Extra Ribs in Pigs


QUITE by accident, I saw a few days ago a small pamphlet listing theses of graduate students in American colleges as of January 1936. Here are some of them: —

The Economic Significance of Extra Ribs in Pigs
A Psychological Study of the Junior High School Pupil’s Reasons for Liking or Disliking Teachers
Increments of Parameters Which Improve the Fit of a Statistical Curve
An Engineering Analysis of the No. 15 Typewriter
The Domestic and Foreign Policies of King Solomon

It would be unfair to criticize any one of these possibly eager and important efforts without seeing the paper itself. But the list as a whole, and perhaps the ‘Extra Ribs’ in particular, set my own thoughts flowing backward to a scene which may be worth recapturing. It began in a maple tree, and it had to do with what an enthusiastic debater once entitled ‘education, for what and for why.’

Something more than a decade ago a young man (who was I) had just finished his college course. It should have been a success. The college was small, of good standards, with several professors who had the true fire. Certain ‘swag’ had accumulated — a fraternity pin, a Varsity letter, a class office, editorship of the college annual, captaincy of the debating team, scholastic honors.

Commencement should have been a day of jubilee. But I particularly remember that this young man ran away as soon as he could. Not finding the solitude he wanted anywhere else, he finally climbed up into a maple tree, and sat among its thick leaves to think.

He was not jubilant. Any cheerful feelings he had were due to a sudden sense of relief. This was strange, for lessons had come easily, college life had been enjoyable, and knowledge remained an eager fire.

Nevertheless he felt relieved to be out of the system. He knew, that day in the maple tree, that for him there would be no advanced degrees, no entering that system again. At least for him it had begun to be cramping, had become intolerable. He did not know why.

Many other college and university graduates proved to have somewhat the same feeling. They expressed it freely enough in private conversations, and even publicly. James Truslow Adams has written, ‘I sometimes question whether I have ever really been taught, though I went to three preparatory schools in all, a small college, and did postgraduate work at one of the largest Eastern universities.’ To take another example merely from the Adamses, Henry Adams declared his four years at Harvard ‘wasted.’

So many gentlemen, eminent and non-eminent, cannot be attacking their respective almas matres out of treachery or sheer whim. Something must really be wrong with the system. And since our money supports it, and our sons and daughters will be subjected to it (if they have not already suffered), it might be worth discussing.


I have been trying to remember exactly why I wanted to go to college.

It was not sheer habit — the thing to do. We were something of a family of educators, but we had submitted to very little formal education ourselves. My grandfather taught school for many years, but he never went to school after he was ten years old. No, college was a pioneering effort, based on desires and not habit.

It was not the desire to make more money. Various golden prospectuses were circulated then, and still are, as to the monetary value of education. Some ‘authorities’ go so far as to give in dollars and cents the precise value of every day spent in grade schools, in high schools, and in colleges. These figures are compiled by the engaging process of finding the lifetime earnings of high-school graduates as compared with those who did not reach high school, of college graduates as compared with high-school graduates, and so on. The differences are then generously assigned to the number of days of extra education, with results quite satisfying to some types of educators.

Perhaps these gentlemen should be gently reminded that these various groups are not at all equal in heredity. The native ability which enables a man to get through college might also lift him to a high-salaried job, with or without the education. Perhaps they should be reminded, too, that in America the papas of college graduates are on the average quite a bit wealthier than the papas of non-graduates, and in better position to see that Junior has a good start and succeeds to the legal practice or the corporation presidency. The royal families of Europe do not preserve the laws of direct succession with more care than many American business men.

It would be an interesting experiment to take the Yale class of 1940 and chloroform them for four years. Would they thereafter show as great a superiority in earning power over a typical ‘high-school group’ as if they had really received four years of college training? Dr. Harold F. Clark, professor of educational economics at Columbia, would say ‘more.’ He has asserted that college education is detrimental to earning power, chiefly through robbing youth of the daring attitude essential to business success.

This, of course, would prove the value of chloroform as an educative influence and an improver of earning powers.

No, while most of us might not go so far as Dr. Clark, we did not enter college primarily to increase our incomes.

Nor was it for training to a specific trade. Where undergraduate work turned vocational, as in the training of teachers, in pre-law and pre-medical courses, most of us complained. We thought it strange that teacher aspirants should be taught so thoroughly how to go about teaching but have nothing to teach. We looked askance at the mushroom growth of ‘schools of business administration.’ Many of these were little better than the old business school, which used to perch on second floors in business districts and do an honest and unpretentious job of training for immediate business careers people who could not afford the more liberal preliminaries we called ‘college.’

