Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/February 1913/College or University?




WHAT is the difference between the college and the university? There is no blinking the fact that many of the students, most of the alumni, as well as a large proportion of the members of the faculties and administrative boards, including presidents, have very nebulous views in regard to the fundamental distinction that exists between these two classes of institutions. The successful administration of a college or university depends upon the recognition of the existence of a vital principle which distinguishes the functions of one from those of the other. Many colleges during the last thirty years have assumed the title of "university," having first given a promissory note to the public expressing their intention some day to make good their claim to the title. Thinking people have already begun to express doubts as to the satisfactory fulfilment in many cases of such a promise made before the conditions and, responsibilities of the trust had been fully understood by either faculties or trustees.

The time has now come for a clear understanding of the nature of the difference which distinguishes the university from the college. The evils of the laissez-faire policy of administration which to-day prevails in the councils of our universities have at last aroused more than one faculty and not a few trustees to a realization of the fact that while a ship at sea without chart or compass may, if the fates are propitious, be brought safely into port, the mere accomplishment of such a difficult task does not increase our sense of confidence in those responsible for providing for the safety of the voyagers. A trustee of one of our eastern universities has recently affirmed that the greatest need of these institutions is not money, but the services of men who have just and definite ideas of the essential characteristics of a university. If our higher institutions of learning are ever to keep pace with the intellectual progress of the nation (the question of actual leadership can not yet be considered), there is immediate need of a statement emphasizing the distinction existing between university and college, in order that such an institution may develop a healthy independent existence.

What is a university? There are two ways of attempting to answer this question. First there is the method usually employed of approaching the subject by indicating the lines of historical development; or we may try, and this is the object for which this paper was written, to define this institution in terms which will indicate the relations it should present to the development of human thought and activity. So many institutions have assumed the name without justification by deeds that it is necessary to lead up to our definition by a preface of negation. The university is not, as some people believe it to be, an overgrown college with an increased number of students, a larger faculty, and greater material resources. Neither is the principle upon which it is administered one that is based upon an expression of merely local or parochial interests. Chauvinism and insularity do not thrive in the true university atmosphere. On this account, it is impossible to conceive of any university as an institution which is solely dependent upon the support of its own alumni.

In order to understand the positive attributes distinctively characteristic of a university, we must have some clear conception of what constitutes an education; inasmuch as the institution under consideration represents the acme of the entire educational system.

Education, according to the original usage of the word, is a leading out process, marked first by an attempt to measure the individual's capacity and then to direct his energies along lines where growth is possible. From this it is obvious that the chief aim of education is the cultivation of good mental habits and not the imparting of information. Modern educational reforms have for their object instruction in methods of work, the information incidentally supplied being of secondary importance. The older system put the chief emphasis upon the imparting of information. First one set of correctives or tonics and then another was administered to students, and if they survived the treatment they were classed with those "who had received an education." Fortunately, there are signs that the age of this form of drug-giving is rapidly passing away. A few pedagogues still have faith in cultural specifics and liberalizing studies, with virtues as well advertised and as highly extolled as any of the life-giving tonics and nostrums of the quacks, but the general public is beginning to appreciate that the original use of the word education, or intelligent effort to e-duct, not a forcible attempt to ad-duct, expresses the modern trend of our educational system. Recently the suggestion has been made that mental training is the only remedy for most of the evils connected with our present system of education.

How often the cart is put in front of the horse! How often cause is mistaken for effect! People possessing special mental qualities have predilections for certain subjects and these choices are the expression of a complex individuality largely made up of factors acquired, not by training, but by heredity. The doctrinaire often attempts to reverse the natural order and attributes the characteristics of the personality to the subjects studied. If the humanizing and cultural potency of an education depends upon the proper selection of subjects of study, what a poor showing is made by the human race after centuries of expectant treatment! How long will the old superstition that all mental disorders, as well as all bodily ailments, can be cured by administering the proper combination of drugs continue to delude a credulous public?

