The Transition From School to College

COLLEGE life is the supreme privilege of youth. Rich men’s sons from private schools may take it carelessly, as something to enjoy unearned, like their own daily bread ; yet the true title to it is the title earned in college day by day. The privilege of entering college admits to the privilege of deserving college ; college life belongs to the great things, at once joyous and solemn, that are not to be entered into lightly.Now the things that are not to be entered into lightly (such as marriage and the ministry) are often the things that men enter prepared viciously or not prepared at all; and college life is no exception. “ There had always lain a pleasant notion at the back of his head,” says Mr. Kipling of Harvey Cheyne’s father, who had left the boy to the care of a useless wife, “ that some day, when he had rounded off everything and the boy had left college, he would take his son to his heart and lead him into his possessions. Then that boy, he argued, as busy fathers do, would instantly become his companion, partner, and ally ; and there would follow splendid years of great works carried out together, — the old head backing the young fire.” Such fatal gaps in calculation, common with preoccupied fathers, are not uncommon with teachers, —the very men whose life work is fitting boys for life.

To prepare a boy for examinations that admit to college requires skill, but is easy; to prepare a boy for college is a problem that no teacher and no school has ever solved. In the widest sense, the transition from school to college is almost coincident with the transition from youth to manhood, — often a time when the physical being is excitable and ill controlled, when the mind suffers from the lassitude of rapid bodily growth, and when the youth’s whole conception of his relation to other people is distorted by conceit. Sensitive to his own importance, just beginning to know his power for good or evil, he is shot into new and exciting surroundings, — out of a discipline that drove and held him with whip and rein into a discipline that trusts him to see the road and to travel in it. If we add to this the new and alluring arguments for vice as an expression of fully developed manhood, we have some notion of the struggle in which a boy — away from home, it may be, for the first time — is expected to conquer. The best school is the school that best prepares him for this struggle; not the school that guards him most sternly or most tenderly, nor the school that guards him not at all, but the school that steadily increases his responsibility, and as steadily strengthens him to meet it. The best college is the college that makes him a man.

The first feeling of a Freshman is confusion ; the next is often a strange elation at the discovery that now at last his elders have given him his head. “ I never shall forget,” says a noted preacher, “ how I felt when I found myself a Freshman, — a feeling that all restraint was gone, and that I might go to the Devil just as fast as I pleased.” This is the transition from school to college.

In a man’s life there must be, as everybody knows, a perilous time of going out into the world : to many it comes at the beginning of a college course ; to many — possibly to most who go to college at all — it has already come at school. The larger and less protected boarding school or academy is constantly threatened with every vice known to a college ; the cloistered private school affords, from its lack of opportunity for some vices, peculiar temptation to others ; the day school, if in or near a large city, contains boys for whose bad habits, not yet revealed, their parents by and by will hold the college responsible. I remember a group of boys going daily from cultivated homes to an excellent school, each of whom, in college, came to one grief or another, and each of whom, I am convinced, had made straight at home and at school the way to that grief. The transition from school to college was merely the continuation in a larger world of what they had begun in a smaller.

A continuation is what the transition ought to be : the problem is how to make it a continuation of the right sort. “ What is the matter with your college ? ” says a teacher who cares beyond all else for the moral and religious welfare of his pupils. “ I keep my boys for years : I send them to you in September, and by Christmas half of them have degenerated. They have lost punctuality ; they have lost application ; they have no responsibility; and some of them are gone to the bad.” “ What is the matter with your school,” the college retorts, “ that in half a dozen years it cannot teach a boy to stand up three months ? College is the world ; fitting for college is fitting for life : what is the matter with your school ? ” He who loses his ideals loses the very bloom of life. To see a young man’s ideals rapidly slipping away, while his face grows coarser and coarser, is one of the saddest sights in college or out of it. What is his training good for, if it has not taught him the folly, the misery, and the wrong of dabbling in evil ? If he must believe that no man is wise till he has come to know the resorts of gamblers and harlots, and has indulged himself for experience’ sake in a little gentlemanly vice, can he not put off the acquaintance four years more, by the end of which time he may have learned some wiser way of getting wisdom ? Besides, in the course of those four years (and the chance is better than even) he may meet some girl for whose sake he will be glad that his record has been clean. Cannot a school which closely watches its boys while their characters are moulding teach them to keep their heads level and their hearts true, save them from the wrongs that never can be righted, send them to college and through college, faulty it must be, but at least unstained ?

