. Those we call men, strong, forceful, joyous, British boys, have no adequate mental training. Whether this be true of Oxford, it is often true in all universities. It is the sign that there is something wrong in practise or ideals. Scholarship should be life, and life should be guided by wisdom. The university should be a source of power, not an instrument in social advancement. Its degree should be not a badge of having done the proper thing, a device to secure the 'well-dressed feeling,' given also by 'Boston garters' and by faultless ties. The college degree is an incident in scholarship, a childish toy, so far as the real function of building up men is concerned. Prizes, honors, badges and degrees—all these matters have no necessary place in the machinery of higher education. If our universities had grown up in response to the needs of the people, not in imitation of the colleges of England, we should never have been vexed by these things, and never have felt any need of them.

The primitive American college was built strictly on English models. Its purpose was to breed clergymen and gentlemen, and to fix on these its badge of personal culture, raising them above the common mass of men. Till within the last thirty years the traditions of the English tripos held undisputed sway. We need not go into details of the long years in which Latin, Greek and mathematics with a dash of outworn philosophy constituted higher education in America. The value of the classical course lay largely in its continuity. Whoever learned Greek, the perfect language and the noble literature, gained something with which he would never willingly part. Even the weariness of Latin grammar and the intricacies of half-understood calculus have their value in the comradery of common suffering and common hope. The weakness of the classical course lay in its lack of relation to life. It had more charms for pedants than for men, and the men of science and the men of action turned away hungry from it.

The growth of the American university came on by degrees, different steps, some broadening, some weakening, by which the tyranny of the tripos was broken, and the democracy of studies established with the democracy of men.

It was something over thirty years ago when Herbert Spencer asked this great question: 'What knowledge is of most worth?' To the schoolmen of England this came as a great shock, as it had never occurred to most of them that any knowledge had any value at all. Its function was to produce culture, which, in turn, gave social position. That there were positive values and relative values was new in their philosophy. Spencer went on to show that those subjects had most value which most strengthened and enriched life, first, those needful to the person, then those of value in professional training, then in the rearing of the family, the duty as a citizen, and finally those fitting for esthetic enjoyment. For all these, except the last, the English universities made no preparation, and for all these purposes Spencer found the highest values in science, the accumulated, tested, arranged results of human experience. Spencer's essay assumed that there was some one best course of study—the best for every man. This is one of the greatest fallacies in education. Moreover, he took little account of the teacher, perhaps assuming with some other English writers that all teachers were equally inefficient, and that the difference between one and another may be regarded as negligible.

It has been left for American experimenters in education to insist on the democracy of the intellect. The best subjects for any man to study are those best fitted for his own individual development. those which will help make the actual most of him and his life. Democracy of intellect does not mean equality of brains, still less indifference in regard to their quality. It means simply fair play in the schedule of studies. It means the development of fit courses of study, not traditional ones, of a 'tailor-made' curriculum for each man instead of the 'hand-me-down' article, misfitting all alike.

In the time of James II., Richard Rumbold 'never could believe that God had created a few men already booted and spurred, with millions already saddled and bridled for these few to ride.' In like fashion, Andrew Dickson White could never believe that God had created a taste for the niceties of grammar or even the appreciation of noble literature, these few tastes to be met and trained while the vast body of other talents were to be left unaided and untouched, because of their traditional inferiority. In unison with President White, Ezra Cornell declared that he 'would found an institution where any person could find instruction in any study.' In like spirit the Morrill Act was framed, bringing together all rays of various genius, the engineer, and the psychologist, the student of literature and the student of exact science, 'Greek-minded' men and tillers of the soil, each to do his own work in the spirit of equality before the law. Under the same roof each one gains by mutual association. The literary student gains in seriousness and power, the engineer in refinement and appreciation. Like in character is the argument for co-education, a condition encouraged by this same Morrill Act. The men become more refined from association with noble women, the women more earnest from association with serious men. The men are more manly, the women more womanly in co-education, a condition opposed alike to rowdyism and frivolity.

