Preparing for College in Eleven Months


TO-DAY I could go back to the old rock on that Michigan farm where the notion of going to college first came to me. It was in early September and I was doing the fall ploughing. The ploughpoint had caught on a partly buried rock. As the team stopped, remembering previous similar experiences in this rocky soil, I heard the words as distinctly and forcibly as if someone had shouted them in my ear, ‘Why don’t you go to college!' It was not a question. It was an exclamation in answer to a subconscious wish.

As I go back over my boyhood days, I can trace the factors that developed the thought or whatever it was that exploded in my brain on that warm September morning.

Some years after my father’s death, when I was nine, my mother married again and we moved to my stepfather’s farm. I had no brothers or sisters or playmates, and an active mind found companionship in books. I read and reread the few volumes that my mother had saved from my father’s library, some that my stepfather owned, and an occasional book borrowed from the neighbors.

These covered subjects of every sort — fiction, history, anthropology, technical books, and the like; reports of the Bureau of Agriculture, John Halifax, Mary J. Holmes’s Tempest and Sunshine, Nick Carter, Schoolcraft’s Indian Tribes, Pilgrim’s Progress, Schliemann’s Troy, Principles of Car-pentry, a History of the World in two volumes, and other books in widely separated fields.

Among the books in my father’s library was a copy of Andrews and Stoddard’s Latin Grammar, and I spent many an hour trying to delve into the mysteries of the Latin language, but the text was too abstruse for me to get very far.

My stepfather was good to me and never kept me out of school to work on the farm. But he did not believe in farmer boys going to the town schools, and I knew that the country school marked the end of my education. Many of the books I read carried me far afield into the world outside my limited environment. I knew that education unlocked the door that shut me away from many interests, and I can yet recall vividly my sadness on the last day of the winter term of what I believed ended my school work.

I was fifteen and had gone as far as the meagre curriculum of our school permitted. One of the teachers, a graduate of a city high-school, had started me in algebra, but the ‘deestrict board,’ not believing in educational frills, frowned on this excursion into higher learning, and my efforts in that direction proved abortive.

About this time a township library was installed in a near-by house. The books had been selected by an old gentleman, the only college man in that vicinity, who was saturated to his fingertips with classic lore. His first selection was Grote’s History of Greece in ten volumes. Could anything be more fitting for a rural library!

These were the first books I drew and soon I was buried in Greek mythology. Later, with the help of Pope, I took part in the Trojan Wars, cried with Hecuba over the body of Hector, wandered with Ulysses across the Mare Magnum, gloried with him in his triumphs, rejoiced when he returned to his native isle, conquered his enemies, and was reunited to his faithful Penelope. Bryant aided me to journey with Æneas, to buffet with him the storms stirred up by Neptune, and to grieve with Dido when she was basely deserted. Never have I been so thrilled by any of the six best sellers.

Another factor that had a marked influence on my life was a casual remark by a young man teaching the winter term in our school. I said to him with the sublime confidence of ignorance that I was going to quit school in the spring, since I had learned all there was to learn. ‘Oh no, you haven’t,’ he replied, ‘there are astronomy and geology and physics,’ naming the natural sciences. This was a revelation to me, for I had never heard of them. So, after leaving school, I bought a complete set of Steele’s ‘Fourteen Weeks in the Natural Sciences,’ or, as someone has said, ‘Fourteen Weeks in Anyology.’ Hack work though they were, they were interestingly written and the practical questions at the end of each chapter were stimulating to thought. I read them as one reads fiction, and have found few books since then that interested me so greatly as those elementary treatises. They opened to me the world of science.

In after years in public schools I have seen the same enthusiasm among pupils in the upper grades when they were introduced to the wonders of nature through the medium of general science. Some of our dry-as-dust science (not scientific) pedagogues, in whose veins flows red ink instead of red blood, condemn general science because it is, they claim, superficial and not sufficiently technical. But they should thank, instead of condemning, those who have been responsible for the introduction of this work into the public schools, for it has led thousands into the scientific fields.

For the two years following the end of my schooldays, I read and studied and dreamed. During this time I tried English grammar, but found it entirely too prosaic for me. I soon learned, what I fear many teachers have not yet discovered, that one may study English grammar till the end of time and not learn to speak or to write correctly. I cast about for some way to improve my English and hit upon the plan of becoming the ‘neighborhood news’ correspondent for one of the city dailies. I thought that the editor would correct my English in the news articles and thus, by comparing the original with the printed article, I should learn how to write correctly.

