Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/September 1910/Centralized Authority and Democracy in our Higher Institutions

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 September 1910 (1910)
Centralized Authority and Democracy in our Higher Institutions by Edwin D. Starbuck
1579434Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 September 1910 — Centralized Authority and Democracy in our Higher Institutions1910Edwin D. Starbuck




IT is somewhat embarrassing to appear on a program that I myself have assisted in devising. It demands an explanation. It is, in short, an instance of too highly centralized authority in this association in the hands of our lively general secretary. It seemed eminently desirable to the committee that this topic to which I am to address myself should have consideration. When the first draft of the program came into the hands of the secretary, with a blank left after this topic, he rashly placed my name after it, rushed to print and scattered it broadcast over the country. So I am here against my will but, I must confess, not wholly reluctantly. The topic is of immense importance. It was a vain endeavor to find the proper person who should address you on this theme. All presidents and all who aspire to such position of power were condemned to silence from the start. That cut off the flower of the genius of the nation at a single stroke. The presiding officer of our department had an intimate way of knowing that presidents, being under indictment, so to speak, could not be trusted with the topic. There has been much written and spoken latterly on the theme, but mostly by those whose ambition has been punctured, whose pride has been stung or whose wings have been clipped. Were any of these turned loose in this place, they might enact a bloody scene not entirely consistent with the proper spirit of a religious association. Our general secretary must have known that I had no ax to grind, no grievance to right, no power except the power of righteousness to fear, and that I should speak in a wholly guileless manner. It is a temptation to admit that this was another instance of his rare insight; for however much my judgment may be at fault and wisdom limited, I shall address myself to this most delicate topic entirely without animus. I might follow the example, indeed, of one of our periodicals which recently declared that, with a single exception, theirs was the only sheet in the nation that is not subsidized. If I lay claim to being, with but an exception or two, the only mind in the nation that is dispassionate on this question, then every member in the audience will congratulate himself that he is that other person and we shall all be thinking through the subject helpfully to one another.

There can be no question that American universities and' colleges are highly centralized in respect to their organization and control. The power legally is in the hands of some kind of a board of education, mostly composed of business and professional men who are in no sense organically a part of the institutional life of the university. Practically, the power centers in a president and faculty. In all matters that refer to the running of the institutional life of the place, these are autonomous bodies. They make their own laws; set their own standards; inflict their own penalties, and exercise their influence without asking anybody any questions. Their constituency, so to speak in state and church has little power. President and faculty are considerate of their constituents—sometimes tenderly so, when the budget is in excess of the available means, or when the normal percentage of increase of attendance is not attained. Otherwise these good people are expected to be silent well-wishers. Perhaps that is as it should be; at least I see no way to change it. Our chief consideration at this time, however, is that students have almost no voice in the control of the institution they attend, little feeling of responsibility for its destiny, almost no sense that their personalities are caught up into it, or that they are an organic part of its best life. The ordinary student feels himself to be an attaché, a recipient, an appendage at best, and lucky for him if he is not a sort of parasite—a foreign body, drawing vitality from the institution for a time and then going away with it. If I am right in believing that the ordinary student has a sense that he is a sort of inmate of the institution, who must obey the rules and get what he can; who does not have a stimulating sense of partnership in the place; who can talk with zest about my fraternity or our team, but who never can talk with the same warmth about our college spirit, or our curriculum, or our faculty, or our institution; if the bulk of students at the end of the four years' course have any feeling deep down that the center and core of their own wills are aloof from the deepest, warmest currents of the institutional life, then something is wrong; for the university exists solely for the student—indeed, it has no other reason for being. I fear, however, that our universities have become bulky institutions that exist chiefly for themselves—to perfect their own machinery, to preserve their own lives; they are closed systems busy with inner adjustments, rather than with the problem of how they can cultivate the soul-life of those entrusted to their care, and burning with a passion to be of service, through the students, to church, state and humanity. Our higher institutions have been developing, during recent decades, rapidly in the direction of an imperialistic attitude toward students. Professor Stratton, who first set our minds going in a lively manner in this direction, points out the anomaly existing in our political ideals and our university practises, and also the anomaly of anomalies that Germany reverses the inconsistency, being politically imperialistic, but educationally democratic. Speaking of our own nation he says:

Among a people so jealous of private rights, university governments have assumed a form that we might have expected to see in a land of kings. European universities have a constitution that might have come from some American theorist. American universities are as though founded and fostered in the bourne of aristocracy. Europe and America are each harboring what would seem properly sacred only to the other.