Modern education starts from quite a different standpoint, first taking into account the biological or inherited trends of the individual, and then trying to estimate his latent capacity or brain-power in the expectation of giving the assistance needed to help the student in the task of self-government and self-improvement. We talk so glibly about "hereditary influences," "individual capacity," "individualism as opposed to collectivism," that, if we had a keen sense of humor the ridiculousness of a system of tutelage which attempts to treat students en masse, without any reference to their inherited traits and natural capacities, would strike us as farcical. This method has been described as "education by cram and emetic." In the model school or college the different subjects should not be taught as ends in themselves, but in order to train the student how to observe intelligently, concentrate his attention, repress unhealthy instincts and cultivate those qualities making for a broader, saner life. From kindergarten to the day of graduation from the university the mental training of students is dominated to so great an extent by the servile preparation for examinations that a special degree of B.E. (bachelor of examination) might be conferred on all applicants who require written evidence of having satisfactorily "passed" in order to be assured of their right to be classed as "educated persons."

An education should, as Goethe expressed it, make it possible for the individual to live his life to the fullest. Only after the idea has been clearly set forth that education and mental training should be synonymous terms are we ready to comprehend the relationship of the college to the university. Having grasped this principle, we are then in a position to realize that in the school and college every effort should be directed to the formation of good mental habits, while in the university the student should be given, under general direction, an opportunity to practise these habits, and, in addition, to develop to the fullest extent possible the spirit of intelligent curiosity.

Without the presence of universities, whose chief aim should be to cultivate the spirit of investigation and of open rebellion against conventional teaching-authority, the intellectual vigor of the entire nation is seriously impaired. Political freedom can never atone for the loss of intellectual liberty which should be faithfully guarded by the university. In a democracy there is constant danger of forgetting that the loftiest ideals of freedom are not those associated with the political life of the nation, but are indissolubly connected with the search for the truth that alone makes its possessor free. How strange that in a nation which boasts of the freedom of its political institutions so little is done by our universities to encourage and protect the agencies which are the basis of both intellectual and individual liberty, from the paralyzing influences that follow an attempt to meet the conventional social requirements in education. Intellectual liberty often thrives best in states where political freedom is restricted.

The collegiate university is so much occupied in distributing ready-made educational suits cut upon a single pattern to applicants for academic honors, that individualism is almost completely hidden by a garb which may conceal both the iniquities of mediocrity and the virtues of genius.

The American college graduate is so accustomed to the evils of a system in which he is pulled and pushed about by "trainers" that he is constantly in danger of losing his personal identity. His patience is often exhausted by listening to sermons on the advantages of scholarship, while he prays in vain for the opportunity to learn by observing living examples. Many of the crudities in our intellectual life as a nation are directly attributable to the failure to appreciate the importance of university ideals to the community and the nation. This oversight also emphasizes our reluctance to recognize that the spirit of enquiry is a normal instinct which if repressed is followed by serious consequences such as the loss of placticity, of intellectual vigor and of the highest forms of intelligent and sympathetic interest in one's own profession. The vision of those who are fortunate enough to possess the spirit of investigation, one of the surest signs of mental health and vigor, is towards the future, while the fate of individuals and institutions which turn to look back is the same as that of Lot's wife. "Denn wer nicht vorwärts kommt der geht zürück; So war es immer so bleibt es." Unless the spirit of enquiry is developed deep and abiding intellectual interests are impossible. In its absence we become mere gatherers-in of knowledge with but a slightly higher degree of intelligence than that possessed by collectors, but lacking genuine interest in progress. The spirit of discovery is generally accompanied by a childlike freedom from bias. Without the inspiration that comes from prosecuting research, our gaze is directed down into the valleys and not upwards to the peaks whither our aspirations lead us. The failure of our universities to encourage more extensively than has yet been attempted enquiries in the field of knowledge is largely responsible for our diffuse and shallow interests. We are prone to estimate the mental qualities of a student by counting the number of subjects he has studied without attempting an analysis of his mental traits. Any institution which publicly assumes the right to be the bestower of a liberal education should be prepared to forfeit its claim to the title of university, as this should be a function of the school and not of the university. The essence of a liberal education is to be sought for in the quality of mind of the individual and not in the character of the information he possesses. The futility of any institution solemnly promising to be the dispenser of these special mental traits during the latter years of the educational curriculum is quite obvious to those who know that mental habits are, to a large extent, definitely and permanently formed much earlier than this period. If the qualities commonly designated as balance, interest and sympathy, the dominant characteristics of those who actually possess a liberal education have not budded in the school period, they can not be successfully grafted during the university years. The formation of mental habits belongs to the school and not to the university period. To-day the university unfortunately limits its sphere of usefulness in our intellectual life to frittering away energies and resources in attempting to reeducate those who have failed to develop intellectual interests during the school years. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, when the average student enters the university, his mental habits are already formed to such a degree that the catalogued promises made to him of the efficacy of liberalizing studies smacks more of the east wind of authority than of common sense. If those who defend the present conditions of affairs as a necessary form of compromise are correct, then we may well be pessimistic of our future intellectual development, inasmuch as the university is revealed to us as a nurse for the sick rather than as a counselor and aid to the strong. The dominance of that kind of mediocrity which imperils the life of democracy is very plainly indicated in the present organization of our universities that make ample provision for the day-nursery treatment of those who are devoid of intellectual interests and ambitions, and take little cognizance of the great numbers of students possessed of mental health, vigor and praiseworthy ambitions.

