Should Students Study?/Chapter IX

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The history of the American college curriculum begins with the Latin, Greek, mathematics, and moral philosophy of the Harvard College course of 1636, and extends through the modern period of demand for obviously useful studies down to the twentieth-century agricultural college with its array of courses from weeds to stock-judging, sub-tropical pomology, pork production, higher basketry, fancy cooking, and business correspondence. The dominant tendency in America is toward the "practical."
What shall we say of this far-reaching modern movement to adapt education to the immediate needs of all people? What shall we say of teaching of trades to the children of elementary schools? What shall we say to the overshadowing of the remotely practical subjects of the secondary-school curriculum by immediately practical courses? What shall we say of the modest little catalogue of the old college of liberal arts and the thousand-page register of the modern university?
We must say that this trend in education is productive of good—indeed, with certain qualifications, it is an inevitable and indispensable gain. The historian of next century, looking back upon our time, will wonder at the unaccountable persistence of our schools teaching to 90 per cent. of their students some subjects which had for them neither immediate nor ultimate practical value.
The new endeavor to bring to the pupils of each grade in each city the education which school statistics prove that the majority of them will immediately need is a hopeful tendency; for the ability of a democratic community depends in the first instance upon the widest possible extension among its people of the capacity for productive labor. The average length of a boy's schooling in the United States is now less than six years. The best we can hope for is a gradual increase of this average. Meantime, an immediately practical education is a necessity for all those whose formal education must be comparatively brief. At the best, few human beings have extraordinary intellectual powers. The great majority of men and women are dependent upon leaders. They must be producers in activities that are not too exacting.
This may sound like heresy in a country which began its career by declaring that all men are born free and equal. Democracy has often tried to abolish the hindmost by decree, and our schools have long proceeded on the assumption that all children are fit for abstract forms of higher education. But when we face the facts that science ruthlessly thrusts before us concerning individual differences among human beings we are forced to the conclusion that we need not less, but more education of immediately practical types.
Such education is and will be supported at public expense, for a general level of intelligence and efficiency is an obvious and a primary need. More vocational education will come, and better education, because it will be based on quantitative studies of aims, needs, and values—of educational processes and results,measured with precision. Even in school administration, guesses, opinions, and prejudices are gradually giving way to science.
Our public schools will not be overweighted, however, with vocational studies, for, in the first place, the way ahead must always be kept open for exceptional students. Possible leaders must not be led into blind alleys. In the second place, ever many is not only a producer, but also a consumer and a citizen. Intelligent consumers and intelligent citizens are at least as important as efficient producers.
Education for Leadership

But a broad table-land of general efficiency and intelligence is not enough. A thousand pleasant foot-hills will not take the place of one Mount Hood. We must have leaders as well as artisans, exceptionally well-equipped men in every domain—in literature, in sculpture, in painting, in architecture, in music, in journalism, in politics, in education, in the ministry, in medicine, in statesmanship. A thousand lawyers, however true to their traditional routine, cannot take the place of one William Howard Taft; a thousand teachers, however conscientious, cannot take the place of one Charles William Eliot. We must have both the foot-hills and the mountain peaks, both the followers and the leaders. And the power to develop leaders who are really superior men is the final test of the college as it is of democracy. It is because training for leadership is the supreme function of the college so that much attention is here given to the undergraduate scholarship records of leaders in every domain of human aspiration.
Education for such leadership is no less practical than the education of plumbers and bookkeepers. That is the gist of the matter. In our haste to prepare every boy for a special job, let us throw off our blinders—especially those of us who regard ourselves as "practical" men. I repeat it: education for such leadership is no less practical than the education of plumbers and bookkeepers. Yet the chief subjects of the liberal curriculum are usually called cultural, not useful. History, sociology, government, music, fine arts, literature, logic, psychology, philosophy, religion, and various sciences presented as liberal rather than technical education—mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy—these subjects are often condemned as impractical. I call them intensely practical. No subjects, properly pursued, are more practical—that is, ultimately practical—for the teacher, the jurist, the editor, the minister, the banker, the city commissioner, the statesman, the legislator, or for the responsible heads of hundreds of business enterprises dealing with large numbers of human beings.

