Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/December 1912/The Function of the American College


By Professor A. K. ROGERS


ALONG with the movement toward vocationalism in the lower schools, there is at the present time apparent an equally powerful and not wholly unrelated trend in the higher toward intellectual specialization. Any one who is acquainted with the situation knows that in so far as the college and university teacher has to-day any distinct notion at all of what he is about, it is likely to be in the majority of cases in terms of an exaltation of scientific scholarship. The business which he conceives he is there to forward is to produce thinkers and investigators of the specialized and technical sort that he is familiar with among his colleagues and in his scientific associations. And the commonest justification of this is apt to be in the form of a claim that the task of the schools is to produce leaders. In consequence the teacher gets into a habit of considerable asperity toward the average member of his classes in whom he sees no special promise of distinction. His dealing with them becomes perfunctory, and all his enthusiasm he reserves for the few who can be expected to go farther along the paths of academic glory. The special ideal of the university is apt to overshadow the entire scheme of higher education.

One result of this tendency is the anomalous position which the college is at the present day coming to occupy in the American educational scheme. To one who is not content to see an institution simply in existence, and doing work which has something to be said in its favor, but who wants to adjust it to a principle, it is growing a very puzzling matter to state with any approach to precision the function of this typically American contribution to the forms of educational expression. The original function of the college was professional preparation, which at the same time came pretty close to a training for social leadership as well, since the professions to which it led, including in particular the profession of divinity, were looked to more consciously than at the present day to provide the material for leadership in ideas. But if one were to try to justify theoretically the college now on the same ground, two facts at least would need to be recognized. In the first place the college does not actually at present, except in the form of a pious aspiration, base itself upon intellectual distinction, or aim at developing peculiar capacities for special kinds of intellectual service. And we can the more readily admit this, inasmuch as in the university we have a new type of institution which does have just this aim. Accordingly, since the discovery and promoting of peculiar intellectual excellence is perhaps the most obvious statement of the end of higher education, we find a strong disposition of late among those who care for the theory of education, and like logical neatness, to look forward to the day when the college as an institution shall have been shorn of its present importance. The tendency is rather strongly in favor of cutting off the college proper at both ends—assigning the last two years to the university as a preparation for technical professional work, and either adding the first two to the high school, or leaving it a torso which would seem bound to approximate to the type of the academy.

A defense of the college as a peculiar institution will need to recognize first, I think, two sets of distinctions. One is the distinction between professional or scientific efficiency in specialized tasks, and an intellectual leadership in the sense in which this affects directly the general life and ideals of the nation. Now that the university is the instrument for developing the first or specialized intellectual capacity, of course goes without saying. But that this is identical with the second sort of eminence and leadership, pertinent to the political problems of democracy, is not in the least self-evident. At present I simply call attention to the distinction, and to the fact that if we think fit to introduce at all the social need into the argument for education, we should not identify this with the sort of scientific leadership which the university does confessedly aim to develop.

But now my argument for the college would be, that while the purpose which gives it a right to continued existence alongside the university is distinctly its social rather than its professional, or, in the narrow sense, scholarship, value, it is not primarily social leadership that it should aim directly to provide for. The second distinction is that between the comparatively small body of notably able men who will always have to direct the course of society and interpret for it its ideals, and the larger body of enlightened opinion which is needed to direct this in turn and keep it from substituting a caste ideal for the people's will. And it is in the creation of this last that I should find the special purpose of the college to lie.