At the end of the follow ing month I received a letter from the publishers enclosing a blue slip. I could n’t make out what it was and showed it to the postal clerk. He told me that it was a money order for four dollars. Had the earth yawned at my feet I could not have been more astonished. To learn English and to be paid for it was a combination beyond my wildest flights of imagination. Four dollars! Untold wealth! More money than I had ever before possessed at one time. It is needless to say that never afterward did I miss sending my weekly contribution of news. When items were lacking, often I followed what I fear has been the practice of some of my journalistic brethren — I faked some.

I am convinced, after several years of high-school and college teaching, that those two years of promiscuous reading gave me more real education than could have been gained from twice this amount of time spent in school. I read, not because a lesson had been assigned, but from love of it. My interest in the Idylls of the King was not killed by my being obliged to write a theme comparing Guinevere with Elaine or to give a summary of Tennyson’s place in literature, lifted from an encyclopædia. My love of the sounding phrases in Paradise Lost was not destroyed by my being compelled to dissect and analyze those wonderful sentences. I have known few pupils to graduate from a high school with a love for good literature unless they had acquired it from their home environment and retained it in spite of their high-school training in English.

When I was a freshman in college, the extensive vocabulary that my wide reading gave me nearly got me into trouble. One day the instructor in English called me into the office and asked if the theme I had handed in was my own. I was too unsophisticated to know about the possibilities of cribbing. I was even too innocent to appreciate the compliment of her doubting if the theme was mine. I assured her that it was my own work. She replied that many of the words I used were not in a freshman’s vocabulary and cited many expressions not used, she claimed, by freshmen. Subsequently, when I became acquainted with freshman vocabularies from the point of view of an instructor, I saw the force of her statement. But upon my insistence that the work was my own she let me go.

A short time after this the instructor asked our class to write in five minutes the names of all the writers we could remember. At the end of the time I had written nearly seventy and was still going strong. To my utter surprise the next longest list was sixteen. Long afterward, when I was out of college and as a reporter was interviewing her, she recalled that incident and told me she had devised the test as a trap to see if I had such a vocabulary as my themes showed. If I had, I was a wide reader and could name many writers. This test apparently satisfied her.


Among the books that came into my possession while on the farm was a Wood’s Botany. It contained a description of the flora of the northern United States, with an analytical key. This key challenged my curiosity and I learned to use it by tracing known flowers backward to the beginning of the table. In a short time I learned to recognize the orders to which unknown flowers belonged and thus to trace them very quickly. In the course of time I could call by its first name every wild flower within a radius of miles.

One Sunday afternoon, while botanizing in near-by timber, I ran across a young man who was taking the classical course at Ann Arbor. When I told him of my interest in Greek mythology he began to tell me stories from Greek literature. For more than an hour I sat at his feet, literally entranced, while he told me of those old gods and heroes. From that hour until my ambition was realized, the desire to read Greek literature in the original never left me. It was the prime factor in my decision to enter college.

So the months passed — work, reading, study—until the call came that glorious September morning. From that hour until I passed the entrance examinations and was admitted to the University, never a moment, sleeping or waking, was this purpose absent from my thoughts.

That same evening I wrote to the young man who had so fired my imagination, telling him what I had studied and asking what more it was necessary to know to get into college. He replied that I should write to the University for a catalogue, which would give me all the necessary information.

At this time catalogues listed the books that covered the ground for entrance requirements. As soon as possible I ordered every book mentioned in the requirements for admission to the classical course, paying for them in installments with the proceeds from my newspaper correspondence.

I knew nothing of the time required to prepare for college, but thought it could be done in a year. It looked to me as if Latin would take a longer time to complete than any of the other subjects, so I began to study it immediately. I planned to finish each of the four divisions — Beginning Latin, Cæsar, Cicero, and Vergil — in three months. At this time only four orations of Cicero and four books of Vergil were required. My studying had to be done after the day’s work was over, on rainy days, and Sundays. Fortunately we did not work as many hours a day as most farmers did, which fact gave me considerable time for study after supper.

I worked out a daily schedule for Latin, intending to put the remaining time on other subjects after finishing my daily stint of Latin. Accordingly I divided the Beginning Latin text into ninety equal parts, thinking that if I fell behind during the week I could catch up on Sundays. The text recommended, Harkness’s Easy Method, was not difficult to understand. In fact many of the recent texts in Latin are not nearly so teachable as the old Harkness.

