Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/January 1909/Mr Roosevelt's Opportunity as President of a University




AS one grows older one grows weary of mere generality and abstraction. It would be easy to expatiate at large in this article on the ideal of American universities and the best work that could next be done for them. That, or some of the elements of that, are my subject. But one may well reach out, in this thin medium of idealism, and catch at anything that has more body and more instant meaning. The name of Mr. Roosevelt has come into mention in connection with the leadership of four American universities. There is no evidence whatever, so far as I am aware, that Mr. Roosevelt himself would seriously entertain such a project; and definite announcement has been made of plans that appear to conflict with it. But there is time in store, and universities not a few. In any case it happens that this particular public character serves as no other illustration could to give point to certain suggestions about university life. The human illustration is too helpful to forego.

These suggestions relate, first of all, to the nucleus of the American university, the "college." As compared with all other departments, this part of the institution is in a plight all its own. It suffers from a comparative lack of motive. We have most of us remarked the difference in a student's work when he passes from the college to a professional school. When that step is taken, and the need of a living, the chance of gain and success come home to his daily work, the change in many cases stirs for almost the first time a youth's profound intellectual repose. Machiavelli is right in observing that fear is commonly a more powerful motive than love. At all events the fear of poverty is more powerful than the love of "general culture." To make the balance even, the motives of interest and attraction on the latter side need to be discerningly reinforced. The problem is psychological. Can it be said that in the circumstances of undergraduate study at present there is much to invest the things of the intellect with glow and fascination for average minds? Any one who has talked with students about their election of studies notices that after some experience they will often choose not from the comparative interest of the subject but from the comparative interest of the teacher. Admiration and imitation are amongst the most potent of all formative forces. A young man, whether he knows it or not, wants a hero. This want may of course be supplied for him in very varying degrees and equivocal manners. But at all events he has an eye for such diverse points in his companions as physical prowess, genial manner, wit, leadership, distinction of air, some of the best parts of character, wealth or money-making power—not to mention the grand item of elegant and gentlemanly attire. Now a professor, to the undergraduate, is a more or less amiable "grind" of riper years. Riper, but still unluscious. He is in the center of the undergraduate's vision for an hour, let us say, three times a week; mainly under that lecture-system which, as it has been with fine accuracy stated, enables the student to lean back and observe at perfect leisure the personal peculiarities of the instructor. The student is to have a career in time himself, and dimly or consciously he looks forward to it. A general, a statesman, an explorer, an orator, a sportsman, a successful lawyer, an archmillionaire—or even an artist—is by no means without interest for him; but the amount of Lebensherrlichkeit represented in a professor does not reach what psychologists call the threshold of his appreciation. This fact colors the feeling of his class. To teach young men like themselves might appear a high calling were it not that to bore young men like themselves seems a dingy trade.

Now it must candidly be confessed that the student's view is not without some elements of justice. A profession whose chief function is performed in the classroom and which yet so often leaves the classroom-hour on the whole such a lackluster memory does forfeit its claims to some portion of the glamour that might perhaps ideally attach to it. Not that the memory should be simply of entertainment. There is much in the saying of Epictetus that the lecture-room should often be, like a surgery, rather a place of beneficent pain than of pleasure. What is important is that it should be a scene of effectiveness.

In 1881 Phillips Brooks, then preaching at the full tide of his influence, was invited to become chaplain and professor at Harvard. Efforts were made by men of weight in Boston to induce him not to quit his work in that city. Mr. John Long, then governor, wrote in the course of a letter since published:

The Harvard boys do not need you so much. They have everything already. If they develop some wild oats, yet the general surroundings of their college life lead them to higher opportunities and standards sooner or later.

Mr. Henry Higginson wrote:

You can't work on those boys in the same way, simply because they are at the questioning, critical, restless age. The worst of them are not bad, but frivolous or idle-minded. The best of them are seeking for the truth everywhere. and had better seek by themselves. Let them ferment. Of course you can help many a restless spirit, when he wishes to be helped—but you can do it as well here as at Cambridge.

