Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/March 1908/The Influence of Technical Schools




THE increasing strength and efficiency of our applied science schools presages a period of industrial prosperity, marked not only by pecuniary profit to merchants and manufacturers, but also by the constantly improving condition of wage earners. But there are those to whom this prospect brings no comfort, for they see in it the foreshadowing of a period marked by decay of philanthropy and lack of piety, when a materialistic spirit will bring about a selfish individuality destructive of all that is good in society; they see its baneful influence already here, for young men avoid the college courses and rush into applied science to reach money-making as soon as possible; while not a few of them denounce the modernized curriculum in colleges as the disturbing cause and plead for restoration of classical studies to their former preeminent place as an all-important means of defense against the approaching calamity.

Those who have struggled to free the curriculum from medieval shackles would have no cause for mortification if they were responsible for the increasing attendance at schools of applied science; unhappily, they can lay no claim to the credit, since the matter in no wise concerns the contests between classicists and anti-classicists. Existing confusion respecting this matter is due largely to gradual development of the technical school within the college. Even now in the smaller colleges, applied science courses are parallel with those in pure science and in literature; students in all alike meet in many classes, assemble in the same chapel, mingle on the same campus; graduates in applied science receive the degree of bachelor in science as do college students taking pure science, and think of themselves and their fellow students think of them as having graduated from college. The confusion would have been less pronounced had there been a proper difference in degrees.

For, be it understood, the college and the applied science school are wholly different in character and purpose. The latter is a professional school, and its graduate has never been "at college," though he may have received a superior intellectual training and may have become in many ways a stronger, broader man than his friend of equal ability, who has B.S. or A.B. from some college with a narrow group or wide elective system. The applied science school is professional as are schools of law or medicine and differs from them only in that the essential pre-requisites for admission are necessarily much higher.

The assertion, so often made, that young men are deserting the college courses is not well founded. Comparing the college catalogues of to-day with those of thirty-five or almost any other number of years ago, one finds that there has been no falling off in proportion of students taking college training—on the contrary, the number has increased far out of proportion to increase in population. In looking over catalogues of law and medical schools one sees that, among American-born students, the proportion of men with college degrees is much greater than it was thirty-five to fifty years ago.

But whence come the thousands of students taking the technical courses? In not a few instances, no doubt, they are sons of men disgusted with the wide elective or the narrow group systems prevailing in colleges; men, who, desiring to secure for their sons a broad training without reference to their future work, find themselves compelled to choose between narrowness and breadth, between college and applied science. They choose the latter even at the risk of failure to acquire some special forms of culture. In other instances, they are sons of intelligent men of moderate means, who have read addresses by university presidents and have noted the university methods. They have seen that in some institutions the fourth and even the third year were lopped off from the college course and that, in their stead, study for a professional degree was accepted as qualifying for the college degree. It is but natural that thoughtful men, unfamiliar with educational affairs, should accept the opinions of those popularly recognized as authorities in such affairs. They are the more inclined to this in view of the unjustifiably long period required by secondary schools for college and science preparation; and the conclusion is confirmed by the discovery that, in applied science schools of the higher grade, much is taught that is given in the two college years, which all agree are essential. Students belonging to these two classes are increasing in number, and they will continue to increase as long as the college curriculum remains in its chaotic condition; but they are still an insignificant minority. Comparatively few parents know enough to make intelligent choice for their sons, and most men, with means to give their children the luxury of a college education, prefer to have them follow the beaten track.

The overwhelming majority of students at applied science schools belong to a wholly new class. As has been said frequently, the sudden discovery of our country's resources, forty years ago, made necessary new types of training. The old-time country surveyor had laid foundation for lawsuits in important cases; the excellent pit-boss failed as superintendent of mines; the rule-of-thumb graduate from the casting-house was a source of disaster in furnaces; while merely "practical men" were helpless before the great problems in railroad and other types of civil engineering. There was room no longer for uneducated surveyors, founders, superintendents, engineers. The skill demanded under the new conditions converted those "callings" into genuine learned professions, and schools of applied science were established to fit men for them. Most of the students in those schools, now receiving advanced education, can not afford the luxury of a college education course, and their increasing number is due simply to the great demand for trained men in subordinate as well as in responsible positions.