Liberal Studies a Practical Investment

In all the evidence here set forth tending to prove that success in scholarship leads to success in later life, no account whatever has been taken of the subjects studied. The correlation appears to prevail, year in and year out, in every part of the country, in every type of institution, regardless of the individual courses of study. What grade of work a boy does in the subjects of his choice makes all the difference between notable success and comparative failure in his life-work; but it does not appear, from all our statistics, that it makes much difference which subjects a boy elects.
We should not overlook the fact, however, that the college courses of study of the thousands of "successful" men included in our statistics were virtually devoid of immediately practical subjects. These men did not have the advantages of that modern "college" which "offers astrology, aviation, Bahaism, bill-collecting, and Esperanto." Sixty-two per cent. of the House of Representatives and 68 per cent. of the Senate of the United States are college graduates whose schooling was chiefly "liberal" rather than "practical": from our college graduates—body of men constituting less than 2 per cent. of those eligible for election to Congress—we have chosen more than 62 per cent. of our national leaders. At one time, not long ago, the ranking officer in the United States Army, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court were all graduates of one small college of liberal arts—Bowdoin. Included in Who's Who in America and in Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography are several hundred times as many college graduates as non-graduates, in proportion to the total numbers in each group. Evidently, a liberal education is for many men a practical investment.
But practical as such liberal studies may be in the long stress of a great life-work, students may miss their higher values through pursuing them for immediate utility. The dean of the Agricultural School of a great university was urged by professors of literature, history, and philosophy to have more of these courses for students of agriculture. "Certainly," replied the dean, "we want such studies, but make them as practical as possible." Immediate and obvious utility be had in mind. His answer illustrates the weakness of the so-called liberal studies as often presented in technical schools. Without the liberal spirit the studies are no longer liberal. The direct pursuit of culture, like the pursuit of happiness, is a futile quest. In college, as elsewhere, he who should find his life must lose it, and he who loses his life will find life and find it more abundantly.

Short Cuts to a Liberal Education

I have contrasted narrowly cultural study with broadly cultural study, immediately practical education with ultimately practical education. This one trains people to meet old situations in prescribed ways; the other enables men and women to meet new situations, analyze them, discover the issues involved, and develop new solutions in new crises. The one may be short; the other is necessarily a long preparation. But do we rightly condemn any investment because its returns are not immediate? The apple-tree is not less useful than the turnip-plant because it requires more time and culture. It has well been said that a baseball-pitcher ripens early, but a Supreme Court justice is a rather mature product.
Preparation for leadership does require time. Nowadays people take their pleasure, travel, exercise, business, dancing—even marriage, divorce, and bankruptcy—at high speed. Some people expect to acquire an education at the same pace. They would "make culture hum" as they would boom a town. There is a widely published advertisement that guarantees success to any one who will attend a certain business college for six months. Correspondence schools undertake to prepare students for anything so quickly that a college course seems a waste of time.
Of late, men have made fortunes in a year or two by exploiting chewing-gum, and defacing the landscape with the astounding announcement that gum is round. Who can resist buying gum that's round! At the same time chewing-gum types of education have been offered for sale in small packages. The buyer soon discovers that the flavor is gone, but he can keep up the motions until a new kind is offered in a new shape and a new wrapper. It is a barren year that does not produce a new nostrum that will cure anything for ten days, and a twin-six-cylinder education that will surmount all difficulties at top speed.

