A National Standard in Higher Education

IT is generally agreed that there are already too many universities in America. That is the reason why one more is urgently needed.

The greater the number of banks in a city, the more necessary is a clearinghouse. It is the multiplicity, not the paucity, of magazines that has brought into existence a Review of Reviews. In like manner, the very energy which America has shown in the establishment of places of higher education requires that these institutions be supplemented. The rapidity of their growth and extension is the strongest reason for devising a scheme to coördinate and systematize the miscellaneous educational forces of the country.

The necessity of simplification is especially evident when an attempt is made to appraise the value of a university degree. As long as degree-giving bodies were few, it meant something to be a graduate. To-day the mere statement that a man is an A. B. gives scarcely any indication of his intellectual quality. A distinct value is of course attached to a degree won at a university which possesses a national reputation, but it would be difficult for even the Commissioner of Education himself to gauge accurately the comparative worth of the degrees granted by all the institutions which he admits to his list of colleges and universities. It is absolutely impossible for an average member of a board of trustees or of any kind of appointing committee to tell whether a graduate of a college in one latitude and longitude is likely to be a better scholar than one whose alma mater is to be discovered on another part of the map. In England no such difficulty confronts those who have the task of making appointments to educational posts. The universities likely to be represented among candidates for a position may be counted on the fingers of one hand, and it does not take much pains to become acquainted with their various requirements for honors and degrees. The appointing board is therefore able, by merely noting the university record of various applicants, to gauge exactly their respective qualifications on the score of ability and scholarship. I can see no reason why such estimates should not become at least as easy in America as they are at present in England. The one thing needed is the establishment of a common standard, by reference to which it will be possible to fix the academic position of individual students, whether they come from Walla Walla or from Tallahassee, and Indirectly to estimate the comparative value of the training given in the colleges which send them out.

Such a standard could be provided without dislocating whatever educational system exists already, and without requiring such an outlay as to compel an appeal to the benevolent millionaire for another check. The first step would be the creation of a new university or degree-giving body on the following lines. (My suggestions are of course tentative, and are open to considerable modifications in detail if the general principle is accepted.)

(1.) The nucleus of the new university would be a board of experts, representing the most authoritative educational opinion of the country. These would constitute a senate. The senate would draw up the curriculum for degrees, and would appoint examiners in various subjects. In due time the alumni of the university would naturally be admitted to a share in its government.

(2.) All candidates for a degree, in whatever faculty, would be required to have first passed an entrance or matriculation examination, to which no one would be admitted who had not completed his sixteenth year. This examination would not be of an advanced nature, but would be thorough as far as it went, and would include in its range all the necessary elements of a liberal education. Certain options would be allowed, as, for instance, between one modern language and another, and between one branch of science and another, but the syllabus would be so drawn up that a candidate whose strong point was science could not escape a test in language and literature, and vice versa.

(3.) Having matriculated, each student would have to decide in what faculty — for example, arts, science, laws, etc. — he would take his degree. In each faculty it would be necessary, for the bachelor’s degree, to have passed two examinations subsequent to matriculation. These might be called respectively junior and senior, or intermediate and final. In the event of his selecting the faculty of arts, he would pursue the study of classics, modern languages, and literature (including English), history, mathematics, and philosophy. In science the curriculum, except for mathematics and philosophy, would be entirely different from the course in arts, it being presumed that success at the matriculation examination was evidence of the possession of a sufficient basis of literary knowledge. It would have to be considered whether, in the curriculum for these degrees, an honors examination in individual subjects should be added to the pass examination for the benefit of specialists.

(4.) The degrees of master and doctor would be conferred on graduates who had given satisfactory evidence of having successfully pursued specialist studies after taking the bachelor’s degree. In higher work of this kind the presentation of a thesis might be required to supplement an examination as the test of proficiency.

(5.) An interval of at least one year would be required between any examination and the next above it. There would be no limitation on the other side. A successful candidate at the intermediate examination might allow five years to elapse, if circumstances made it necessary or desirable, before entering for his final. An unsuccessful candidate at any examination might repeat his attempts to pass it year after year, until his perseverance was either rewarded or exhausted. But no piecemeal system of “ conditioning ” would be allowed. A candidate who could not pass his examination as a whole would be counted as having failed.