In the same line we must count the influence of Mark Tappan, perhaps the first to conceive of a state university, existing solely for the good of the state, to do the work the state most needs, regardless of what other institutions may do in other states. Agassiz in these same times insisted that advanced work is better than elementary, for its better disciplinary quality. He insisted that Harvard in his day was only 'a respectable high school, where they taught the dregs of education.' Thorough training in some one line he declared was the backbone of education. It was the base line by which the real student was enabled to measure scholarship in others.

In most of our colleges the attempt to widen the course of study by introducing desirable things preceded the discovery that general courses of study prearranged had no real value. We have learned all prescribed work is bad work unless it is prescribed by the nature of the subject. The student in electrical engineering takes to mathematics, because he knows that his future success with electricity depends on his mastery of mechanics and the calculus. In the same fashion, the student in medicine is willing to accept chemistry and physiology as prescribed studies. But a year in chemistry, or two years in higher mathematics, put in for the broadening of the mind or because the faculty decrees it, has no broadening effect. Work arbitrarily prescribed is always poorly done, sets low standards, and works demoralization instead of training. There can not be a greater educational farce than the required year of science in certain literary courses. The student picks out the easiest science, the easiest teacher and the easiest way to avoid work, and the whole requirement is a source of moral evil. Nothing could be farther from the scientific method than a course in science taken without the element of personal choice.

The traditional courses of study were first broken up by the addition of short courses in one thing or another, substitutes for Latin or Greek, patchwork courses without point or continuity. These substitute courses were naturally regarded as inferior, and for them very properly a new degree was devised, the degree of B.S.—Bachelor of Surfaces.

That work which is required in the nature of things is taken seriously. Serious work sets the pace, exalts the teacher, inspires the man. The individual man is important enough to justify his teachers in taking the time and the effort to plan a special course for him.

Through the movement towards the democracy of studies and constructive individualism, a new ideal is being reached in American universities, that of personal effectiveness. The ideal in England has always been that of personal culture; that of France, the achieving, through competitive examinations, of ready-made careers, the satisfaction of what Villari calls 'Impiegomania,' the craze for appointment; that of Germany, thoroughness of knowledge; that of America, the power to deal with men and conditions. Everywhere we find abundant evidence of personal effectiveness of American scholars. Not abstract thought, not life-long investigation of minute data, not separation from men of lower fortune, but the power to bring about results is the characteristic of the American scholar of to-day.

From this point of view the progress of the American university is most satisfactory, and most encouraging. The large tendencies are moving in the right direction. What shall we say of the smaller ones?

Not long ago, the subject of discussion in a thoughtful address was this: the 'Peril of the Small College.' The small college has been the guardian of higher education in the past. It is most helpful in the present and we can not afford to let it die. We understand that the large college becomes the university. Because it is rich, it at tempts advanced work and work in many lines. It takes its opportunity, and an opportunity which the small college can not grasp. Advanced work costs money. A wide range of subjects, taught with men, libraries and laboratories, is a costly matter, but by a variety of supply the demand is formed. The large college has many students, because it offers many opportunities. Because large opportunities bring influence and students and gifts, there is a tendency to exaggerate them. We are all prone to pretend that the facilities we offer are greater than is really the case. We are led to shout, because people are indifferent to us.

The peril of the small college is the peril of all colleges, the temptation of advertising. All boasting is self-cheapening. The peril of the small college is that in its effort to become large it shall cease to be sound. The small college can do good elementary work in several lines. It can do good advanced work in a very few. If it keeps its perspective, if it does only what it can do well, and does not pretend that bad work is good work, or that the work beyond its reach is not worth doing, it is in no danger. The small college may become either a junior college or high-grade preparatory school, sending its men elsewhere for the flower of their college education, or else it must become a small university running narrowly on a few lines, but attending to these with devotion and persistence. Either of these are honorable conditions. For the first of these the small college has a great advantage. It can come close to its students; it can 'know its men by name.' The value of a teacher decreases with the square of his distance from the pupil. The work of the freshman and sophomore years in many of our great colleges is sadly inadequate, because its means are not fitted to its ends. In very few of our large colleges does the elementary work receive the care its importance deserves.