That the tendency of the university ideal to emphasize too exclusively the importance of special ability constitutes a possible social danger is, I believe, coming to be felt. An emphasis on ability turns almost inevitably under modern educational conditions in the direction of specialized ability. The exaltation of the university ideal is therefore coming to mean a sacrifice of breadth and perspective to the demands of technical proficiency. This may mean, if it goes farther, that our most highly educated classes no longer will possess the qualifications that are needed for sound human political judgment in a democracy. A catholicity of interest and sympathy is required here rather than scientific habits of mind applied to some narrow field; without it, there is not the slightest guarantee that the trained man will be a better citizen, though he may be a better physician or lawyer or engineer, than the comparatively uneducated artisan. Indeed the artisan, because of his wider human contact, may easily have the advantage. That the specialist is in constant danger, through over-estimating the sufficiency of the scientific intelligence, of losing his sense of democratic proportion and so becoming a member of a narrow caste, is shown in the actual tendency in academic circles. On the whole, the university reveals a tone of aristocracy which is constantly passing over into snobbishness. It inclines to the principle of the closed shop, where a small group of men with peculiar interests look down with more or less imperfectly concealed disdain upon the uninitiated. If one is convinced that in this direction social salvation lies, very well. But if he still inclines to the older ideals of democracy, it will seem to him a risk. And the nearest salvation lies in the creation of a more massive body of enlightened good judgment, which shall bridge the chasm between ignorance and special ability, and obviate the excuse which the pretentious claims of the few profess to find in the incapacity of the masses.

Now in the American college we have an institution which seems admirably fitted to perform just this service if it sets about it in the right way. So regarded, its function would be not to cater to the specially gifted class, but to provide a means by which the great mass of ordinarily intelligent men and women can, if they have the will, absorb a measure of disinterested culture, and so broaden their vision of men and things that, leading the lives of ordinary citizens, they may furnish a saner, less hide-bound, more dependable quality of citizenship, such as is needed to temper the ambitions and the self-sufficiency of the powerful and able few, and to afford a medium through which more humane and gracious political manners may leaven the majority. It seems verv questionable whether the extension of the high school could accomplish just this task, certainly as the high school exists to-day. For the earlier work of the high school necessarily presupposes a lack of maturity which determines its methods as not the same that the college requires; and constituted as the pedagogue is and probably always will be, it is too much to expect that a teacher will be able to adapt himself successfully to two quite different tasks.

I look, therefore, to see the college more and more, if it recognizes its responsibility to democracy, make its main end not scholarship in the technical sense, but breadth, poise, vision. Furthermore, it must aim to extend its opportunities to just as many as possible, instead of serving as a selective agency to sift out those of special promise in things of the mind. I do not mean by this that to every one alike a college course is beneficial. Doubtless there are many now in college who would be wiser to turn to some more immediately practical and active work. But the situation which makes such a judgment common among college instructors is not, I am persuaded, just what it is frequently interpreted to be; it is not, that is, proof of a hard and fast demarkation between the intellectually unfit and the elect, based on distinctions of natural equipment. There are at least two other reasons for the sort of difference between students which makes it so difficult oftentimes to adjust teaching to the material it has to work upon. The first is the lack of preparation in the foundations of intellectual culture which the student brings to the college—particularly in the power of good observation, accurate thinking and clear English expression. A large share of the difficulties of the college teacher consists in overcoming the handicap with which the student starts. But theoretically this would not exist if our lower schools were what they should be. Not, of course, that it is equally easy to teach even these to all minds. But it is possible to do it for the great majority. And for the lower schools, at any rate, to fall back on the plea that they are there simply to provide the materials of knowledge, while disclaiming responsibility for the mass of those who need special encouragement and attention, is to confess the bankruptcy of our educational system.

The second great drawback to a proper level of attainment in the mass of college students is the lack of interest and ambition. But this again is a largely improvable situation. The simplest way to meet it would be undoubtedly to devise plans for the quick elimination of students who show that they have no real desire for a college training. In this I can see no injustice; it only would be well before putting it in operation, that educators should search their own hearts to make sure to what extent the fault lies in themselves. The temptation is, again, to take too readily the stand that the business of the teacher is merely to set forth his educational wares, and leave it to the student to make what use of them he will. And if our aim were merely to develop special ability, as indeed it is in the university proper, there would be nothing to be said against this. If, however, we take the stand that education is not a matter merely for selected individuals, but has a duty to perform in leavening the mass, it becomes an important point of the teacher's duty to develop interest, as well as minister to it when it is already there. For a persistent intellectual interest is not a natural taste, but an artificial one. Natural interests furnish its conditions. But these are transient for the most part and easily discouraged; to turn them into permanent habits of mind needs all the technical skill and pedagogical enthusiasm that can be brought to bear. But when our school methods, lower and higher, are revised to this end, then a rigorous process of weeding out such portions of the student body as show no genuine purpose and effort, but treat instead their studies as incidental to the ends of athletics, social functions or the pleasures of inertia, is not only justifiable but necessary for any worthy standard of educational work, and if acted on intelligently would go far toward getting rid of the greatest difficulties in the proper working of the college.

