Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/August 1911/What Makes a College?

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By Professor A. B. WOLFE


FEW aspects of present educational thought are more striking than the persistent and telling criticism it is bringing to bear on the American College. The universal demand for efficiency in our national life has put the college on trial—and has caught it in a state, of unpreparedness to make a consistent defense in its own behalf. Presidents and professors differ among themselves not only in holding widely diverse ideas on the difficult questions of college administration, but also with regard to the fundamental purpose of the college, but until this question is settled, and settled correctly, it is hopeless to look for well-founded and certain improvement in college efficiency. A wrong conception of the function of the college—an erroneous aim—may rob otherwise most ideal educational processes of their value and adaptation to our real needs.

The aim of the college must change with changing social needs. Failure to recognize this fact and to act upon it with sufficient decision and promptitude is precisely the reason why the American colleges have been caught napping. They have not kept pace with the needs of a nation undergoing an unprecedentedly rapid evolution.

A glance back at the motives and conditions which led to the establishment of most American colleges will make this clear. Most of the colleges—those not integral parts of great universities, at any rate—were established from religious motives by religious institutions. In the great middle west, where the greater portion of the colleges are situated, and where religious conviction and moral decency have been for decade after decade considered inseparable, the great bulk of the people have considered religious education an indispensable foundation for "character," and character as the be-all and end-all of education. "Character" has thus been announced everywhere and always the end of education, and the task of the college, "character-building." College faculties have gone to work at character as if it were an edifice to be built up brick by brick, stone by stone, very much in accordance with the flowery formulas so often, in the olden days, sounded forth from the college oratorical platforms. We now distrust the character and character-building formulæ a little. The terms have had too narrow a meaning, have too commonly lacked a rich and concretely significant content, to serve as really effective watchwords for the twentieth-century college. They have become, long since, catch phrases, to save us the need of reconstruction in educational thought. We need to set up as an end of education something just as fundamental as lies in the meat and kernel of these old shibboleths and at the same time more specifically and functionally related to modern social life and needs as they actually are. We need the classic virtues the moralists of all times have loved to dwell upon, but we need much more. We need the trained capacity, the knowledge and perspective, to turn these virtues to social account, to leaven them with a social consciousness, to render them effective by social insight. Goodness does not suffice. We demand efficiency. Meaning well is not enough. We know that hell is paved with good intentions, and that too often they are put to that uneconomical use through lack of knowledge of this poor earthly earth. We demand, therefore, significant knowledge—we will not tolerate the ignorance of prudery or the mere pride of erudition. Both these have been baneful influences in the college world. Ignorance we shall have to hold to be positively immoral, socially unproductive, and sometimes actually criminal. We are going to insist upon the productive life. We want moral valuations as well as economic valuations to be sound, and we are on the verge of discovering that we can not have one without the other. We want institutions, beliefs, social processes to stand on their own merit. Unswerving loyalty to authority no longer suffices. We demand rational, responsible, thought-out action.

But the small college, slow to catch the new spirit, or to sense the moral growth of the times, sticks to "character" as the ultima thule of education. Tucked away in some secluded and protected nook of geographical isolation, sequestered in pleasant preserves of philosophical individualism and theological conservatism, many a small college has felt, until comparatively recently, only the eddies of the great stream of social and intellectual unrest. While the world is painfully going through the throes of the birth of a new Zeitgeist, college faculties have been content, not uncommonly, to drone away on philosophies of forgotten epochs—afraid, apparently, to venture into the present lest it make dangerous demands upon old faiths—faiths educational and ecclesiastical, faiths economic and moral—faiths tried and true in great measure, and in their essence capable of meeting any critical test, but not as yet fully subjected to such a trying and purging fire as twentieth-century rationalism and scientific opportunism seem to some timid souls bound to prove. More than this, to pioneer an institution or a constituency into the undiscovered future means work, calls for exceptional foresight and circumspection, vigor of purpose, openness of mind, and strength to drag along those who, through fear or inertia, lag behind. To think along new lines, to cast overboard old habits of thought, to acquire new viewpoints, is a painful process; ho mind likes to be remade; few have the power to keep themselves continuously in repair and in tune with the times. Yet these are the capacities essential to college presidents and to college teachers.

