Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/January 1904/The College Course

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MUCH of the discussion respecting utility of college training is irrelevant, for success in life proves nothing on one side or the other. Every observing man knows that the qualities on which success depends are inborn. College instructors can not impart brains or common sense, can not convert the sluggard into a model of industry; can do little toward removing the vanity which resents advice. They can make only an honest effort to cultivate the material provided by nature.

The discussion has been too nearly academic, and the parties have been wary of coming down to definite issues. The opponent of college training is cautious about too detailed attack upon that with which he is not familiar; while teachers, though united in defense of their work, are not wholly agreed either as to its final purpose or as to the method of attaining it. The lack of consensus respecting the meaning of the term education, whether preparatory or collegiate, is a weakness which opponents have been quick to see and to attack. The purpose in mental training should be as definite as is that in physical training. The latter is a new branch of educational work and the instructors, fettered by no traditions, aim to make the man physically good all around, without any reference whatever to his future calling. In mental training there seems to be no longer any such clear-cut purpose. All agree, of course, in the abstract proposition that the aim is to make the man useful—but, for what?

The medieval theory of education looked to the utilization of the individual for himself. Education being for the privileged few, to fit men for the proper enjoyment of leisure, for the Latin priesthood or to expound Roman law, the relations and the duties of the few to the many were ignored. There resulted a narrow curriculum with close attention to detail, which gave accuracy, certainly very wonderful, but, like that of the microscope, in a very limited field. The modern theory, developing slowly after men were emancipated from the thraldom of the church, more rapidly after the study of nature by observation was born again, regarded the individual not as the whole, but as part of the whole, recognizing the basal principle that 'No man liveth unto himself.' It demanded that man be so trained as to be of the utmost use not to himself only, but to his fellows also. It asserted that a man must earn the right to live by being of service, and denied that training along the prevalent narrow lines was education in the proper sense. It ridiculed the pretensions of a system which boasted of its success in producing men whose scholarship was proved by volumes filled with quotations illustrating the use of Latin or Greek particles; it demanded a training which should develop all sides of the man and fit him for the exigencies of active life as contrasted with that of the cloister.

Efforts made in our country sixty years ago to remodel the curriculum so as to satisfy both sides are spoken of as absurd, because they were not radical. They were not absurd; they were the first steps along an untried way. Educational institutions were controlled by medievalists, and the doctrine was ingrained that instruction belonged to the province of the christian minister as much as did the pulpit; the whole system had grown up under the requirements of the church and under the limitations permitted by the church; so that, in considering the change, those in charge found themselves at a loss. Their Latin was no longer a 'modern' language, it was no longer the common tongue of learned men; Greek, at best, had been only a luxury. The study of material things, having led men to doubt respecting some matters of religious belief which had come down without challenge from antiquity, was tainted with suspicion of sacrilege; of its true nature they were wholly ignorant. The best that could be done was done; within college walls, the classical languages gradually ceased to be living languages, came to be regarded as dead languages, their words were used as medium for teaching a kind of universal grammar, and the average student, after spending a round dozen of years in the so-called study of Latin, thought himself uncommonly accomplished if he were able to read his diploma without resort to a lexicon or grammar. The course leading up to the degree, for there was but one degree, was broadened gradually so as to embrace additional subjects. But until fifty years ago it consisted in most colleges of linguistics, that is to say, Latin and Greek with practical neglect of English, a notable amount of pure mathematics, a medley of courses in history and philosophy, with a trifle of natural science. In some institutions, additional branches were inserted, the courses were differentiated and a new degree was granted to those who, neglecting the classical languages, had taken instead modern languages and somewhat extended work in natural science.

The concessions to the claims of natural science were made grudgingly; the study of nature was looked upon by 'educated' men generally as a rather low-lived pursuit, not to be encouraged, as it led men away from man, 'man's noblest study.' But there were those who felt intuitively that it was not safe to entrust the education of their children to men whose circle of vision was so contracted. A reaction came; and when it came, the pendulum, as was to be expected; swung too far in the opposite direction. Semi-technical schools were established, which soon became either purely technical or purely scientific, in each case thrusting aside almost wholly the literary studies of the older system. These appeared to meet the requirement of the time and quickly grew to great importance, in some cases overshadowing older institutions near at hand. They gave degrees, commonly the scientific baccalaureate, of the college; in many cases they were incorporated with universities and at length stood on the same footing with the schools of law, medicine or theology. They admitted students at the same age as did the colleges, though the entrance requirements in some directions were less rigid. But those requirements were made more and more severe until it became necessary to increase college requirements; and this in turn led to increased requirements as well as to elevation in grade of instruction in law and medicine with, as a final outcome, a lengthening of the course in these two departments—while in some institutions a bachelor's degree became a prerequisite for the professional diploma. The results of these varied changes have been disastrous in several ways to the college and to college training.

The outcome was inevitable in one direction. Two schoolmates, leaving the preparatory school together, go for advanced study to the same institution; one enters the college on the scientific side, to take a course in cultural studies; the other enters the technical school to become an engineer. The boys meet on the same campus almost every day; for a time, they may meet occasionally in the same class-room; they speak in both cases of being at college. At the close of four years, each receives the degree of B.S., one in pure science, the other in engineering. To their friends, the degree is the same in both cases; but it is not, as the friends quickly discover; the engineer has now a profession and is ready to begin his life's work, whereas the other is still confronted with a course of three or four years, if professional work be his aim.

