Censoring the Conduct of College Women

Social paternalism on the part of 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.
More

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.

II

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.'

III

But what is true in the field of the intellect does not hold true in the field of conduct, where the young experimenter is regarded as a curse to academic peace and harmony. Even with the advent of mental hygiene to collegiate circles, student government boards have been left in ignorance as to its most elementary principles. They are permitted to act as judges of social behavior with practically no background of psychology. Faculties are content to let them busy themselves trying to enforce petty regulations, and disciplining their members for various minor transgressions. Of course something ought to be done about it, they say; but it is easier to mill around year after year in the same vicious circle.

It will be interesting to pause for a moment and glance at some of the rules under which the women students live. They differ in different localities, but the spirit behind them and the attitude toward them are essentially the same everywhere. There are, for instance, requirements for signing out, and various hours for signing in -eightthirty in the evening for the library, nine o'clock for driving, eleven o'clock for the movies, and so on. Smoking is permitted only in certain places down by the pond, the lake, the middle road; in the basement, the alcove, the student building. One must dine here and not there; dance in this hotel and not the other; secure a chaperon now and not then. Student government books containing masses of scribbled and sketchy information concerning the uncertain whereabouts of college girls might, if some painstaking investigator placed them end to end, reach from the universities of California to the colleges of New England!

But what does it all mean, really? As a matter of fact nothing at all, except to prove further that where an individual's private judgment disapproves of a rule the rule is apt to go unheeded. One can be sure that the majority of students who are so inclined can find easy ways of doing what they wish and going where they please. I had an interesting experience in this connection once when I was looking over a quantity of signout slips. I noticed that a large number of students had signed 'show' and nothing else. I had happened to see some of them at the corner drug store that evening, and so I knew that they had not gone to the theatre. The next day I asked the student government president what it meant. 'Oh,' she said smilingly, 'that is the word that the girls use regularly when they mean simply that they have gone out.' Unless someone is employed to follow students to all of their evening engagements, 'calling' or 'movie' may signify anything from driving to the next village to dancing at Tony's Barbecue.

False registration is a black sin if the girl gets caught; otherwise it is apt to be merely an expediency. It requires imagination on the part of adults to appreciate the dilemma which a student often faces. She may not know definitely, until she is on her way, what sort of evening her friend or friends have planned. Usually the
amusements must be inexpensive and informal. The public reception room of the dormitory does not appeal to young people as a pleasant place of entertainment, especially if it is already occupied by two or three couples. It would be well if those who build college residences in the future would keep in mind this need of young men and women to have a degree of privacy in their social relationships within the dormitory. But in the meantime the student must meet the emergency in the only way that seems feasible to her. She goes walking or driving or dancing or to the movies; and she is likely to sign out for the place that will give her the greatest leeway as to time of return.

This practice has become usual to such an extent, according to the statements of many undergraduates, that the question of honesty or dishonesty rarely enters their minds. In other words, the list of rules is frequently a code which means one thing to parents and college administrative officers and quite another thing to innumerable women students, who consider it as only a gesture in compliance with the requirements of the time and the occasion. 'Why should it be right, they ask, and not without reason, to go walking until 8.30 but not until 8.45, to drive until 9.00 but not until 9.20? Why have a chaperon after midnight and not at 11.50? Imagine the hours of valuable time spent in working out these hairsplitting distinctions! In the final analysis, does it matter whether a student has gone driving, skating, dancing, or to the theatre, so long as she returns at a reasonable hour? There is food for meditation in the remark of a senior who said: 'I shudder at the kind of thinking that must lie behind some of the rules that our elders have made for our moral welfare!'

In the matter of discipline one finds the same lack of intelligent and consistent procedure. A girl is a half hour late and has to pay a fine of fifty cents a penalty often for her honesty. Another has been caught motoring down by the lake in the moonlight, and she is placed on probation for two weeks. Still another has climbed into the hall by way of the fire escape, and she is campused for a month, which means that she cannot venture beyond the library coping. Others receive various reprimands for dining at unapproved places, going to picture shows on Sunday, or appearing stockingless on Main Street. In this infantile manner countless misdemeanors are tried and sentence is passed by hundreds of student councils in the colleges and universities of the land; and still other countless transgressions do not come to light until eminent alumna return for their class reunions and relate tales about the surreptitious adventures of their undergraduate days which, if luck had not been on their side, might have deprived them of a degree.

IV

There is another angle of the question which might well arrest the attention of educators, and that is the inadequacy of rules as substitutes for the educational process; for if they are not to appear ridiculous they must be obeyed, and apparently no institution has ever been able to work out sound methods of enforcing the regulations. Scarcely any two colleges have the same arrangements for letting the students into the halls after they have been closed for the night. At best it is a hit-and-miss system, and administrators and student government officers are forced to rely on appeals to honor in securing obedience to the rules. But is there not danger of dissipating rather than strengthening the willpower of the individual in making trivial appeals to honor? Meticulous regulations, by their open invitation to deceive, may defeat the very purpose for which they were conceived, and develop, instead of honorable and responsible citizens, students who, if not guilty personally, will condone sneaking, lying, and hypocrisy. And by lending support to such systems deans blight that finer relationship which might grow freely in an atmosphere of mutual confidence, where all are intent on 'acquiring a different sense of life, a different kind of intuition about the nature of things.'