Another feature of the history of the small college explains its partial failure to respond promptly and effectively to the new needs of the time. Most colleges were originally not only religious but also denominational institutions, founded primarily to give "proper" education to men who were going into the ministry of the respective sects. In the early days sectarianism was assiduously inculcated, but as time wore on its outward trappings were discarded. The colleges, for all their shortcomings, had a mighty end in view. They believed in the moral life and they perceived that a liberal culture was a necessity for the leaders of that Christian morality they hoped, through church and school, to make universal. But their conceptions of morality, of the Christian life, and of culture were all often somewhat narrow, and nearly always lacked that element of adaptability to meet new social and moral issues which must now be counted an essential of true, constructive, productive, morality. It is not for us to blame them for this. We have rather to seek an explanation of the fact, and to point out how it crippled their efficiency and finally helped to bring them to the bar of critical judgment.

A certain narrowness of horizon cooperated with a deplorable lack of financial resources. Their limited horizon kept the colleges from seeing just how seriously lack of funds impaired efficiency, and conversely their limited resources narrowed their horizon. Both the theory and the practise of education were narrow because the colleges did not conceive an aim at the same time broadly fundamental and intimately and directly related to the specific needs of our national life. Moreover, they did not early enough begin vigorous efforts to get resources adequate to the demands of a broad culture. Their aim was intense often to the point of fanaticism, but it lacked breadth and adaptability to the actual facts of human nature and of social life. The restricted horizon of the colleges was, of course, to no small extent, due to the nature of the general moral and social environment of the society in which they were located. Like the society about them, and from which their students came, they proceeded on the assumption that morality is merely a matter of goodness. In spite of their "mental discipline" and "cultural studies" they came dangerously near to divorcing morality from intellect. In effect many colleges still take practically this position. They have not yet arrived at a social-efficiency or social-productivity theory of morality. Primarily the persistent, traditional view reflects the strict, non-adaptive tenets of old-time orthodoxy, in which the key note to the highest morality is surrender of the will and obedience to authority. Such a view glorified discipleship. It allowed reason and self-direction to go so far; then it demanded that loyalty to personal authority step in. Something of the inherent selfishness of medieval orthodoxy ate through our educational system. Rules were set up on every hand for student guidance—so many of them that we of these unregenerate days can only pause and marvel. Some hampering relics of these elaborate systems of legislation remain, and in a few women's colleges and coeducational institutions innumerable rules are still imposed upon the women, even where the men are practically without regulation, and where there is much talk of education as a training in the power of self-direction. The aim of it was and is moral discipline. It was discipline—no doubt of that—but whether it was training in self-direction is doubtful. We do not learn to swim by being kept away from the water. Trained in a negative morality, a morality of shibboleths, a morality of restraint, it is not strange that many of the graduates of these older days have to-day inadequate ideas of what American society must demand from its educated men and women.

