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Should Students Study?/Chapter V

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But why strive for the highest standing in professional school? Let us pursue the inquiry one step further. Let us ask whether success in studies gives promise of success in life. As far as the study of law is concerned, we may answer at once that the known success of honor graduates of the Harvard Law School is one reason why even college undergraduates at Cambridge believe that law students should study law—hard and seriously. For the same reason, leading law-offices the country over give preference to honor graduates of law-schools.
But what is success in life? That is the first problem. It is one difficulty that confronts every one who attempts to speak with certainty about the meaning of education. There is no accepted definition of the aim of education. The philosopher has been likened to a blind man in a dark cellar hunting for a black cat that isn't there. The aim of education seems as elusive as the proverbial black cat.
Nevertheless, we do not close our schools. We strive for concrete ends, such as proficiency in handwriting, aware that any particular end may not be regarded as not worth the effort to attain it. Until recently we could not say even what we meant by proficiency in handwriting, for we had not attempted to define our aim or devise a measure of progress toward it. We still speak of educational processes and results about as accurately as the Indians spoke of temperature. We still speak of the science of education without precise measurement. From our fragmentary beginnings to an adequate science of education is a long journey, and the road is beset with difficulties. While we struggle along this road, generations will come and go. We will help them to attain what seem, for the time, the proper aims of education. And each individual will strive for what seems to him success in life.
As one measure of success in life, we may take the judgment of certain men. In so far as we accept their judgment of our findings concerning the relation between college students and this kind of success will seem important to us. Here, as in most questions of educational aim, we can do no better for the present than take the consensus of opinion of competent judges.
Using this measure for success, I endeavored to find out whether the members of the class of 1894 of Harvard College who had become notable for their life-work had been notable in their studies. I therefore asked the judges to select, independently, the most successful men from that class. I chose the judges the dean of the college, the secretary of the Alumni Association, and a professor in Columbia University who is a member of the class. I left each judge free to use his own definitions of success, but I asked them not to select men whose achievements appeared to be due principally to family wealth or position. The judges agreed in naming twenty-three successful men. I then had the entire undergraduate records of these men accurately copied from the college records and compared with the standing of twenty-three men chosen at random from the same class.
The result was striking. The men who were thus named as most successful attained in their college studies nearly four times as many highest grades as the random selection. To the credit of the successful men are 196 "A's"; to the credit of the other men, only 56.
Following a similar plan, three judges selected the most successful men among the graduates of the first twenty-four (1878-1901) classes from the University of Oregon.. An examination of the scholarship records of these men showed that 53 per cent. had been good students and 17 per cent. had been weak students. Of the graduates who were not regarded as successful, 52 per cent. had been weak students and only 12 per cent. had been good students.
Similar results have been found by Prof. A. A. Potter, Dean of Kansas State Agricultural College, in an unpublished study of the relationship between the superiority in the undergraduate scholarship and success in the practice of engineering as indicated by the salaries received. The director of the School of Forestry of Yale University has collected evidence of the same kind in an unpublished study of the graduates of the Yale School of Forestry. It appears that about 90 per cent. of the men who had conspicuous success in the field of forestry were among the better students in their professional studies. Dean Sills of Bowdoin College has made a long list of famous graduates of Bowdoin and shown that their scholarship records were, as a rule, noteworthy. The graduates of West Point—General Grant to the contrary notwithstanding—follow the same general rule; high scholarship at the academy is the single safest criterion of success in the Army. President Thwing of Western Reserve University, the historian of higher education in America, says that he has found no exception, in the records of any American college, to the general rule that those who achieve most before graduation are likely to achieve most after graduation.
The list of the first ten scholars of each of the classes that graduated from Harvard College in the sixth decade of the last century, as presented by William Roscoe Thayer, is a list of men eminent in every walk of life. Indeed, it is likely that the first quarter in scholarship of any school or college class will give to the world as many distinguished men as the other three-quarters.
What can we say in this connection of the 420 living graduates of the ten Wesleyan University classes from 1890 to 1899? Just this: Of the men in that group who graduated with the highest honors, 60 per cent. are now regarded as distinguished either by Who's Who in America or by the judgment of their classmates; of those who were elected to Phi Beta Kappa—the scholarship honor society—30 per cent.; of those who won no superior honors in scholarship, only 11 per cent. Of the men now living who graduated from Wesleyan University between 1860 and 1889, 10 per cent. are listed in Who's Who: of those who received highest honors in scholarship during this period, 50 per cent.; of those who attained no distinction as scholars, only 10 per cent.
In the course of a careful treatment of this subject Professor Nicholson says:
"Turning now to a comparison of honors achieved in college and after graduation, and considering first the middle group of graduates, the classes of 1860 to 1889, we find that one in six of the living are mentioned in Who's Who (100 out of 604). During this period 59 men received high honors at graduation; of this number 28, just about one-half, are mentioned in Who's Who. Of the 185 elected by Phi Beta Kappa during the same period, the names of 58, approximately one-third, are found in the book. And of the 419 who graduated without distinction, only 42, about one-tenth, have achieved their success in later life, if Who's Who is a fair guide.
"Let us see whether these figures concerning the most representative body of graduates, the thirty middle classes, apply equally well to the later and earlier graduates. The graduates in the first twenty-seven classes, down to 1859, numbered 643, of whom 53 were appointed valedictorians or salutatorians. In the judgment of the writer, supported by that of other members of the faculty, 26 of these high-honor men, just one-half, would have appeared in Who's Who had such a book been published when they were living. Their careers, as outlined by the Alumni Record, clearly entitle them to the claim of distinction. The same judges chose 52 of the 167 Phi Beta Kappa men of the period as men of distinction, again not far from one-third. Of the 476 not in Phi Beta Kappa, only 29 could be fairly called distinguished, which is only about 6 per cent."
From the records of 1,667 graduates of Wesleyan University, Professor Nicholson concludes that the highest-honor graduates (the two or three leading scholars of each class) one out of two will become distinguished; of Phi Beta Kappa men, one out of three; of the rest, one out of ten.
Concerning the value of Who's Who as a criterion of success in life, we may say at least this, that it is a genuine effort, un-warped by commercial motives, to include the men and women who have achieved the most worthy leadership in all reputable walks of life. Whatever flaws it may have, it is acknowledged to be the best list of names for such uses as we are now making of it; and it is probable that such changes in the list as any group of competent judges might make would not materially affect the general conclusions we have drawn.