But with these drawbacks discounted, I do not believe there need be any great problem arising from the merely average, the naturally less gifted student, who comes to his work well prepared in fundamentals, and with enough of interest to lead him to exert his best powers. And it is to this class in particular that the college, if it is to have any reason for existing alongside the university, should, I believe, professedly aim to adjust itself, instead, as now, of accepting the situation as one that is forced upon it, while its heart is in the university ideal of making professional scholars and investigators. And the reason is, again, that the exceptional man in a democracy loses a great share of his social value unless there is a large public to which he can appeal, through reasoned judgment rather than emotional prepossessions—a public possessed of a maturer outlook than it is possible for the high school to insure. This is not to give countenance to the superstition that no one can be a sound philosopher and a good citizen without a college degree. And I am intending, too, to exclude a more debatable aspect of the matter which confronts us under present academic conditions. It undoubtedly is true that many men now in our colleges might well be advised that they are out of place; not, however, because such a training might not enhance for them the value of life and enlarge their own value as citizens, but because if they persist they are likely, owing to the common aristocratic conception of a college course which they share, simply to look upon it as a means of escape from the life work for which they are really fitted, in order to enter a more respectable line. It is this tendency to a resulting maladjustment, perhaps, which teachers have in mind when they deplore so frequently the ambition of certain students for a college career. But if, instead, they are setting up to say, on any large scale, that a man's mind is unimprovable, and that he is a fool to try to make of himself anything but the slow and stupid animal he is by nature, one can only attribute such a judgment to that other product of nature—an intellectual intolerance and superciliousness which should be educated out of the teacher, of all men, before he is fit for his job.

If this aim be accepted for the college, certain modifications of academic tradition might conceivably follow. It would suggest some change of attitude in the matter of conditions of entrance. The purpose would then be to encourage as many as possible to utilize the advantages which the college offers, whereas at present the chief concern seems to be to keep out the unworthy. Of course the justification for such entering tests, which are all the time becoming more rigid, is the standard which the college is called upon to maintain. The motive is a good one, though one may suspect that intermixed with it one less defensible also plays a part. Interpreted by the professorial mind, it too often takes the form of an illiberal prejudice against admitting to the benefits of learning any one who has not gone through with a particular sort of officially recognized initiation, and thus complied with all the regulations of the guild. The need for some sifting out process is, however, very real, and it has seemed the easiest way to erect a strongly picketed fence, and take great pains to see that no objectionable person gets inside. This has advantages, but at least it is unfortunate that it seems to place the emphasis on exclusion rather than on the offering of opportunity—a result which will show itself in pretty nearly any college faculty, where a question of the stricter interpretation of entrance conditions can be counted on to arouse more enthusiasm than is ever called forth by the case of the ambitious and possibly quite capable student who can not meet the academic tests.

It is scarcely to be expected, perhaps, that the college will turn back from a policy so apparently settled. But it may at least be noted that there is an alternative program. The only condition that is really essential for permitting a student to take a given piece of work, is his ability to do it with profit, and without detriment to the proper workings of class-room efficiency. And to substitute for this the record of past attainment, often merely nominal, is not only to erect a fetich which may become obstructive, but it is largely to fail of the end in view; for every teacher knows that the possession of "credits" is almost no indication that a boy is ready to go on with a new task. If instead of making a test which precedes actual trial, the college were to make this trial itself the test, were to let every one have his chance who wished to take it, and then expeditiously and firmly exclude him so soon as it became apparent that he was a misfit, not waiting until the end of the year or of a term, but acting the moment there was no reasonable question, not only might the real end be attained much better than it now is attained, but it would be secured without danger of turning the college into a thing of mechanism and red tape, and without restricting the advantages of education beyond absolute necessity. The reason why this would not work can only be in terms of the instructor himself. If he will not take the responsibility of using his judgment, but will allow things to drag along without remedy, he will soon be in trouble. But whereas there are institutions doubtless in which it is advisable to discount as much as possible the defects of the human factor by machinery, education is emphatically not one of these; and the tendency to make it such is one of its greatest present dangers. As a matter of fact there seems nothing so far beyond the powers of the average man who is competent enough to deserve a job on a college faculty, in the supposition that he should have enough judgment to sift out those who are not likely to profit by his work, and consequently should have the power to exclude them from his classes. If such a demand upon him were to compel a more direct personal relationship with his students, that would not be an unmixed evil. As a matter of fact, the trouble does not lie so much in the inherent difficulty of the task as in its lack of harmony with academic precedent. Our system rather presupposes that since past attainment is the claim to recognition, when once a man has got inside he has a prescriptive title to remain, unless some extraordinary reason forces his expulsion.