Many parents and teachers have the unfortunate habit of assuming a semi-apologetic attitude when referring to courses of studies, as if they were tasks to be undertaken merely in order to satisfy the conventional demands of society, while all manly virtues are commonly referred to as if they could only be exercised by training the biceps and were quite independent of brain development.

At school attention should be directed to the value of constant continuous effort, emphasizing the fact that a desire to work with one's brain is just as much a sign of health as the wish to excel in physical exercises. The importance of mental habits and the formation of thought processes should be emphasized not only as a means of attaining success in practical issues, but as the essential factors in the preservation of mental balance.

The silly conventional values commonly attached to an education should be replaced by substituting those intellectual interests in work that add so materially to the pleasure of living. The success of an education and the intelligent interest of an individual in his occupations may often be directly measured by estimating the degree of pleasure taken in "talking shop." The devitalizing influences of our present system of educational ideals is seen in the urgent desire of many college graduates to lead a double sort of existence, one half of the day with, and the other without, their professional interests. The attitude of so many college graduates to their profession is of such a nature that "hobbies" and "outside interests" are essential for the restoration of the mental balance which has been destroyed by the daily occupation. This "double life" necessitating a daily shift in ideals and ideas may become a prolific source of nervous disorders, varying in degree from boredom, even at the mention of intellectual topics, to pronounced mental derangements. The failure of our present collegiate-university to show that the real pleasure of life depends upon the association and not upon the divorce of intellectual interests from the daily occupation of the individual is one of the most serious defects in a system that sets a man adrift in his profession without any intelligent interest in it. The American student is so thoroughly imbued with the idea that "to be educated" is a condition or state of mind induced by teachers that he seldom realizes any of the pleasures associated with learning; and so in later years the practise of his profession becomes for him merely a method of making a living instead of being at the same time a source of enjoyment.

By exhortation, backed up by a vigorous policing, the American collegiate university has endeavored to drive students to the choice of high ideals, which are emphasized merely in order to satisfy conventional requirements. This is one of the most serious defects in our entire educational system, as it frequently becomes necessary in after life for the individual at a critical period to readjust fundamental mental mechanisms in order to meet the real issues of life. On the other hand, the cultivation of the spirit of intelligent and candid scepticism has been sadly neglected in our American universities. Students are taught to think only in accordance with the "cast iron rules" given them as guides to thought and conduct, while the more important lessons of searching diligently for the truth, and of being continually on the guard lest the rising mists of authority completely blind their vision, are seldom emphasized. The ideals of the alma mater more often suggest submission to a corporal than to the admonitions of a parent. In many of our universities to-day the doubts of the weak are crushed out of existence, while the resistance of the strong to a system of passive intellectual oppression breeds a spirit of rebellion. High ideals can not be maintained in an atmosphere where the value of intellectual honesty is not appreciated, or where the advice is not infrequently given, "Do not express your doubts in public."

