Concerning University Extension


As one of a University Extension committee which has founded a vigorous local centre in a large city, I have seen the most of the literature of the movement pro and con. Certainly nothing better has been written than Professor Palmer’s contribution to the March Atlantic, Doubts about University Extension, and I am moved to confirm some of his statements by telling our experience in taking “ the grand new step in American education.”

Having organized an efficient committee, — one of the Board of Regents being our chairman, — and having brought the subject before the public through our daily press and a generous circulation of leaflets, we were still burdened with serious apprehension of the success of the project, when it should be fairly launched, because of the many popular lecture courses already under way, some of them free, and the innumerable study-classes, besides, and associations for special research. Ours is a college town. One of the professors had opened his class lectures upon American history to the public without charge, just as interest in University Extension began ; and so great was the attendance of outsiders upon those lectures that it was a problem whether we could compete with such attractions or not. Finally a public meeting was announced, in the interest of University Extension ; a great apostle of the movement having been secured for an address, with many lesser but brilliant lights. We were not a little fearful lest the medium-sized audience-room which we had decided upon would not be half filled, zealous as the committee and the press had been in securing a hearing, “ admission free.” On the contrary, the house was crowded to the doors, and by a most intelligent audience ; an expectant audience, us said the committee who studied its physiognomy from the platform. “ Will it go ? ” somebody was heard to ask after the meeting. “ It has gone ! ” was the reply. Great enthusiasm was manifested at that first meeting. An expression was called for as to what the subject of the first course of lectures should be. American history and English literature were chosen, the votes standing about even for each, with calls for political economy, geology, etc.

So far, so good. A guarantee fund had been secured. There was every prospect of a large sale of lecture tickets. The best of lecturers was promised,— one who could inspire as well as teach. Our correspondence with lecturers had only begun ; we could promise great things. It did not take long to convince the committee that they were down for a course of lectures with little prospect of getting a lecturer. Had Mr. Palmer’s article appeared earlier, we might have been better prepared for our perplexity and disappointment. In vain we turned the spigots of college reservoirs ; only slowly trickling drops of hope could we get. “ And where,” asks Mr. Palmer, “ except at the colleges does a body of experts exist ? ” The tickets were selling, the press was advocating the movement, and everybody was asking, “ Why don’t, you begin ? ” We bad thought it would be best not to begin with one of our own college men, — that we must go abroad for a lecturer, although we knew that our home professors were second to none in the land. At last we were forced to turn to our own men, and secured one of them, but not easily,— the one already drawing a crowd to his free lectures on American history. He offered to give us a course upon English literature. It was only by setting aside other engagements that he could help us out of our dilemma. We made our arrangements for class work, which of course would add very much to his labor ; but we meant to do something more than open a popular lecture course. Verily ours was to be University Extension as carried out in thorough work and examinations. A hall was secured that would give desk-room to some two hundred students. One hundred would be mere listeners. Liberal rates were made to clubs of wage-earners. We were by no means confident that the class in English literature would quite fill the hall. The afternoon before the lecture, we discovered that we must stop selling tickets at once, and take a hall that would seat one thousand. The house was filled to overflowing with ticket - holders for the full course. In vain the committee tried to divide the class, — to induce two thirds to withdraw from English literature and wait for the opening of other courses. There could be no class work in a class of eight hundred or more. But good-naturedly the crowd insisted upon having Professor ——’s lectures. The outcome was, he reads

a charming paper to a crowded house once a week. Very few of his hearers do anything like class work. He is relieved, of course, of duties he would cheerfully have performed with a smaller class.

We are soon to open a course in American history, and have strictly limited the sale of tickets. Not without difficulty has a lecturer been obtained, — one of the overworked professors of a neighboring college. Mr. Palmer may well say : “ A movement which places its reliance on the casual teaching of overworked men is condemned from the start. . . . The men it wants it cannot have without damaging them ; and, damaging them, it damages the higher education of which they are the guardians.”

Are we not ignoring a great deal which might as properly be called University Extension as is this popular movement, and, if wisely promoted on its own lines, would accomplish all that the enthusiasts for University Extension aim to accomplish, and that without encroachment on the strength of our universities ? Look at the multitudinous organizations for special study in every community making any pretense to culture : the literary classics from Chaucer to Rudyard Kipling, the national science societies, art clubs, political economy clubs, American history clubs, etc. ; the object of each being to aid in providing as thorough an education as possible in some special field of knowledge. These classes and clubs are doing a great work for the higher education, absurd as it may be, perhaps, to compare their work as a whole with that of the University Extension scheme could it be carried out in this country as it is in England. The historical societies alone, in their focalization of research upon special localities, their verification of traditions, and the preservation of records and relics, are doing quite as much toward “rendering busy Americans intelligent,” and that as regards their native heath, as if they were dubbed University Extension societies. And so of many kindred organizations. May we not well ask, in our zeal for the promotion of each and every movement that would make education one of the permanent interests of our national life, and infuse a missionary spirit into the highest culture, if the great object to be attained in this movement might not be gained by utilizing existing agencies ; that is, by stimulating and developing those associations, classes, etc., founded upon educational aim and research along special lines? Take the local natural science associations, for instance, and their sections, their lectures, committee work, and exhaustive treatment of detail as seen in the botanical sections. Can any so-called University Extension movement do better work than they are doing ? Why not recognize such organizations as a part of the movement, and so enlist the public in their behalf ? “ What you call University Extension, and make such an ado about,” said the head of one of these societies, “ we have been carrying on for years, and with results we could not have attained on any educational merry-go-round.”

Now it will not do to call the new movement an “ educational merry-go-round,” or to say of it, " Drop a nickel in the slot, and you get a university education.” But is there not danger in overestimating the movement, as has been shown by one of its advocates, who sees in this exaggerated valuation of it a sure reaction, and final loss of confidence in plans for popular enlightenment ? Why are not our many associations for special study the very basis for a movement. like the one we have chosen to call University Extension ? Is it even necessary to organize a federation of such associations any more than for “ local centres ” ? They do not need to draw on the “ overworked faculty ” of the colleges as a condition of their existence, — notably the many women’s clubs of the country, whose object is the higher education. The scheme of study carried out by many of those clubs is parallel to that proposed by this new movement. The social limitations make the difference, — they are social cliques, as a rule. But these literary clubs are to be found among the employees of great dry-goods houses, etc. They are a phase of some of the working girls’ clubs. When I asked a saleswoman of a great mercantile house to join a class which I thought would be for her advantage, she replied, “ Oh, dear ! I have so many things of that kind already. I must not take any more.” The papers prepared for the average literary or ethical women’s club — say those of the Association for the Advancement of Women — do not indicate any crying need for assistance from overworked college men.