The situation is serious enough, it seems to me, to warrant earnest consideration. It should be possible to face the problem without traditional bias in regard to the social status of women, and to discard every point that has not a direct bearing on educating them as people. Why the rules and regulations? To calm the anxiety of parents, to give the college an alibi, or to cultivate in the younger person the power of selfdirection? The most persistent force supporting them, perhaps, is the desire of many parents to prolong the dependency of their daughters. It is not a matter of being convinced that the environment of the college is wholesome; they want to feel that each girl nightly passes through the equivalent of being tucked into bed, and they find in the printed regulations a blessed assurance that the institution is making an effort to do this very thing.

College administrators have recognized their responsibilities in regard to inexperienced and immature freshmen, and comprehensive advisory systems have been organized in order to facilitate the transition from the home to the campus. Every freshman has what is sometimes called a 'big sister,' or a sponsor, among the undergraduates, as well as an adviser on the faculty. She is checked regularly as to health and scholarship. Her folder in the dean's filing case contains many notes, observations, and suggestions which have been sent in by such associates as her teacher of English, the college physician, the nurse, the hall mistress, and others. A large part of the dean's time is spent in getting acquainted with individual girls and planning ways in which to enrich and round out their group life.

On the other hand it is not possible to follow five hundred or a thousand young women around the clock every day; and if it were possible it would not be desirable. They should be granted browsing privileges in the field of experience. If their taste has been wisely developed during childhood and early adolescence, which is the obligation of the parents, a bit of nibbling at the weeds when they are older will not give them serious indigestion. One mistake may have more educational value than any number of lectures; but adults seem to want to monopolize this very effective method of learning. Too much of their thinking about the young is based on weak sentimentality rather than on a sound appreciation of human values.

Sometimes the educational institution is also afflicted with a kind of parental hysteria. As the family is filled with panic at the thought of misconduct on the part of any of its members, so the college is seized with fear at the possibility of unfavorable publicity; and it becomes the unwitting victim of a kind of crowdpsychology. Possibly it is because a woman's institution is to a certain degree an extension of a woman's personality. A man may regard with calm indifference, and even amusement, any number of sharp criticisms about himself; but a woman is apt to be hypersensitive to the slightest disparaging remark. She is not yet sure of her place in society when she gets away from home; and to complicate matters she seldom has money with which to fortify her position. Viewing her so, wrapped in insecurity, a sadistic public is quick to throw missiles in order to set her on the defensive.

Every time there is a mysterious disappearance, or a case of sex irregularity, the college is not only sensitive to the tragedy of the affair, but it is apt to feel that its intellectual and moral integrity is at stake. Hundreds of letters may pour into the office of the president protesting against everything from the quality of the curriculum to the idiosyncrasies of the teachers; registration of students may drop off, and pledges to the endowment fund may be canceled. One would think that such things never happened in the communities away from the campus, and that the college had been, in some strange manner, criminally negligent.

It requires high courage to ignore such attacks, no matter how unjustified they may be. To react to them, however, by seeking refuge in numerous stringent rules is an obvious admission of weakness.

It is difficult in this maze of confused motives to recapture the real purpose of self-government in the college, and to give it adequate expression. Possibly the time has come when student government organizations should give up their disciplinary functions and concentrate instead on promoting, through their various cultural interests and activities, ideals of conduct that are based, not on arbitrary prohibitions or on concessions forced from reluctant deans, but rather on the individual girl's sense of dignity and selfesteem. Colleges, for their part, might meet the issue by appointing a commission made up of qualified undergraduates, faculty members, and specialists in mental hygiene to study the whole subject of regulating the social behavior of the students. It is quite possible that some connection may be found between petty restrictions and scandal-mongering, sex abnormalities, and stealing. It is essential to know what kinds of rules are advisable or necessary to a wellmanaged household and a mature and happy group life.

A college dormitory, under proper conditions, may have great value as a cultural experience for the people who reside in it. Educators are awakened to this possibility, as may be seen by the various plans in housing for both men and women which are being developed at Harvard University, at Scripps College in California, and at the proposed new Bennington College in Vermont. A student residence can be a place where life is loose, detached, and indifferent; or it may be a place where stimulating friendships are made where faculty members, with that rare gift of youthful imagination, live under the same roof with the undergraduates and share their meals and their discussions, enjoy their frivolities, and understand their discouragements and aspirations. In such an environment, attitudes toward conduct may be fostered in both old and young by that powerful, indirect method which would make a list of printed, super-imposed regulations seem absurd and irrelevant. This ideal in dormitory life is not likely to be approached, however, until the rules are reduced to a fundamental minimum and the last trace of paternalism has vanished.

There is a parable in Creative Experience, by M. P. Follett, which illustrates beautifully the way in which the young may be set free and helped to grow in moral stature. 'Last summer,' it reads, 'I noticed a strange plant in our pasture. I did not know what it was. I had no picture in my mind of what flower or fruit it would bear, but I freed it. That is, I dug around it and opened the soil that the rain might fall on its roots. I cleared out the thistles with which it was entangled so that it might have room to spread; I cut down the undergrowth of small maples near so that it could get the sun. In other words, I freed it.'

The colleges educating women, in their turn, should be free, financially and morally, to develop their cultural objectives without being distracted by extraneous issues, such as the bobbing of hair a few years ago, and, more recently, the smoking of cigarettes. There will always be hypercritical parents and alumnae; the general public will continue, doubtless, to contribute to the cause its sheaf of uninformed opinions. But these things need not disturb institutions that are firmly established. It is their high duty to become leaders in promoting more mature social attitudes toward women, not only as students, but as citizens in the community at large where they must work and make their homes.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In