Pater's affirmation, "What we have to do is to be forever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Compte, or of Hegel, or of our own," expresses a well-known law of physiology seldom referred to in our universities. The spirit of the real university should reflect the characteristics of youth in its love of testing new opinions and courting new impressions. Without the presence of a large body of investigators an institution ceases to live or, if vitality is prolonged, it is merely of the vegetative type. The spirit of investigation leads men to conquer difficulties which would terrify them if they were driven into the breach solely by the voices of authority. The spirit of investigation is as important to the artist, the business man and the writer as it is to the scientist in his laboratory. The American university has not yet succeeded in injecting the energy proportional to its resources into our intellectual life, because it has not yet attempted to develop the driving power which alone can save us from the disastrous results of having so recklessly sacrificed the heritage of youth. The majority of the graduates who yearly go out from the doors of our higher institutions of-learning without any definite intellectual interests have passed directly from the period of adolescence to that of old age.

The intellectual vigor of the average college graduate has been dwarfed by the conventional system of education, in which the spirit of dogmatism in teaching crowds out most of the natural impulses to learn. He is not given a moment in which to develop any ardor for the pursuit of knowledge. Little emphasis is given in the curriculum to the value of research, and this lack destroys initiative and smothers individuality by catering to the wishes of those educational promoters who are always eager to gain prestige by organizing personally conducted parties in search of liberal education and general culture. Another very serious defect in the curriculum of our universities is shown in the effort made to protract the period of training the acquisitive functions at a time when the initiating and productive capacity of the student should be developed to the highest degree possible. The most productive years of the average student in our universities are now wasted in copying models at a time when they should be encouraged "to block out their own ideas."

There is no civilized nation which should be as optimistic of its intellectual development as the United States. The fact that ideas and ideals have not been completely crushed out of existence by the perpetuation of school methods during the university years is the best testimony that the innate qualities of the American mind have extraordinary powers of growth even among most unfavorable environments. The relation of the alma mater to the majority of college students is that of the governess to pupils, deliberately sacrificing vigorous mental traits for drawing-room accomplishments. Our American higher institutions of learning pay far too much attention to the cultivation of mere forms of thought, and have neglected the study of the mechanism and laws of thought production.

The period of vigorous manhood is, as has already been indicated, characterized by a keen interest in the advancement of learning. Those who do not comprehend or sympathize with the investigator are deficient in the mental traits which are preeminently characteristic of the normal individual during the prime of life, and express the highest aspirations of our race. The chief value of research to a university is to be found in the presence of a body of men who, in spite of their years, retain their interest and progressive ideas longer than those who have more sympathy with the methods of the pedagogue than with those who are desirous of learning. We may best maintain the traditions and the highest instinctive tendencies of our race by encouraging productive scholarship. In a brilliant passage, the author of the "Foundations of the Nineteenth Century" has shown that the spirit of discovery is the conscience of Teutonic learning. When our energies are restricted merely to familiarizing ourselves with the learning of the past, or in attempting to enter the domain of speculative thought in which the Greek intellect reigned supreme, we throw away our heritage and precipitate conflicts between inherited and acquired trends of thought that often end in intellectual apathy. In order to vitalize the knowledge of a dead past, we must inject into it the spirit of discovery which alone reflects the highest aspirations of our race. The lack of idealism and the spirit of indifference so often characteristic of the graduates of many of our universities is in a large measure the product of an educational system which, by ignoring objectivity in teaching and failing to cultivate the spirit of enquiry, has ignored the underlying trends of thought that, if properly directed, can bring us nearer to the ideals compatible with our social traits. To endeavor to satisfy the intellectual needs of our race by continually repressing the spirit of enquiry and by driving students to contemplative reflection upon the accumulated stores of knowledge, is equivalent to exchanging the driving force or spirit, that is born in us, for a suit of clothes. When the specific racial tendencies reflected in the spirit of discovery are not intelligently directed they find expression in utilitarian motives. By attempting, as does our educational system, to force American students to become passive recipients of knowledge, we are asking them to sell their heritage for a mess of pottage.