Moral discipline was matched by mental discipline. Certain subjects were thought peculiarly adapted to mind training. Of course these were the classics, mathematics and philosophy. Then science, with difficulty, got a foothold in the curriculum, and eventually large sums were spent in the equipment of laboratories. For a long time, however, there was more or less scorn of material equipment, unless in the shape of ornate buildings useful not only for academic purposes, but for advertising as well. Even the physical sciences did not have a universally cordial welcome. For many years the biological sciences were viewed askance; and the modern sciences of society had to creep in surreptitiously and apologetically through the side door of philosophy. Mark Hopkins and his log were a sadly overworked simile. From the first, the weak point in the theory of collegiate education was the idea of compulsory morality, and the corollary notion that intellectuality along broad lines of advancing scholarship was in some ways a dangerous luxury. Not infrequently, even now, do we hear scornful mention of "mere scholarship"—and this not from cub undergraduates, but from seasoned professors who should know better. Intellectual capacity in a student is not infrequently thought a matter secondary to his belief in the virgin birth of Christ or the regularity with which he attends church. In the professor scholarship is too often deemed of less importance than his ability to "influence" students through personal contact. Many a thoughtful person, observing small college ideals from the inside, is coming to believe that they give too large a place to personal loyalty and personal influence and too little to rational scholarship. Here we are close to the great and vital shortcoming of the American small college. It has not duly recognized the moral value of intellect and scholarship; it has not furnished its professors with sufficient means or stimuli for scholarship on their own behalf, nor has it insisted upon anything but the veriest mediocrity of attainment on the part of its students. Not recognizing the value of high scholarship in social service, it has not looked after the character and effectiveness of its resources from the point of view of changing social needs.

No one will deny for a moment that the colleges have rendered indispensable service to the country in spite of their lack of resources and of their point of view with regard to scholarship—some indeed will say because of it. It is time, however, that every institution of higher learning should eschew the old notion of compulsory morality and of the paramount desirability of personal influence irrespective of rhyme or reason. Other things being equal, the man of the greatest intellectual equipment will be the most moral man because in the long run he will be most effective in advancing the social welfare. The chances are that he will have just as much desire to do good as his less well-equipped brother; and he will have in addition the very essential capacity of directing his forces to the good end he desires to accomplish. The small colleges have worked faithfully to make other things equal, but only in the universities and in the larger colleges is there yet much true insight into the social value of genuine scholarship, or sufficient recognition that morality and knowledge go hand in hand. If the universities have erred in one direction—letting "moral discipline" go by the board—the colleges have erred in the other. What the colleges have now more explicitly to recognize is that the world to-day needs men and women whose good intentions, whose Christian "character," are directed and made effective by scientific knowledge of things as they are, by hardheaded capacity and courage to think, by energy to act rationally and with sympathetic understanding, even in the face of complex difficulties and unkindly criticism; and that it is the business of the college to develop the potentialities of such capacity.

To develop these basic powers we must have the right processes, and, back of the process, sufficient resources, for without resources the education needful to-day is an impossibility. The educational resources of the college are its material equipment, its students, and its faculty—and the greatest of these is the faculty. When all is said, the faculty makes the college—and scholarship makes the faculty. But even now the colleges recognize this but vaguely, and with some reluctance, perhaps because the men the universities have supplied to them as teachers have had often a sort of non-human, pseudo-scholarship of useless erudition, rather than the real scholarship and the real enthusiasms of men and women who not only know their own subjects passably well, but are deeply enough interested in human life to wish their work to have some direct and tangible relation to it. Given a faculty with genuine scholarship of this kind, with a reasonable average of experience in teaching and acquaintance with educational theory, with a consciousness of the problems of the college in its relation to the educational needs of a democracy undergoing the strains of growth and transition and with the morality of the average educated man or woman, and you have the great, prime essential of a college. Without such a faculty, all the fine buildings, all the magnitude, all the alumni associations and other institutional paraphernalia in the world are dross and tinsel.

It is a popular saying in the colleges that the business of the college professor is to teach. Often this carries the implication that a man can be an ideal teacher and not be doing some original work in his own particular field. No educational fallacy ever did more mischief than this. Different ideals of work and purpose must no doubt govern the college professor and the university research professor, but in the long run it goes without saying that even the college professor will teach better if he has some time for what the universities call productive work. It is an error to suppose that a man can teach a subject without knowing it; and it seems self-evident that his knowledge will be more thorough and more effectively interesting to his students if he himself is trying, in however modest a way, to advance human knowledge within his subject. The man of fine, keen scholarship in his own line, who tries to see the relation of his subject to life as a whole, will develop in the long run not only the strongest intellectual capacity, but also the strongest and most desirably influential personality. Moreover, he will ordinarily be scrupulous in the use of his influence. A scathing criticism might be made of the practise of some college professors who seek by their own personal hold on a student to close his mind once for all to ideas contrary to those they themselves happen to entertain. The net result of such influence is too often an arrested development of the student's mind before it has had a fair chance to open.

