Should Students Study?/Chapter VII
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Intellectual Enthusiasm and Headaches
"Let Well Enough Alone"
If we may trust the general conclusions from which this fragmentary evidence appears to allow no escape, we shall have to regard a quickening of intellectual enthusiasm as the first need of college students.
An undergraduate, writing his "Confession" in the Outlook, admits that he knows of a few students with a zeal for knowledge so intense that not even a college course can quench it; but everything, he says, "unites to extinguish it—the quality of the instruction, the lack of any demand for scholarship, and, above all, the alluring ease of the environment."
However misleading may be the remarks of this undergraduate, or those of Mr. Dooley, as to details, both of these amiable critics have hit upon the chief weakness of the American college: our students have too much done for them and too little required of them. Mr. Dooley says that, nowadays, when a lad goes to college, "the president takes him into a Turkish room, gives him a cigareet, an' says, 'Me dear boy, what special branch of larnin' w'u'd ye like to have studies f'r ye be our compitint profissors?'"
Our students are not to be blamed for the attitude developed toward scholarship. Our schools have developed it. Our competent professors—aided and abetted it by lecture systems, and tutors, and writers of text-books, and distributors of college notes—do too much thinking for college students—keep them too long on diluted diets of predigested food. Our students, like our infant industries under the motherly policy of protection, are coddled long after they are able to stand on their own feet. And until a boy has once had the exhilarating adventure of standing, even with shaking knees, on his own feet intellectually he does not know what college is about. It is no wonder that the incidental amusements seem to him most vital.
You can lead a boy to lectures, but you cannot make him think—at least, not often by this, the easiest of all methods of instruction. It is possible for a student to graduate from almost any college without an original idea in his head. If he will give back to his professors what they have given him in his lectures and in prescribed books he may don a cap and gown and receive a degree. The highest grade, it is true, is reserved for colleges for those who show independence in thought (which is almost enough to account for the positive correlations we have found everywhere between highest grades in college and highest success afterward); but the "gentleman's grade" is stil the badge of mediocrity which many present as their sole passport. I have known students to pass themselves in mathematics and formal logic coursed by memorizing select pages, without the vaguest idea what it all meant.
When a student has to write on any subject his first idea, as a rule, is to look it up in a book. The college girl who, when asked to write a description of a sunset, applied to the librarian at once for a book on sunsets, was following the usual method. When students undertake to prepare for a debate and cannot find an argument in the library, all put together, they usually want to change the subject. Another substitute for thinking is suggested by this letter i received the other say which read:
Dear Sir,—I have been chosen for our champion State debate on Government ownership of railroads. Please send me six points on the affirmative. Thanking you in advance, Yours truly."
Even the thesis required of a candidate for the degree of doctor of philosophy, which is supposed to be original work, does not always reveal original thinking. Some of these theses are no less mechanical and no more valuable than the accounts of a bank clerk winds of of his calculating-machine. In many colleges boys are virtually required to support their teams, turn up their trousers, choose their companions, and walk across the campus according to tradition. Such courses might better be elective; but thinking should be compulsory.
For a number of years I had young graduates of theological schools in my classes in argumentation. They were difficult to teach because, in many cases, they appeared to have acquired fluency of speech without the habit of thought. They did not distinguish between assertion and evidence. As preachers they had become accustomed to assert what they pleased, with no one to answer back—a dangerous experience for any one, prince or pauper, pope or prelate. They appeared to be disciples of the author of a text-book on "Oratory" for young preachers who recommends his own method, as follows: "I went to my room, locked the door, placed the Bible before me on the mantel, opened it at random, and then on whatever passage my eve chanced to rest, proceeded to give a discourse of ten minutes. . . . At first I found it very difficult to speak so long right to the point. But then, if I couldn't talk on the subject, I would talk about it—making good remarks and moral reflections—being careful to keep up the flow, and say something to the end of the term allotted for the exercise."
Not all the blame for present conditions should be laid to parents and alumni. They, too, are the products of our own teaching. The traditional conservation of colleges is not stimulating to thought. New ideas disturb the academic calm. The teacher is most comfortable who stays in the beaten path, teaching what he was taught and teaching it in the same way. Unless the teacher takes resolute measures to resist the deadening influences of his position, his thinking is in danger of confinement to a small and diminishing circle. This is the danger implied in the saying that every occupation has its disease: painters have painters' colic, plumbers have lead poisoning, and college professors have the academic mind. The non-conformist gets into trouble. Woodrow Wilson, as president of a university, had too many new ideas. He made men think about questions which they preferred to regard as settled once and for all.
Certain professors have been refused re-election by several universities, apparently because they set their students to thinking in ways objectionable to the trustees. It would be well if more teachers were dismissed because they fail to stimulate thinking of any kind. We can afford to forgive a professor what we regard as the occasional error of his doctrine, especially as we may be wrong, provided he is a contagious center of intellectual enthusiasm. It is better for students to think about heresies than not to think at all; better for them to climb new trails, and stumble over error if need be, than to ride forever in upholstered ease on the crowded highway. It is a primary duty of a teacher to make a student take an honest account of his stock of ideas, throw out the dead matter, place revised price marks on what is left, and try to fill his empty shelves with new goods.
The "undergraduate" does well to complain of the "alluring ease of the environment," for the growing tendency toward luxurious living if one cause of the wane of intellectual enthusiasm among college students. The New England colleges one hundred years ago provided a better environment for study than they provide for all their students to-day, and the most magnificent of modern graduate schools has yet to show whether it will prove more stimulating for scholarship than the humblest college of a generation ago.