This text grouped the conjugations in a few pages in the middle of the book. In my ignorance of a proper division of assignments, I gave the same number of pages to each, and all the conjugations were included in two assignments.

Never shall I forget the night I ran into them. After memorizing amo, amas, amat, I looked ahead and saw columns of similar words. I realized that if these were to be learned in two days I must dev ise some short cut. I had noticed that the present, imperfect, and future of the first conjugation were the same with the exception of the syllables ba in the imperfect and bi in the future. This gave me a hint and I spent the remainder of the evening in working out a scheme of comparisons between the same tenses of the four conjugations. In this way I managed to learn the two conjugations in the two evenings. Afterward, when teaching beginner’s Latin, I used many of the methods that I devised in those two strenuous nights.

I completed the beginner’s Latin within the assigned period and immediately began the study of Cæsar. Since I had planned to complete Cæsar in three months, and was sure that the translating would become easier as I went further in the text, I developed a plan of increasing the amount of reading weekly by a sort of arithmetical progression. The sum of one, two, three, four, and so forth, to and including thirteen, is ninety-one. Then, if I could read one ninety-first the first week, two ninety-firsts the second week, and so on, I could read all of Cæsar in the thirteen weeks. This gave me approximately thirty-two lines to read the first week and I was sure that could easily be done.

For the first time my schedule was shot to pieces. I spent three weeks of agonizing effort on the first chapter. The use of the perfect participle was my particular bête noire, and it seemed as if each phrase contained a new construction. After mastering the first chapter, however, I had less difficulty and I did manage to read the four books of Cæsar within the prescribed three months.

Cicero was very easy and I translated the four orations against Catiline in less than two months. In fact I read the second oration one rainy afternoon. Vergil was more difficult, but I finished the four books in less than three months. I used successfully the same principle of gradual increases in the length of assignments for both Cicero and Vergil. I have since recommended this method to high-school teachers of Latin and many have told me that it was very satisfactory. In high-school work, however, I have divided the work by the nine months’ period, making one forty-fifth the first month, two forty-fifths the second month, and so on. In the case of Cæsar this makes sixty lines the first month or about three lines a day.

I had heard or read somewhere that the study of Greek did not begin until Cæsar was completed; so I delayed the study of Greek until I had nearly finished Cæsar. The text I used had a three-page summary of the rules of accent, uses of proclitics, enclitics, and the like, before the first lesson proper began. Like some teachers, I assumed that the book was to be followed literally, and so I memorized these three pages of disconnected rules before taking up the other work. Greek was very easy for me and I had finished the third book of the Anabasis long before completing Vergil. I learned most of the Greek verbs while engaged in farm work, writing them on slips of paper at night and memorizing them during the day.

As a matter of fact most of my farm work was done automatically. My mind was on my studies continually. One of my chores was to feed sweet milk to the calves, then return to the house for sour milk to be given to the pigs. Sometimes my mother would reverse the procedure and give me the sour milk first. I would forget her injunction to feed the pigs first, and carry the sour milk to the calves, never realizing what I was doing until the calves with bunts of disapproval would spatter the milk over me and thus bring my mind out of the clouds. I fear that while cultivating corn many a hill was sacrificed on the altar of the Greek gods.

In all my Latin I found only one selection, a sentence in Cicero, that I could not translate. By a strange irony of fate this one sentence was included in my entrance examination in Latin.

Algebra I found easy. For geometry I used the famous Davies’s Legendre, a text with no special exercises and all the ‘Originals’ in the back. After learning to demonstrate a theorem, I wrote it on a slip of paper. I reviewed by mixing these theorems, then drawing one at a time from the pile and demonstrating it. When I had completed the text I could demonstrate any theorem, regardless of the place where it occurred in the text. My entrance examination in geometry was perfect.

Teachers of geometry claim that memorizing it is not the proper method. Doubtless they are right, but I do know that I never had any difficulty in applying my algebra or geometry in higher mathematics. Whatever may be said of my method of learning, the results were satisfactory.

To history I paid little attention, for my repeated reading of the History of the World would, I hoped, cover the subject. English I was learning from my newspaper work and reading.

One of the books I found most helpful in after life was Abbott’s How to Write Clearly, a required text in English. In this is given an amusing example of mixed metaphor that made such an impression on me that I doubt if I have ever been guilty of that fault. It is from a reputed speech of an Irish member of the English Parliament. ‘Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat, I see him brewing in the air; but, mark me, I shall yet nip him in the bud.’


