Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/January 1912/Small Colleges

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A COLLEGE-MATE recently indulged in wholesale denunciation of present conditions in American colleges; classes have grown so large that teaching is done mostly by instructors or assistant professors and students are drilled no longer by men of mature intellect; the intimacy between professors and students, which was the glory of the old college, has disappeared and with it has disappeared also the fatherly interest formerly shown by professors; the output of colleges is inferior in quality; there is no hope of improvement except in return to the small college of our youth.

As the one who drew this indictment had not been inside of college walls since graduation, his sorrow, like his knowledge, depended solely upon information and belief. He had forgotten that, more than half a century ago, when even Harvard and Yale were "small," some of our professors declaimed in similar fashion against those overgrown concerns and extolled the smaller college in which tutors were unknown and students met only professors. The dissertation has been delivered continuously during the intervening years, but its frequent appearance in print is of recent date and is due to the exigencies of so-called colleges which have sprung up like mushrooms all over the newer portions of our land.

The lack of frankness in use of the term "professor" is as painfully evident as it was fifty years ago. The colleges of that time, with few exceptions, had only professors, no matter how large the classes might be; but the term signified no more as to age, experience or qualifications than it does in the modern "small college." When the writer entered New York University in 1858, the college faculty consisted of nine professors, including John W. Draper, E. A. Johnson, Elias Loomis, Howard Crosby, S. E. B. Morse, Benj. N. Martin and others almost equally eminent—all except two less than fifty years old. Only three of the nine were more than twenty-seven years old when appointed to full professorships in the university and several of them received that appointment when only twenty-three. One of the others had been professor for eight years in another college and was only thirty-two when he came to New York. The same conditions prevailed elsewhere, all colleges having some very young men occupying important chairs, They prevail to-day in the "small colleges," for students' year books, with half-tone portraits of the faculty, prove that youthful professors abound. But the conditions have changed in the larger colleges, for they have recognized not only the need of a higher standard, but also the necessity for subdivision of the classes to give opportunity for better teaching. In those one finds a head professor with others known as instructors or assistant professors. The age of these associates averages not far from thirty years and, for the most part, they are men of experience in their work. In the "small college" on the contrary, all alike are professors, be they elderly men or callow youth. It is difficult to understand how a young man as professor in a small college can be more efficient as teacher or guide than he would be if called instructor or assistant professor in a large college. Perhaps there may be something in the atmosphere which hastens maturity and renders experience unnecessary.

It is very true that in the larger colleges, as indeed in some of the "small colleges," the fatherly president has been replaced by a business president, whose duties as administrator prevent him from coming into close contact with the students and lessen his efficiency as head of the educational work—and one can not help regretting that this new officer has retained the old title, since the duties are so different. Yet the old officer remains, at least in the larger colleges, though under a different name. A university is not a mass of several thousand students; it is made up of small units or schools, each of which has its dean, who deals with the students directly as did the old-time president. In many institutions, the guardianship is still closer than formerly, each student being placed in direct relation to some member of the faculty, who is required to look after him. Arrangements for personal supervision and opportunities for association with teachers are many times better than they were of old. The supposition that in ante-bellum days there was any genuine intimacy between professors and students does not accord with the facts. The two bodies were in opposing camps and the time of faculty meetings was consumed largely in discussion of discipline cases—a condition wholly unknown now in the stronger colleges.