Why now do the universities possess so many men of fine scholarship and the great personality that so often goes with it, while the colleges show comparatively so few? Some will deny the truth of this allegation, but no denial can really stand against the fact that the greatest teachers of the country are nearly always to be found in its universities. The colleges can not ordinarily hold their best men permanently and there are two valid reasons why they can not do so—lack of money, and lack of stimuli. It takes stimulating surroundings to develop a scholar. The university affords the stimulus to productive scholarship which the college lacks. The stimulus offered by the college is usually "the opportunity one has here to influence young men and women through personal character." Now it must be admitted that this is an effective appeal, very often, but how much more effective is it when it adds the opportunity of influence through solid, vital scholarship! The universities draft away the men the colleges need most—those who combine large scholarship with fine personality—because these men tire of the restricted horizon of life in a small college town, and because they perceive that they must have larger opportunities for growth and contact with the great world, if their usefulness is not in some degree to atrophy or ossify. College teachers are not, as a rule, clamoring for larger salaries because they love the dollar for its own sake, but because they recognize that financial resources are the bed rock of their own efficiency. Most of the captious criticism of the college by business men falls by the way because they expect a professor on a salary of $2,500 to yield a grade of service the business world considers itself lucky to get at $25,000. It is often said that the best men do not go into teaching because salaries are so low. This puts the cart before the horse. Not only would doubling the salaries paid by small colleges bring in a higher average of ability, but no reasonable doubt can exist that it would result in a marked increase in the efficiency of present instructors and professors. The most promising personal ability may yield disappointingly small results by reason of insufficient material support and absence of the proper incitement. If there is one fault preeminently true of the modern small college professor, east or west, it is lack of knowledge of the real world of to-day, lack of stimulating contact with men and leaders in other walks of life. The college teacher's time is spent largely in contact with immature personalities, very interesting generally, very stimulating sometimes, but nevertheless immature. This is perhaps one reason why whole faculties come momentarily to lack true perspective on moral and intellectual values. It is one reason, also, why we are sometimes slow to sense the nation's real educational needs and continue to insist upon antiquated disciplines and outworn curricula. It is the exceptional college teacher who has time to pause in his work and ask himself, "What am I here for?"

The faculty then makes the college and scholarship makes the faculty. This granted as substantially true, there is but one sure way of getting a scholarly faculty. Pay salaries large enough to call forth, to develop, and to retain ability. The average young doctor of philosophy can with propriety hardly be called an educated man, in a broad sense of the term. He lacks breadth of reading, travel, the stimulating and mellow fellowship of men in callings other than his own; he has not done a tremendous amount of thinking nor has he thought very deeply or broadly; he lacks, in short, the schooling of a rich and assimilated experience. The maturity, breadth of horizon and catholicity which should characterize the college professor, wherever found, are too often lacking. If the young doctor goes into a college, often removed from the real intellectual centers, from adequate libraries, from the main currents of contemporary thought and interest, he is in a fair way to remain for some time essentially immature, and then to undergo premature ossification. The small colleges of the past have sought primarily to recruit their faculties with men of "personality and character." If of late they have put somewhat more emphasis on scholarly attainments, still inability to pay good salaries has necessitated reliance upon graduate loyalty to the college in securing new instructors and professors. The result has been an undue proportion of their own alumni on faculties. Inbreeding in college faculties is as disastrous as it is elsewhere. The colleges are doomed to continued inefficiency unless salaries are increased a great deal more than most boards of trustees now have in mind. The college professor does not need to live in style, but he needs money just as much as many who do so live—he needs it for actual professional efficiency.