When once the essential distinction that exists between university and college is grasped, it is necessary to determine to what extent the present system of organization is favorable or antagonistic to the development of these two different types of institutions. An impartial examination of the facts such as is given in the excellent exposition of this entire subject by Cattell[1] shows how extremely difficult it will be for most of the older institutions which have assumed the name of university to prove their right to this title. As has already been pointed out, the present system of administration is adapted merely to the perpetuation of the college spirit and traditions. We have seen that the college without radical administrative reorganization can not "grow into" the university. The supposition that the natural development of the former will, according to the laws of growth, expand into the latter, is an assumption that has resulted in an unnecessary conflict of ideals; as those of the two institutions are not interchangeable. The unfortunate state of affairs is exemplified in more than one of our eastern universities, where we see the members of administrative boards, thoroughly imbued with the collegiate idea, attempting to carry out educational policies that do not conform with the ideals of members of the faculties, who have had greater opportunities for familiarizing themselves with university standards. When the attempt is made to effect a compromise, the efficiency of both institutions is seriously impaired and results in an interminable conflict of interests. The trustees who, as a rule, are unfamiliar with the nature of the university problems, often control its policy through the administration of the finances, even determining the election of presidents and the distribution of sums for educational purposes. As a result of this usurpation of powers the faculty is in danger of becoming merely a body of employees of the trustees, without any power to shape the educational policy of the institution.

The increased emoluments and the excessive prominence bestowed upon executive officers have had a disastrous effect in detracting from the appraised value of the work of scholar and investigator. The great eagerness with which administrative offices are sought for by members of the faculty show how extremely superficial are their intellectual interests. One can not imagine a Momsen, Pasteur or Darwin deliberately putting aside his special investigations in order to become an administrator.

The present system of organization has resulted in a temporary but, nevertheless, serious depreciation of the estimated value of scholarship; and has also given rise to an extreme spirit of Chauvinism, inimicable to the development of those mental qualities that underlie true culture. In executing a plan for the development of the university, boards of trustees defer largely to the wishes of the alumni of the institution. On account of the great and constant influence exerted by the large body of alumni, the older institutions in the east will find that it is increasingly difficult for them to identify their interests with those of the national life. Admirable as are a few of the influences which grow out of the "college spirit," there is a great deal that is objectionable and affords a suitable medium for the development of fixed ideas. The intense emotional reactions of the undergraduates and their more or less absurd sentimental devotion to the standards of a single institution give rise to conditions not specifically different from those that give fixity and undue valuation to many of the ideas characteristic of hysterical or paranoid states. When the public fully realizes that the development of the spirit of intelligent criticism should be one, if not the chief, end of education, it will become obvious that it is very difficult to attempt to bestow the elements of a liberal education in the collegiate atmosphere. One may quite as well expect the spirit of truth-telling to be acquired in an atmosphere permeated by falsehood as to believe the acquisition of mental balance is possible in surroundings in which feeling and sentiment dominate judgment and reason. The extreme partisanship cultivated in undergraduate life dominates many of the undertakings of the post-graduate, and its evil effects are particularly noticeable in the parochial character of administration of the professional schools (theology, law and medicine).

The entire intellectual life of our higher institutions of learning, and in time of the nation, would be revivified if the administration of these institutions were reorganized in order to meet the following conditions. (1) A clear understanding of the essential difference between college and university. (2) The determination by the administrative boards of these institutions to adopt a policy which shall be compatible with the ideals of either college or university, and not represent an unfortunate series of compromises ending in hopeless mediocrity.

(3) A public confession of faith as to the value of intellectual ideals by repeated public affirmations, as expressed in words and deeds, to the effect that it is always more difficult to secure the services of great scholars than it is to obtain funds to be expended in bricks and mortar.

(4) The establishment of democratic ideals of government in a form of organization which shall not be dominated by the autocracy of president and deans nor by an oligarchy of trustees; and finally (5) The substitution of national ideals of efficiency for the narrow local prejudices which so frequently restrict the life and sphere of usefulness of our universities.

Many of these reforms may readily be introduced by bringing the trustees and overseers into closer touch with the faculty, so that there may be a more direct exchange of views on important questions; and by the reorganization of the former bodies, so that the members may be made familiar with the aims and ideals of the university.

If our eastern universities persist in continuing their present parochial forms of administration, within the next decade we shall see a multiplication of independent foundations forming the nuclei or centers of university work. Half a century hence there will probably be a resurrection of the older and privately endowed colleges as state universities.

  1. Science, May 24 and 31, 1912.