The "old inhabitant" remembers some severe storms of his youth and asserts that the climate has changed because old-fashioned winters are so rare. The "old boy" remembers some sympathetic professor, who loved boys because they were boys, and thinks of him as the type of his time. The one forgets the more numerous mild winters, the other forgets the more numerous indifferent professors; each remembers only that which made the deeper impression and each is surprised, almost indignant, when the record proves his memory defective. Faculties in the olden time were like faculties now; what change there is is for the better. In the old faculty, there was always some one to whom troubled students could go, knowing that he would give the best he had of advice and sympathy; and that man is present in every faculty to-day. Reasoning a priori, the number of such men should be greater now. The college professor of a half century ago was apt to be a recluse, not a man of affairs. Too often, especially in the smaller colleges, he had become teacher late in life, having been more or less unsuccessful in another profession, which, naturally, he regarded as of higher grade than teaching. That type has not disappeared; but the college professor of the last three decades has had, for the most part, special preparation for his work; teaching is, for him, the noblest of professions; except in a few departments, he is a man of the world, not enclosed in a world of his own creation. With wider opportunities, he understands his fellows and can keep in touch with younger men. On the other hand, the student's life is broader, he is no longer regarded as something apart from his kind and he is better able to appreciate his opportunities—even though not always inclined to avail himself of them.

It is true that the output of our colleges in recent years does not give promise of equalling in average quality that of fifty years ago. The vast increase in number of students has not been in the best interests of true education; too many are seeking neither knowledge nor training; too many others are unfitted by native limitations or by early surroundings; they merely limp through the course and by dint of hard labor gain little more than the minimum demanded. It would be well for our colleges, well for the men themselves, if a great part of those now on college rolls should drop out and have no successors of their kind. The lowering of the standard in some quarters and the decreasing average of the output are due to their presence.

But those uttering the current laments respecting inferiority of output rarely consider matters of this sort; actual conditions have little of interest for them and they look far afield. The lack of frankness is nowhere more apparent than in the type of argument used to enforce the assertion that large colleges do not show results equalling those of the smaller ones. One would be justified in using a harsher term than "lack of frankness." Many advocates of present-day "small colleges," with 60 to 90 per cent, of their enrollment taking non-collegiate studies, are not content to say that their work is very good; they maintain that, if one may judge the tree by its fruit, their work is far better than that done by the larger colleges. In an address delivered several years ago at the inauguration of a college president, the speaker said that of the fifteen college graduates, chosen to the presidency of the United States, two thirds came from small colleges; that of seventeen graduates from fifteen colleges, who attained distinction in congress from 1870 to 1885, only two were graduates of large colleges; while nearly ninety per cent. of the distinguished men in congress from 1870 to 1895 were furnished by the small colleges, which in addition have provided many of the most prominent men in the cabinet and other departments of the government. This is a thoroughly typical argument and is an admirable example of non sequitur, but but it is effective, being easily comprehended by the most indolent intellect. One might take exception to it throughout on the ground that there are directions other than politics along which men achieve success, and that a training which induces men to seek political preferment as the summum honum is hardly to be commended; but this would be merely a reflection on the speaker and not criticism of his argument.

The statement is partially true as to fact and wholly false as to implication. When the men referred to were graduated every American college was small; even Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia were small, and two of them had fewer students than are claimed by some colleges whose presidents are bombarding the generously inclined with letters, circulars and speeches denouncing the evils of great universities; on the other hand, even the smallest colleges of the older days had more genuine college students than can be found in two thirds of the mendicant concerns to-day. The statement is imperfect in that it is a suppression of the truth. Geographical considerations enter into the choice of presidents, congressmen and cabinet officers. Political parties do not go to the eastern border alone for candidates; not every office seeker in the central and western part of this country could attend the older colleges of the east. If among the candidates there were men with college degrees, they were necessarily men from the local schools.

But exception must be taken to the lists as usually given. Selecting men from colleges which since the war have become great, and comparing them with those from colleges which, for various reasons, have remained small may be ingenious, but no stretching of courtesy could make it ingenuous. Yet even with that, the larger colleges do not suffer. No one would consider accidental or compromise presidents, such as Polk, Pierce, Hayes, Buchanan and some others as in any sense comparable with the Adamses, Madison, Roosevelt or Taft.[1] More, the mode of comparison makes use of ancient history as though it were that of recent times. No conclusions are to be drawn from lists of men prior to 1895, for present conditions did not exist in their college days. In any event the mode of comparison is absurd. It can be used, it has been used to prove that college training is without advantage, for down to twenty years ago, the vast majority of prominent men had never attended college. The remarkable increase in college students has come within three decades: recent graduates still labor under the burden of contemporary criticism.