There are four or five causes that have brought about too great a centralization of authority in the hands of president and faculty, and along with it a cleavage of interest of faculty and student body until they stand off from one another in a relationship that is not wholesome for either.

1. In the first place, a historic strain of autocracy has come down from the old-fashioned schoolmaster. In the early days of America, the schoolmaster, with rod and rule if need be, usually a man—not a lad of eighteen or a woman or much less a frail girl—was a monarch in his realm. He was built, and for a reason, on the lines of a sturdy, stern Anglo-Saxon father. He has left us as a heritage his custom and conception of imperialistic authority in education along with his ineffaceable three "r's." The secondary schools were differentiated from the common schools. The "head master" developed out of the parent stem, the schoolmaster, under the rule that like produces like. He was well named, for he was expected to be superior in wisdom and masterful in bearing. The college is a specialization of the old academy and high school, and has inherited from these many of its ideas about curriculum, form of organization and centralized authority.

2. In the second place, as Professor Stratton has pointed out, our higher institutions have received a strain from the form of government of the early colonies. These were under the rule of the mother country, which rule was effected through a corporation, or a governor, or both. They were never elected by the colonists nor selected from among their number, but superimposed on them from the mother country. Our boards of education are descendants of the early corporations, and the university presidents are built after the pattern of the early governors.

In imperialistic Europe the democratic life of the faculty and the university generally, on the contrary, is the direct historical consequent of the old guilds that were established around the idea of equality, fraternity and mutual helpfulness.

3. In the third place, the higher institutions have reaped the blessings and also the ills of the naive democracy in which each individual is turned loose to do as he pleases, and, being human, chooses to be unduly self regardful. There are many indications that the earlier colleges, established by people whose passion was for equal opportunity, incorporated unconsciously and as a matter of course, much of the spirit of democracy into their organization. The spirit of common fellowship often pervaded the life of the faculty and students. They were intellectual brotherhoods like families or fraternities in spirit. The gradual, quiet transformation that now has made of them, perhaps, the most imperialistic, educational institutions in the world is not so difficult to account for. This has been a land of freedom and opportunity. There have been all kinds of things lying around loose in America—virgin soil, virgin forests, virgin mineral lands, virgin society and virgin politics. The liveliest and strongest have gone after the benefits, appropriated them, taken means to hold possession against the covetous, and then, alas! have found themselves unwittingly, as a result of wealth, social preferment and political power, proud, arrogant and irresponsible, and pitted against their fellows. Those who have not been lucky themselves have nevertheless had something of hero-worship in their veins. They have admired Napoleonic success and Anglo-Saxon strenuousness. They have passively paid tribute and so have had their part in the immoderate inequalities that have sprung up. The inevitable outcome of it all has been a harvest of captains of industry, captains of wealth, captains of politics and captains of education.

Do I dare say aught in this place about college presidents? If so, it would be in the "spirit of sweet charity," They have had their temptations and trials; they are subject to weakness of the flesh; they have been battered and buffeted, and whatever is said about them must be spoken in kindly sympathy. They are not vicious, they are not "exploiters of genius"; they are not worshippers at the shrine of mammon, nor devotees of the God Thor with his symbol of the arm and hammer; they are just human. Like all of the other citizens in our primitive republic, with its free opportunity, they have seen a good many things lying around loose. This time it has not been some irrigation stream or mineral deposit that they saw lying unclaimed, but the opportunity for power. No one else had been exercising it, and why not they? Indeed, they have gathered of the treasure in large measure, and why not? Men do love power if they are normal. There is no better thing in the moral order than a will that can produce, create and help things along. There is not a more righteous joy than the feeling of that fine tension of a strong will that can be a living force in the world. But enough is a sufficiency, and too much, even of a good thing, is dangerous. And men are human. Let us say, with gracious compassion, that it is the fault of the times, of our social order, that has placed in the hands of presidents the power of life and death over the professional career of members of the faculty and also the shaping of the destinies of our educational institutions.

