The Convention of Going to College: An Appeal to Parents


OUR passion for well-rounded education is such that we are in danger of manufacturing a nation of billiard balls.

The catalogue of any American college gives a fair idea of the final steps in the educational process as it is now applied. The student must first concentrate, or major, in one subject, and take several courses in that; then he must distribute, or minor, in other courses, taken from prescribed combinations of subjects. The first will make him profound; the second will make him broad. In most cases, moreover, he must have studied a certain amount of Latin or Greek, to make him classical, and modern languages in certain combinations to make him erudite.

His body, as well as his mind, must undergo certain treatments at the same time. He cannot matriculate until he has shown a certificate of vaccination. He cannot graduate until he has demonstrated his ability to swim. He must have fulfilled his physical-training requirements by taking part in an approved sport for at least three hours a week, by taking special corrective exercises if his posture is deficient, and by attending a series of lectures on hygiene.

When he emerges from the stages of this process and receives the imprint of a college degree — behold, the Greek ideal, healthy mind in healthy body, and both as well rounded as can be.

On the whole it is a good thing that he should be well rounded; at least, he will now be able to roll smoothly and comfortably through life. If he was born into the world with normal interests and average abilities, if his main ambition is to obtain a good job, settle down, pay his bills, and in other ways become a respectable member of the community, college will have given him the proper equipment. His concentration will have given him sufficient knowledge and training to hold his job; his distribution will have endowed him with certain stimulating outside interests to serve as retreats from his job; his social and athletic training will have given him friends, and prepared him to spend his leisure time amiably.

But occasionally there appear students with outstanding abilities and independent interests who ought not to be made spherical; who should be left as they are — elliptical, oblong, or triangular.

These are irregular and unusual students, and so it will be hard to speak of them in categories. But, on broad lines and with necessary qualifications, it can be said that there are four classes of college students who suffer most from the mass-production methods which American colleges have necessarily adopted to fit their students for their places in a mass-production world:—

1. The true scholars—those who have a passion to go exploring in the world of ideas, tracing down the lost, mislaid, and undiscovered facts pertaining to some particular subject.

2. The adventurers — those who long to be off to explore the material world, in airplanes, sailboats, and dog sleds, following the four winds, and sitting beside each of the seven seas.

3. The artisans — those who are happiest when they are at work with their hands at tangible things, in farms, forests, laboratories, and workshops.

4.The artists — those who take joy in working with true colors, fragile harmonies, and graceful lines, striving after perfection in the creative arts.

It is to these students that the institutional training furnished by our colleges may be particularly harmful. I would appeal for them, and direct my appeal to their parents, for it is generally as a result of parental influence that they find themselves in college. In practically every case of serious maladjustment which I have discovered among college students, I have come ultimately to the statement, ’I did n’t really want to come to college; I just did it to please the family.’ It develops that the student has been persuaded into college by his parents and his contemporaries (who have in turn been influenced by their parents), and then found himself in an environment which is totally unsympathetic to him.

With the best intentions in the world, parents coerce their sons into college, just as they coerce them into the dentist’s office. Now it is possible to send a boy to the dentist twice a year and assume that his teeth are taken care of. But sending him to school and college is by no means so easy or so certain. Parents must not place too much faith in pedagogues. Rather, they should be constantly on their guard against them. The educators, for all their efforts, have developed no sort of X-ray to diagnose students and discover the inner qualities of their minds and hearts. The institutions which they administer have to be run on ‘plans’ and ‘systems’ (most of them very similar to that just summarized) to supply the needs of the majority of the students. The best system in the world can be fatal to individual students who are not suited to it. It is for this reason that parents must keep constant watch over the education of their children. Scholasticaptitude tests and intelligence quotients alone will not reveal whether they are adapted to one system or another. There is no substitute for the knowledge which springs from continued discernment, understanding, and deep affection.