(6.) Except in the case of candidates for medical degrees, from whom some practical acquaintance with hospital work would be demanded, there would be no requirement of previous study at a college. A candidate for a degree might have been educated at any college in America or out of it, or at no college at all; he might have to his credit a million recitations or none ; it would not make the least difference to his eligibility for a degree. He would be judged by his examination, and by that alone. The university would require, however, from each applicant — at any rate in the lower examinations — a certificate of good character signed by a responsible person.

(7.) No degree or other certificate from an outside authority would be recognized as giving exemption from any examination, in whole or in part. The university would thus be entirely freed from the invidious duty of putting its own estimate upon the character of the education given either in colleges or in academies and preparatory schools. It would pass its verdict upon each candidate by direct inspection.

(8.) No honorary degrees would be conferred, on any conditions.

(9.) The university would have its offices in the national capital, but its examinations would be conducted simultaneously, according to uniform regulations, but under the direction of local supervisors, at a large number of centres in all parts of the country. The names and fees of all candidates would be sent a few weeks previously to the registrar, who would compile a list of entries and number them in alphabetical order. Each candidate would be informed of his allotted number, with which he would label his papers, without mention of his name or residence or place of education. When the batch of papers was collected and sent to the examiners via Washington, they would have no clue to the identity of any candidate.

(10.) Candidates would be admitted to all examinations without any limitations of sex, or race, or creed.

It may be well to anticipate some objections that will be raised against any such scheme as that which I have just outlined. It will probably be urged in the first place that the establishment of a university of this kind would interfere with the autonomy of existing colleges, and impair academic freedom to a far greater extent than in the most arbitrary silencing of a heterodox professor. There is no real ground for this apprehension. It would be within the power of any college either to send its students up for these examinations or to refrain from sending them. Colleges whose reputation was already more than local would not expect any profit from contributing to the examination lists of the new universify, and would accordingly ignore it, though after a few years some of their students might find it worth while, on their own account, to obtain its degrees. Those colleges which took advantage of the scheme would be affected by it to the extent of the influence exerted by its curriculum upon their own. If they pleased, they might adopt the examinations of the new university as their own graduating tests, in which case they could still add whatever conditions might seem desirable in the way of residence, attendance at recitations, etc. Each college would retain its present powers of selfgovernment in respect to such matters as the appointment of its staff, its conditions of entrance, its methods of teaching, its disciplinary regulations, and the administration of its revenues. As far as the examinations of the new university were concerned, a college might, of course, require all its own undergraduates to sit for them, or leave it to the choice of individual students.

It will doubtless be objected further that examinations are an insufficient test, and tend to encourage cramming rather than true education. The fact is, however, that an examination is both the only uniform test that is possible, — every one knows that the value of recitation credits differs not only in adjacent colleges, but even in adjacent classrooms, — and the only real test that can be devised at all. A man who has been studying the classics for years either can or cannot write a good piece of Latin prose ; if he cannot, he does not acquire a greater claim to be called a Latin scholar from the fact that for so many hours he occupied a certain bench in a certain college. In all departments of human activity the competent man is he who knows and can do. Society, especially in America, does not trouble to inquire how he came to know or learnt to do; the fact that the results are indisputably good is accepted as proof that the processes leading to them cannot have been very far wrong. After all, the flower is the best evidence alike of seed, soil, and climate. Except in subjects the study of which consists mainly in the acquisition of a body of facts by memory, there is no ground for the suspicion that a capable examiner may be outwitted by a crammer. No trick of unintelligent rote learning has yet been invented that will communicate the power of turning an extract from Burke into Ciceronian Latin, or of solving a problem in the higher mathematics.