Seeing the Whole Elephant

The early years of the twentieth century have made notable advances in professional and technical education. Medical schools have steadily improved their teaching and their equipment. Some of the weakest and most pretentious of them have been forced to close their doors. Some of our law-schools have developed courses of study that are broadly educational, not merely preparation for the routine practice of law. Agricultural colleges have come to their own, and are now preparing men for productive activities that were, until lately, impossible. The better schools of engineering have made such use of modern scientific discoveries that their graduates now perform, with certainty of success, feats that seemed impossible in the previous generation.. Schools of dentistry and pharmacy, of advertising and household arts, of business and commerce, have brought their students closer to vocational problems. There are technical schools striving to prepare for almost every position in life, from pearl-diver to aviator, and the aim is always efficiency. Their courses are, for the most part, immediately practical, and their students, for the most part, are bent on acquiring the greatest possible amount of obviously useful information and experience in the shortest possible time.
But there are careers of vast importance to mankind for which all the technical and professional skills of to-day seem to offer no broadly valuable preparation. The world needs to-day, as it has always needed, ministers of the gospel with the wisdom, zeal, and inspiration of the missionaries of the old. The world needs to-day, as never before, genuine leadership in the realm of journalism. The world needs to-day, more than it yet knows, leaders equal to the task of improving human life in manifold forms of social service. The world needs to-day in commerce, in manufacturing, in banking, in mining, in distribution, in transportation, men with a conception of the meaning of their enterprises and their opportunities far beyond the scope of technical preparation. The world needs to-day available men and women equal to the tasks of leadership in the government of our States, our nation, especially of our cities.
We have had leaders of great stature in the past—prophets, editors, inventors, social reformers, captains of industry, poets, statesmen—but the greatest of them, in so far as they have been prepared for their life-work by formal education, have depended, not on brief vocational schooling, but on the broadly cultural and ultimately practical education of the college of liberal arts. Perhaps that is why the dean of the leading school of technology in America provided for his own sons, as a basis for professional and technical studies, a course of four years in an old college of liberal arts. Perhaps that is why the leading schools of law and of medicine and of business administration in America make college studies a requirement for admission. Again and again men have acknowledged the usefulness of their studies in technical and professional schools; but they have added that tit was the broadly humanitarian education of the old college that inspired them for their life-work and enabled them to see it whole. The poor Blind Men of the fable could not see the whole Elephant: blind specialists have similar troubles.

Finishing Schools and Beginning Schools

Liberal education may bring material rewards as a by-product. It usually does, because the kind of education that makes a boy worth a dollar a week more a year from now may make him worth ten dollars a week less ten years from now. Vocational schools that lead directly to the pay-envelope are "finishing" schools, since they tend to end the possibilities there. The liberal, ultimately practical education—the necessary basis for specialization—is the work of a "beginning" school. A college of liberal arts, properly conceived, is a beginning school, because by the time it sends its men and women out to take up the responsibilities in which they will sooner or later become leaders they have just caught a glimpse of an alluring upland road in the morning glow, leading to fields of human service which, but for the college, would have been beyond their imagination. That is the pregnant thought of the last day of a college course: we rightly call that day Commencement. It has been well said that college graduates, more than any other class of men, do what they wish to do, not because of inherited wealth or social position, but because of the emancipating knowledge of opportunity and self.
Those who do not comprehend the vital significance of the college of liberal arts in our national life, those who do not perceive its mission outside the scope of professional and technical schools and great universities, those who have acquired the American habit of attempting to estimate educational service in terms of numbers of students, extent of departments, grandeur of buildings, and size of salaries, may not understand an institution concerned with ultimately practical education and therefore content with small numbers. Yet training for the highest type of leadership is not a wholesale business, is not, in fact, a business at all, is personal rather than mechanical, and, therefore, has no concern with quantitative standards of success. It is still true that at a great university a boy may go through college, but at a small college, more college may go through him.
If all this be true of the old college of liberal arts, why these predictions that it will be crushed out between the nether millstone of the ambitious, immediately practical high school and the upper millstone of the ambitious, immediately practical university? Why has the dissatisfaction with the old college of liberal arts been growing apace? Not because we have had too much of a liberal education: far from it. It is because we have had too little of the old college and too much of the modern attachments. An ultimately practical education is not a by-product of supreme devotion to the immensely entertaining "outside activities" of college life—the elaborately organized hindrances to broadly cultural studies—to mental liberation—to "specializing in the humanities."