A few colleges which have remained loyal to their academic tradition can still help the true scholar. But even the best colleges seldom do good, and often harm, to the artist, the artisan, and the adventurer. The reason for this is not far to seek: the interests and abilities of these boys are not academic; they lie completely beyond college boundaries. Analyze the activities in which they are absorbed, and it becomes apparent that they are activities of the hand as much as of the head. Academic work, unrelated to the concrete and tangible, lacks reality and importance: it is halfexistence, life in the head alone, and consequently boring and meaningless to the boys in these three groups.

The liberal college can develop and enrich the interests of its students in many directions. But there are some things which it cannot do: it cannot teach a boy to fly an airplane, or drive a team of husky dogs, or breed sheep, or carve a statue. If a boy’s mind is absorbed in one of these things, he will have to fight against the curriculum to find time for it. The result will often be bitter failure, both in his college career and in the private and personal career which he had imagined for himself. There are a great many places where a boy may obtain training outside the colleges. There are aviation schools, agricultural colleges, conservatories of music, training ships, art schools, and, most important of all, that almost-forgotten educational expedient, apprenticeship in the world.

As long as any nonacademic interest occupies first place in a boy’s scale of values he should be given ‘time out’ to investigate it before he is sent to college. It may be that the boy will find that he is totally mistaken. A little actual experience on a farm may convince him that his interest in agriculture is not so deep as it once seemed; some time in a studio may reveal that his talent is not so great as he fancied. In that case, he can always return to college. But, until he has cleared the way for himself, and convinced himself that he belongs in college, he will never approach his college work with that singleness of purpose which brings success and satisfaction.

It is not a waste of time for a boy to spend a year after leaving preparatory school in such experiment. Either he finds that he likes his work and continues in it or he finds that he does not and comes to college without misgivings. In either case, he will have avoided the aimless and meaningless college years which are the real waste — a waste of mind and spirit, as well as time, for many students. There is much talk now of the desirability of sending boys to college earlier, but I have found that some of the best students are those who have spent some time ‘knocking about’ in the world after leaving preparatory school.


It may seem an anomalous thing to say that the true scholar is out of place in our institutions of higher learning, but such is very frequently the case. Ever since the word went out that a college diploma was the only possible pass-key to wealth, wisdom, and social success, the rush of students coming to college for irrelevant reasons has threatened to swamp the true scholar. In 1895, the enrollment in American colleges was 45,000. At present it is well over 500,000. Some of the new arrivals came to snatch the technical training which would enable them to get good jobs as quickly as possible; others to make those contacts which are believed to be profitable in certain forms of business; others to postpone for four years the period of going to work; others to take part in the hurlyburly of athletics, fraternities, and other undergraduate activities which constitute college life; others, without any motive save that everybody else was doing it.

In the face of this invasion of students who had come to do anything but study, who had no understanding of the old-fashioned scholarly attitude or any sympathy with it, the colleges were obliged to create elaborate systems which would force upon these irresponsibles the required minimum of academic nourishment. They found it necessary to devise innumerable rules as to selection of courses, attendance, tests, and examinations; and to empower squadrons of deans, proctors, and monitors to enforce them. All this was good for the irresponsibles, but bad for the scholars, for whom the colleges were originally intended. Often, it is true, the pedantic and uninspired scholar was able to adapt himself happily and successfully to this scheme of things, but the scholar with roving and adventurous mind found his wings sadly clipped by it. Each time he started off on some new and fascinating line of independent research he found himself pulled back to earth by the necessity of conforming to the requirements.

In many colleges, better days are at hand for the scholar of this type. Some colleges have been able to limit their enrollments and raise their entrance requirements, shutting out the most palpable loafers. This has given the colleges a chance to abandon some of their old methods of forcible feeding. It has enabled them to place a certain amount of confidence in all their students, and especial trust in those who demonstrate themselves exceptionally worthy of it.

In Harvard College, for example, all students after their freshman year are freed from classes and lectures for two three-week ‘reading periods’ each year. As seniors, the students are excused from classes and certain examinations during the second half of the year, when they are preparing for their general examinations. Exceptional seniors, moreover, are allowed to work at the tworather than the four-course rate, leaving half their time free for independent work with their tutors. Similar liberty has been granted under certain conditions at Princeton, Swarthmore, and Smith. Some institutions go still further. Dartmouth, and St. John’s College, Maryland, give complete freedom to certain carefully selected seniors, in order that they may devote full time to their own work. The Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, and Rollins College, Florida, have abandoned formal lectures and classes altogether in favor of conferences, in which student and teacher may work out their problems in partnership.


