The College: An Undergraduate View

THE undergraduate of to-day, if be reads the magazines, discovers that a great many people are worrying seriously about his condition. College presidents and official investigators are discussing his scholarship, his extracurricular activities, and his moral stamina. Not content with the surface of the matter, they are going deeper and are investigating the college itself, its curriculum, the scholarship of the instructors, and its adequacy in realizing its high ideal as a preparation for life. The undergraduate finds that these observers are pretty generally inclined to exonerate him for many of his shortcomings, and to lay the blame on the college itself; the system is indicted, and not the helpless product.

For this he is grateful, and he realizes that this dissatisfaction among educators, this uneasy searching of the academic heart, promises well for the education of his children, and for himself if he remains in college long enough to get the benefit of the reforms. Meanwhile, as he attends recitations and meetings of undergraduate societies, talks with his fellow students and the professors, and reads the college papers, he may, even if he can get no hint of the mysterious inner circles where the destinies of the students are shaped and great questions of policy decided, be able himself to see some of the things that complicate college scholarship today, from an inner point of view which is impossible to the observer looking down from above. He may find in the character of the student body itself, and the way in which it reacts to what the college offers it, an explanation of some of the complications of scholarship that so disturb our critics;and in a certain new quality in the spirit of the college, something that is beginning to crystallize his own ideals, and to make him count himself fortunate that he is receiving his education in this age and no other. In the constitution of college society, and in the intellectual and spiritual ideals of the teachers, he may find the explanation why the college is as it is, and the inspiration of what the college ought to be and is coming to be.

The first thing that is likely to impress the undergraduate is the observation that college society is much less democratic than it used to be. It is to be expected, of course, that it will be simply an epitome of the society round about it. But the point is, that whereas the college of the past was probably more democratic than the society about it, the present-day college is very much less democratic. Democracy does not require uniformity, but it does require a certain homogeneity, and the college to-day is less homogeneous than that of our fathers. For the growing preponderance of the cities has meant that an ever-increasing proportion of city-bred men go to college, in contrast to the past, when the men were drawn chiefly from the small towns and country districts. Since social distinctions are very much more sharply marked in the city than in the country, this trend has been a potent influence in undemocratizing the college. In ordinary city life these distinctions are not yet, at least, insistent enough to cause any particular class feeling, but in the ideal world of college life they become aggravated, and sufficiently acute to cause much misunderstanding and ill-feeling. With increasing fashionableness, the small college, until recently the stronghold of democracy, is beginning to succumb, and to acquire all those delicately devised and subtle forms of snobbery which have hitherto characterized the life of the large college. If this tendency continues, the large college will have a decided advantage as a preparation for life, for as a rule it is situated in a large city, where the environment more nearly approximates the environment of after life than does the artificial and sheltered life of the small college.

The presence of aliens in large numbers in the big colleges, and increasingly in the smaller colleges, is an additional factor in complicating the social situation. It ought not to be ignored, for it has important results in making the college considerably less democratic even than would otherwise be the case. It puts the American representatives on the defensive, so that they draw still more closely together for self-defense, and pull more tightly their lines of vested interest and social and political privilege. The prejudice of race can always be successfully appealed to in undergraduate matters, even to the extent of beguiling many men with naturally democratic consciences into doing things which they would murmur at if called on to do as individuals, and not as the protectors of the social prestige of the college. The fraternities are of course the centre of this vast political system which fills the athletic managerships, selects members of the societies, officers of classes and clubs, editors and assistants of publications, and performs generally all that indispensable public service of excluding the aliens, the unpresentable, and the generally unemployable from activity.

I am aware that most of t he colleges pride themselves on the fact that the poor man has an equal chance with the rich to-day to win extra-curricular honors, and mingle in college society on a perfect plane of social equality with the best. It is true, of course, that in college as in real life t he exceptional man will always rise to the top. But this does not alter the fact that there exists at too many American colleges a wholesale disfranchisement from any participation in the extra-curricular activities, that is not based on any recognizable principle of talent or ability. It is all probably inherent in the nature of things, and to cavil at it sets one down as childish and unpractical. At present it certainly seems inevitable and unalterable. The organized efforts of the President recently to democratize the social situation at Princeton met with such dull, persistent hostility on the part of the alumni that they had to be abandoned.