It was natural that a demand for shortening of the college period should be made, that there should be a cry to save the early years of the man's life. It was said that increased requirements for entrance had made it impossible for men to graduate at sixteen or eighteen as they did fifty years ago; that the advance in grade of instruction had made the man who completes the junior year fully equal to the graduate of fifty years ago. But this argument can not hold. The average of college graduates, as appears from study of alumni catalogues, is very little greater to-day than it was thirty or forty years ago, and, in any event, there is no reason why it ought to be greater. That requirements along some lines have been increased is true, but one must not forget that opportunity for preparation has been increased to a much greater extent. Fifty years ago, schools offering good preparation for college were rare in agricultural districts, and young men in such districts were dependent upon the country clergyman for preparation. Now, however, secondary schools are within reach in almost all parts of our country and a farmer boy can be made ready for college at almost as early age as the city boy. Despite these facts, the cry was heeded, the college period was shortened and, in a number of our universities, professional study during the last year of the college course counts toward both college and professional degree; so that from entrance into college to final graduation with professional degree in law, the period is the same as it was years ago, when the course was one year shorter, or one year less than it was forty years ago in institutions where the course has not been lengthened; forty years ago, the medical degree was reached in six years, now it is obtained in seven, though the professional course has been lengthened by two years. The suggestion has been made that the time spent at college should be shortened still further and that mere training should be thrown back upon the secondary schools. This plan, if adopted, would bring little relief, for, no doubt, the secondary schools, in their anxiety to avoid oppressing their pupils, would find it necessary to insist on still shorter lessons and on ampler time for recreation, so that nothing would be saved in time unless the college period be shortened still further—at last to extinction.

The injury has been more serious in another direction.

In all fairness, one must concede that the 'regular' college course of twenty or twenty-five years ago, despite the preponderance of classical teaching, had gained so far by the introduction of new subjects that it did give a broad aspect of things to the average student. It offered such a thorough taste of many branches of learning as to let him find where his strength lay. Even forty years ago it had developed much along the same lines in the larger colleges as well as in the newer of the small colleges. But specialization grew up rapidly in the scientific schools and this example, reinforced by a popular demand for broader opportunities of selection, led to specialization in college work. Practically the old college course has disappeared in many of the more prominent institutions, and in its stead one finds broad election in some, narrow groups in others. In some, a compulsory broad course is the freshman's lot, but in higher classes the student follows a chosen group, in which some special branch absorbs most of his time, all others being subordinate; in others, election begins with the sophomore year and is nominally almost unfettered, though adroit manipulation of the recitation schedule may impose serious limitations. University methods of instruction have been introduced and laboratory work is made an important feature, to the exclusion of information courses, which should go toward making the student a well-informed man. Even the high schools have been infected, and in one city, at least, the lad of fourteen has the opportunity to elect a considerable part of his studies.

The whole system of groups or of wide election in the earlier years is based upon an erroneous conception of the proper aim of college work. No considerable proportion of American students are competent to decide at the outset of the college career or even at the close of the freshman year what studies they should pursue; nor in the vast majority of cases are the parents competent to decide the question. One is told that the German student is but nineteen years old when he enters the university, where all courses are open; and then is asked if he is prepared to assert that the American boy is less capable than the German boy. The question of capability or non-capability has nothing to do with the matter. When American secondary schools attain to the grade of the German gymnasium and American boys are compelled to undergo severe preparatory training such as is given in the gymnasium, they will be at least as competent to make a choice as are the German boys. But that matter is neither here nor there in this connection, for the training in our secondary schools is too frequently such as to cause only pain and annoyance to college instructors. The whole system is wrong, in view of the imperfect preliminary drill received by our students. No physical director would permit a hollow-chested, slender-armed sophomore to confine himself to leg exercises, merely because he has chosen book-canvassing as his life's work. Yet such freedom is allowed in the vastly more important matter of mental training; a sophomore who thinks he intends to become a clergyman is permitted to confine his attention to classics and literature; another, who finds mathematics distasteful and acquiring a vocabulary irksome, is permitted to select a course omitting those subjects, because he expects to be a lawyer; while another has the opportunity to select a still narrower course because he has medicine in view. So men pass through college, some to reach the ministry as 'leaders of thought' and at the same time to be laughing stocks for the children of the parish, because ignorant of the works of the God whom they preach; others to become lawyers and to find themslves shut out from the most important branches of practise, because ignorant of the fundamental principles of science; others still to become physicians and to find themselves handicapped in the race by inability to communicate their thoughts in direct language; while most of them enter life 's struggle with a stock of ignorance utterly discreditable to a young man of the twentieth century. The error throughout is due to forgetfulness of the fact that the college is a training not a professional school.