The time is near, then, when the quiet boy with adventurous, scholarly tastes will be able to enter college and hope to attain that degree of fulfillment to which his abilities entitle him. But what of the others — the artists, the artisans, and the adventurers?

The artisan is the most humble and least understood of the three types of students, so I shall speak first of him. He is familiar enough in every school, and, alas, in every college. He is the tortoise of the class, who struggles wearily on before the proddings of his parents and his schoolmasters. In the discreet fastness of the faculty room, his masters will tell you that he is a complete moron. His mother, on the other hand, will assure you that he is really quite brilliant, only he is so shy and sensitive that his masters never know it, for he becomes tongue-tied in class and paralyzed in examinations. Often enough, both are wrong. If the boy can be found some afternoon (when he should be studying) engaged in conversation with a neighborhood farmer or chauffeur or shopkeeper, it may be observed that he is neither stupid nor reticent. In fact, he may be very wise about certain things, such as farms, or gasoline engines, or boats, and he can talk to you almost with eloquence about what makes the bees swarm, or what causes that splutter in your motor car, or how to shoot the sun with a sextant. If you take the trouble to ask, he will perhaps reveal to you his shy ambition to become a ranger in the government forestry service, to join the merchant marine, to be a dairy farmer, or to set up in business with his printing press.

Given the proper encouragement and assistance, or even left to his own devices, he might, in his slow, quiet, roundabout way, arrive at a very happy and honorable career in any one of these things. But no! Family pride and the established order of things demand that he should be sent round the academic steeplechase, in the hope that he will arrive at the conventional respectability which consists in membership in the Harvard, Yale, or Princeton club, and a brokerage office downtown.

Often enough, he falls at the first fence. Even if he does not, it is a selfish and rather stupid thing to enter him in a race for which he was not intended. When the boy is hungering in his quiet, inarticulate way for the training which could best be supplied by an agricultural college, or a trade school, or in a factory, or out in the world, he is crowded through school and college by every known method of hook and crook.

Some time ago, I discovered a student of this type who was completely beaten by college. He had failed in all his prescribed subjects, and his attitude toward his work was one of hopeless apathy. After some conversation I found that none of his courses interested him, nor any of the college activities.

‘But surely you’re interested in something?’ I asked, in desperation.

‘Why, yes,’ he said, almost apologetically, ‘I’m awfully interested in bird banding.’

We began talking about the subject, and gradually the boy came to life, revealing an interest, an enthusiasm, and a knowledge about birds which were surprising.

Now this boy would not have made his fortune as an ornithologist. On the other hand, he would not have made his fortune in his father’s business. Besides, the point is that he was not interested in making fortunes — what he was interested in was birds. For such a boy, a humble job in a museum or a bird reservation would have brought more happiness, and more success, than the college education which he was failing completely to comprehend.

It is a pleasant thing, to be sure, for mother, at her meeting of the Women’s Alliance, for father, in the locker room of his club, to refer to ‘my boy Henry,

you know, a freshman at—.’ But

think of Henry, dragooned into college, crammed in and kept in by tutoring schools; treated to the condescension of his fellows; thrust among activities which bewilder him and scare him; shut off from those which excite and interest him. Small wonder that he begins to lose faith in himself as he observes his failures in the face of more adroit contemporaries who excel him at work he was never designed to undertake.

I do not wish to imply that all boys in this class are unworldly. On the contrary, some of them have very practical ambitions in business and industry; so practical that they rebel against four years or more of theoretical training. If such boys have given evidence of energy, ambition, and business instinct, there is no reason why they should not enter business directly.

