Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/July 1899/Thoughts About Universities

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YOU are aware that the pedagogue is no longer treated with that deference and respect which he feels to be due to his love of learning. Past is all his fame. Past is the day when the village all declared how much he knew. Nowadays he is accustomed to be told by the rustics, who once gazed and wondered, that he is old-fashioned and out of place in our modern world; that he does not represent the nation; that the love he bears to learning is at fault; and that the university the people want must be universal like an omnibus, with a place for all, either for a single square or to the end.

He is also used to hearing from those successful people of whom all must speak with reverence—those who have demonstrated their superiority by laying their hands on everything they think worth the getting—that he is a mere "bookish theorist," and that they are much more able to show him the path to success than he to tell them anything to their advantage.

Unless he can minister to their comfort or entertainment, or make smooth the royal road to learning, or at the very least help to maintain the patent office, he is told to be content with such treatment as they think good enough for him, and to keep himself to his work of teaching the lower classes to be lowly and reverent to all their betters.

I have been much interested of late by two books on certain aspects of modern society. One treats of the dangers which threaten liberal culture and constitutional government, and all the best products of civilization, through the increasing prevalence of the belief that our institutions have been devised by a few for their own selfish ends. So long as men differ in natural endowments the ignorant and the incapable and the unsuccessful must outnumber those whose industry and energy and foresight insure success. As those who have little have always outnumbered those who have much of the desired fruits of civilization, this writer says that one of the great questions of the day is whether, in last resort, the world shall be governed by its ignorance or by its intelligence. He is alarmed by the diffusion of belief that our established institutions do not represent the people, and that they are hostile to the best interest of mankind, and by the prevalence of the opinion that the true way to reform the world and to secure rational progress is to intrust the organization and administration of government and of education and of all matters of public interest and importance to the majority.

The danger so clearly pointed out is real, beyond question; but I can not agree with the author that it is exclusively or distinctively modern. If some in our day interpret the belief that the voice of the people is the voice of God, as conviction that the loudest voice is most divine; if they assert that the man with pure and lofty ideals of education and duty and loyalty is a public enemy; we must remember that so wise a man as Aristotle taught, in the day of Athenian democracy, that the man who is virtuous in undue measure is a moral monster, as justly repugnant to his neighbors as one pre-eminent in vice.

If the first book calls Aristotle to mind, one must often think of Jeremiah while reading the second, for its author is a dismal prophet, who holds that, formidable as unbridled democracy seems, it is helpless in the struggle with organized plutocracy, and that its efforts to shake off the restraints and limitations of social existence can end in nothing but a more crushing despotism, while submission may bring such rewards of merit for good behavior in the past and such prizes for good conduct in the future as seem to the givers to be good investments.

Both writers draw many of their illustrations from the history of our own country, and they hold that our great political contests are struggles between those who wish to maintain our institutions for the sake of what they can themselves make out of them, and those who seek to wreck the ship of state for very similar reasons.

Some hold that, these things being true, they can show the learned professor how he may win back, through the struggle between these two great classes of mankind, some of that confidence in his wisdom which his predecessors enjoyed. They tell him he may make his learning represent the people if he will extend his university until it becomes as universal as the kindergarten, and that he may at the same time increase his popularity with the select if he will devote more of his time and more of his energy to that branch of learning which was in olden times pursued in that secluded cloister called the campus, although it is better known to the polite society of our day through the banjo club, the football team, and the mask and wig club.

If he will cultivate these two fields, and, refraining from the theoretical pursuit of empty generalities, will enter upon a three months' campaign of education at some time when men's minds are stimulated by the heat of faction to welcome calm discussion of the principles of common honesty and good citizenship, he can not fail to win the respect and confidence of all.

"When I wrote this last sentence I thought that it was all out of my own head, and I was proud of it; but as I laid down my pen in my satisfaction for a moment's rest, my eye fell upon this passage in the prospectus of a new university—one which is said, in the prospectus, to be not only universal, but cosmopolitan: "When a question arises which divides scholars, like the tariff, the causes and course of the Reformation, money, etc., the student will be referred to the ablest exponents of the opposing sides."

No professor can plead ignorance of the way to enter this new career of usefulness. One can scarcely pick up a college catalogue or a magazine or a newspaper without learning how to make the university universal. One of the simplest plans, with which all are familiar, is to send to men with a reputation for learning a ruled form and a request that each will write, in the proper columns, the price, publisher, and title of the best book on his own subject—mathematics, astronomy, moral science, or whatever it may be—or, if he knows of no such book, that he will write one. An accompanying circular tells how these lists are to be scattered through the innumerable homes of our land, and how diplomas are to be distributed as prizes to those who, after purchasing the books, prepare and submit the most exhaustive permutations of their tables of contents.