The assertion that men go into science for the money that is in it is merely a variation of the refrain with which the writer was familiar during his early student days, fifty years ago. Then, the attractions of business were the vile bait which lured men from the supposedly unselfish pursuits. But the plaint is unworthy of the men who make it. Students go into science as others go into law, medicine, or at times, even into the ministry, for the "money that is in it"—that is, to gain a livelihood in an honorable way. If a graduate in applied science have great energy, common sense and executive ability, the combination of business capacity with systematic training may put him eventually into a position of great responsibility with corresponding salary; but if he must follow his professional work alone, the prospects of acquiring a competency are about as good as those of the average clergyman.

It is unfortunate that our colleges have not made clear differentiation between students in culture and students in applied science. Failure to do this has brought about the tendency to confound pure and applied science, college and professional work, which is shown by many college graduates. If one recognizes this fact, he will be less surprised at the frequency with which technical schools are dragged into discussions respecting changes in the college curriculum. An excellent illustration of the tendency referred to appears in an address delivered at the inauguration of a college president a year or two ago. The speaker pled for classical training, as a classical college "is the best place in which to keep alive the heroic ideals of self-sacrifice and service." He said:

It was urged when technical education began to be largely developed in our land and the classics were cast out from the training of young men and women—it was urged that this new kind of training in the precise and mathematical sciences would breed men of firmer principles. The technical schools of our land have not turned out men and women who see moral issues more precisely or who live more faithfully for the right things on earth than the young men and women who have had their education under classical influence. And the influence of our technical schools not alone has not bred firmer principle, but it surely has not bred finer sentiment.
And the proof of all this lies in the fact that the speaker had sought unsuccessfully in several technical schools for a man willing to teach mechanical and electrical engineering under missionary auspices in a foreign land. His argument was strengthened by the assertion of one president that the young men in his institution were not in engineering for the good they could do in the world, but for the amount of profitable employment they could secure for themselves. And the survey of conditions led to this forecast:
I believe we are going to have to face in this land that inevitable result of our technical education. We have turned away young men and some young women from the great classical ideals of self-sacrifice in fields where they could do the most unselfish work.

These statements, made in all sincerity by one who is respected by all who know him, appeal directly to the prejudices of many who wish well to all mankind; but they are defective and the defect arises from confounding things wholly unlike and unrelated.

Technical schools are not schools for the study of science, but schools in which the principles of pure science are applied to practical operations. Like trade schools, schools of law or medicine, they are to prepare a man to earn a livelihood in honest and honorable fashion, to do well that which formerly was done in slipshod fashion. Mental and moral training, as such, have only incidental place, yet such training is as inseparable from their work as muscular training is inseparable from apprenticeship in blacksmithing. When one considers that students in such schools are taught to regard theirs as professional work of the highest grade; are taught to regard honorable dealing as the foundation stone of a successful career; are trained from the outset to recognize the great responsibility awaiting them, in that the security of vast properties and the safety of communities will depend upon their skill, accuracy and honesty; he can not doubt that even the coarse fiber of an unscrupulous man will undergo some refining during a four years' course. And the facts amply confirm the a priori conclusion. The writer knows that the moral standard among engineers of every type—chemical, civil, sanitary, electrical, mining, mechanical—is immeasurably higher than in the days when there were no technical schools, when the work of such professions was left mostly to mechanics. If the standard of professional honor were not high, very high, our national prosperity would come to an end, for all depends on the engineer.