This social situation in the college is not very often mentioned in the usual discussions of college problems, but I have dwelt on it here at length because I believe that it has a direct bearing on scholarship. For it creates an eternal and irreconcilable conflict between scholarship and extra-curricular activities. Scholarship is fundamentally democratic. Before the bar of marks and grades, penniless adventurer and rich man’s son stand equal. In college society, therefore, with its sharply marked social distinctions, scholarship fails to provide a satisfactory field for honor and reputation. This implies no dislike to scholarship as such on the part of the ruling class in college society, but means simply that, scholarship forces an unwelcome democratic standard on a naturally undemocratic society. This class turns therefore to the extra-curricular activities as a superior field for distinction, a field where honor will be done a man, not only for his ability, but for the indefinable social prestige which he brings along with him to college from the outside world. There is thus a division of functions, — the socially fit take the fraternities, the managerships, the publications, the societies; the unpresentable take the honors and rewards of scholarship. Each class probably gets just what it needs for after life. The division would thus be palpably fair were it not for the fact that an invidious distinction gets attached to the extra-curricular activities, which turns the energy of many of the most capable and talented men, men with real personality and powers of leadership, men without a taint of snobbery, into a mad scramble for these outside places, with consequent, but quite unintentional, bad effects on their scholarship.

The result of all this is, of course, a general lowering of scholarship in the college. The ruling class is content with passing marks, and has no ambition to excel in scholarship, for it does not feel that the attainment of scholars’ honors confers the distinctions upon it that it desires. In addition, this listlessness for scholarship serves to retard the work of the scholarly portion of the classes; it makes the instructor work harder, and clogs up generally the work of the course. This listlessness may be partly due to another factor in the situation. An ever larger proportion of college students to-day comes from the business class, where fifty years ago it came from the professional class. This means a difference between the intellectual background of the home that the man leaves and of the college to which he comes, very much greater than when college training was still pretty much the exclusive property of the professional man or the solid merchant, and almost an hereditary matter. For, nowadays, probably a majority of undergraduates are sent to college by fathers who have not had a college education themselves, but who, reverencing, as all Americans do, Education if not Learning, are ambitious that their sons shall have its benefits. These parents can well afford to set their sons up handsomely so that they shall lose nothing of the well-rounded training that makes up college life; and although it is doubtful whether their idea of the result is much more than a vague feeling that college will give their boys tone, and polish them off much in the way that the young ladies’ boarding-school polishes off the girls, they are a serious factor to be reckoned with in any discussion of college problems.

Most of these young men come thus from homes of conventional religion, cheap literature, and lack of intellectual atmosphere, bring few intellectual acquisitions with them, and, since they are most of them going into business, and will therefore make little practical use of these acquisitions in after life, contrive to carry a minimum away with them. In the college courses and talks with their instructors they come into an intellectual atmosphere that is so utterly different from what they have been accustomed to that, instead of an intellectual sympathy between instructor and student, there ensues an intellectual struggle that is demoralizing to both. The instructor has sometimes to carry on a veritable guerilla warfare of new ideas against the pupils in his courses, with a disintegrating effect that is often far from happy. If he does not disintegrate, he too often stiffens the youth, if of the usually tough traditional cast of mind, into an impregnable resolution that defies all new ideas forever after. This divergence of ideals and attitudes toward life is one of the most interesting complications of scholarship, for it is dramatic and flashes out in the class-room, in aspects at times almost startling.

There is still another thing that complicates scholarship, at least in the larger colleges that have professional schools. Two or three years of regular college work are now required to enter the schools of law, medicine, divinity, and education. An undergraduate who looks forward to entering these professional schools, too often sees this period of college work as a necessary but troublesome evil which must be gone through with as speedily as possible. In his headlong rush he is apt to slight his work, or take a badly synthesized course of studies, or, in an effort, to get all he can while he is in the college, to gorge himself with a mass of material that cannot possibly be digested. Now, the college work is of course only prescribed in order that the professional man may have a broad background of general culture before he begins to specialize. Any hurrying through defeats this purpose, and renders this preliminary work worse than useless. A college course must have a chance to digest if it is to be at all profitable to a man; and digestion takes time. Between the listlessness of the business youths who have no particular interest in scholarship, and the impetuosity of the prospective professional man who wants to get at his tools, the ordinary scholar who wants to learn to think, to get a robust sort of culture in an orderly and leisurely way, and feel his mental muscles growing month by month, gets the worst of it, or at least has little attention paid to him. The instructor is so busy, drumming on the laggards or restraining the reckless, that the scholar has to work out much of his own salvation alone.