Members of faculties are also human. They have acquired all the power that has been relegated to them by constituencies and boards of education, and have picked up whatever else they could acquire on their own account. They have sometimes watched their chances to share the responsibilities of the institution with the president, lest it should weigh too heavily upon him. Some one has happily said that no Irishman could be found in Ireland so poor but that he has not some other Irishman dependent upon him. Presidents and faculties together have come into the position of almost entire separation from the student body. They have the attitude of ruler and ruled. They march in stately parades, begowned in robes of dignity and state before the admiring eyes of the students; they run the institution; they dispense grades and degrees as parsimoniously as possible to students who devote their college career to earning these marks and badges as economically as possible.

4. In the fourth place, competition has played its part in bringing about centralized authority. It has been necessary for institutions to act and act quickly in the raising of funds, in the employment of instructors and in appeals to the public. The matter of winning out in the contest has led us to do much as a hive of bees in creating a queen. We have done everything in our power to produce presidents who are masterful, who can appear well, who can be "drawing cards" in tempting into our institutions the guileless youth of the land. There is no one who will dispute that our university and college presidents are of the noblest of our people. But we are creating them at too high a cost. It is the fundamental axiom of our entire educational system that the end is not so much to produce leaders as to lift the level of all. It is growing too late in the history of democracy in the world to need to argue the point. Still an analogy will be in place. Christianity, during the first century, was a spiritual brotherhood. In the second and third centuries, they began to have conventions, and it was the custom for a bishop and at least one layman to represent a church or diocese. By the fourth century, the laymen had been almost forgotten in their councils; and from that time on the power became more and more centralized in the hands of a few of the highest officials of the church. The consequence is a familiar fact of history. From the fifth century, for several centuries following, the organization of Christendom was a closed system with neither change nor progress. It existed not for mankind as persons, but for itself and its own institutional ideals. In our educational system the laity, the students in our universities, have long since lost their voice. Our educational elders, let us say, that is, members of faculties, have been little consulted in our national association of universities that are taking upon themselves the right to determine the educational policies of the country. We are living in a later age, and must not allow the history of the first five centuries to repeat itself.

The spirit of competition has magnified out of all proportion the value of quantity instead of quality. Bigness has bred looseness of organization and aloofness of person from person and group from group. The tendency toward manifoldness has been augmented by the natural law of differentiation, of which specialization is an instance, until our institutions are atomistic. Each person has relegated to everybody else all responsibility for everything except his own little sphere of interests. This differentiation amounts in the long run to radical individualism and approximates indifferentism, the worst disease that can affect the life of higher institutions. The only excuse for the large university is that it may have a more highly organic and intense life than a smaller one can have. Growth at the expense of inner coordination, refinement of articulation and intensification of the individuality of the whole, is a disease, whether in plant, animal or institution. We have grown like a boy in his teens as fast as our health would allow. The rapid differentiation in general has naturally widened the gap between student and faculty, who are made for each other like eyes and hands. The next step, in order to get safely through our stalking educational adolescence, must be in the direction of binding up into the life of our colleges again, the personal lives of students.

5. Still another fact must be mentioned that has made of our faculties against their own will, ruling or governing bodies who are set off against a pack of persons supposing themselves to have antithetical interests to those of the university as an institution. Through the hasty expansion, already referred to, the machinery of the university— teaching, looking over papers, grading, giving credits, establishing standards, etc.—has grown into such proportions that there is little time and energy left for anything else. The enforced result is that the prevailing point of contact between students and instructors has come to be in terms of their proper advancement and grading in the curriculum, and what they must and must not do while resident in the institution. I appeal to those present who have spent a number of years as instructors in colleges and universities whether nine tenths of the time of the faculty meetings is not given up to such questions as marking systems, giving of grades, granting degrees, penalties for delinquencies, admission and classification of students, control of athletics, regulation of social affairs, and the like, which have nothing to do, except indirectly, with the inner personal life of students. From the University of Plato in Athens, Plotinus in Rome, Abelard in Paris, and the College of Mark Hopkins in America, we have traveled far. We catch glimpses in the New England days of what was called among professors, a hunger for the souls of students. Those days will never return; but we have suffered a loss that is irreparable, if there is not preserved in our colleges and universities the equivalent of the things they did, as shown in reverence for the divine beauty of personality in the lives of our students.