The main object of school and college is the same, — to establish character, and to make that character more efficient through knowledge ; to make moral character more efficient through mental discipline. In the transition from school to college, continuity of the best influence, mental and moral, is the thing most needful. Oddly enough, the only continuity worthy of the name is often (in its outward aspects) neither mental nor moral, but athletic. An athlete is watched at school as an athlete, enters college as an athlete ; and if he is a good athlete, and if he takes decent care of his body, he continues his college course as an athlete, — with new experiences, it is true, but always with the thread of continuity fairly visible, and with the relation of training to success clearly in view. Palpably bad as the management of college athletics has been and is, misleading as the predominance of athletics in an institution of learning may be, the fact remains that in athletics lies a saving power, and that for many a boy no better bridge of the gap between school and college has yet been found than the bridge afforded by athletics. The Freshman athlete, left to himself, is likely to fall behind in his studies ; but unless he is singularly unreasonable or vicious, he is where an older student of clear head and strong will can keep him straight, — can at least save him from those deplorable falls that, to a greater or less degree, bruise and taint a whole life. “ The trouble will begin,” said a wise man, talking to sub-Freshmen, “in the first fortnight. Some evening you will be with a lot of friends in somebody’s room, when something is proposed that you know isn’t just right. Stop it if you can ; if not, go home and go to bed, and in the morning you will be glad you did n’t stay.” The first danger in the transition from boyhood to manhood is the danger in what is called “ knowing life.” It is so easy to let mere vulgar curiosity pose as the search for truth. A Senior, who had been in a fight at a public dance, said in defense of himself : “ I think I have led a pretty clean life in these four years ; but I believe that going among all sorts of people and knowing them is the best thing college life can give us.” The old poet knew better: —

“ Let no man say there, ‘ Virtue’s flinty wall Shall lock vice in me; I’ll do none but know all.’
Men are sponges, which, to pour out, receive ; Who know false play, rather than lose, deceive :
For in best understandings sin began ;
Angels sinned first, then devils, and then man.舡

Here comes in to advantage the ambition of the athlete. Football begins with or before the college year. Training for football means early hours, clean life, constant occupation for body and mind. Breach of training means ostracism. That this game tides many a Freshman over a great danger, by keeping him healthily occupied, I have come firmly to believe. It supplies what President Eliot calls “ a new and effective motive for resisting all sins which weaken or corrupt the body; ” it appeals to ambition and to self-restraint; it gives to crude youth a task in which crude youth can attain finish and skill, can feel the power that comes of surmounting tremendous obstacles and of recognition for surmounting them ; moreover, like war, it affords an outlet for the reckless courage of young manhood, — the same reckless courage that in idle days drives young men headlong into vice.

Has not hard study, also, a saving power ? Yes, for some boys ; but for a boy full of animal spirits, and not spurred to intellectual effort by poverty, the pressure is often too gentle, the reward too remote. Such a youth may be, in the first place, too well pleased with himself to understand his relation to his fellow men and the respectability of labor. He may fail to see that college life does not of itself make a man distinguished; in a vague way, he feels that the university is gratefully ornamented by his presence. No human creature can be more complacent than a Freshman, unless it is a Sophomore : yet the Freshman may be simply a being who, with no particular merit of his own, has received a great opportunity; and the Sophomore may be simply a being who has abused that opportunity for a year.

Now the Freshman meets, in a large modern college, a new theory of intellectual discipline. As Professor Peabody has beautifully expressed it, he passes “ from the sense of study as an obligation to the sense of study as an opportunity.” Too often he regards study as an inferior opportunity ; and having an option between study and loafing, he takes loafing. “ In the Medical School,” said a first-year medical student, “ they give you a lotto do ; and nobody cares in the least whether you do it.” In other words, the Medical School may rely on the combined stimulus of intellectual ambition and bread and butter : its Faculty need not prod or cosset; it is a place of Devil take the hindmost. Yet the change in the attitude of teacher to pupil is not more sharply marked between college and medical school than between preparatory school and college. “There are only two ways of getting work out of a boy,” said a young college graduate. “ One is through emulation ; the other is to stand behind and kick him.1 Mr. X [a well-known schoolmaster] says, ‘ Jones, will you please do this or that; ’ Mr. Y stands behind Jones and kicks him into college.” I do not accept the young graduate’s alternative; but I have to admit that many boys are kicked, or whipped, or cosseted, or otherwise personally conducted into college, and, once there, are as hopelessly lost as a baby turned loose in London. “ It took me about two years in college to get my bearings,” said an earnest man, now a superintendent of schools. “ I did n’t loaf ; I simply did n’t know how to get at things. In those days there was nobody to go to for advice ; and I had never read anything, — had never been inside of a public library. I did n’t know where or how to take hold.”