Mr. Robert Treat Paine wrote:

College life is full of fun and froth and frolic and frivolity and scurrility. It is acutely critical. It turns into sport everything, sacred and profane. Life is free there first—full of joy and sparkle, full of study and sports, absorbed and preoccupied. Entire absence of variety in experience; death, marriage, children, business, failure, sickness, suffering, danger, all that makes adult life so full—none of all this enters the life of the student. . . . Surely this is the least impressible part of life. It is not responsive, it has no magnetism in it.[1]

That the best youth seeking truth in a university "had better seek by themselves" and that youth (at least if at college) "is the least impressible part of life" are doctrines of precisely the tendency that occasions the present article.

It would be grossly unfair to take these remarks, dropped as they were in the course of a heartfelt argument for the surpassing value of Phillips Brooks's work in Boston, as though they stood for the whole thought or final attitude, on the subject, of the writers' minds. And no doubt Brooks solved his personal problem with a wise caution in refusing to leave his own rich field for one untried. What the letters completely miss, however, is the fact that the extraordinary conjunction in college youth of the freshly acquired faculties of manhood with freedom from manhood's burdens and chilling memories is not a mere hindrance to the great leader but an extraordinary opportunity. Appreciation of certain things has not come in youth because experience of them in oneself has not come; but the liberated energies are ready for ardor and enterprise and generous impulse as those of the burdened and hard-worked can never be. Have we not heard of something called youthful enthusiasm and of something called youthful idealism? A writer of genius has described youth as "cold and pitiless." That is, though it sees (with what sharpness!), its sympathies fail much, because it has not felt for itself such things as are behind the face it sees. That is the sole reason, for the youth plus the experience (might it be remembered?) is the material of which the less "pitiless" man is made. No one can long observe the studentry of a college, watching them in their sports and crises, without seeing a fire ready to be kindled, waiting only for the spark. If college youth are cold on their more serious side it has at least something to do with the fact that so many of the minds with which they come in contact are absolute non-conductors of heat.

It will perhaps be clear at this point why I can not forego the human illustration of my meaning furnished by Mr. Roosevelt. I remember a lady of exquisite perception saying that for twenty years and more she had lived near a great university and that she looked to see there in the future "a blaze of impulse." Has there been any one in our history who could kindle "a blaze of impulse" in a community of young men as Mr. Roosevelt could? As a psychologist has remarked, he is a born moralist. And the moral principles he preaches (the fact is often made a reproach to him) are not above the comprehension of everybody; they are what were called long ago "the great commonplaces of morality." He may regard the disdain of fastidious minds on this account with much equanimity. Life is indeed "a rediscovery of copybook maxims." The somewhat slender hold that born moralists for the most part have upon the young man is due to their not being rich in natural life and in the raw material of human nature. There is just a touch of the astringent about them; a taste of "moralic acid." In other words they are not quite the type that he spontaneously admires. The combination in Mr. Roosevelt, which for us and in its degree may fairly be called unique, is that of the moralist and the natural hero of average minds. It is something to have in one person the intense preacher and him of whom every boy would say (as the poet said of the "rough-hammered head—great eye, gross jaw and griped lips" of another) "What a man!" At all events the boy would say it if not prompted otherwise by having overheard the acidulous talk of alienated elders. The strong hold of such a leader on his college men would be maintained in part by addressing them. It is something to have a speaker who is also a doer. That he is without grave faults Mr. Roosevelt himself, I cannot help fancying, is the last one who would pretend. That his intention and his nature are not good no unentangled person who has watched him long and closely can easily be found to testify. The general verdict of such is that of Mr. John Morley: "A man and a good man." We have had hasty and crude statements from him on subjects where he was not at home; we have in general ceased to have them when be became at home on those subjects. We have had unduly heated language from him under intensely provoking circumstances; a conductor of heat has the defect of his quality. We have had plentiful charges against him of inaccuracy and worse. The statistics respecting charges of loose statement against responsible executives, if they could be gathered, would be interesting and to many surprising. Decision in each case is possible to no man without searching investigation. The statistics in regard to actual accuracy in general would perhaps in each case surprise none so much as the one they concerned. I would not condone looseness in such matters; much to the contrary; but I would remind the accusers of themselves and of cautious justice. Whether his statecraft has on the whole been correct is a political question, out of place here. No doubt there are those who would try to punish him for deviations from the public policy they have desired by opposing him for a non-political post. With such animosity I shall not contend. We know that in the vast range of remote appointments Mr. Roosevelt's selection of men for places not the highest has often been bad. We know that near home, in his cabinet and otherwise, he has surrounded himself with some of the most capable. His desire and his enthusiasm for men of power, his absolute freedom from the jealousy that would surround itself with lesser and merely instrumental men, his generous friendship and laudation, are for our present interest amongst the traits that promise most.