Only recently the newspapers carried an account of a small New England mill town, where the factories had been shut down for over three years. The son of one of the owners, while still in school, became interested in the problems of the mill and of the village which depended on it. On graduating from school, he entered a neighboring factory as a mill hand, and served a thorough apprenticeship. He then took over his father’s mills on his own initiative and reorganized them. This summer the mills reopened, and the abandoned village came to life again.

Whether their interests lie in practical matters, such as the textile industry, or in impractical ones, such as ornithology, the artisans are concerned primarily with concrete things — with solving actual and not theoretical problems. Shut up in college, away from the world, they are like Hudibras’s ‘trenchant blade, Toledo trusty,’ which

For want of fighting was grown rusty,
And ate into itself, for lack
Of somebody to hew and hack.

There would be far less tragic work for college psychiatrists if boys of this type were set to hewing and hacking before their enthusiasms had been allowed to evaporate and their minds to turn inward, in the course of four unreal years in the thin air of college.


The problem of the adventurer is very much akin to this problem of the artisan. Ulysses is the prototype of our adventurer, and Ulysses, however ‘crafty,’ was not a scholar. Ever since the days of the Iliad, his followers have been striving, seeking, finding, in every generation, but they have not been studying very much. After all, why should they? The activities in which they are engaged call for brave hearts and ready wits, but not necessarily for academic minds.

On some subject which fires his imagination and arouses his energies the adventurer can work intensively and well. But he does not need the quietness and continuity of mind which would make him a successful scholar.

Styles in adventure have changed in the last century. In the 1800’s the young men of good families with adventurous hearts and independent minds ran away to sea, and sailed around the Horn; in the 1850’s and 1890’s they joined the gold rushes to California and the Klondike. In the times of our nation’s wars, they furnished the bravest leaders in the armies and navies.

At present, for the most part, they become explorers, vagabonds, and aviators. Or would become, if, again, they had not been subjected to pressure from parents, schoolmasters, and friends to conform to the accepted notions of education. They, too, are crammed into college by tutoringschool methods. Once in, they dutch their pens and stumble through their French exercises and English compositions, but their thoughts are with the wind and the sea. They are crossing the Atlantic in a forty-footer, riding brake beams, or guiding a plane through difficult nose spins and sideslips.

One of the greatest problems confronting the deans of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton is that of undergraduate aviators. At Princeton, the students are no longer allowed to have airplanes. At Yale and Harvard, undergraduate flying clubs flourish under very lukewarm official approval. In both communities, the clubs have become exceedingly popular. Their members are adroit and expert aviators, but, for the most part, lamentable scholars. The academic mortality of members of the flying clubs far outruns that of the pedestrian students; and naturally enough, for the members spend so much of their time at the airports that they soon leave their studies far in arrears. It is a far more challenging thing to a boy of this temperament to obtain his pilot’s license than to labor all year for three dull C’s and a D in his college courses. That being the case, would he not, more logically, be a student at an aviation school than at Harvard or Yale? In the end, he might decide that a college diploma is even more desirable than the pilot’s license. If he did, he could then dismiss aviation from his mind, enter college, and settle down to work without any of the conflicts which now disturb him.

Aviation is not the only activity which appeals to boys of this type. Expeditions of all sorts recruit largely from them. On medical expeditions up the Congo and Amazon, on geological surveys in the Alps, on game hunts in Alaska and Indo-China, on polar expeditions, and on the less pretentious

trips of those vagabonds who are following the royal road to romance, some of the most able and stalwart wanderers are rebels escaped from collegiate routine. Of the four Harvard men with Commander Byrd in the antarctic, for example, only one has a Harvard degree. The remaining three left college prematurely after various sorts of difficulty with their work.

It is not tactless to mention this fact, for it casts no reflection on these particular boys, and it does serve to illustrate again the moral that college does not offer training for certain very legitimate forms of human activity. There is no connection between the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht and flying an airplane; or between the French Romanticists and driving a team of husky dogs. A boy cannot become all things, and it is important to help him to become that thing which seems to him to have more reality than any other.


