Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/January 1910/College Diversions
By Professor JOHN J. STEVENSON
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
THE phase assumed by discussions respecting athletics must bring great comfort to coaches and others who derive profit or glory from intercollegiate contests. They are to be congratulated upon the success attending their efforts to divert attention from the serious matters at issue and in concentrating it upon wholly irrelevant inquiries as to the alleged brutality of football.
It may be said in passing that a game which, in the short season just closed, can boast of 30 killed, 20 others fatally wounded, as well as nearly 1,000 more or less seriously injured, may be regarded as fairly brutal; but this is merely incidental: if parents choose to permit their sons to play football, that is their concern. The main issue is vastly broader and the dust raised about football is merely an attempt to conceal it.
If a visitor from some outside region should read the college papers, which are encouraged because they give young men an "admirable preparation for journalistic work in after life," he would be convinced that American boys in college think of little aside from professional sport. Appeals to college spirit abound, urging the fellows to attend the games and to bring their friends—to prevent a deficit in the treasury; lamentations are prolonged, deploring the lack of college spirit shown by muscular men who fail to apply for places on the teams; there are doleful predictions because students do not pay up for support of the several crews and gloomy forecasts abound because the college is in danger of losing its high standing. If a team has gained a victory, the paper is hardly large enough to hold the story; the work done by the coaches is extolled as entitling them to the everlasting gratitude of the college, for whose advancement they have done so much. It is true that the college professors are not forgotten; there are frequent references to them in connection with the formulation of new rules abridging still further the personal liberty of students.
If the visitor pass into the college buildings he might be led to believe that the professors themselves respect intellectual prowess as little as the students do. The walls are often decorated with trophies won in intercollegiate contests; the names of college champions shine out on the roll adorning the gymnasium, but he finds no roll of honor-men in the class-rooms; silver cups and medals of gold, silver or bronze abound for athletes, but prizes for men who excel in study are few and insignificant; victory in the intellectual arena seems to count for little even with the professors; victory in contests requiring only such abilities as a savage possesses alone deserves permanent record in the shrine of learning. If this visitor go farther in examination of the college plant, he may find that great sums of money have been expended in acquiring athletic fields, in provision for comfortable seating of spectators; that buildings for physical culture often excel in equipment those for mental culture and that the coaches for teams in athletics are, as a rule, better paid for the time expended than are assistant professors or, in some cases, than even the professors. He will have little doubt that those who have control of college affairs think more highly of the extraneous courses than they do of the college curriculum.
Should this visitor turn to the great daily papers, he will discover that popular opinion coincides with that of students and college authorities. A page or even two pages may be devoted to description of a single football contest; for days beforehand, the betting odds are given and the police make due preparation to repress too great exuberance on the part of the visitors' sympathizers. But during the greater part of the year he will find little reference to any college work except that of intercollegiate contests. The pressure of interesting news prevents insertion of any but passing notes respecting the mental culture side—unless a professor make a statement, which, separated from the context, appears to conflict with some popularly accepted opinion concerning morals or social relations.
If this visitor should pursue his inquiries in detail, he would find that appearances do not belie the fact. He would discover that glee clubs give abundant concerts during the term time and that sometimes they even make tours; that the football season consumes two months or more at the opening of the college year, when men should be devoting their whole energy to study; that the baseball season is at its height during the closing weeks of the college year, when men are supposed to be grinding at the final reviews; and that the anxiety of young men to prevent too close absorption in study has led them to introduce basketball and hockey to fill the unfortunate gap which exists between the seasons of football and baseball. As if these were not enough, he would find careful provision for the needs of men indifferent to violent exercise; for them there are intercollegiate contests in chess and debating; there are "magazines," "newspapers," dramatic exhibitions—so many devices to entice men from their legitimate work that it seems impossible for any to escape the net.
If, after this investigation, the visitor should express the opinion that in a great proportion of American colleges intellectual development is subordinated to other matters, surely no one could censure him.
It is said that this is but a reaction from the conditions of former days, when colleges neglected the physical welfare of students and devoted their attention so strenuously to intellectual work as to endanger the health of those entrusted to their care. This is hardly exact, for there never was a time in this country when the curriculum was so severe as to endanger any man's health; in any event, the study of alumni catalogues shows that in pre-athletic days college students were, as they are now, a selected class, with tendency to long life and were, on the average, excellent risks for life insurance. But whether or not the statement be true that colleges in former days neglected the physical welfare of students, the fact remains that they are doing little better now.
The plea for funds with which to purchase athletic fields and erect gymnasiums was successful and vast sums have been expended, far out of proportion to any possible good that might result. But what has been gained by the expenditure? Some colleges have a brief compulsory course in the gymnasium; but the great equipment is utilized more and more each year for teams composed of men whose bodies need no such anxious care. The vast majority of students must gain their physical culture by proxy, by paying generously toward support of the college champions, just as they must secure much of their esthetic culture by supporting publications or teams in chess and debating and by purchasing tickets to glee club concerts—all for the advancement of the college. The chances for neglect of physical culture are greater than formerly, as the pocket money which enabled the boys of other days to have their little baseball and rowing clubs is now consumed in purchasing admission tickets to concerts, contests and the rest.