It might very well be that such a system would modify to an extent also the place of the degree in education. But the sacredness of the degree is in any case open to question. It is now a title to intellectual respectability of the peculiarly unfortunate sort which combines with a claim to superiority, denied to its non-possessor, a thinly veiled recognition by the informed that its real content is merely nominal, and that it can be counted on to stand for little more than the fact that its holder has passed four years at a given locality, with enough attention to his books in the intervals of more important occupations to prevent naturally lenient instructors from condemning him as beyond question unfit. The justification of the degree is solely the aid it renders in the desperate enterprise of inducing in the general mind a sense that scholarship has its points; it marks therefore a failure of more fundamental motives, and its claims can not be pressed too hard until other efforts have been exhausted. Probably it will have to be retained along with other relics of medievalism, though there is no reason why at the same time there should not exist a large increase of students without full technical preparation, or the ability to pursue their academic work at length, who will cease to be regarded as so much dead weight, and be recognized as having human if not scholastic claims. And at least if the degree is to hold its place, this apparently can only be on condition of the already strong tendency to make its meaning exceedingly elastic. The endeavor to keep the degree true to what traditionally has constituted the education of a gentleman, disguised under the name of liberal, is really the attempt to keep up the fiction of a learned class marked off by formal insignia, under the pretence that there is only one royal road to culture.

And if now we turn in conclusion to the second aspect of the social purpose of education—the equipping of the narrower class of intellectual leaders on whom will always depend the initiation and the steering of social progress, I venture to think that this is a much less important problem than the former one, for the simple reason that here the root of the matter lies in large measure beyond the province of educational machinery in the lap of nature. The exceptional man is pretty apt to look out for himself. He will thrive probably in spite of our attempts to educate him quite as much as because of them. The most that society can do is to have plenty of opportunities ready to his hand, and see to it that unnecessary and artificial restrictions do not prevent his free expansion. Naturally the college will receive all alike, the exceptional and the mediocre; and one part, though a secondary part, of its function will doubtless be to bring to light the man of brilliant parts. But its machinery will be wasted if it sets itself to this as its main task. To what extent the university with its specialized training is likely to cooperate to the same end, it is not easy to say. Certainly it has not done a great deal in the past, and its specialized and academic character is against it. There is a well-founded distrust of the capacity of the academic mind to set the standards of society. Even its good points are against it. There is such a thing as being too reasonable, if reliance on reason makes us, as it tends to do, over-critical and afraid of action such as anticipates grounded theory. The specialized university can produce the economist and the legal expert; beyond this it is not so clear. What distinguishes the real leader from the expert is precisely that broad outlook and human sympathy which constitutes culture. And specialized training, uncorrected, tends also to obscure that feeling of the need for submitting scientific reasoning in state matters to the test of popular agreement, which alone is consistent with the democratic ideal. Upon the college, then—when nature does not ignore the school and the schoolmaster altogether—most of the task seems likely to fall. If it can devise some plan to meet the special needs of the exceptional man, that he may not be encouraged merely to keep pace with the mass, so much the better; if not, he will probably make his own opportunities. Meanwhile nothing in the attempt should jeopardize the main end of the college, or induce it to give way to that seductive tendency to exalt overmuch the claims of cleverness, which is the peculiar temptation of higher education.