I turn to the last group with a certain amount of hesitation. The artist must not be confused with the æsthete, the amateur, or the student of art. For these last, the colleges offer many opportunities in their activities and their courses on the history and the appreciation of music, literature, fine arts, the drama, and so forth. But for those boys who have a desire to use one of these forms of art as a creative medium the college can do very little. It is in this respect that mass methods of education fail most conspicuously, for in the creative arts the student must do much of his work alone, and the rest under individual instruction.

A boy whose main interest is in striving after perfection in one of the creative arts finds himself in a hopeless dilemma if he enters college. If he devotes himself whole-heartedly to his artistic interests, he must withdraw almost completely from the social and intellectual life of the college and work by himself, in which case he will ever be in danger of discipline from the college office. If, on the other hand, he puts his work to one side for the sake of complying with the college requirements, he is in danger of mislaying his talent permanently: four years are a long time in the life of a young artist, and he cannot transfer his interest from his art to his college work for four years without suffering the consequences. It would be far better if such a boy were to omit college altogether and study under individual instruction, or at an art school or a conservatory of music.

In the past year, I met two boys whose histories may well be compared in this respect. At school they showed equal promise as concert violinists. One came to college. There he attempted to keep up to his very high standard of musical performance. In addition to practising, taking lessons, and attending concerts, he attempted to participate in the activities of one of the college orchestras. Naturally he soon dropped behind in his work. The dean’s office, in accordance with its rules, could do nothing but place him on probation. Parental pressure was brought to bear, and he was forced to forgo his beloved concerts, drop his lessons, and give up his orchestra, in order to devote himself to a round of requirements which had little significance for him. Meanwhile the other boy, living what might seem to his preparatory-school classmates a solitary life, had been able to devote all his time to his music under a single instructor and advance far down the road toward perfection in an art which was more important to him than anything else.

In spite of the many exceptions which can instantly be produced to take the glitter off this generality, it is, I think, fair to say that the colleges have trained very few creative artists in any field of art, with the possible exception of literature. Even in that department it is interesting to recall Barrett Wendell’s complaint that, during his twenty-five years as a teacher of English composition, he had produced not a single great writer.

College often mars creative artists; it seldom makes them. It appears to be true that artists develop more quickly and more completely in Grub Street than in the classroom. It was on the basis of these considerations, I think, that Harvard University allowed its school of drama to die, at the same time that it created a school of business administration. However unhappy a fact it may be, it is none the less a fact that business administration is a subject which can be taught to large groups more successfully than playwriting or any other creative art.


Why should boys of these three types ever appear in this college environment, for which they are so manifestly unsuited? Generally they come as a result of parental pressure, which derives its strength from several current misconceptions about college.

It is still generally believed, for one thing, that a college education brings a dignified position in the world, and economic security. The notion persists that a college degree carries with it a white-collar job, and that a whitecollar job brings prestige and prosperity. Possibly it did in grandfather’s day, when the college graduates comprised a very small and select group of young men, destined, for the most part, for the learned professions. But since the huge increase in college enrollment some of the humblest laws of economics have come into play. The supply of college graduates has outrun the demand; and the cash value of a diploma, like the cash value of any currency which has been inflated beyond reason, has depreciated to a fraction of its previous worth.

This development has been commented on so often that it needs no emphasis here. Journals are filled with rather hysterical articles on the subject. One says that of the 500,000 college students only a quarter can hope to earn more than $5000 a year; another that there are less than 200,000 positions in the United States requiring first-class minds. The figures vary, but the fact seems to remain the same: even assuming that success consists in having one’s name engraved on a business letterhead and printed in the income-tax lists, it becomes obvious that a college degree will not automatically bring such success, even to those who put their whole souls and hearts into obtaining it, and far less to those men whose interest in such work must be acquired and secondary.