Even the large universities of our frontier States have increasing number of boys who appear to have lost the power of waling from one college building to another. The freshman, stretched out in a barber's chair, with one man working at his head, another at his feet, and a woman at his hands, often acts as though he expected to have his mind taken care of with as little effort on his part.
College fraternities, on the whole, have made matters worse. Even their efforts in recent years to prod delinquent members seem to be prompted by other than intellectual interests. The history of fraternity houses at some colleges is a record of organized competition in luxury, usually maintained on borrowed money.
Another obstacle to intellectual enthusiasm is the dominance of intercollegiate athletics. Out-of-doors games should provide recreation as a preparation for study rather than as a substitute for study. But, intercollegiate athletics having won supremacy, students do not tolerate conflicting interests. Their own publications, the country over, if distribution of space is a true criterion, indicate that they regard intercollegiate athletics as more important than the combined offerings of art, music, literature, social service, politics, philosophy, and religion. This excessive interest in athletics by proxy is antagonistic to scholarly ambitions and to the cultivation of habits of sustained thinking.
Without habits of this kind students are not likely to find their way to religious foundations. No great truth comes without lasting incentives for the pursuit of truth. Transient and secondary interests in thinking will not suffice. Many college students who think a little about religion find the experience overwhelming. Encountering doubts concerning certain beliefs which they had once accepted without question as essentials of religion, they are inclined to give up everything rather than make the effort necessary to achieve new religious convictions. It is easier to have no convictions. Almost any course is easier for the young people our time than staying with their difficulties, and bearing the birth-pains of new ideas, until they have builded their own durable bases of faith. For them a little thinking is a dangerous thing. They must come to feel the zest of the struggle—the keen joy of studying their way through—until they can say with Mrs. Browning, "If heads that think must ache, perforce, than I choose headaches."
The undergraduate who is really eager to excel in any life-work, and who is brave enough to face the facts, will take down that sign from the walls of his room, "Do not let your studies interfere with your college education," and replace it with this one: "Do not let your College Life interfere with your life's ambition." The boy without ambition will take for his motto, "Let well enough alone," oblivious to the fact that people who are content to let well enough alone rarely do well enough.
At a convention of teachers not long ago a speaker ridiculed a German boy who, upon failing in a recitation, put his head upon the desk and cried. He said he had never seen such a boy in the schools of his country. He might have added that in this country we do have the spectacle of boys, grown almost to manhood, coming off the gridiron because they have lost a game. If boys must cry, the German student apparently chose the better time, for nothing seems to promise failure in the tasks of to-morrow with greater certainty than failure in the studies of to-day, whereas the most passionate champions of intercollegiate athletics have never presented evidence of correlation between winning games in college and winning success in life.
In reply to this statement, an enterprising writer has presented, under the title of Pigskin Chasers in the Game of Life, a list of ninety football-players who are said to have attained prominence in various careers. This list had been published in scores of newspapers as sufficient proof of correlation between winning games in college and winning success in life. As an argument, it is beautiful in its simplicity. It is deficient, however, in two respects. First, to make its task easier, it substitutes, in the argument to which it replies, the phrase "playing games" for the phrase "winning games"; second, it ignores twenty thousand, more or less, of the men who have played on inter-collegiate football teams and selects only those that serve its own purposes; thus naïvely ignoring both of the real questions at issue—namely, the scholarship achievements of its successful list of players, in comparison with the achievements of all other students, and of all other players. If proof were as simple as a matter as this, it could be shown by precisely the same method that there is a correlation between success in life and the length of a man's name, or his room number, or his date of birth, or any other chance event. Nothing is easier than it select only those cases that favor one's preconceived ideas and leap the gap to a generalization. Nevertheless, this newspaper argument—the lacking every safeguard of the methods it pretends to use—doubtless convinces more people than the most rigorously scientific, statistical evidence—because it tells them what they want to believe as true.
As I look back over all my school-days I think with deep gratitude of the oldest master in the public schools of Boston, whose motto was, "One hundred per cent, or zero." Nothing short of perfection satisfied him. We all knew it, and day after day we toed the mark.
A boy came home from school the other day and said to his father, "I got one hundred per cent. in school to-day."</div.
"Did you?" exclaimed the proud father. "In what subject?"
"Oh, I got fifty per cent. in arithmetic and fifty per cent. in geography."
What that kind of one hundred per cent. promises for the future can be predicted with little chance of error.
"A college professor," said a senior in his Commencement part, "is a man greatly beloved by his students—after they graduate." A wise teacher knows that he can afford to wait many years for the verdicts of his students; a wise student knows that he cannot afford to wait; he must choose the hardest taskmasters now. Among teachers the greatest number of criminals are not those who kill their young charges with overwork, but those who allow them to form the habit of being satisfied with less than the very best there is in them.
Ruskin had no patience with people who talk about "the thoughtlessness of youth" indulgently. "I had infinitely rather hear of thoughtless old age," he declared, "and indulgence due to that. When a man has done his work and nothing can any way be materially altered in his fate, let him forget his toil, and jest with his fate, if he will; but what excuse can you find for wilfulness of thought at the very time when every crisis of future hangs on your decisions? A youth thoughtless! when all the happiness of his home forever depends on the chances or passions of an hour! A youth thoughtless! when the career of all his days depends on the opportunity of a moment. A youth thoughtless! when his every act is a foundation-stone of future conduct, and every imagination of a fountain of life or death! Be thoughtless in any after-years, rather than now."
Now let the student profit by the experiences of the thousands who have gone before and greet his next task with the words of Hotspur before the battle of Shrewsbury:
Oh, gentlemen, the time of life is short;
To spend that shortness basely were too long,
If life did ride upon a dial's point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.