But a more serious matter remains. The use of the term "small college" is a mere play on words for the clamorous small colleges of to-day are in no sense the successors of the small colleges of long ago. Dartmouth, Amherst and Williams in New England, Union in New York and Jefferson in Pennsylvania are often held before the admiring listener as prototypes of the small college; yet each of them had graduated classes of 40, 60 or even more in years prior to the civil war. There were other, smaller colleges with 100 or less students which equalled the larger in grade; but the 100 or less students included only those studying the regular course, the list did not include children in elementary work. All those older colleges had a narrow curriculum, but it was definite; the faculties were small, but they were competent to do the required work. It is certain that the modest ante-bellum colleges in some cases showed great results—but only where proper material was provided. There were many little colleges whose faculties were as earnest and as faithful as the best, yet one finds among their graduates very few who became even modestly prominent in any calling or profession; the reason being that they had not a strong type of people as constituency. Not the size of the college, but the type of students was responsible for the result. Colleges situated amid sturdy communities have long lists of men eminent in every kind of work. The men were there before they went to college; the elements of success were innate; no training, no education can impart them. Dartmouth and Jefferson, large for those days. Center of Kentucky and Bowdoin of Maine, small colleges of those days, are typical. The reader will think at once of others, similar in type.

As has been said, a very great proportion of the present-day schools, glorying in the title of small colleges, have little resemblance to those of earlier days. True, they are burdened with unremittent financial stringency and the requirements are modest—but with these the likeness ends. The curriculum in the old colleges was narrow, but it was compulsory, and its definite aim was to prepare men for undertaking professional study. Too many of the newer colleges, while pretending to be legitimate successors of the older, offer a curriculum of amazing range, music, art, pedagogy, semi-professional studies and elective courses in college work. In looking over the announcements, one is apt at times to imagine that at last he has found the ideal institution in which instruction can be obtained in almost every subject under the sun. When he looks at the student-roll, he is surprised that so few have been attracted by a feast which promises to be so refreshing. But when he examines the list of teachers, surprise vanishes. If those teachers are competent, mentally and physically, to perform the task assigned in the announcements, it is no longer necessary to hark back three centuries to find a world's prodigy in the admirable Crichton; our land is full of them. These academy-colleges have little in common with the modest colleges of sixty years ago; those were substantial, these are superficial; they can not do well what they promise, for they are without equipment, and much of what they offer has no place in college work.

The conditions are made clear in an official report presented by the supervising board of a leading denomination, which, with rare frankness, gives complete statistics of all its beneficiaries. This board, during several years, has been trying to raise the standard and to eliminate from its list all institutions whose claims to the title of college are based chiefly upon the charter. In some cases it has combined schools, reducing one or more to the academy grade and reserving college rights to but one of the group; in several cases it has refused aid except on condition that no degrees be granted and that the so-called college accept rank as an academy of sophomore or, where the equipment is good, of junior grade. But its pathway is strewn with thorns, for local pride, local denominational jealousies and man's desire for post-mortem glory have enabled some merely town schools to accumulate a great amount of property; the danger of legal complications prevents application of the proper remedy. Yet in spite of the board's efforts, almost one half of the colleges report less than fifty students taking "college courses," and the number taking such courses is from .008 to 40 per cent, of the total enrollment, the higher percentage being in the smaller schools. The owners of these schools point with pride to the fact that a great proportion of their graduates enter the ministry, which they think justifies their existence. It might be well to ascertain what they have done in the way of educating those men, beyond granting them diplomas. They usually proclaim loudly their firm adherence to the old-fashioned classical course—perhaps because the equipment is inexpensive—but the writer has read in a letter from the president of a great theological seminary, that the most serious burden to his faculty is the imperfect knowledge of Greek shown by the students—all of whom are college graduates. The presidents of some of these schools plead that a college with 200 or more students has proved its right to generous support; but they include in that number all preparatory students and those receiving music and drawing lessons as well as children taking elementary studies. One can only wish Godspeed to any denominational board which endeavors to bring order out of such chaos.