Whether or not all this is good for the scholar in cultivating his self-reliance, the general level of scholarship certainly suffers. Neither the college administration nor the faculties have been entirely guiltless, in the past, of yielding before the rising tide of extra-curricular activities. Athletics, through the protection, supervision, and even financial assistance, of the college, have become a thoroughly unwholesome excrescence on college life. They have become the nucleus for a perverted college sentiment. College spirit has come to mean enthusiasm for the winning of a game, and a college that has no football team is supposed to have necessarily no college spirit. Pride and loyalty to Alma Mater, the prestige of one’s college, one’s own collegiate self-respect, get bound up and dependent upon a winning season at athletics. It seems amazing sometimes to the undergraduate how the college has surrendered to the student point of view. Instructors too often, in meeting students informally, assume that they must talk about what is supposed to interest the student rather than their own intellectual interests. They do not deceive the student, and they do miss a real opportunity to impress their personality upon him and to awaken him to a recognition of a broader world of vital interests than athletic scores and records.

If the college would take away its patronage of athletics, which puts a direct premium on semi-professionalism, would circumscribe the club-house features of the fraternities, and force some more democratic method of selection on the undergraduate societies, would it have the effect of raising the general level of scholarship? It surely seems that such a movement on the part of the college administration would result in keeping athletics proportioned directly to the interest that the student body took in it, to the extent of their participation in it, and the voluntary support that, they gave to it, instead of to the amount of money that an army of graduate managers and alumni associations can raise for it, and to the exertions of paid professional coaches and volunteer rah-rah boys. This would permit college sentiment to flow back into its natural channels, so that the undergraduate might begin to feel some pride in the cultural prestige of his college, and accquire a new respect for the scholarly achievements of its big men. This would mean an awakened interest in scholarship. The limitation of extra-curricular activities would mean that that field would become less adequate as a place for acquiring distinction; opportunity would be diminished, and it would become more and more difficult to maintain social eminence as the sine qua non of campus distinction. Who knows but what these activities might be finally abandoned entirely to the unpresentable class, and the ruling class seize upon the field of scholarship as a surer way of acquiring distinction, now that the old gods had fled?

If the college is not yet ready to adopt so drastic an attitude, it has at least already begun to preach democracy. It is willing to preach inspirationally what it cannot yet do actively. In the last few years there has been creeping into the colleges in the person of the younger teachers a new spirit of positive conviction, a new enthusiasm, that makes a college education today a real inspiration to the man who can catch the message. And at the risk of being considered a traitor to his class, the sincere undergraduate of to-day must realize the changed attitude, and ally himself with his radical teachers in spirit and activity. He then gets an altered view of college life. He begins to see the college course as an attempt, as yet not fully organized but becoming surer of its purpose as time goes on, to convert the heterogeneous mass of American youth — scions of a propertygetting class with an antiquated tradition and ideals that are out of harmony with the ideals of the leaders of thought to-day; slightly dispirited aliens, whose racial ideals have been torn and confused by the disintegrating influences of American life; men of hereditary culture; penniless adventurers hewing upward to a profession— to a democratic, realistic, scientific attitude toward life that will harmonize and explain the world as a man looks at it, enable him to interpret human nature in terms of history and the potentialities of the future, and furnish as solid and sure an intellectual and spiritual support as the old religious background of our fathers that has been fading these many years.

This is the work of the college of to-day, as it was the work of the college of fifty years ago to justify the works of God to man. The college thus becomes for the first time in American history a reorganizing force. It has become thoroughly secularized these last twenty years, and now finds arrayed against it, in spirit at least if not in open antagonism, the churches and the conservative moulders of opinion. The college has a great opportunity before it to become, not only the teacher, but the inspirational centre of the thought and ideals of the time.

