Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/May 1910/Some Tests of Academic Efficiency

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SOME TESTS OF ACADEMIC EFFICIENCY[1]
By RICHARD C. MACLAURIN, LL.D., Sc.D.

PRESIDENT OF THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

I HAVE come here from Boston for the simple purpose of manifesting the good will of an eastern institution to this vigorous university in the middle west. I need not remind you of the historical connection between Massachusetts and Kansas, but I should like to express the hope that frequent interchange of academic courtesies may at any rate keep alive the memories of that interesting connection. My mission here, however, is extremely simple and my duty entirely congenial. It is merely to congratulate you on this new exhibition of western energy and to join with you most heartily in the dedication of your splendid laboratories to the great purpose for which they were designed, the pursuit of science and its application to the problems of to-day.

I need not assure you that I have come here in no spirit of eastern superiority. In fact, if there is anything of east and west in my mind at all it is the old suggestion that the wise men of the east displayed their wisdom in going to the west for inspiration. I believe that this might well be done more frequently to-day.

But what impresses me most in a visit such as this is not so much the difference between the east and west, not so much the distinction as the points of similarity. The old distinctions seem to be rapidly disappearing and all are recognizing that the prosperity of one part of the country is intimately bound up with the prosperity of every other part. And there is no field of our national activity in which this is more clearly recognized than in the field of education. There have been differences, there have been jealousies, there have been rivalries between different colleges and technical schools. There are some of these differences and rivalries still left, but never before was there a time when the essential solidarity of the whole educational world was more clearly recognized, and when men saw so well as they do to-day that in all of our colleges, universities and technical schools we are fighting, if we are fighting at all, on the same side. Rivalries in some sense there must needs be, but no longer do we desire weak rivals. "We want our rivals to be strong and we want them strong so that in the process of emulation and of competition we may be all forced to higher levels and there may be a general trend upwards rather than downwards.

Now it seems to me that in the process of striving to raise our standards we are a little apt to slavishly copy what other people are doing without clearly recognizing why we are copying them and what we are striving to attain. One college opens a new department in some sphere of activity; another thinks it is bound to do the same thing, although the local conditions may be totally different. If one school of engineering establishes a new course another is sure to follow with a similar course. We need a measuring rod to determine whether our level is above or below our competitors. How are we to reach a real standard of efficiency? How are we to know whether our institution is better or worse than some other institution? Of course various standards have been suggested. The great objection to most of them is that they are too mechanical. The best part of any educational institution is a spiritual thing and a spiritual thing must be spiritually discerned.

Now one of the institutions in this country which is doing its best to carry out a leveling process and trying to raise the institutions of the country is the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Its course is so brief that none here can have missed the opportunity of following it. Founded only a few years ago by Mr. Carnegie for the avowed purpose of pensioning professors who had long served their country as teachers and investigators, it is being put by those who have managed it to a quite different purpose and that purpose is to standardize our institutions.

I am not going to discuss what the foundation has done or is doing, but I should like to refer to a report, the advance sheets of which the Carnegie Foundation has just issued, under the title "A Comparison of Academic and Business Efficiency." The fundamental idea that suggested the drawing up of the report is one that must attract us all. It was to obtain a report on the efficiency of different educational institutions looked at from the view-point of a business man. To this end the foundation employed the services of an accomplished engineer, Mr. Cooke, and asked him to report on a number of educational institutions in this country. He was instructed to employ the same methods in his investigation that he would if he were reporting on the efficiency of a cotton mill or an automobile factory. To simplify the problem he was to confine his attention to eight institutions; to further simplify it he was to deal with a single department in each of these instituions; that department happened to be the department of physics. The report is a lengthy one—those of you who are interested will doubtless read it for yourselves—but I may just sketch with extreme brevity the fundamental guiding principle.

Mr. Cooke begins with the truism that if you are to test the efficiency of a factory from a business point of view you want to know the cost of the working of the machinery. He therefore proceeds to discuss how much it costs to train men in physics in these different institutions and sets up a standard of measurement of what he calls the "student hour," the cost of teaching a student the subject of physics for a single hour. After an elaborate system of figures and a great deal of computation he discovers what is supposed to be the cost of teaching a student in physics for one hour in Harvard and Boston Tech, and these different institutions. Now whether his figures really represent the cost or not is questionable, but there can be no doubt that they do not gauge the efficiency of the institutions under consideration.