The vicious conditions found in large universities exist in smaller colleges, where they are fraught with more of danger. Students' year books tell of football, baseball and other teams; the athletic field is all-important and the official announcements in some cases dwell on its extent and attractiveness with greater gusto than is expended on description of the curriculum—possibly because a man prefers to write the truth. In the small college as in the large physical culture is acquired by proxies—the teams, which are supported under social compulsion. In some, the wandering glee club is present and the inter-collegiate contest is familiar throughout. Most of these "colleges" are coeducational and the number of male students is small, so that the proportion affected injuriously by these advertising schemes is much greater than in the larger colleges. The claim, so often asserted in circulars and advertisements, that the country village is free from vice, whereas that stalks openly in a city, is not in accord with fact. The writer has been professor in both country and city and he knows that there is little difference in this respect; but what difference there may be is in favor of the city as the safer place for the average boy.

Yet the longing, so often expressed by old graduates whose sons are now in college, has much to justify it. There is a wide-spread conviction that the educational condition is lamentably bad. But the longing is not for return to the old college with its lack of equipment; it is for return to the definiteness of the old curriculum, for escape from the aimlessness of the present curriculum. The university has been engrafted upon the college, while the ambition of high-school officials has diverted those schools from their true aim so that they encroach upon the college. Between university and high school, the college or mental gymnasium is threatened with extinction.

The university method of broad selection or of specialization in narrow groups is not for boys without stern intellectual drill. As matters now stand, a lad, crammed to pass an entrance examination, but untrained in the art of thinking, is thrown into university conditions to choose his courses, though neither he nor, in most cases, his parents are competent to determine the selection. The university and the college should be differentiated and the old-time method should be revived. In that, training was the main purpose; it was not, as now, secondary to athletics or tertiary to increased numbers. This is not to say that the narrow curriculum should be revived. That was designed to meet the supposed needs of men looking forward to the Christian ministry; it neglected an important side of the intellect, gave an imperfect culture and left the man with a false conception of his acquirements. The curriculum should be designed to accord with modern conditions, should deal more with what is around us and less with mere abstractions; more with matters exercising the power of reason and less with such petty niceties as linguistic problems. Such a course of study, recognizing the many-sidedness of the intellect and compulsory throughout, would be the ideal gymnasium in which to prepare a young man for undertaking professional studies or for assuming the responsibilities of business life.

This work can be done only in a large college equipped with real libraries and laboratories, where the man may study under real professors, not jaded by teaching elementary subjects to academy pupils; where there is no mingling of college students and preparatory pupils in the classroom or on the campus; where the child who can do little more than read will not be "in college." A restricted, stringent curriculum would repel the slothful and indifferent, and fewer teachers would be required. Living salaries could be paid even with present endowments and the proverbial apprenticeship to poverty would not be necessary to enable a professor to live on his pay. The universities should confine themselves to graduate work. They should admit to their professional schools only those who have a college degree, earned not in correspondence schools or in college annexes, but by actual attendance at an institution maintaining the required standard. The country is not suffering from a famine of lawyers, physicians or even of clergymen, and the time is ripe for raising the requirements in all professional schools.

It is true that this procedure would have serious consequences. A not inconsiderable number of "small colleges" would find their degrees without value; they would lose their hold on the innocent people who have wasted money on them and their requiem would not be delayed. There would not be enough graduates to fill the numerous professional schools and only the best equipped would survive. But there is reason to believe that in each case the public grief would be neither widespread nor inconsolable.

  1. Jefferson is not included, because, through bad location and the mishaps of the Civil War, his college remained small; he is often listed as proving the superiority of the small college, though at the time of his graduation William and Mary rivalled Harvard in public esteem.