Again, it will be said that the true university is much more than a degreegiving body ; it must at least provide teaching and encourage research. Indirectly a university such as I have proposed would promote both teaching and research. It must be admitted, however, that neither of these objects would be its main function. Accordingly, it would not be an ideal university ; not the type to which educational institutions all the world over should endeavor to approximate. Yet there is high classical authority for the principle that we should seek, not what is absolutely the best, but what is the best for us ; and the fact remains that in America, in the beginning of the twentieth century, higher education would he further advanced by such an agency than by the founding of several universities of the more usual kind. We have to consider not so much what is the dictionary definition or the historical tradition of the word “ university ” as what reform is most urgent at the present stage of the educational development of this country. If, however, our academical jurists are shocked by the suggestion that the name “ university ” shall be given to a body which does not profess to teach, but which, nevertheless, carries out thoroughly the examinations it undertakes, — though it is thought no degradation that the name should he flaunted by institutions whose teaching and examination are so ideal as to cease to be actual, — an alternative may be suggested. It would answer the purpose equally well for the board to be known simply by the name of the Senatus Academicus. A degree of A. B. (Senat. Acad.) would be intelligible from the first, and would in a few years acquire its own connotation.

Over against these objections, which I have tried to show are not by any means vital, may be set the following distinct advantages in favor of my proposal: —

(1.) It would provide a new opportunity for ambitious youths of narrow means. As things are, the private student, remote and unfriended, if not melancholy and slow, cannot obtain any adequate academic recognition of such selfeducational work as he may have done, however deserving it may be. Unless he can raise money for his support while at college, or is willing to endanger his health for life by pursuing some moneygetting occupation simultaneously with his college course, he can never expect to gain the coveted degree. The opening of a new avenue to intellectual distinction would communicate a fresh stimulus to many whose pursuit of knowledge is now hampered by poverty or physical weakness. At no expense but that of their examination fees, they would have within reach a hall-mark which the graduate of the most famous seat of learning need not disdain to bear.

(2.) It would furnish an intelligible standard of proficiency in the case of graduates seeking posts as teachers. The certificates of this truly national university would make it possible to compare the merits, as regards scholarship, of men coming from all parts of the country and educated in different institutions. The practical convenience of such a simplification need not be emphasized.

(3.) It would give the smaller colleges a chance. At present, a new or otherwise unknown college cannot hope to win a name except by its wealth or by the distinction of individual members of its faculty. Neither of these things necessarily implies efficient teaching. A college, however, whose students acquitted themselves honorably for a succession of years in the examinations of the new university would gain a reputation extending far beyond the boundaries of its own state. No slight contribution would be made to the soundness of higher education if it were rendered possible for a professor to do as much for the credit of his college by giving himself diligently to teaching as by writing a book or sending articles to the learned reviews. Under the new conditions well qualified men would be much more ready than they are now to begin their educational career by taking comparatively obscure posts, knowing that if the true light were shining within them there would be no bushel to hide it.

(4.) Within a few years it would sensibly raise the standards of colleges which have hitherto been content with low aims and still lower performances. A board constituted in the way I have suggested would not tolerate any scamped or slovenly work. And by persistent refusals to set its seal upon “ knowledge falsely so called ” it would gradually banish pretense and superficiality from the higher education of America. Its stringent matriculation examination could not fail to raise the quality of the teaching, not only in colleges but also in academies and high schools. This examination would in itself come to be regarded as a creditable distinction for a youth of from sixteen to eighteen, and would probably be taken by many who did not intend to pursue later studies with a view to graduation. A considerable outcry might be heard at first from colleges which fared badly in such examinations, and they might be faced with the alternatives of improvement or disappearance. But such as are really places of sound learning and instruction would have reason to welcome the severity of the ordeal. For we may apply to educational reform what Thomas Carlyle said of a far more revolutionary movement : “ Sans-culottism will burn many things ; but what is incombustible it will not burn.”