The efficiency of an automobile is not gauged by its cost, and certainly the efficiency of Harvard or Boston Tech is not gauged by their cost. You must of course look to the product. Now a man of Mr. Cooke's acumen could not overlook so obvious a fact, although he passes it over with almost unpardonable brevity in a report that professes to deal with the question of efficiency. He does not always seem quite true to himself. He tells us in one place that "the cost per student-hour has absolutely no value in distinguishing relative educational values." Elsewhere he says "certainly some idea of quality will be gained by simply knowing the cost." However, he does recognize that the quality of the product must be tested before we have any real gauge of efficiency, but when it comes to suggestions for a test of quality he formulates a plan that a serious educator could regard only with laughter or with tears. Here it is—let us establish a central bureau to which may be submitted the examination papers and the answers from the five highest and five lowest students, and let the central authority assign marks for the difficulty of the questions and the rigor with which they were answered. I shall not presume upon your patience by pointing out to what abuses such a plan would be exposed, nor how paltry a contribution it is towards the solution of an extremely important national problem. I should like, however, to call your attention to various matters to be kept in view when we set out on the task of testing the efficiency of any educational institution.

I would remark at the outset that the matter is extremely complex and that no wise man would even dream of giving a numerical measure of the efficiency of Harvard or the University of Kansas. He would no more do that than he would say that the efficiency of his friend Jones is 62, and of Smith is 55. On the face of it, such apparent accuracy is ridiculous. But we do want to know in a general way how we are to gauge efficiency, and I need only sketch the process which is a fairly obvious one. The natural way of attacking the problem would be to attack it directly. We are interested not in the machinery but in the product. The obvious procedure would be to examine the product in the different institutions and see how they stand relatively to one another. We would have, of course, to set out with some fundamental conception of what all of these educational institutions are striving for. Unless we agreed about that we could not possibly agree as to their efficiency. Fortunately, there is general agreement to-day that the aim of all educational institutions is a social one. The University of Kansas, and Boston Tech and Columbia University and all the rest are striving to this great end—to train men to serve the state intelligently, honestly and effectively. We are all attempting that. To what extent do we succeed relatively to one another?

Now, the natural process, I say, would be to examine the product of these different institutions and see whether men coming from these different institutions have "made good." This, however, is no easy matter where there are thousands of men to be considered and the gauging of the social efficiency of a single man is so difficult and delicate an operation. And then, you have to remember that the "making good" by an individual may have really little to do with the educational institution in which he has been trained. I had the honor of being brought up in the English university of Cambridge, which has been spoken of by a poet as a "nest of singing birds," for the reason that that university has produced, if I may use the term, an extraordinarily large number of great poets. But no one seriously suggests that the poetic power of Tennyson or Wordsworth had much to do with his training in the University of Cambridge. And so it is with the actual making good of a great many of our leading men; in most cases it is only indirectly due to the training they received in the university. Then you must bear in mind that an extremely important factor in the making of good flour is to have good grain, and that one institution might be as efficient as another, but yet for the lack of good grain not turn out so fine a product. Thus you would have to gauge not only the graduate, but the men at entrance, and this would greatly complicate the problem. Practically, then, I think, you would have to proceed indirectly by carefully examining the means that were employed in the institution to produce the results. If you bore in mind the idea of social service as a thing toward which we are all striving, you would have to begin, I suppose, with some estimate of the relative social value of a college education and the education in a professional school, taking each at its best. The aim of a college is to train a man broadly and so develop every side of his charcter that he can devote himself to the duties of citizenship in whatever special sphere of activity he can be most effective. The professional school does not neglect breadth of outlook or the duties of citizenship, but it bends its powers to the education of men for the service of society through the medium of definite professions. To gauge the relative value of these two schools you would need to decide whether it was more important to have an alert broad-minded man with no professional skill, or a man who could set your leg if you broke it, or bridge the Mississippi if you wanted to cross it. It would be an extremely difficult question to decide, but you would have to do it somehow if you wanted to solve this problem numerically. Then if you confined your attention to professional schools you would need to estimate the relative value to the community of a doctor, lawyer, clergyman or engineer, and so on. In doing this you would necessarily take into account local needs and local peculiarities. You would have to consider, as a single sample of what I mean, whether there was a real demand in the community for an increased number of doctors, and so with the other professions.