This is the story of a man who longed to take hold; and we must remember that many of our college boys do not at first care whether they take hold or not. It is only in football, not in study, that they have learned to tackle, and to tackle low. “ A bolstered boy,” says a wise mother, “is an unfortunate man.” Many of these boys have been bolstered ; many are mothers’ boys ; many have crammed day and night through the hot season to get into college, and, once in, draw a long breath and lie down. The main object of life is attained; and for any secondary object they are too tired to work. The old time-table of morning school gives place to a confusing arrangement which spreads recitations and lectures unevenly over the different days. They walk to a large lecture room, where a man who is not going to question them that day talks for an hour, more or less audibly. He is a long way off; 2 and though he is talking to somebody, he seems not to be talking to them. It is hard to listen; and if they take notes (a highly educational process) the notes will be poor : besides, if they need notes, they can buy them later. Why not let the lecture go, and sleep, or carve the furniture, or think about something else (girls, for instance) ? These boys are in a poor frame of mind for new methods of instruction ; yet new methods of instruction they must have. They must learn to depend upon themselves, to become men; and they must learn that hardest lesson of all, — that a man’s freedom consists in binding himself : still again, they must learn these things at an age when the average boy has an ill-seasoned body, a half-trained mind, jarred nerves, his first large sum of money, all manner of diverting temptations, and a profound sense of his own importance. How can they be taken down, and not taken down too much, — thrown, and not thrown too hard ? How can they be taught the responsibility of freedom ? They face, it may be, an elective system which, at first sight, seems to make elective not this or that study, merely, but the habit of studying at all. Already they have been weakened by the failure of the modern parent and the modern educator to see steadily the power that is born of overcoming difficulties. What the mind indolently shrinks from is readily mistaken, by fond mothers, mercenary tutors, and some better people, as not suited to the genius of the boy in question. 舠 It is too much for Jamie to learn those stupid rules of syntax, when he has a passion for natural history ; ” or, “ George never could learn geometry, — and after all, we none of us use geometry in later life. He expects to be a lawyer, like his father ; and I can’t think of any good geometry can do him.”

The change “ from the sense of study as an obligation to the sense of study as an opportunity ” is a noble change for persons mature enough to turn opportunity into obligation; it is not a noble change for those who choose such studies only as they think they can pass with bought notes. Knowledge that does not overcome difficulties, knowledge that merely absorbs what it can without disagreeable effort, is not power ; it is not even manly receptivity. Milton, to be sure, patient toiler and conqueror though he was, cried in his pain, “ God loves not to plough out the heart of our endeavors with overhard and sad tasks : ” but an overbard and sad task may be a plain duty ; and even Milton, when he said this, was trying to get rid of what some people would call a plain duty, — his wife. When we consider the mass and the variety of the Freshmen’s temptations, and what some one has called the “ strain on their higher motives,” we wonder more and more at the strength of the temptation to knowledge, whereby so many stand steady, and work their way out into clear-headed and trustworthy manhood.

One way to deal with these strange, excited, inexperienced, and intensely human things called Freshmen is to let them flounder till they drown or swim ; and this way has been advocated by men who have no boys of their own. It is delightfully simple, if we can only shut eye and ear and heart and conscience ; and it has a kind of plausibility in the examples of men who through rough usage have achieved strong character. “ The objection,” as the master of a great school said the other day, “ is the waste ; and,” he added, “ it is such an awful thing to waste human life! ” This method is a cruel method, ignoring all the sensibilities of that delicate, high-strung instrument which we call the soul. If none but the fittest survived, the cruelty might be defended ; but some, who unhappily cannot drown, become cramped swimmers for all their days. Busy and worn as a college teacher usually is, thirsty for the advancement of learning as he is assumed always to be, he cannot let hundreds of young men pass before him, unheeded and unbefriended. At Harvard College, the Faculty, through its system of advisers for Freshmen, has made a beginning; and though there are hardly enough advisers to go round, the system has proved its usefulness. At Harvard College, also, a large committee of Seniors and Juniors has assumed some responsibility for all the Freshmen. Each undertakes to see at the beginning of the year the Freshmen assigned to him, and to give every one of them, besides kindly greeting and good advice, the feeling that an experienced undergraduate may be counted on as a friend in need.

Whether colleges should guard their students more closely than they do — whether, for example, they should with gates and bars protect their dormitories against the inroads of bad women —is an open question. For the deliberately vicious such safeguards would amount to nothing; but for the weak they might lessen the danger of sudden temptation. Of what schools should do I can say little ; for with schools I have little experience: but this I know, that some system of gradually increased responsibility is best in theory, and has proved good in practice. The scheme of making the older and more influential boys “ Prefects ” has worked well in at least one large preparatory school, and shows its excellence in the attitude of the Prefects when they come to college. This scheme makes a confident appeal to the maturity of some boys and the reasonableness of all, trusting all to see that the best hopes of teacher and scholar are one and the same.

The system of gradually increased responsibility at school must be met halfway by the system of friendly supervision at college, — supervision in which the older undergraduates are quite as important as the Faculty. The Sophomore who enjoys hazing (like the Dean who employs spies) is an enemy to civilization. The true state of mind, whether for professor or for student, was expressed by a college teacher long ago. “ I hold it,” he said, “ a part of my business to do what I can for any wight that comes to this place.” When all students of all colleges, and all boys of all schools, believe, and have the right to believe, that their teachers are their friends ; when the educated public recognizes the truth that school and college should help each other in lifting our youth to the high ground of character, — the school never forgetting that boys are to be men, and the college never forgetting that men have been boys, — we shall come to the ideal of education. Toward this ideal we are moving, slowly but steadily. When we reach it, or even come so near it as to see it always, we shall cease to dread the transition from school to college.

L. B. R. Briggs.

  1. Both ways are known in football, besides what is called “ cursing up.”
  2. A student whose name begins with Y told me once that he had never had a good seat in his life.