It is not unlikely, however, that some readers of this article, while admitting that my project, as it appears on paper, seems to offer real advantages, will doubt whether, after all, it would work. My answer is that it has actually stood the test of experience, for in essentials it is identical with a system that has already been in successful operation for nearly half a century. It is to be regretted that the work of the University of London is not better known in Ameilea, for the history of that institution is full of suggestion for educational reformers in this country. It was established in 1828, mainly in the interests of Nonconformists, who at that time were prevented by theological restrictions from graduating at Oxford or Cambridge. At first it imposed upon applicants for its degrees the condition of previous study in one of a number of affiliated colleges, but in 1858 its examinations were thrown open to all comers, with the exception of women. Twenty years later this restriction was removed,the University of London being the first academic body in Great Britain to ignore the distinction of sex. It also deserves the credit of a pioneer for its introduction of modern science into its curriculum when the older universities were still hesitating to admit such an innovation. One of its most notable features has been the severity of its examinations, which has naturally made its degrees eagerly coveted. It has been by no means unusual for fifty per cent of the candidates to be rejected at an examination. The result is that a B. A. pass degree at London is everywhere regarded as a much better evidence of ability and education than a similar degree at Oxford or Cambridge. The London M. A. has also a value of its own, for it is earned by an examination in which none but specialists have any chance of success, instead of being conferred, as in the case of the Oxford or Cambridge M. A.,upon all bachelors of arts who have kept their names upon the books and paid their dues for a prescribed period.

The very difficulty of obtaining a London degree made the ambition to gain it attractive, from the first, to many able men. Among those who, but for the existence of this university, would never have had an opportunity of wearing any academic distinction at all — except, of course, for the honorary degrees conferred upon some of them when they had already made their reputation — may be mentioned such men as Lord Herschell and Sir George Jessel, among lawyers; Lord Lister, Sir Richard Quain, Sir Henry Thompson, Sir J. Russell Reynolds, Sir William Jenner, and Sir W. W. Gull, among surgeons and physicians; R. W. Dale, A. Maclaren, and W. F. Moulton, among theologians ; Walter Bagehot and W. Stanley Jevons, among economists; and Richard Holt Hutton among journalists. Some others, such as Dean Farrar, were encouraged by successes at the University of London to proceed later to a residential university. Others, again, have thought it worth while to add a London degree to honors previously or simultaneously won at Oxford or Cambridge. High Cambridge wranglers have in particular shown a great appetite for the gold medal offered annually to the highest candidate in mathematics at the London M. A., though even the senior wrangler himself is not excused by his Cambridge successes from passing through the preliminary stages of the matriculation and intermediate and final B. A. examinations. The fact that London distinctions should have become to so great an extent an object of ambition indicates how faithfully the university has maintained its standard. But the greatest service that the University of London has rendered to English education has been in the effect it has had in improving the quality of the teaching given in those places of higher education which were not closely in touch with Oxford or Cambridge. Although it has been for most of its history nothing but an examining body, it has exerted an incalculable indirect influence upon all such institutions. Inefficient schools either have been compelled to make themselves efficient, or have suffered in reputation from the public evidence of their inefficiency. Quite recently this university has been made the nucleus of a scheme for the coördination of higher education in London, and has thus become to some extent a teaching university, but it will continue to render, concurrently, its special service as a national institution to private students and small colleges in all parts of the country.

There is good reason to believe that a university of this type is just now the chief need of American higher education. The scheme with which Mr. Carnegie’s name has recently been connected is, as an ideal scheme, wholly admirable. The provision of greater opportunities for post-graduate study naturally appears to be one of the most wholesome methods possible for the absorption of surplus wealth. In certain circumstances this would be so. But I am not sure that this is precisely the direction in which the next advance may most profitably be made. In the present condition of things an increase of the facilities for post-graduate study might even aggravate one of the most serious dangers now threatening the educational system of America. For the principal trouble with American education to-day is that it is top-heavy. The ultimate stage is reached too early. Men are attempting the work of specialists in post-graduate classes when they are still freshmen in everything except the name. The consequence is that this excess of zeal for original production defeats its own end, and that what are supposed to be finished products show painful signs of crude workmanship. The remedy is to be found — if one may compare the educational system to a building — not in putting additional masonry into the highest story, but in laying more substantial foundations and strengthening the main structure. And this most necessary reform would, I believe, be accomplished to a considerable degree by the execution of such a scheme as has been outlined in this paper.

Herbert W. Horwill.