Here to-day we are celebrating the foundation of buildings which are to be devoted to science and its applications, and so it would seem natural to consider that kind of educational effort somewhat more minutely. You would have to begin with deciding on the usefulness to the community of an education such as is being given in this institution, and in particular in this school of engineering where men are trained in the sciences for the service of the state. Now, it is such a commonplace to-day that science has revolutionized the world that I shall not weary you with attempting to demonstrate that fact. At the same time I should like to say in passing that, like many another commonplace, it is too often neglected in actual practise. It seems that individuals and states in making provisions for education constantly fail to recognize how enormously important to the welfare of the state it is that men should be trained in science, and in its application to every branch of practical life. We live in an age preeminently scientific, and if we are not able to cope with a problem scientifically we can not cope with it at all. But not only is a scientific training essential anywhere to any country to-day, it is, I think, peculiarly important in this country at this particular time. It seems to me that one of the great dangers of our democracy is the prevalence of the idea that one man is as good as another. It is an idea founded on an erroneous theory of democracy and one that appears utterly false from a scientific point of view. It too often gives support to the doctrine that any man will do for any position that he is clever enough to get. Nothing has surprised me more in moving about this country than to see countless instances of men who have had no adequate scientific training employed in the service of cities and of states, to do work that really needs a very considerable scientific equipment. They are amateurs doing the work of professionals. We have suffered too much at the hands of these amateurs, and we must remove them—root and branch. We must educate our communities in such a way that it will shock their moral sense to see a man, let us say, administering a department of public health who knows little or nothing of biology and bacteriology or any of the other fundamental sciences that enter into the very heart of his work. Then we have to bear in mind that this nation is peculiarly given to extravagance. This is due largely to the optimism of the American people, a quality on which so much of America's success depends. But it has its drawbacks, like other good things, and the spirit of extravagance may yet drive us upon the rocks. "We must not forget that conditions are rapidly changing and that what might suffice for a past generation will not do to-day. A generation ago we could speak of our natural resources as practically unlimited, now we begin to see their end—at least in some directions. And apart from this we must recognize that under any circumstances waste is a sin and that the record of progress is largely the record of the elimination of waste. We shall have to make up for the diminution of our natural resources by new applications of science which will make ten blades of grass grow where one grew before, and by new inventions which will save fifty per cent, or more of the waste in most of our industrial processes. However, even without any new inventions we could easily make enormous savings by the proper use of existing knowledge. Let me give you a single example. A few years ago a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, trained in the department of biology, was appointed to an administrative post in one of the great cities. He invented nothing new, but merely joined common sense and executive ability to the scientific knowledge that his training at "Tech" had given him. Before long he had given the city a much better service than it had ever had before, and at the same time had saved it more than a million dollars each year. Suppose you multiply the million dollars thus saved by even a very small fraction of the thousands of men trained each year in the scientific institutions of this country and you may form some estimate of the saving grace of such institutions and of their value to the community.

I think, then, that there can be no question that you would have to put in a very large factor of usefulness, if you were estimating the value of such an educational institution as we are considering to-day—at least if you realize in any adequate degree the importance of scientific knowledge in public and private life. And, of course, a not unimportant element in such scientific knowledge would be a knowledge of physics, and under ideal circumstances this knowlege might be at least partially tested by Mr. Cooke's method, to which reference has already been made. It would, however, at best be only a partial test of knowledge, and it would neglect a great many factors of the first importance. May I remind you that knowledge is very far from being everything and that much of our educational work to-day and in the future must be to deliberately smash up the idol of knowledge. We are peculiarly prone to this form of idolatry in a scientific school, for science rightly lays a great stress on facts and their accurate apprehension. We are very apt to overestimate the value of such knowledge, and it is because we have done this so much in the past that there has been so much disappointment in many quarters over the results of scientific teaching. It is a fact that water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, and it is the knowledge of such facts that is tested by such examinations as Mr. Cooke proposes. But, except to a very few, such knowledge profits little or nothing—what is infinitely more valuable is an understanding of the method by which the facts are reached and an appreciation of the spirit that compels their investigation. Here, as elsewhere, it is the spirit that giveth life, and any test of efficiency that ignores the spirit and deals only with the bare fact is a mockery.