It is also commonly believed that four years in college aid in social and personal development. In a more ingenuous age, I imagine that college played an important part in tempering young men for the world. But schools and colleges, like everything else, have speeded up to keep pace with the twentieth century. At present many of the large preparatory schools, with their fraternities, teams, student councils, newspapers, debating teams, and all the interscholastic contests and conferences that these involve, supply nearly as much as can the college toward this form of development. The ‘activity man’ is gradually dying out in the colleges, simply because he is discovering that college activities are only a rather stale continuation of those at school. A sixth-former in any large school is often as self-reliant as the college student of a generation ago; and, thanks to prohibition, motor cars, and the vacation travel which is now possible, he is nearly as worldlywise. Socially, he is ready for the world, and there is no reason why he should not go to it direct, unless he sees clearly the necessity of further intellectual training of the sort that the colleges can offer him.

The social and financial motives I have just described are equally strong among parents who were and parents who were not college graduates. Among those who were, there is the additional motive of college loyalty. The strength of this loyalty, especially among the graduates of certain Eastern colleges, is truly surprising. In the class of 1932 at Harvard, two hundred and twenty-one students were the sons of Harvard graduates, as compared with five sons of Yale graduates and three of Princeton graduates. At Yale and Princeton, I understand that similar proportions are to be found. I have seen a mother with tears in her eyes because her son had chosen to betray a long line of Yale ancestors and come to Harvard. It would have been less of a family tragedy had the boy robbed a bank or eloped with a chorus girl.

Loyalty is an admirable emotion, but it can often lead thinking astray, as has been demonstrated many times in the case of patriotism, or national loyalty. It is always well to confine loyalties to those fields where they can do most good and least mischief.

As concerns the present problem, loyalty could far better be transferred from the colleges to the preparatory schools. For schools, on the whole, teach the same subjects in the same way, but colleges vary greatly in scope and method, and from generation to generation. Where colleges of the same type are concerned, loyalty does no harm. But there are colleges of all types: large and small; rural, urban, and suburban; Modernist and Fundamentalist; rich and poor. Moreover, there are the other institutions previously referred to — military and naval academies, aviation schools, art schools, agricultural schools, technical colleges. It should be obvious that a student’s fitness for one or the other is not to be governed by the laws of heredity alone. Yet it is on this basis that many loyal alumni found the educational plans which they make for their sons.


Although this paper has been called an appeal to parents, it seems, at times, to have taken on the tone of angry remonstrance rather than polite appeal. If this is so, the situation has been distorted. Parents are not heartless tyrants. Nor could they be, even if they wanted to. In this day, and with this generation, children are not forced into college, but they are very often persuaded in, and, as far as the children are concerned, the effect is the same. Ever since they can remember, they have been told that college is the only ‘correct’ place for young gentlemen to go, and given to understand that any other ambition is a little bit ‘queer.’ After years of this peaceful penetration, any boy who has any vestige of honor for his father and mother will succumb, feeling that he must be doing the right thing in going to college, simply because his parents have told him so so many times. He tucks away, and tries to forget, those personal interests which contain his real promise, thinking them not quite respectable, when he should have been given every encouragement in the world to take them and attempt to develop them.

And so another boy goes to college ‘just to please the family.’ Of course the family were governed by the best of motives. The only error was that they failed to consider their son as an individual with peculiar needs and problems, and contented themselves with applying the prevailing methods of mass education. Because these methods had been successful with other people’s sons, they had applied them to their son, stage after stage, — country day school, boarding school, college, — blindly confident that, in the long run, these expedients would prove equally successful with him. In seven cases out of ten the family would be right, for to the average boy college is undeniably an enriching experience; but if he is one of the three, college may turn into a near tragedy for him.

The system now in vogue at most colleges trains average people to do useful and honorable work along standard lines. But it does not encourage individuality. It helps and encourages students to follow the broad cement roads to quick and apparent forms of success, but it does not guide them along the side roads and bypaths which often lead to great and unexpected discoveries.

Most of us belong on the main road. The scholars, the artists, the artisans, and the adventurers do not. They are a small minority, but they are a very important minority. It is to them that we must look for many of our greatest achievements. I appeal for them, because it is more important to our civilization that one potential artist like Shelley, one scholar like Gibbon, one artisan like Edison, one adventurer like Lindbergh, be kept out of college than that a thousand more incipient junior executives, Ph.D. candidates, and museum curators be let in.