If to the rising generation our elders rarely seem quite contemporaneous in their criticisms of things, we in turn are apt to take the ordinary for the special. We may be simply reading into the college our own enthusiasms, and may attribute to the college a new attitude when it is ourselves that are different. But I am sure that some such ideal is vaguely beginning to crystallize in the minds of the younger professors and the older undergraduates, or those who have been out in the world long enough to get a slightly objective point of view. The passing of the classics has meant much more than a mere change in the curriculum of the college; it has meant a complete shifting of attitude. The classics as a cultural core about which the other disciplines were built up have given place to the social sciences, especially history, which is hailed now by some of its enthusiastic devotees as the sum of all knowledge. The union of humanistic spirit with scientific point of view, which has been longed for these many years, seems on the point of being actually achieved, and it is the new spirit that the colleges seem to be propagating.

I am sure that it is a democratic spirit. History, economics, and the other social sciences are presented as the record of the development of human freedom, and the science of man’s social life. We are told to look on institutions not as rigid and eternally fixed, but as fluid and in the course of evolution to an ever higher cultivation of individuality and general happiness, and to cast our thinking on public questions into this new mould. A college man is certainly not educated to-day unless he gets this democratic attitude. That is what makes the aristocratic organization of undergraduate life doubly unfortunate. For one of the most valuable opportunities of college life is the chance to get acquainted, not politely and distantly, but intimately, with all types of men and minds from all parts of the country and all classes of society, so that one may learn what the young men of the generation arc really thinking and hoping. Knowledge of men is an indispensable feature of a real education :not a knowledge of their weaknesses, as too many seem to mean by the phrase, but knowledge of their strength and capabilities, so that one may get the broadest possible sympathy with human life as it is actually lived to-day, and not as it is seen through the idealistic glasses of former generations. The association only with men of one’s own class, such as the organization of college life to-day fosters, is simply fatal to any broad understanding of life. The refusal to make the acquaintance while in college of as many as possible original, self-dependent personalities, regardless of race and social status, is morally suicidal. There are indications, however, that the preaching of the democratic gospel is beginning to have its influence, in the springing-up of college forums and societies which do without the rigid coöption that has cultivated the cutting one’s self off from one’s fellows.

I am sure that it is a scientific spirit. The scientific attitude toward life is no longer kept as the exclusive property of the technical schools. It has found its way into those studies that have been known as humanistic, but, in penetrating, it has become colored itself, so that the student is shown the world, not as a relentless machine, running according to mechanical laws, but as an organism, profoundly modifiable and directive by human will and purpose. He learns that the world in which he lives is truly a mechanism, but a mechanism that exists for the purpose of turning out products as man shall direct for the enrichment of his own life. He learns to appreciate more the application to social life of machinery in organization and coöperation; he gets some idea of the forces that build up human nature and sway men’s actions. He acquires an impartial way of looking at things; effort is made to get him to separate his personal prejudices from the larger view, and get an objective vision of men and events. The college endeavors with might and main to cultivate in him an open-mindedness, so that he will not close up at twentyfive to the entrance of new ideas, but will find his college course merely introductory to life, a learning of one’s bearings in a great world of thought and activity, and an inspiration to a constant working for better things.

I am sure that it is a critical spirit. A critical attitude toward life is as bad a thing for a boy as it is an indispensable thing for an educated man. The college tries to cultivate it gradually in its students, so that by the end of his four years a man will have come simply not to take everything for granted, but to test and weigh and prove ideas and institutions with which he comes in contact. Of course the results are unfortunate when this critical attitude comes with a sudden shock so as to be a mere disillusionment, a turning of a beautiful world yellow; but it must come if a man is to see wisely and understand. The college must teach him to criticize without rancor, and see that his cynicism, if that must come too, is purging and cleansing and not bitter.

And lastly, I am sure that it is an enthusiastic spirit. The college wants to give a man a keen desire for social progress, a love for the arts, a delight in sheer thinking, and a confidence in his own powers. It will do little good to teach a man about what men have thought and done and built unless some spark is kindled, some reaction produced that will have consequences for the future; it will do little good to teach him about literature and the arts unless some kind of an emotional push is imparted to him that will drive him on to teach himself further and grow into a larger appreciation of the best; it will do little good to enforce scientific discipline unless by it the mind is forged into a keener weapon for attacking problems and solving them scientifically and not superficially. And it is just this enthusiasm that the college, and only the college, can impart. We come there to learn from men, not from books. We could learn from books as well at home, but years of individual study will not equal the inspirational value of one short term of listening to the words of a wise and good man. Only enthusiasm can knit the scattered ideals and timorous aspirations into a constructive whole.