It would be a monstrous oversight to ignore the method and the spirit of the teaching. Are the pupils trained by a mere grind over knowledge, a mere hammering in of facts—enough perhaps to ensure that they reach the requisite 50 or 60 per cent, in Mr. Cooke's examination? We must all know schools that would appear to be highly efficient from such a test, and which are really extremely inefficient; and on the other hand some of our best institutions might not make a very good show when subjected to Mr. Cooke's scrutiny. At the Boston Tech a method has been in vogue for long that is there deemed highly satisfactory—it is known as the "do-it-yourself method." Tho students are put as much as possible upon their own resources and learning is not made easy where it seems better for a man to experience the apparent hardship of overcoming a difficulty for himself.

Then, when considering method, we should want to know whether the students are taught to master fundamental principles, or to spend most of their time over details or particular examples. Is it made manifest to them that the details of practise are constantly changing, that what is good in that respect to-day may be antiquated to-morrow, whereas fundamental principles, like the brook, go on forever?

As to the spirit of the teaching—is it possible to overlook the character of the teachers? Are they men who understand the depth and breadth of their calling? Do they take a large view of the life of to-day, and have some prevision of to-morrow? Are their circumstances such as to make this larger outlook possible or probable? Are they narrow specialists or broad-minded, far-seeing men? Are they paid so that a reasonably full life is a possibility, or are they so ground down by poverty that they must give most of their thought to the vexed question of the cost of living?

Finally, is a successful effort made by the teachers to convey their largeness of view and breadth of outlook to their pupils? Do the students learn to understand that science does not affect mankind merely on the material side? Do they see that all the changes that science has brought about necessarily involve a profound mental and spiritual change—a change, so great, indeed, that it is well-nigh impossible for us thoroughly to sympathize with our grandfathers? Do they realize that science has thrust us into a new world and that our new surroundings have made us new men? Unless they appreciate this they can not be in real communion with the life of this age. They must live more or less apart, and move away from the great current that is sweeping the world along. Like Bernard Shaw, they must find that they were born in the seventeenth century and that they have not yet outlived it.

I might express this last test of efficiency otherwise by saying that you must look to the cultural element in the teaching of science—but I am afraid of the word "culture." It has been so terribly abused. Some speak as if the test of culture were the knowledge of Latin, or of Greek, or of French literature, or of Italian painting, or of what not. As a matter of fact it is none of these things, for I take it that the root of culture in any worthy sense of that word is the possession of an ideal that is broad enough to form the basis of a sane criticism of life. I hope that I need not turn aside to demonstrate the competency of science to present such an ideal. I willingly admit that some such ideal may be reached by various paths, through the study of literature, or of art, or of science. I should be the last to suggest that these are rival or mutually exclusive pursuits or that any one can justly claim a monopoly of culture. To know the best that has been said in literature and to use this as a touchstone in the criticism of the life of to-day, or to reach through art the ideal of perfection in form and color and make this broad enough to embrace life as a whole—each opens a promising avenue to culture. But how can a criticism of life be broadly enough based to-day unless the main results of scientific investigation lie at its roots and the method and the spirit of science be in the atmosphere that surrounds it? It can not, I think, be broad enough, unless we greatly exaggerate the part that science has played and is playing in the modern world. And I do not think that we exaggerate it, for practically all must recognize that there are few important problems of life to-day that science does not touch and touch most closely. This being the case, can a school be declared efficient that fails to give its students a vision and a grasp of the scientific ideal—an ideal that will guide them in the solution of all the complex problems that face individuals and face the state?

  1. An address delivered at the dedication of the engineering laboratories of the University of Kansas, February 25, 1910.