The novelty of educating women has not yet worn off in spite of the fact that many of our mothers and some of our grandmothers have received college degrees. The question of their mental capacity is no longer one of debate, for they have settled that by their high scholastic records; but their ability to take social initiative for themselves is still one of the burning topics of the day.
Twenty-five years ago the problems of social conduct in women's colleges and in coeducational institutions were comparatively simple. The authority of the church and home was accepted without dispute by the majority of students; and the campus was a continuation of the family environment. Deans and deans of women were regarded, for better or for worse, as parental substitutes. Their judgment as to what nice young women did and did not do was final; and their power to discipline the transgressors of tradition and good taste was supreme. Those were the days when too few petticoats and too many false hair puffs became momentous issues, and the girl who lifted her skirts above her shoe tops and flashed a cerise dust ruffle became the object of grave academic concern. No lady would have smoked a cigarette in public, or thought of going to a party where there was drinking. The chaperon was accepted as a part of the divine order of things, and one seldom forgot to greet her at the beginning or to bid her goodnight at the end of a dance. Not even in the privacy of her bedroom were a girl's thoughts allowed to stray, for the walls were hung with 'creeds' and 'symphonies' and mottoes reminding her to be noble, loyal, and true. It was the age of stereotyped goodness.
Sometime in the nineties the idea of student government began to take root in the larger colleges where women were being educated. Whether it originated as a result of student agitation or of faculty prescience one cannot say. There is evidence for both sides.
A paragraph from a report read at the summer convention, in 1905, of the National Education Association says: 'There is in the minds of the children and youth of today a tendency toward a disregard for constituted authority; a lack of respect for age and superior wisdom; a weak appreciation of the demands of duty; a disposition to follow pleasure and interest rather than obligation and order. This condition demands the earnest thought and action of our leaders of opinion, and places important obligations upon our school authorities.' What a familiar ring! It could easily be one of the many generalities which are written about the boys and girls of today; but instead, it was said about the youthful ebullitions of you and me.
On the other hand, President Eliot, one of the greatest educational leaders of his time, had said that the 'real object in education, in so far as the development of character is concerned, is to cultivate in the child a capacity for selfgovernment, not a habit of submission to an overwhelming, arbitrary, external power; but the habit of obeying the dictates of honor and duty as enforced by action and willpower.' Such an ideal must have been in part the inspiration for the first adventures in promoting self-governing associations in the colleges. And if the original purpose has become somewhat obscured, it is, perhaps, because ideals have a way of eluding the efforts of men to capture and shape them into concrete forms.
During recent years the interests of the student government organization have widened to include certain undergraduate activities, but its chief function has always been and still is the regulation of the conduct of students living in the college residences.
For more than a decade the infant association clung to the skirts of the dean, with only feeble attempts now and then to stand on its own feet. She was the source of all its misery as well as the only hope of its salvation. She had started it off with a set of rules to which she added from time to time as the occasion seemed to demand. She often dictated punishments, and in emergencies she was apt to forget the rights and privileges of selfgovernment and administer discipline as she saw fit. She was criticized, and usually thoroughly disliked, but she was not altogether blameworthy.
Even so recently as twenty years ago it was not fashionable for young women to be self-reliant. They usually entered college from homes where they had been shielded from the necessity of making decisions. It was natural that they should have been baffled by the strange responsibilities which self-government on the campus imposed. And the dean was constantly torn between the desirability of slowly developing their power of selfdirection and the urgency of meeting immediate problems with her more seasoned background. In recent years the organization has endeavored to assert its independence, and in some colleges the success of a student administration is measured by the number of concessions it has been able to wrest from the faculty, but to a large extent it is still suffering from a kind of dean-fixation.
In the eyes of the students the form of the association has become far more important than its mission. The office of president is one of the most coveted in college, and the senior elected to it enjoys privileges which fill the younger girls with a sort of awe. She has first choice of rooms; she presides over the head dining table in the absence of the director of residence or dean; she holds important conferences with the president of the institution. On certain academic occasions she marches with the faculty in parades; and now and then she stands on the platform in assembly and addresses the student body. Such prestige is likely to compensate for the disagreeable duty of inflicting punishment on one's classmates. It also obscures the real intent that should underlie selfgovernment: namely, the gradual freeing of the individual through the development of her own power of selfrestraint. So far as I know, student government boards have never taken any active interest in studying the essential nature of freedom, with the idea of evolving higher standards of conduct for their own members. And deans and faculties have failed to awaken undergraduate leaders to the vast possibilities for mental and spiritual growth that lie in such a study. They are content to let the boards function merely as disciplinary bodies, restricting by 'arbitrary external force' rather than by working out codes that are based on selfrespect and a sense of group pride.
In the face of such a situation it is not surprising to find on many campuses today a wide gulf between the students and the administrative officers where the question of social conduct is concerned. Perhaps it is simply the continuation of the perennial struggle between youth and age, with the young forcing every advantage and the old defending vainly the embattled forts of custom and tradition. But social paternalism on the part of the college teachers and administrators is not consistent with their willingness to revise curricula in order to promote in the students a higher degree of intellectual initiative and discrimination. In recent years methods of teaching and study have been regenerated, in some cases revolutionized. The great objective in education has become clarified into training the young to think independently and creatively; and a new interest has been awakened in the undergraduate as she realizes more and more that she is 'the architect of her own education.'