There can be no question but that our attitude toward students is conventional, mechanical and institutionalistic. Behind us, to hold us firmly in our chosen course, besides the causes we have been describing, is the wish of anxious parents who forget that their young men and young women are not still children and who say gracious things about their favorite institution if their sons are held in check, and if their daughters are tenderly "guarded" and pampered.

What are we to do about it? How can the student body and faculty be brought into closer relationship? How may our universities escape a cold institutionalism? What changes will move in the direction of most surely catching up the personal loves and enthusiasms of the average student into the warm, vigorous, purposeful life of the institution? There are many things to do, certainly. I shall confine myself to a simple urgent suggestion that leads, I believe, towards the heart of the situation. The spirit of democracy should prevail. Not a sentimental democracy that preaches equality and cooperation, and practises autocracy. Students should be given a part, however small, in the control of our institutions. It is not my purpose to determine specifically what their powers should be. That has been so delightfully and convincingly discussed in the paper preceding my own that nothing further need be said. It is in itself a suggestive fact that Professor Fiske, like every one I have met who was connected with the Amherst attempt at self-government, believes in it thoroughly. Indeed I know of no one who has observed intimately any of the various experiments in student participation in student affairs, who has for it other than words of commendation. My contention would be that the kind of thing students undertake is more or less indifferent, if only they feel that it is worth doing and that they do it with a will. It may be the matter of honor in examinations. Students can do this successfully, as several happy instances prove, while instructors are powerless to cope with it, except at a cost in moral and social attitudes toward students that is hopelessly disastrous. Let it be the regulation of social activities, over which faculties distress themselves and still do their work so bunglingly that students wink at it and smile at their own cunning. In some institutions students have undertaken the control of the daily paper, monthly literary sheet, and a comic sheet, from which they learn the meaning of free speech and the virtue of controlling it, derive lessons in collective ownership and the joy of building for the future. In some instances they have been given a controlling voice in athletics, with advantage to the spirit of the institution. One spontaneous impulse of students toward pure sportsmanship that grows out of facing a concrete situation with responsibility is worth a half dozen lectures by a professional moral dictator. These are only instances of the many possible lines along which student activity may express itself. President Drinker, who has, with remarkable success, encouraged selfgovernment at Lehigh University, says: "It has been my experience that the more responsibility is placed upon students, provided they are willing to assume it, the better it is for all concerned." Even a small duty that students enter upon heartfully is enough to transform their attitude into one of partnership. It is an old rule that interests follow activities as the shadow the body. Sympathies and enthusiasms apart from deeds are pale and shallow. When students undertake anything in concert they must have organization. This creates unity of action and solidarity of sentiment. The fact of positions of emolument to be filled and the need of officers, leads to college politics with its fine tension of rivalry and its tang of victory and defeat. Let us grant there will arise occasional abuses and mistakes. There are instances on record. The number is, however, relatively small. The redeeming feature of it is that whatever failures and successes they make, there is in it a preparation for citizenship. They are meeting in college life exactly the problems and difficulties that they will have to face later. We preach the gospel of learning to do by doing in the lower grades of our common schools, but are full of the notion of the value of learning to do by obeying, during the choice years of young manhood and womanhood, which are above all others the time for preparation for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. The educational world has had its prophets this long time of the value of social and family ideals among tiny children; but by a strong irony of fate, we have been slow in taking seriously the same problem during the critical formative years of a college course.