That our present method or lack of method is successful, no one asserts. The practical shortening of the college course to three years and the proposition to shorten it still further are in themselves confessions of failure. They are more than that; they are acknowledgment that, in the competition between colleges, the race for degrees has been made so easy that all the mental training given in the four years' course can be given readily in three if not in two. And this acknowledgment appears to be not wholly unreasonable. As matters now stand, there is ample time even in the three years for men to complete the course for A.B. or B.S. creditably, while in addition they take elaborate courses in glee clubs, baseball, football, amateur journalism and other branches of learning, which require not only much time at home, but also frequent absences and excursions during term time. The correctness of the conclusion is made more evident by the fact that men following these collateral pursuits are required to maintain a fair standing in their classes. A fine degree of skill in determining the minimum degree of required work is attained by many of them; and their example is not altogether without influence upon their fellows, for it is well known that among students the 'dig' is a somewhat disreputable character. There is no room for surprise when one discovers that business men often look upon the college course as four years of training in the science of shirk and regret that social requirements compel them to send their boys to college.

The evil can not be corrected by shortening the college period. In truth, this proposition to shorten the period evidences another erroneous conception of the purpose of the college itself—a conception which seems to be gaining wide currency. The college is not an institution whose chief function is that of conferring degrees. This certainly seems to be the conception of many outside of the colleges as well as of not a few within, for there appears to be no end of ingenious methods whereby those who can not attend college may find a way of passing examinations, of receiving degrees and of becoming enrolled among the alumni, meanwhile adding to the glory of their college by swelling its numbers.

A thoughtful consideration of the conditions in American colleges reveals the fact that, during the last forty years, a great change has come about in the relations of instructors and students. In many respects this has been greatly to the advantage of both, but in others very much to their disadvantage. College matters have been adapted largely to accord with wishes of the students; the young men determine almost wholly the details of their courses; they regulate in no small degree the general conduct of matters so that a positive assertion of faculty authority causes surprise and is apt to arouse resentment; athletic associations complain bitterly because stringent rules are made by the authorities; editors of college publications rebel against rebukes or censures for indecent or scurrilous attacks upon officers of the institution and are ready to denounce them as interference with the liberty of the press. It would appear as if the college faculty, in the opinion of too many students, is an inconvenient and somewhat disagreeable, but unfortunately necessary, appendage to the student body.

Clearly enough, the change has not been altogether for good. The old adage says 'He who would command must first learn to obey.' It is but the expression of human experience. That American lads are sorely in need of such training is only too evident; but they can not get it in secondary schools dependent upon tuition fees for their support. Such training means more—training to think, to reason. Lads too often fail to receive this training in secondary schools, as any instructor who has to deal with freshmen can testify. In any event, the secondary schools of to-day can not give this training in its completeness, for they have not become fully adjusted to the suddenly expanded requirements for admission to college or scientific or technical school, and in their present state of development are little better than cramming houses to fit pupils to answer odds and ends of questions in papers for entrance examinations. Loose thinking and restlessness under constraint characterize the American student in the lower classes at college; lack of home training may be responsible in part for the latter characteristic; inferior teaching in secondary schools is largely responsible for the former.

The corrective for the evils which beset our colleges is not transfer of the training to secondary schools, which can not give it, but a return to the college organization of twenty-five years ago, to the college with {1 course four years long, mainly compulsory, with little election prior to the senior year—not to the old course in its narrowness but to the old course with its compulsion and with increased severity. Four years are none too long for the necessary moral and intellectual discipline, and the graduate, who afterward enters law or medicine, will still be so young as to make clients and patients hesitate to employ him. If the cry for earlier admission to professional schools must be heeded, lessen the entrance requirements for the college—though even that might fail: the increasing solicitude of parents for the health of their sons and the schoolmasters' canny dread of pushing pupils too rapidly are familiar phenomena. The course should be a broad one, embracing linguistics, philosophy, mathematics and natural science, each term being used in its wide sense, and each group in proper proportion to its importance to-day. Every branch should be so taught as to give mental training and at the same time knowledge, that at graduation the faithful student may have laid the foundation for becoming a 'well furnished' man. Throughout, it should be remembered that college is not intended only for those who look forward to professional life.

And this means also a change in the preparation of men for college chairs. Men go through college as specialists; they follow graduate courses as specialists; they become college instructors as specialists. Such training does not fit men for college teaching, however well it may fit them for university teaching. Having never had symmetrical mental training, they can not understand the true purpose of college work, and they are liable to make the college student narrower than themselves. There must be a return to the older type of professors, men whose studies were not confined to the immediate area of their chairs. We are accustomed to laugh at the notion that a college consisting of a boy at one end of a log and Mark Hopkins at the other was complete—and we are right; but the conception underlying that notion is true in no small degree. The graduate of such a college had learned to think and the information which he had received was correlated, was his own. The writer reveres the memory of such a teacher in his college, Benjamin N. Martin, who, teaching philosophy well, succeeded also in welding together for the student mathematics, history and science into a well-related body of knowledge. His pupils learned to think and, as far as in them lay, to think for themselves.

Not the classics but the method of training made the men in the older colleges; students learned to think and they were compelled toobey. They learned much of self-control in college—an easier school than that of the world, where college students of to-day must learn the same lesson—or fail.