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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/January 1915/Training for Action

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 86‎ | January 1915

TRAINING FOR ACTION
H. W. FARWELL

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

EDUCATION is properly preparation for service. That man who enters upon his work with a poor idea of what is required of him is at once seriously handicapped and often prevented from reaching a goal which he hopes to reach, and strives to attain, sometimes with an enormous waste of energy. Much praise should be given to training which seeks to give high ideals and broad outlook, but surely something must be spoken for effort to make clear the means of attainment of a laudable ambition based on high ideals and broad outlook.

We know well the value of fundamental principles. We spend much time to ascertain what things are essential. We try to bring to younger minds the best of the results of continual analysis; yet on one point there seems to be very little effort made to make more certain the accomplishment of tasks whose essential features are readily traced to underlying principles. One of the greatest things about any work is its final solution, accomplishment or completion. The conception of a work of art, of a suspension bridge, of a transportation system, is not for all of us. There have never been too many “men of ideas.” But ideas arise from imagination and only too often the plan goes awry before the final realization. The “man of ideas” needs a man with a power to accomplish.

There seems to be prevalent the notion that executive ability is a gift from nature, made to comparatively few in a generation. When one of these endowed individuals is thrust into a position of responsibility, his talent appears and success follows almost of necessity. Since this ability is rare, much time is lost in finding a man who possesses it; meanwhile, a great injustice is done to those dependent upon the executive. Such a point of view can hardly be considered fair even to the average man, for not all positions demand the highest order of executive ability.

Other people apparently assume that executive ability is a characteristic of all men, that any one in a position of responsibility, for which he has the requisite training in principles and methods, will be able to accomplish as much as any one else. How fallacious is this assumption may be quickly seen by considering the varied accomplishments of, let us say, our representatives in congress.

Executive ability is a gift from nature, to be sure, and possessed by every man, but in the same way that each man has talent for music or for mathematics. Some have five talents and some have one. And no one would expect a young man to earn his living by means of his native musical ability without first training him to make full use of that ability. An aptitude for figures does not mean that the possessor does not need to study mathematics. That is probably what he should study most diligently. Furthermore, the discovery of nature’s gifts of musical ability is not postponed until the talent is atrophied. The fond parent seeks it early and eagerly develops even a minute resemblance of talent. Why, then, is it so frequent that young men go out from school or college with no dream of their own potentialities as executives?

Specific illustrations are perhaps unnecessary, though one or two may add force to the argument. A young man, after a fine record for scholarship in high school, took up a course of scientific study in college. He found the field so alluring that he went on to a university course, taking his degree of Doctor of Philosophy with a careful and thorough research requiring a marvelous technique of manipulation. So promising was his ability that a large corporation at once engaged him to continue his work in a direction which meant much for the future of the concern. The young man found himself suddenly in an embarrassing situation. No longer was it necessary for him to spend hours searching the scientific literature for the history of a certain process; he need only direct an assistant to do this for him. The tedious watching for the results of an experiment was transferred to a subordinate. The careful manipulation of materials could be taught to an eager stripling whose idea of the significance of his work was at best vague and narrow. In the meantime the young scientist found that the direction in which he was inclined was not that of the executive, but that of the student. In a word, his education had not prepared him for the work expected of him.

A rude awakening came for another young man who had recently taken the degree of Civil Engineer. He could make long computations of stresses in girders for steel work, he could lay out beautiful curves for a railway line, but all his years of college had not trained him in the very practical problem of keeping busy and happy a party of sixty additions to the melting pot, knights of the pick and shovel. Where do the text-books state that a young engineer should never allow such an occasion to arise that one of his dusky foremen calls him by the short and ugly name, or that, the occasion having arisen, he should promptly apply a sedative by means of a convenient pickaxe handle if he wishes to maintain his self-respect and his job?

It has been claimed that plenty of opportunity is already given in school and college for the development of executive ability, both in the curriculum and in outside activities, that those men who wish training in the management of affairs, in the handling of men, in the planning of large enterprises, have, in a small way, every chance in college that the later life affords. This is apparently true, but the real situation is quite different.

In extra-curricular interests the choice of undergraduate managers with all the rivalry of various clique-candidates has in the past called into play the methods of the ward politician rather than those of men of business ability. The system produced such woeful results, largely due to incompetence and ignorance, that of late the undergraduate managers have been themselves under the control of a man of tested value. The large opportunity has gone, sacrificed by the students themselves. In what remains, the chance is open for few comparatively, and here popularity still counts for more than real ability. At best it is work to be taken on in addition to the requirements of the curriculum, and this fact is in itself sufficient to restrain many of the most worthy from attempting more than they can do well. Further, the leaders of these activities must have time to spare for their duties, an immediate result of which is the elimination of all men who must earn their education as they go. Often these are the most in real need of the training for responsibility. And those students who carry outside work requiring business ability are generally found to be spending too large a portion of their time away from the work supposed to be of first importance.

What of the curriculum itself? In what way do the present courses of study lead a man to find himself in the particular field under discussion? More than one college president has admitted the shortcoming, sometimes on the ground that the training in college must of necessity be theoretical, sometimes that the development in the direction of affairs is new and that time is required for the readjustment. It is wrong to belittle the content of the courses offered for students to-day. The material is without question more accurate and of greater variety and amount than ever before, but, judging from the results, it does not sufficiently develop in men a very important side of their natures. They are not sufficiently acquainted with the actual working to produce results.

Perhaps the laboratories train students in the way of accurate analysis and systematic coordination. It is certain that there is opportunity for such education. A quotation from a recent laboratory manual will throw some light on the way in which this works out in practise.

The forms for recording results and the outlines for computation have abundantly justified the wisdom of their insertion in the immense saving of time and energy to the busy instructor. While it has been urged by some that students readily and intuitively devise explicit, symmetrical and logical arrangements for their data and computations, such students have as yet entirely escaped our observation.

The obvious interpretation is that the authorities realize the great need of the student, but for one reason and another deliberately pass by the opportunity.

There is still much in the way of business management to be learned by the student who has his eyes open. But it must be confessed that most men are blind even to plainest of facts. The instruction is too indirect, and the operation of the plans are so smooth that it attracts no attention. The average student does not observe much of the carefully planned system which operates to give him his education; yet it would be well worth his careful study, as an example of organization.

Sometimes the beauty of a picture is lost by concentrating the attention on the technique of the artist. So, too, the teacher may fail to hold his class if he explains the method by which he commands attention. The indirect training can not be made the major part. It then loses all its value. There must be something direct and positive.

One can not overlook the existence of some very excellent schools for education in business administration, but these are not able to give to every college man what little he may need to discover within himself the ability for affairs which must in the end be developed in actual life itself. More institutions are quite unnecessary, for they would still leave the great mass of students as they are to-day. The need is for the revision of existing curricula to the end that the average student may at least know what business ability is, and whether or not he himself possesses it in small measure or in large.