Further proof of the relation between scholarship and success in life was found by Prof. E. G. Dexter. He compared the records, before and after graduation, of the men of twenty-two colleges. Of all of the living graduates of these colleges, he found about 2 per cent. in Who's Who; of the honor scholars, he found 5.9 per cent. It thus appears that the chances of this kind of success in life of a good student are about three times the chances of students selected at random. Looking at the records in still another way, we may observe that about 15 per cent. of all graduates are Phi Beta Kappa men. If rank in college has nothing to do with success in life, we should expect to find that 15 per cent. of the graduates in Who's Who were Phi Beta Kappa men. But they surpass this expectancy by nearly 100 per cent.
In even larger measure have the very highest scholars fulfilled the promise of their college years. Of the Yale valedictorians, 56 per cent. are included in Who's Who, that is to say, a man at the head of his class appears to have more than twenty-five times as many chances of distinction as the man selected at random among his classmates.
Again, of the 13,705 living alumni of two of the larger New England colleges, 5.4 per cent. of those who graduated in the first tenth of their classes are included in Who's Who, and only 1.8 per cent. of those who graduated in the fourth tenth. With due allowance for the defects of the measures of success here employed, the figures tend strongly to corroborate the conclusions of all other studies. The success of the undergraduate in his formal intellectual education is the safest single measure—though not the only measure—of the success he is likely to achieve in later life.
This is the only country, as President Lowell has observed, where it is popularly believed that superior diligence and aptitude for knowledge are poor preparations for success in life. It is well known that the universities of England and the English people generally have much more respect for scholarship than is common in the United States. One reason is doubtless the eminence for centuries in the Old World of leading university scholars. Of the 384 Oxford University men called to the bar before 1865, 46 per cent. of those who received first-class honors at Oxford subsequently attained distinction in the practice of law, as indicated by the offices they held. Of the men who were content with pass degrees, only 16 per cent. attained distinction. The list follows:


Of the 92 who received first class honors,
46 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the 85 who received second-class honors,
33 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the 67 who received third-class honors,
22 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the 61 who received fourth-class honors,
20 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the 271 who received pass-degree honors,
16 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the 58 who received no degrees,
15 per cent. attained distinction.


No student who fell below the second group of scholars at Oxford attained a political distinction of the highest class.
A similar correlation is found between the degree of success of undergraduates at Oxford and their subsequent distinction as clergy-men.


Of the first-class men,
68 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the second-class men,
37 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the third-class men,
32 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the fourth-class men,
29 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the pass-degree men,
21 per cent. attained distinction.
Of the no-degree men,
9 per cent. attained distinction.


Success in the Oxford final schools is thus seen to give fairly definite promise of success at the bar and in the church. An extensive study of the careers of Oxford men led Edgar Schuster, of the University of London, to conclude that any selection based on the results of a fairly searching examination of men at the age of twenty-one to twenty-three would probably be, on the whole, a judicious one. In very truth, the boy is father of the man.
A knowledge of all these facts will hardly make thinking as popular as a motion-picture show, but it ought to silence some of those who seek to excuse their mental sloth on the ground that it doesn't matter.
Perhaps that is too great a hope. After some of these comments concerning the attitude of students toward scholarship and some of these statistics had been published in Harper's Magazine, many people declared that students surely would not belittle the achievements of the scholar if they could see such conclusive evidence. Yet the student editors of the Harvard Illustrated Magazine, after reading the evidence and presenting what purported to be a summary of the statistics, made the following comment: "We do decry such puerile, silly doctrine... Not so many years ago one of the best poets from Harvard ever had was expelled from college because he spent his time working at his interest, the passion of his art, instead of listening to a few moss-back professors repeat lectures twelve years old."
It may be objected that all these statistics cover only those kinds of success that achieve publicity. Are there not men and women doing worthy work in comparative obscurity who should be regarded as successful? Certainly there are, many thousands of them. For obvious reasons, no statistics are available concerning them: all we can say is that we have every reason to suppose that they are not exceptions to the general rule that the superior service of certain citizens in any community will be found to be correlated with superior scholarship in earlier life.