Not only does lack of funds hamper a college in securing a scholarly faculty; it means also more or less deficiency in the material equipment the faculty has to work with. Even Mark Hopkins had his log! Trustees, it is true, are too frequently dazzled by architects' plans and devote money to the erection of buildings which would better have gone to the building up of the faculty, but often, on the other hand, little attempt is made to furnish material equipment to teachers and departments so that they can do their work with a minimum drain of energy in routine and clerical work, and improve the actual effectiveness of their teaching. The science, language and mathematics departments usually fare the best, because they have established a vested interest in small classes and adequate (?) teaching force, and an elaborate material equipment of laboratory apparatus. The departments whose only laboratory is the library fare badly. It is comparatively easy to get donors to give for buildings but difficult to get money for salaries or books—which are the real library. A good library should be able to provide ample reading, reference and working material for all undergraduate demands, and in addition should spend a great deal of money upon journals and reviews, foreign works and reports of learned societies which never meet the undergraduate eye, but which nevertheless keep the teacher alive in his subject. How far most college libraries fall short of even the minimum requirement will be apparent to any one who looks up the statistics of American college libraries.

Lack of funds, then, hampers the development of that large, broad and human scholarship we need, not only because college poverty means low salaries, but because it means too few teachers, too wide a range of subjects for the same instructor to teach, too many hours a week of class-room work, too little time for original research and original thinking. "Out of hurry nothing noble ever did or can emerge," says a recent writer.[1] Hurried on one side by too much work to do, hampered, on the other, by a disastrous deficiency in library funds and material equipment, it is small wonder that the teaching of many a professor is sometimes mechanical and far removed from the actualities of life.

Here lies the great field for constructive administration. In so far as mentors of the college are planning devices for mechanically improving student scholarship through prizes and distinctions and the like, or are worrying about petty non-economies in routine administration, they are not getting down to essentials. They are rather distorting our perspective and confusing issues and values. We must demand more serious scholarship on the part of our students. And there is no surer way of getting it than to have more of it ourselves. We wish our students to develop true moral perspective. Again, there is no surer way for them to acquire it than to come into intellectual contact with men and women who have it. We get breadth of view only by widening the windows of the mind, not by crystal-gazing, however clear our crystal may be. The world needs to-day as much as ever it did a far-sighted, intelligent, self-directive morality. Never before, perhaps, have college faculties so needed capacity intelligently to weigh values, economic, political, social, moral, religious. Never before have they so needed actual contact with the world, needed to take personal part in the social, economic and political conflicts that are certainly determining now, over again, whether the country, this time both north and south, shall be free or slave, oligarchy or true democracy. The colleges have been able to forget, they have revolved about in a beautiful utopian individualism of class culture and personal salvation until the universities, the trade unions, the socialistic propaganda, the muck-raking magazines and even the yellow journals have called it to their attention—they have been able to forget that humanity crucified on a reckless industrialism is as tragic a thing as Christ crucified on the cross. We must have pragmatism of service to balance pragmatism of truth. In both cases that is worth while which works. Personality is much, loyalty and integrity are much, but neither personality, nor integrity, nor broad loyalty, can develop properly in the absence of capacity to see all the elements of modern life in something like their true values, amid the shifting lights of a rapid and complex evolution. True scholarship would help to develop this capacity. It would bring us nearer to seeing life clearly and seeing it whole—and truthfully.

The faculty makes the college. Scholarship and experience make the faculty. But scholarship and experience depend in the long run upon wealth and income. They have their material basis in the dollar. Even in education we can not escape the economic foundations of history. The American public can have just as good colleges as it is willing to pay for; and if it is willing to pay reasonably for efficient service here, as it pays lavishly elsewhere, it will find that nowhere else does a dollar purchase so much real utility. The public is abundantly able to pay for better colleges. It simply has not realized that the development and maintenance of ability costs money; nor has it yet a sufficiently high ideal of what the college should be and do. Least of all have many of the colleges themselves the right idea of what makes a real college.

  1. C. H. Cooley, "Social Organization," p. 170.