The root of the difficulty is in the need of more democracy in our institutions. That would come in a day if all concerned could apply the golden rule. There is a sort of mental near-sightedness in human nature by which it is hard to see through the other person's eyes and feel his problems. All are, furthermore, intensely human—biologically human—and want all they can get of power and prestige. Universities have differentiated into about four types of personages: a board of education, a president, a faculty and a student body. All except the last would dominate everything if it could. The best results will come only when each participates slightly in the whole, but specializes upon its own function. The board are specialists upon finance and should exercise a fairly free hand in all the material interests of the university, with only a negative control, through the power of veto, upon scholastic affairs. The faculty are specialists upon institutional questions. All matters of the formation of the curriculum, standardization, election and dismissal of instructors and the like, belong naturally to the faculty, with board and student representatives, under normal conditions exercising advisory influence. It is as hazardous for boards of education to assume responsibility for the complicated institutional life of a university and exercise the fine shades of judgment needed for its success, as it would be for the ordinary university professor without the requisite years of preparation to run a bank or department store. The president should be chairman of the faculty. His proper function is primarily an executive one, and in no sense legislative or judicial. But the prerogatives of students—what are they? I recently asked a professor in a state university what power, in his judgment, students ought to have in an educational institution. He replied, "Power? Why, the power to work and work like thunder." When I argued that they were already in possession of such freedom, he retorted emphatically, "But they do not seem to know it!" No one has to urge a graduate student, interested in his problem and inspired by personal contact, to work. Usually, on the contrary, he must be restrained from too continuous application on account of his bodily health. His attitude toward instructors, tasks and institution is different. Student bodies have rarely come into possession of their own. Why should they not have full responsibility for student enterprises and social activities? How much power of the faculty, which is legally the responsible agent in such matters, should be in evidence, is an open question. Professor Payne, of the University of Virginia, where for more than a century students have successfully regulated questions of student honor, honesty and propriety, assures me that the plan is working well, just because the faculty keep their hands off entirely. Under such circumstances students are glad to regulate their own affairs, and they do it well. I know of no instance in which students have participated in the activities of an institution, wherein they have broken faith or usurped power. Still they are treated as underlings, while instructors keep school, hold examinations and administer grades. Under present conditions they are filled with ideals of military discipline rather than infused with social impulses. Why may not our universities be transformed into states in miniature or social communities, in which students are "the people," each of whom is tempted by the entire situation, to care, to lend a hand, to feel the thought currents of the time, to know men as well as books, to be efficient units in society? In this direction we must tend if our new ideals of social righteousness are to be woven into the texture of our common life.

The problem would be easy were we not tempted by the luscious sense of power and blinded by a highly developed institutionalism. The university exists for the students, and not the students for the university. No one would care to depreciate the conservation of race life that is accomplished through the mere fact of the existence of a group of teachers, a body of college customs, and well-equipped laboratories and libraries. But they are not finished products. They are means to an end in a living, growing organism. The end is the best life of all and the fullest life of the future. There is a distortion when the rich inheritance of the past that the university represents is not directed wholly and purposefully toward the students who are to be the race of to-morrow. To this end the university may well exert itself to have them feel that they are organically a part of it. Each student when he goes out should be, not a recipient from the institution, but a real incarnation of its best life. He must be in it and of it. The form of organization should tempt him into closer and closer heart relation with his school. Let it not be, either, a seeming act of charity or missionary enthusiasm on the part of instructors, or the best is lost. The advantage is mutual. Each student has some original endowment from nature to bring to the institution. I have heard it sometimes expressed that part of the fascination of the life of a teacher is in the personal enrichment and the multicolored quality of truth that come from mingling with many types of student minds when each is allowed to be at his best. In order to bring out the riches of his nature, generally as yet undiscovered even to himself, the attitude of the university toward the student and his attitude are almost everything. It can not reach him from the outside in; it can inspire and educate him only from the inside out. Let our universities be decentralized from their organization about institutionalism, and recentralized in the personal lives of students.

  1. Read at the meeting of the Department of Universities and Colleges of the Religious Education Association, Nashville, March 9, 1910.