The method in which defenders of intercollegiate contests have conducted their side of the discussion does no credit either to their manliness or to their integrity. Those who oppose the waste of time and the diversion of funds have been stigmatized as men indifferent to the health of students, as effeminate, as desiring that young men become "mollycoddles"; sneers have taken the place of argument. But the statements and characterizations are false throughout. By far the great majority of those who criticize the present deplorable condition are warm defenders of physical culture; they would be gratified if the course in gymnastics were made more extensive and compulsory, for they recognize that young men who need such training have no desire for it; they not only maintain that physical exercise, singing, chess playing, debating and the rest are commendable, but they assert also that such diversions are necessary for they are firm believers in the old adage that "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, they say." But they denounce the present system which has relegated study to the background and has made the proper college work merely an annex to exhibitions. That which is only incidential has been made all-important. Men from foreign universities are astonished to find that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other great universities are known to the public generally only as football associations; that the newspapers so rarely make reference to the eminence of men composing the faculties of those universities, that such references as are made are too often in the shape of squibs ridiculing statements charged upon them by irresponsible reporters. Little is said now about sitting at "the feet of Gamaliel "and apparently Gamaliel's race has disappeared. It is no wonder that the callow graduate of a few years' standing announces to the gaping undergraduate that he never derived any advantage from the professors and that his present greatness is due wholly to himself.
The effect on the morale of our colleges is increasingly bad; alumni of less than fifteen years' standing seem to think that they can show their love for alma mater best by a gift for a grandstand, a stadium or something else to increase interest in team exhibitions; the athlete is the college hero, the mere student is a "dig" without college spirit; worse than all, the new generation of college instructors has grown up in this atmosphere and favors continuance of the condition; appeals of a highly-paid coach or of the team manager do not fall on deaf ears when addressed to such instructors, who are not likely to check the growing tendency to lower the standard in favor of efficient athletes.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this tendency exists. The college curriculum was arranged so as to require much time for actual preparation outside of the class-room; yet men, who during a considerable part of the college year are unable to give serious attention to study, succeed in "catching up" so as to pass examinations and in obtaining their degrees. The usual reply to this argument is that so and-so, who was very prominent in sports, graduated at the head of his class and did well afterward. Very true. And the writer knows a man who, throughout his college course, earned his livelihood as night watchman for the custom house on a New York pier, yet graduated at the head of his class and made his mark afterward in the world's affairs. But to offer such men as representing the average student is as absurd as would be the assertion that Aristotle typified the Greek intellect or that James J. Jeffries typifies American physique. The average student finds much study a weariness to the flesh; glee clubs, athletics and the rest increase the weariness; they absorb the chief interest and there remains only a petty fraction of the original interest to be devoted to study. Other men, loving study quite as little, spend their energy in "rooting" for the team and they too receive their degrees.
But the matter of good faith must not be neglected. This wild craze for outside courses is of comparatively recent origin. The great funds acquired by our colleges were given for the training of the mind, not for the training of the body; the money for gymnasiums and the rest was obtained originally on the plea that the student's body must be cared for that he may do better work with his mind. The colleges have not kept faith with the donors. The college is becoming an annex to the athletic field so rapidly that the absurdity of the relation affords the most fruitful source for newspaper jests; while the equipment for physical culture has been diverted from service for the great number to service for the few. Coaches are selected because of their well-known qualifications and are paid accordingly; college instructors are not always selected and paid on a similar basis.
Is the condition to continue and to grow worse? Certainly, unless those in control of our colleges change their conception of what a college should be. Denunciation of commercialism rings out in hoarsest tones from many a college rostrum and one might suppose that in our haunts of learning there is freedom from the coarse influence of the market. Yet nowhere is the so-called commercial idea more prevalent than in college management. The only conception of success seems to be growth in wealth and in number of students—quantity not quality. A great increase in the freshman class brings jubilation and a decrease leads to gloomy search for cause of the decay. This evil has brought about the present condition. Wandering glee clubs and successful teams gain much free advertising; the public reads the sporting pages and becomes aware that the college exists; boys in secondary schools learn which college has gained victories and they long to share in the glory. It " pays " to have coaches of high grade, well remunerated. But a faculty of men, competent and willing to give the best of teaching, would bring no advertising, would attract only a small class of students; the college would not become great during the lifetime of one man; it is not worth while to expend much on that which brings such small returns.
The present wretched condition will be changed when the control of college affairs has passed from the hands of men unacquainted with the actual needs and when it has been placed in the hands of those who know what teaching means and have respect for teachers.