Some such spirit as I have endeavored to outline, the college is beginning to be infused with to-day; some such spirit the undergraduate must get if he is to be in the best sense educated and adequately equipped for the complex work of the world. If such a spirit is instilled, it almost matters little what the details of his courses are, or the mere material of his knowledge. Such an attitude will be a sufficient preparation for life, and adequate training for citizenship. We want citizens who are enthusiastic thinkers, not docile and uncritical followers of tradition; we want leaders of public opinion with the scientific point of view: unclassed men, not men like the leaders of the passing generation, saturated with class prejudices and class ideals.

The college is rapidly revising its curriculum in line with the new standards. The movement is so new, to be sure, that things have hardly got their bearings yet. Men who graduated only ten years ago tell me that there was nothing like this new spirit when they were in college. The student finds a glut of courses, and flounders around for two or three years before he gets any poise at all. A judicious mixture of compulsory and elective courses seems to be furnishing a helpful guide, and a system of honor courses like that recently introduced at Columbia provides an admirable means, not only to a more intensive culture, but also to the synthesis of intellectual interests that creates a definite attitude toward life, and yet for the absence of which so many young men of ability and power stand helpless and undecided on the threshold of active life. To replace the classics, now irretrievably gone as the backbone of the curriculum, the study of history seems an admirable discipline, besides furnishing the indispensable background for the literary and philosophical studies. Scientific ethics and social psychology should occupy an important place in the revised curriculum. The college cannot afford to leave the undergraduate to the mercies of conventional religion and a shifting moral tradition.

The pedantic, Germanistic type of scholarship is rapidly passing. The divisions between the departments are beginning to break down. Already the younger instructors are finding their ideal professor in the man who, while he knows one branch thoroughly, is interested in a wide range of subjects. The departments are reacting upon one another; both undergraduates and instructors are coming to see intellectual life as a whole, and not as a miscellaneous collection of specialized chunks of knowledge. The type of man is becoming common who could go to almost any other department of the college and give a suggestive and interesting, if not erudite, lecture on some subject in connection with its work. It is becoming more and more common now that when you touch a professor you touch a man and not an intellectual specialty.

The undergraduate himself is beginning to react strongly to this sort of scholarship. He catches an inspiration from the men in the faculty who exhibit it, and he is becoming expert in separating the sheep from the goats. He does not want experiments in educational psychology tried upon him: all he demands in his teacher is personality. He wants to feel that the instructor is not simply passing on dead knowledge in the form it was passed on to him, but that he has assimilated it and has read his own experience into it, so that it has come to mean more to him than almost anything in the world.

Professors are fond of saying that they like to have their students react to what they bring them; the student in turn likes to feel that the professor himself has reacted to what he is teaching. Otherwise his teaching is very apt to be in vain. American youth are very much less docile than they used to be, and they are little content any longer to have secondhand knowledge, a little damaged in transit, thrust upon them. The undergraduate wants to feel that the instructor is giving him his best all the time, a piece out of the very warp and woof of his own thinking.

The problem of the college in the immediate future is thus to make these ideals good, to permeate undergraduate society with the new spirit, and to raise the level of scholarship by making learning not an end in itself but a means to life. The curriculum and administrative routine will be seen simply as means to the cultivation of an attitude towards life. As the ideals crystallize out and the college becomes surer and surer of its purpose, it will find itself leading the thought of the age in new channels of conviction and constructive statemanship through its inspirational influence on the young men of the time. Admitting that these ideals are still unorganized and unestablished, that in many of the colleges they have hardly begun to appear, while even in the larger ones they are little more than tendencies as yet, — is it too much to hope that a few years will see the college conscious of its purpose, and already beginning to impose on the rank and file of its members, instructors and undergraduates alike, the ideals which have been felt this last decade by the more sensitive?