Should Students Study?/Chapter I
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Not Merely an Academic Question The Respectable Grade of Mediocrity
'Tis better to have come and loafed.
Than never to have come at all.
"Do not let your studies interfere with your college education." This motto adorns the walls of many a student's room. It is his semi-humorous way of expressing his semi-conviction that his studies do not count—that the thing to go in for is "College Life." The thing, made up of intercollegiate athletics and lesser diversions, looms large in the student's mind. This frequenter of college walks and halls and tombs and grand stands I call a "student" for want of a safer term, though it sometimes does him injustice. He has sundry answers to the question whether students should study.
In academic circles this is not merely an academic question. The boy who goes to college faces it, in one form or another, again and again. Indeed, before he dons his freshman togs his mother tells him not to study too hard, and his father gives him to understand that deficiencies in scholarship, which do not end his college career, will be overlooked if he makes the football team. He observes the boys who return from college; he finds that their language and their clothes bear marks of a higher education. He bears accounts of initiations and celebrations. His chum's big brother takes him aside and tells him confidentially just how he must conduct himself in order to be rushed for the right fraternity. Everybody tells him he must be a "good fellow"; few discourse upon the joys of curriculum. Whether students should study may remain with him and open question, but he begins to doubt whether students do study.
With his mind set on going to college, he reads all that comes to hand on the subject. The newspapers give him vivid details of the games, big and little, with full-page pictures of the heroes. They report nightshirt parades, student riots, dances, beernights—anything but studies. Now and then they do give space to a professor, if he has been indiscreet, or has appeared to say something scandalous which everybody in college knows he did not say, or if he his sued for divorce. They even spare him and inch or two if he is awarded a Nobel Prize.
The lad reads stories of College Life. How they glow with escapades! His mind becomes a moving picture of thrilling escapes, of goats enthroned on professiorial chairs, of freshies ducked in chilling waters, of battalions of roosters yelling with the precision of a cash-register. Now and then there is mention of lectures and examinations, for it appears that the sophisticated youth knows many devices for "getting by" these impediments to the unalloyed enjoyment of College Life. Surely the high-school teacher who spoke with such enthusiasm about the lectures of "Old Socrates" must be hopelessly behind the times. Surely nobody goes to college nowadays for lectures.
After entering college the boy continues his studies in the philosophy of education under the tutelage of a sophomore. His tutor informs him that the object of education is the all-round man. The faculty and the curriculum, he explains, are obstacles, but the upper classes rescue the poor freshman from pentagonal and other primitive shapes and round him out with smokers, hazing, initiations, jamborees, and visits to the big city, where he makes the acquaintance of drinks and ladies far more brilliant-hued than those of his somber native town. He is told that he is "seeing life," and that college will make an all-round man of him yet, if the faculty do not interfere with his education.
If this sophomoric philosophy leaves any doubts to puzzle the freshman, they may be cleared away by the alumni who return to warm up the fraternity-house with stories of the good old days. And, of course, the lad joins a fraternity before giving his course of study a thought. For what is college to a non-fraternity man? Merely and institution of learning. To the man with the Greek-lettered pin the fraternity is the sine qua non of higher education, the radiant whole of which the college is a convenient part, providing for the fraternity a local habitation.
And so the undergraduate stretches his legs before the hearth and hears the wisdom of the "Old Grad." In his day, it seems, things were different. The students were not such mollycoddles, the beer flowed more freely, and the faculty did not try to run things. No, sir, in the good old days the faculty did not spoil College Life. What a glorious celebration after that 56 to 0 game, when every window in old West Hall was broken and the stoves were thrown down-stairs!
"I tell you, boys," cried the "Old Grad," warming his feet by the fire and his imagination by the wonder of the freshmen, "it is not what you learn in your classes that counts. It is the College Life. Books, lectures, recitations—you will forget all that. Nobody cares after you graduate whether you know any Latin or algebra, unless you are a teacher, and no man can afford to be a teacher nowadays. But you will remember the College Life as long as you live."
Some of the alumni would have a different story to tell, no doubt, but they do not get back often for fraternity initiations. Perhaps they are too busy. And again, they may have nothing but "grinds" during their college days.
Whatever we may think of the "Old Grad's" remarks, the idea does prevail in many a college that the most important enterprises are found in the side-shows, conducted by the students themselves, while the faculty present more or less buncombe performances in the main tent. Woodrow Wilson said something to this effect before he gave up trying to make boys take their studies seriously in favor of an easier job. Dean Fine said to the alumni of Princeton University: "The typical boy entering a college like Princeton in these days is much more vitally interested in other boys and in sports than in books. To him the lure of college is not in its studies, but in its life." Professor Churchman of Clark College regards success in athletics and the social life of the college as "the honest ambition of an appalling proportion of fathers and mothers who are sending their sons to fashionable colleges, in the same spirit that accompanies their daughters to fashionable finishing-schools." One father, whose son triumphed on the gridiron and failed in his studies, said to the dean of Harvard College, "My son's life has been just what I wanted it to be."
In 1903 a committee of the Harvard faculty, after extensive investigation, found that the average amount of study was "discreditably small." The committee declared that there was "too much teaching and not enough study," and that ambitious students find little incentive to take honors. The following year another committee reported that the student body did not regard grades in college courses as any test of ability. In 1908 still another committee came to this conclusion: "Contentment with mediocrity is perhaps the greatest danger that faces us, and it is closely connected with the feeling among students that college is a sort of interlude in serious life, separated from what goes before and dissociated from what follows." A large majority of seniors at Harvard expressed this belief in response to a questionnaire, and students elsewhere have expressed the conviction in a score of ways.
Many students look upon scholarship as a menial servant in the household of College Life, tolerated for a time in order that the abode may be free to welcome its convivial guests. They regard the social light of the fraternity and the hero of the gridiron as the most promising candidates for success in life. The valedictorian appears to them too confined in his interests to meet successfully anything beyond the artificial needs of the class-room. He—poor fellow!—is supposed to be doomed to failure in real life. Wherefore the respectability of "The Gentleman's Grade"-the sign of mediocrity in scholarship. Wherefore the epithet "grind," with its superlative "greasy grind," which sums up the contempt of the "good fellow" for the man who makes hard study his chief collegiate interest.
In many a student group the boy thus speeds up and passes his fellows is treated as a "scab." And in many a faculty group the idea seems to be:
'Tis better to have come and loafed.
Such ideas find fertile ground in high schools, and the seed spreads even to the virgin soil of kindergarten. The new tree of life-the painless education, by the do-what-you-please, when-you-please, how-you-please method—is said to have been imported from Italy. It may have acquired only its label abroad, after the fashion of imported wines. Certainly its foliage is much like our native stock of the American college variety.
Even when upon the correspondence schools are grafted some branches of the tree of College Life. If it said that a father in Hood River, Oregon, found his son standing on his head in the crotch of an apple-tree, waving his legs in the air and giving a college yell.
"Come down, boy," he cried. "Are you crazy?"
"No, father; leave me alone," said he. "I have just started my correspondence-school course, and the sophomores have written me to go and haze myself."