Learned men who do not approve this plan are offered a choice from many others: six-week courses in law, medicine, and theology; summer schools for the promotion of science and the liberal arts; questions and answers in the educational column of some journal for the home; or a national university so universal that it shall supply lunches and learning for all out of the public chest, with no doorkeeper to examine passports.

The way to extend the university in this direction is so well understood that I will turn now to another part of our subject, for some may be less familiar with our opportunity to construct a royal road to learning for those who are entitled to use it.

A recent writer on education, who says American universities impose "upon young men in the nineteenth century a curriculum devised by dead-and-gone priests for the young men of the twelfth," calls upon the teachers of America to reconstruct their curriculum on psychological principles. I myself am no psychologist, and while I fail to see how this fact concerns the public, it has recently been pointed out in print, although no one has ever charged me with lack of reverence for the psychologist. In truth, he is to me what the good old family doctor is to many, for I am convinced that it would be hard to name one among all the educational ills that flesh is heir to that he would not be able to throw on the spot, with a good collar-and-elbow hold. I have a prodigious respect for those fine big words curriculum and psychological principles, and I welcome the plan for reconstructing the curriculum on psychological principles the more eagerly because it is extremely simple and not hard to understand, like some psychological utterances. In fact, it is so very simple and easy that it is sure of enthusiastic indorsement by innumerable children, for this reformer's plan is neither more nor less than the abolition of the pedagogue.

"If," he says, "I was director general of education for all America" (which at the present moment he is not)," I would abolish colleges, but send American youths to travel for two years in Europe. In my opinion," he says, "a father who has sons and daughters of a proper age to go to college will do better by his children if he sends them for two years to travel in Europe than if he sends them for three years to an American or English university."

Admirable and simple as is this plan for ascending Parnassus in vestibuled trains of drawing-room cars, personally conducted by Grant Allen, this psychologist seems to me to err in thinking it new, for it was in high favor in England during the reign of that merry monarch who was always so furious at the sight of books that his queen, who loved reading, had to practice it in secret in her closet.

Euphranor having asked, in the reign of George II, "Who are these learned men that of late years have demolished the whole fabric which lawgivers, philosophers, and divines have been erecting for so many ages? Lysicles, hearing these words, smiled and said he believed Euphranor had figured to himself philosophers in square caps and long gowns; but, thanks to these happy times, the reign of pedantry was over. Our philosophers, said he, are of a different kind from those awkward students. They are the best-bred men of the age, men of the world, men of pleasure, men of fashion, and fine gentlemen. I will undertake a lad of fourteen bred in the modern way shall make a better figure and be more considered in any drawing-room or assembly of polite people than one at four-and-twenty who hath lain by a long time at school and college. He will say better things in a better manner, and be more liked by good judges. I say, when a man observes and considers all this, he will be apt to ascribe it to the force of truth and the merits of our cause, which, had it been supported by the revenues and establishments of the Church and universities, you may guess what a figure it would make by the figure it makes without them. People begin to open their eyes. It is not impossible but the revenues that in ignorant times were applied to a wrong use may hereafter, in a more enlightened age, be applied to a better."

"The money that went to found the Leland Stanford or the Johns Hopkins University," says the modern reformer, "would have been immeasurably better spent in bringing St. Marks at Venice and the Uffizi at Florence into the lives of innumerable young Americans. Here, then, is the opportunity for a wiser Cornell."

A few years ago an acquaintance of my own, himself an accomplished psychologist, brought with him to Washington a young man, a native of north Greenland, that he might take into his life the best substitute for St. Marks at Venice that this country affords. While limited in range, the results were as definite as one could wish, for two of the most refined delights of our wonderful civilization—rum and horses—were at once taken into the life of Eskimo Joe with all the fresh enthusiasm of youth. In his boyish impetuosity he could not see why a hired horse should not have the fleetness of Santa Claus's reindeer and the endurance of wild dogs; and as few horses survived the first lesson, the psychologist soon reconstructed the curriculum, for Joe's progress in rum and oysters was most gratifying. You who have attended my lectures in anthropology will remember that Nature has bestowed on the Eskimos two endowments which are not elsewhere found united, although they are exhibited separately in high perfection by the anaconda and the camel. Joe was able to load himself with food and drink like a pirate ship victualed for a long cruise, and he became so proficient in three months that a two-year course seemed unnecessary, so he was shipped off to Labrador at the first opportunity, and was left there to carry St. Marks at Venice into the homes of Greenland as best he might. It is clear that our psychological reformer's plan is not new, but he says our curriculum is some thousand years behind the times, and he asks, "Will somebody one day have the wisdom to perceive that the education which sufficed for the mediæval England of the Plantagenets is not absolutely adapted to the America of the nineteenth century?" I myself know so little of the curriculum of that day that this charge may, for all I know, be well founded, and if so it were a grievous fault. For all I know the dead-and-gone priests of the twelfth century may have read Homer in the original Greek, and carried on their studies in trigonometry and navigation with the aid of logarithms and the nautical almanac, although it has come in my way to know something of their method of teaching zoölogy, for my studies have led me to examine a text-book on this subject, which was written early in the twelfth century for the education of the young Queen Adelaide, who was married to Henry I of England in 1121. The dedication is as follows:

"Philippi de Thann into the French language has translated the Bestiary, a book of science, for the honor of a jewel, who is a very handsome woman, Aliz is she named, a queen is she crowned, Queen she is of England, may her soul never have trouble! In Hebrew in truth Aliz means praise of God. I will compose a book, may God be with the commencement!"

As a sample of the zoölogical curriculum of the twelfth century take this chapter:

"Onager by right is named the wild ass; of it the Physiologus says, in his speech, when March in his course has completed twenty-five days, then that day of the month he brays twelve times, and also in the night for this reason, that that season is the equinox, that is that night and day are of equal length; by the twelve times that it makes its braying and its crying, it shows that night and day have twelve hours in their circuit. The ass is grieved when he makes his cry, that the night and day have equal length; he likes better the length of the night than of the day. Now hear without doubt the signification of this. Onager signifies the devil in this life; and by March we understand all the time that we have; by the day we understand good people, by right, who will go in light; and by night we understand those who were Neros; and by hours we understand the number of people. And when the devil perceives that his people decrease, as do the hours which are in the night, after the vernal equinox which we have in March, then he begins to cry, to deplore greatly, as the ass does which brays and crys."

One need not go back to the middle ages for a measure of progress, for all who remember the American college of thirty years ago know there has been notable improvement in this short time, and they also know that every change has not been an improvement. All who are concerned with education see many defects, and wish to do what they can to remedy them, and to increase the efficiency and usefulness of our whole educational system in all its branches from the lowest to the highest, although I believe they still find much wisdom in the advice of the prophet of old, "that we make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us and discover what is the straight and right way, and so walk in it."

Many who are now before the public as reformers seem to me to fall into error through belief that our educational system has been devised by some one, either in the twelfth century or at some other time, and that they may therefore hope to devise a better. All who know that it is a highly complex and delicate organism which has grown up imperceptibly and naturally in accordance with many needs, fulfilling many different purposes and acting in many diversified and far-reaching ways, know also that while reform always has been and always will be needed, organic change is quite another matter. They know, too, that a disposition to pull it to pieces in the interest of some theory or speculation must inevitably end in disaster, for they must agree with Bacon that "it were good, therefore, that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself, which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, and by degrees scarce to be perceived."

The complaint that learning is no longer treated with due deference is not exclusively modern, for it was enumerated long ago among the things that are not new under the sun; and he who for his own pleasure or distinction devotes himself to work in fields that yield nothing but the interest of the exploration should look to his own pleasure for his reward, since learning is no more exalted by turning it into an aristocratic and exclusive pleasure ground than by making it a shop for profit. While no weak and foolish brother of the laboratory should be permitted to think that he belongs to a favored class or has any claims to support or respect except for service rendered, it is the duty of our graduates to teach the world, by the example of their lives, what the work of the university is.

Lyceum lectures and summer schools and systematic courses of reading are good things, and the common school and the home are the foundation of all education. Travel is a most valuable adjunct, but those who are to profit by it must first know what they go out to see, "for else shall young men go hooded and look abroad little."

No school or college can improve its work by calling itself a university, although the prevalence of belief that its work is the work of a university may bring harm incalculable; for that university is universal, in the best sense of the word, where students are inspired with enthusiasm for truth by the example of those whose minds are "as a mirror or glass capable of the image of the universal world, and joyful to receive the impression thereof as the eye joyeth to receive light."

What nobler task can our graduate undertake than to teach the world that while the benefits which learning confers are its only claim to consideration, these benefits will cease so soon as they are made an end or aim? All men prize the fruit; but who else is there to tell them that the tree will soon be barren if they visit it only at the harvest, that they must dig about it and nourish it and cherish the flowers and green leaves? What better service can he render than to point out that the gifts of learning are like health, which comes to him who does not seek it, but flies farther and farther from him who would lure it back by physic or indulgence?

The two authors I referred to at the beginning can not both be right, and both may be partly wrong, for it is possible that neither plutocracy nor a democratic majority makes a state. No university need humble itself to seek the favor of either plutocracy or democracy if its graduates can convince mankind, by their own lives, that its aim is not to gain deference or success or distinction or reward of any sort, but solely to propagate and diffuse among mankind "that enthusiasm for truth, that fanaticism of veracity, which is a greater possession than much learning, a nobler gift than the power of increasing knowledge."