There is no room for pessimism here. Men should thank God and take courage for the future as they see the influence of technical training, which has transformed the face of the world and led to increasing recognition of unity of interest. Improvements in mining and metallurgy have brought about improved methods of transportation and have cheapened products everywhere, while increasing the rewards of labor; the beef of our southwest and. the wheat of the northwest can be sold in London at profit to the producer, and famine in any part of the civilized world is almost impossible; the coal of southwestern Virginia has been sold in Boston at profit for less than the freight to tidewater, thirty years ago, when the transporting companies were losing money; improved methods of refining petroleum have reduced the cost of illuminating oil to a small part of the price of thirty-five years ago, have carried light literally into the dark places of earth, have lengthened man's day by three hours and have given to agricultural communities a social and intellectual life previously impossible; mechanical and sanitary engineers have made possible the compulsory introduction into tenements of comforts and conveniences which, half a century ago, were considered luxuries even in the homes of the wealthy. These and a multitude of other changes for the better, due to men trained in applied science, for the most part in schools of applied science, have in very truth brought the ends of the world together and given us a better sense of the brotherhood of man. One may look forward confidently to the time when bricklaying will be as dependent on scientific principles as brickmaking now is, when the laborer will be a skilled workman and the mechanic a graduate of the schools; when in all our literary institutions training in every department will be supplemented by drill in the scientific mode of thought, that men may be taught how to make inductions safely.

That no young man was found anxious or even desirous of spending his life as teacher of engineering at meager salary amid undesirable surroundings, practically without any reward except that of a good conscience, is not surprising. There would have been ground for surprise if one had been found. No doubt similar success would have attended a hunt among law schools. It is probable that not more than a few score of persons had ever heard that teaching of engineering is a part of missionary work, and it is equally probable that no one, aside from the few score, had ever thought of it as a possibility any more than that of teaching American law. It might have been equally difficult, prior to the establishment of medical missions, to find volunteers in a medical school.

Men, desirous of spending their life in work merely for the good they may do or who are willing to devote themselves to their work for the work's sake, without reference to their own future or to that of their families, be they geologists, ethnologists or missionaries, are very few—and one may say, that, all in all, it is well for the race that the number of such self-sacrificing men and women is small. Persons of that type choose some course which will lead to the attainment of their object. Those desiring to be missionaries take either medical or theological courses, for along those lines missionary work is pushed, and the workers receive the reward which they regard more than they do money. When shopwork and engineering come to be held in high honor among missionaries, the technical schools connected with state universities will have their share of men preparing for usefulness. When that time arrives there will be no more insinuation that the technical school lessens respect for principle and weakens fineness of sentiment. At the same time, it may be remarked that labeling a man as selfish or without the finer sentiments, simply because he is unwilling to become a foreign missionary, seems to be a somewhat audacious assumption of the Divine prerogative.

But how does this question of the technical school concern the observance or neglect of classical studies in the college course? Not in any wise. Classical studies have not been thrust out of the technical school, for they never were in it; they have no proper place there any more than in schools of law or medicine. Whether or not prolonged classical training is desirable for those who can afford the college course prior to beginning preparation for life's work is certainly deserving of serious consideration; and there must be much to be said on both sides—otherwise, the discussion would not be intense as at present. It may be that classical training, as imparted in American colleges, is the best or even the only means of turning the youthful mind to high ideals—but the writer hesitates to accept the proposition. He underwent a very severe course of classical training from his sixth to his twenty-second year, yet his memory, by no means frail, does not recall "the great classical ideals of self-sacrifice" with which, one must suppose, modern ideals fade into insignificance. Nor has this conception of classical training been accepted always as axiomatic. The writer remembers an earnest discussion by several professors of theology at his father's table, about fifty-five years ago, in which those excellent men lamented the degrading influence of the classical authors read in college—the same, by the way, as those read now. And doubtless some of those reading this article will remember the efforts made by good men to counteract this evil influence by the preparation of works in classical Latin, dealing with the life of George Washington and other harmless topics. The writer, however, has never been able to share those fears. His general impression respecting the classical authors, which seemed to be that of his fellow students, was that those writers prepared their works chiefly to provide sentences with which Zumpt and Kühner might illustrate the perplexities of syntax and prosody.