The chief trait, that on which we have already dwelt, is perhaps best characterized in Walter Bagehot's remarks on Mr. Gladstone as a public speaker:

A man must not only know what to say, he must have a vehement longing to get up and say it. Many persons, rather sceptical persons especially, do not feel this in the least. They see before them an audience—a miscellaneous collection of odd-looking men—but they feel no wish to convince them of anything. "Are not they very well as they are? They believe what they have been brought up to believe." "Confirm every man in his own manner of conceiving," said one great sage. "A savage among savages is very well," remarked another. You may easily take away one creed and then not be able to implant another. "You may succeed in unfitting men for their own purposes without fitting them for your purposes "—thus thinks the cui bono sceptic. Another kind of sceptic is distrustful, and speaks thus: "I know I can't convince these people; if I could, perhaps I would, but I can't. Only look at them! They have all kinds of crotchets in their heads. There is a wooden-faced man in spectacles. How can you convince a wooden-faced man in spectacles? And see that other man with a narrow forehead and compressed lips—is it any use talking to him? It is of no use; do not hope that mere arguments will impair the prepossessions of nature and the steady convictions of years." Mr. Gladstone would not feel these sceptical arguments. He would get up to speak. He has the didactic impulse. He has the "courage of his ideas." He will convince the audience. He knows an argument which will be effective, he has one for one and another for another; he has an enthusiasm which he feels will rouse the apathetic, a demonstration which he thinks must convert the incredulous, an illustration which he hopes will drive his meaning even into the heads of the stolid. At any rate, he will try. He has a nature, as Coleridge might have said, towards his audience. He is sure, if they only knew what he knows, they would feel as he feels, and believe as he believes. And by this he conquers. This living faith, this enthusiasm, this confidence, call it as we will, is an extreme power in human affairs. One croyant, said the Frenchman, is a greater power than fifty incrédules.

This quality is far from the only quality required in an educational leader; but circumstances conspire to give it value in a college. Somebody is needed to make cultivation seem "worth while." Somebody is needed to "lead the cheering" for study, for work. Somebody is needed to offset the snobbish instructor who says (and whose own sympathies are affected by the opinion): "Debating contests are not a thing that the best class in the university takes any interest in." Somebody is needed to make the prizeman just the least bit of a hero amongst his fellows. Somebody is needed to make the keen intellectual blade or wide reader, whether he take academic rank or not, feel his accomplishment to be something more than an overshadowed and unfashionable brilliancy. Somebody is needed to fan the lurking sparks of ardor in the mind. Somebody is needed to make visible to the young eye that invisible war with powers of the air in which the scholar is a man-at-arms and a campaigner. And if this leader is also an athlete and a sportsman, if this leader of work is also a leader of play, the blend can hardly, as things now stand, be over-prized.

For it brings us, in a rough but ready form, in sight of that round and whole education which is the sane ideal. It might even make the sanguine hope to see in an American university ideas current amongst the healthy studentry as one often sees them in Europe. Such a leader would not stop contented with those excellent athletic contests in which, however, a horde of undergraduates sit as spectators while a few harrassed braves perform. He would be likely to remember that the most successful systems of education, in antiquity for example, cared for the bodily training of every individual. One can not imagine his advent failing to make a difference even to "the unexercised and the unwashed."

But the difference made by his advent as regards moral ideal is the least to be forgotten. I will not repeat what is so often truly said about the state of the moral atmosphere in the nation with regard to money. Which are the personalities that really glitter to average young eyes? When a brilliant man of business and of fashion accumulates a vast fortune in his last years by methods believed to be dishonorable and dazzles a city by his social charm, the tasteful splendor of his surroundings, and his business power, when it is commonly said in comment on the tales of his private life that "those men do absolutely anything they like," it is noticeable that even the rumors touching the manner of his death do not entirely check the awe of the young listener.