Perhaps that is just what most of us hoped to get from undergraduate colleges — these liberal preliminaries. We were not attracted by the more formal definitions of education, such as ‘ability to determine causality.’ What we wanted was growth. We might have been willing to call it ‘culture’ if people would think of that word in its fine farm sense — breaking the earthy crusts, feeding the soil, stirring the roots, helping the plant to sprout and grow and blossom. Call it cultivation.


Did college break our earthy crusts, feed the soil about us, stir the roots of our being?

No absolute answer could be true. Students differ and colleges differ. But many of us found something cramping in the system meant to free us. Contacts with our professors and with our fellow students outside of the classroom were often more stimulating, more truly cultural, than all the formal learning dished out to us in measured segments. The learning did not ‘take.’ I say that, not as an ex-football player who escaped all possible classes, but as one who went to college thirsty for knowledge and was graduated with the outer signs of having received an exceptional share of it.

The whole world of doing — business, politics, administration of all sorts — echoes that judgment. Many industries prefer not to employ persons who have been college-trained in their precise field. ‘They have too much to unlearn.’ Thomas Edison, who spent a total of three months in schools, expressed this opinion vigorously, but it is also shared by college-trained executives. Several quite able administrators in Washington are seriously handicapped because people in general will not believe that professors can prove anything but visionary. The very word ‘academic’ has lost all meaning of wise, or learned, or specially skilled, and come to connote an impractical splitting of valueless hairs.

Colleges themselves offer damaging testimony. How many professors of Greek or Latin, having spent decades studying and teaching those languages, can actually handle them as well as the Greek shoeblack or the Italian laborer handles English after two or three years in this country? He may do better on his cases, but can he express his thoughts as effectively?

Where do our colleges go when they wish to select new presidents? Do they go to the heads of their departments of education, to their professors who have spent a lifetime studying the techniques of teaching and educational administration?

President Conant of Harvard is a chemist; Compton of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Sieg of the University of Washington are physicists; Isaiah Bowman of Johns Hopkins is a geographer. The lawyers include Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, Dr. Gilmore of the State University of Iowa, George W. Rightmire of Ohio State, who was a specialist in patent law, Dr. Beury of Temple University, and Dr. Gates of the University of Pennsylvania, whose training to head a great university included not only the law but some nine years with J. P. Morgan and Company. Dr. Farrand, president of Cornell University, is a doctor in the lay sense — an M. D.; and John G. Bowman of the University of Pittsburgh was director of the American College of Surgeons and did newspaper work.

President Angell of Yale is a psychologist; Dr. Ruthven of the University of Michigan a zoölogist; Dr. Burnett, chancellor of the University of Nebraska, a specialist in animal husbandry; and Ray Lyman Wilbur, like the Cornell president, was an M. D. before he became the president of Stanford, and has been a cabinet member.

So we might go on. Dr. Marsh of Boston University was a minister; Dr. Willard, heading the University of Illinois, specialized in pharmacy and engineering, W alter Dill Scott of Northwestern in personnel work, though he is also the graduate of a theological seminary; Dr. Dodds of Princeton is a political scientist; Glenn Frank of the University of Wisconsin is known chiefly as an editor; Dr. Benedict of the University of Texas and Ellen Fitz Pendleton of Wellesley are mathematicians.

A few of the presidents of the betterknown universities have actually had the specialized training in teaching and educational administration that colleges feel so essential for all educational systems but their own. Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia had this training, although one thinks of him in a hundred other connections first. Likewise Harry Woodburn Chase, chancellor of New York University, taught philosophy of education before he headed his three universities.

I do not mention the unorthodox backgrounds of many distinguished heads of universities in criticism of them or of their institutions. Personally, I applaud. But why are so few graduates of the schools of education chosen by colleges for the highest position in education? Can it be that the colleges themselves do not trust their own special training? They should scarcely be surprised if some of the rest of us have felt discontented with the results upon us of the same system.


Criticism is easy enough, but have we who are discontented any ideas for building up? That day in the maple tree I was aware only that something was wrong, or was wrong at least for me. Doubtless various things are wrong, but one of them begins to seem fundamental. I am aware that this thing has been suggested elsewhere, and here and there efforts have been made toward correcting it. But I wish to stress it now, and from the layman’s angle, because it seems to me important.

Learning is perhaps like water. So long as it flows freely, it is clear and sparkling, it has power, it brings fruit. As soon as it grows sluggish, beginning merely to collect, the stream becomes a swamp and grows stagnant.