The great college can draw the best teachers away from the small colleges. In this regard the great college has an immense advantage. It has the best teachers, the best trained, the best fitted for the work of training. But in most cases the freshman never discovers this. There is no worse teaching done under the sun than in the lower classes of some of our most famous colleges. Cheap tutors, unpractised and unpaid boys are set to lecture to classes far beyond their power to interest. We are saving our money for original research, careless of the fact that we fail to give the elementary training which makes research possible. Too often, indeed, research itself, the noblest of all university functions, is made an advertising fad. The demands of the university press have swollen the literature of science, but they have proved a doubtful aid to its quality. Get something ready. Send it out. Show that we are doing something. All this never advanced science. It is through men born to research, trained to research, choicest product of nature and art, that science advances.

Another effect of the advertising spirit is the cheapening of salaries. The smaller the salaries, the more departments we can support. It is the spirit of advertising that leads some institutions to tolerate a type of athlete who comes as a student with none of the student's purpose. I am a firm believer in college athletics. I have done my part in them in college and out. I know that 'the color of life is red,' but the value of athletic games is lost when outside gladiators are hired to play them. No matter what the inducement, the athletic contest has no value except as the spontaneous effort of the college man. To coddle the athlete is to render him a professional. If an institution makes one rule for the ordinary student and another for the athlete it is party to a fraud. Without some such concession, half the great football teams of to-day could not exist. I would rather see football disappear and the athletic fields closed for ten years for fumigation than to see our colleges helpless in the hands of athletic professionalism, as many of them are to-day.

This is a minor matter in one sense, but it is pregnant with large dangers. Whatever the scholar does should be clean. What has the support of boards of scholars should be noble, helpful and inspiring. For the evils of college athletics, the apathy of college faculties is solely responsible. The blame falls on us: let us rise to our duty.

There is something wrong in our educational practise when a wealthy idler is allowed to take the name of student, on the sole condition that he and his grooms shall pass occasional examinations. There is no justification for the granting of degrees on cheap terms, to be used in social decoration. It is said that the chief of the great coaching trust in one of our universities earns a salary greater than was ever paid to any honest teacher. His function is to take the man who has spent the term in idleness or dissipation, and by a few hours' ingenious coaching to enable him to write a paper as good as that of a real student. The examinations thus passed are mere shams, and by the tolerance of the system the teaching force becomes responsible for it. No educational reform of the day is more important than the revival of honesty in regard to credits and examinations, such a revival of honest methods as shall make coaching trusts impossible.

The same methods which cure the aristocratic ills of idleness and cynicism are equally effective in the democratic vice of rowdyism. With high standards of work, set not at long intervals, by formal examinations, but by the daily vigilance and devotion of real teachers, all these classes of mock students disappear.

The football tramp vanishes before the work-test. The wealthy boy takes his proper place when honest, democratic brain effort is required of him. If he is not a student, he will no longer pretend to be one and ought not to be in college. The rowdy, the mucker, the hair-cutting, gate-lifting, cane-rushing imbecile is never a real student. He is a gamin masquerading in cap and gown. The requirement of scholarship brings him to terms. If we insist that our colleges shall not pretend to educate those who can not or will not be educated, we shall have no trouble with the moral training of the students.

Above all, in the West, where education is free, we should insist that free tuition means serious work, that education means opportunity, that the student should do his part, and that the degree of the university should not be the seal of academic approbation of four years of idleness, rowdyism, profligacy or dissipation.

Higher education, properly speaking, begins when a young man goes away from home to school. The best part of higher education is the development of the instincts of the gentleman and the horizon of the scholar. To this end, self-directed industry is one of the most effective agents. As the force of example is potent in education, a college should tolerate idleness and vice neither among its students nor among its teachers.

  1. Abstract of an address before the North Central Association of Colleges and High Schools, Chicago, April 3, 1903.