In eleven months from the time I began to prepare for college I had completed, so far as I could determine from the catalogue, all the requirements for admission to the University. It had meant night after night of study, often until the wee sma’ hours of morning. It meant the loss of holidays, the Saturday afternoon trips to the village for our mail and groceries. It meant the sacrifice of everything else for this one objective. Yet I have never spent a more enjoyable year. The pleasure of this incessant study far more than compensated for the loss of other enjoyments. I had no objective beyond getting into college. I had no plans of what I should do after graduating, no idea of the financial benefit that might accrue, no notion of how it might change my life — just to go to college, just to read Greek.

While I was studying, a relative visited us from a large city in the West in which was located the State University. She pictured to me t he wonders of the West and the splendid opportunities I should have of earning my way through college in a large city.

This appealed to me, so I sent for the catalogue of the University, found the entrance requirements were practically the same as at Ann Arbor, and decided to go there. The question of finances, of how I was to get so far from home without money, of how I was to maintain myself while in college, did not occur to me. I was too full of the immediate objective. However, when the time came to leave, my stepfather relented and gave me one hundred dollars.

In due time I reached the University, probably as green a candidate for admission to college as ever appeared on that campus. A small group of us were started on the entrance examinations. Many disappeared at different stages along the trail, but by good fortune I satisfied the examiners and continued to the end. Algebra and geometry I passed with almost perfect papers. In geometry I was asked to construct a triangle equal in area to a reëntrant polygon. Polygons I knew, but a reëntrant polygon was an unknown figure. I asked the examiner in charge what it was, telling him that I could make the construction if I knew the figure. Amused at my confidence, or because he was a human being even though an examiner, he defined the term for me and I made the construction correctly.

With Latin I had no difficulty, except the one sentence in Cicero. Greek was easy, although the kindly old Greek professor afterward told me that he could n’t read most of my Greek, but judged from the length of my answers that I knew something about it.

After entering college my real troubles began. I was thrown into an entirely new environment. Torn from the peaceful countryside and easygoing methods of the country school, I was plunged into the hurly-burly life of the city and the highly organized and complicated routine of a university. I was tossed hither and yon like a leaf on the tempestuous mountain torrent. No one was interested in my troubles, nowhere was there sympathy or mercy for my blunders. Fortunately I joined a coöperative boarding-club and ultimately found myself through the aid of some of the older members. I soon procured work and in the spring I had more money than I possessed when entering the University.

In my college work I was fully up to the average of my classmates. My English was apparently as satisfactory as that of a freshman is ever expected to be. My work in mathematics was somewhat better; in Greek I did unusually well. Only in Latin did I have any real difficulty.

My Latin instructor was of the type not yet a rara avis in the college world — one that ought to be annihilated before being permitted to wreck the hopes and enthusiasm of the beginning college student. His mind moved in a rut; his point of view was confined between the walls of conventionality and regularity. Anything out of the normal threw his mental reactions out of gear. When he learned that I had worked out my Lat in without a teacher and in less than the usual time, instead of giving me some credit for it, he assumed that I was a pariah so far as Latin was concerned and proceeded to make my life a burden. The fact that afterward I did high-grade work under another Latin instructor satisfies me that I was only partly to blame for my troubles.

The old Roman long ago crossed the Great Divide. Pax cineribus.

What I accomplished in eleven months may seem impossible to those who have spent four years in covering the same ground. But one must remember that I lost no time in vacations, during which I would forget much of what I had learned in the preceding nine months. Doubtless I spent as many hours in actual and intensive study during those eleven months as most high-school pupils spend in four years.

When I sum up the results of a highschool course, I am sure that our present system is wasteful both in the methods of instruction and in the allotment of time.

Do pupils need thirteen weeks of vacation? Do they need four years to prepare to enter college? If the latter is true, have they learned how to study? Are all the contents of the courses essential? Are the methods of instruction wasteful of time? I did what any normal boy or girl can do. In college I found that I learned no more easily than the majority of my classmates.

The only remarkable thing in this chronicle is the obsession I had to go to college. I am certain that any modern college man will say that my desire to enter college in order to study Greek was clear evidence of lunacy.

To the boy or girl who cannot, for financial or other reasons, attend a high school, let me say that it is within your power to go to college. The opportunities of evening schools and of correspondence instruction will make your path easy. When you once decide on a college education, those obstacles that loom large ahead of you will disappear as you approach them. Not even the inquisitions of the modern entrance examination boards, with their intelligence tests and various other devices to trap the unwary, need frighten you.

If you really want to go to college — go.