It is something to give collegians an embodiment of what they feel to be dashing success and national power, wholly untainted in point of honesty and private life; something to have brilliancy and probity undivided.

Of course there may be those who feel that Mr. Roosevelt would come whooping into the still air of study and, being used to mightier affairs, would disarrange nice customs, dishevel sound old proprieties, and step absentmindedly over the college halls. These, however, would be apprehensions hardly worthy of men prepared to stand to their own prerogatives and duties. If Mr. Roosevelt could lend signal aid in education he would hardly dispute that such a task would have its education for himself. And if students delight in his sturdy manhood, it would be a pity that the race of teachers should shudder at his somewhat carnivorous quality and taste for the jungle.

There is, to be sure, a delicacy of tone, a fine and deep cultivation of spirit, a sense of esthetic rectitude in things of detail, that one would gladly see set before "our young barbarians, all at play," in the chief person of their community. The fiery furnace of American public life is hardly the place to foster and finish such a product. Indeed this fine fleur—for the truth must be told—does not at present flourish abundantly in American life at all. Our scholarship has largely gone for training to Germany, custodian of the letter rather than of the spirit of culture; and there is something raw in the air at home. But in Mr. Roosevelt's passion for knowledge and for achievement, in the range of a certain information he has in science, history and letters, in the interest and respect he has always shown for the personalities of the men who advance these studies, there is much to contribute toward the first things needful, the foundation of university life.

It is obviously a grave consideration on the other hand that he has had no direct experience, except as a student, of educational affairs. This, however, as it happens, is bound up with the essential qualifications we have been considering. Senator Hoar remarks in his "Autobiography":

Making all the allowance for the point of view, and that I was then a youth looking at my elders who had become famous, and that I am now looking as an old man at young men, I still think there can be no comparison between the college administrators of fifty years ago and those of to-day. It was then the policy of the college to call into its service great men who had achieved eminent distinction in the world without. It is now its policy to select for its service promising youth, in the hope that they will become great. Perhaps the last method is the best where it succeeds. [And Mr. Hoar notes the distinguished success of President Eliot.] But the effect of failure is most mischievous. Presidents Quincy, Everett, Walker and Sparks administered in succession the office of President during my connection with the Academic Department and the Law School [of Harvard], although Dr. Walker's inauguration was not until later. Each of them in his own way was among the first men of his time. Quincy had been an eminent statesman, a famous orator, and a most successful mayor of Boston. Edward Everett had been in his early youth one of the most famous pulpit orators of the country, afterward a distinguished Member of Congress, Governor of the Commonwealth, Minister to England, and Senator of the United States. He was a consummate orator, on whose lips thousands and thousands of his countrymen had hung entranced. He was, what is less generally remembered now, perhaps the ablest and most accomplished diplomatist ever in the public service of the United States. Jared Sparks was a profound student of history, somewhat dull as a narrator, but of unerring historic judgment. . . . James Walker was a great preacher and a profound thinker.

We need not venture to pronounce on Mr. Hoar's preference for good old days. "What is notable is the suggestion of the effect of bringing successful men of a high type from the midst of the world, for which the student is destined, and putting them in his formative time before his eyes. The result, in honorable ambition, civic enthusiasm and the influence of large ideas upon the tone of mind, weighs something, it must be admitted, against the chosen man's lack of direct acquaintance with an educational institution and with just this species of administrative headship. The appalling diversity of subjects that a national president must master encourages the hope that he would not fail to respond with skill to those of the president of a university.

This brings us to face the question what, at the present juncture, the largest problems of an American university are. I have been forced, however, to dwell at some length on the justness of my human illustration, and on immediate problems that such a leader would help to solve. Space fails me to discuss certain other and more complex problems in which the putting of precisely such a powerful shoulder to the wheel is equally required. With the editor's permission I will return to the subject next month in a second article. These latter difficulties call for a leader who adds to enthusiasm a long-borne burden of the most trying practical experience. They call for one who, if an idealist, has the best reason to be a realist too.

  1. Allen, "Life of Phillips Brooks," Vol. II., ch. 10.