American methods of education too often lead only to a swamp. Knowledge is poured into the student in a ceaseless stream. This would be no danger if the stream had a proper outlet. The greatest rivers keep fresh if they keep flowing. But in our colleges knowledge is poured in, and poured in, and poured in, for its own sake. It collects; it stagnates; the student, in the expressive vernacular, ‘is swamped.‘

The same is true in other fields. Vociferous groups defend ‘art for art’s sake,’ but its practitioners, drawing in upon themselves closer and closer, go insane with surprising frequency. And almost invariably their work creates a brief stir and is then forgotten. The great art that has survived the test of the centuries has sprung usually from no mere desire to paint, or write a poem, or sing a song, but from an overmastering inner compulsion to paint this, to express that, to give vent to these feelings or ideas. Distinctive architecture has seldom come when men have sat down and said, ‘Here is a building to do; we must make it pretty.’ It has come when men of skill have set out to construct something to serve a particular purpose.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge seems similarly emasculate. Pure knowledge, pure science, pure poetry, pure art — these are glorious ideals. But perhaps they are also delusions. We are perhaps wrong in assuming that stillness and repose are conditions favorable to purity. Experiences with the swamp, and with men or minds in prison, are startling evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is a law of nature and of human nature that purity (or man’s nearest approach to it) is a function of motion and not of rest. Water in the flowing stream grows pure; water in the reservoir grows foul.

How does this apply to our educational swamp? Let me try to make clear what I mean by an example.

Dr. Max Mason sometimes tells of his experience in graduate studies at Göttingen. His fellow American students were of two groups, those who came to Göttingen specifically to study the German language, and those who came to pursue a variety of other studies. At the end of three months those who came for purposes other than the study of German were speaking German fluently, having need for it in their study of philosophy, science, or whatnot. Those who were devoting all their time to the study of German were still floundering, lost in the subtle question of ‘what they would say if they were to say anything.’

Whenever a study turns in upon itself, without an outlet in activity or in some broader interest, this creeping paralysis sets in. The current of interest grows more and more sluggish, and one more area is added to the educational swamp.


We cure swamps by draining them. Perhaps similarly we can dry up the stagnant pools of knowledge, and offer adequate outlet for all the entering streams of learning. Many elementary and secondary schools are practising this doctrine, at least in part, in various forms of the project method. Most colleges seem not to have learned this lesson they so carefully teach.

Specifically, let each course relate itself to some further need, some larger interest, and not be its own excuse for being. Children do not learn to walk by being told what a useful accomplishment walking is, or having gravity and friction explained to them; we hold out our arms and give them something to walk toward. We were eager to talk, not because the theory of words as ideas attracted us, but because there were things to ask for.

The sciences have less to learn in this field than the humanities. One makes sulphuric acid not to make sulphuric acid, but to try it out on something else. Groups of common properties emerge to stir further curiosity. Chemistry will not stay inorganic; it slides over into life itself, and soon the farthest stars are its horizon. Sciences refuse to stay in tight compartments. Mathematics, allegedly the purest of sciences, is seldom learned for its own sake but constantly as a means — perhaps for finding out the number of electrons, the areas of land, the distances of planets. This may be the reason science teaching has been so successful in America. There are outlets for all its facts, and visions to beckon one on.

If it is harder to see how the humanities may develop similar outlets, the difficulty merely points out the greater need. And, once the first hurdle is taken, the humanities offer vaster opportunities than the sciences. For they open up no mere physical world, but the vaster world of man’s spirit, able to outrange space and outlive time. Most of us, unfortunately, have never glimpsed this in our too-accurately named ‘courses.’

I once took a required course in ethics. It was a lecture course, in which we were supposed to write down what the professor read, and later pass an examination on what we had ‘learned.’ Being a wise senior who had mastered the technique of the system, I did not write down the lectures. I sat with pencil idly poised until the professor’s voice took a certain inflection, and then I put down a single word — perhaps as many as six words for an hour’s lecture. At the end of the semester I had a practically perfect outline of the subject of ethics, knowing the six virtues, the seven vices, the three of this and the four of that, and readily passed the course.

A little later I heard a man by the name of Harry Emerson Fosdick. He also was giving a course in ethics, but on ethics applied to living issues. There were no credits, but Sunday after Sunday I attended this course, often standing an hour with my thousands of fellow students of all ages waiting to get in.

Was it wholly my fault that I did not see till then that ethics might be thrilling? That the right is no dry fact, capable of being catalogued and subdivided, but a wavering, changing flame toward which men and civilizations strive, their very selves the stake?

Surely the professor with his smaller class, his opportunity to study individual reactions, can find ways to open out his subject to at least a large proportion of his students. A ‘course’ can be more than a mere running through the kind of neat catalogue of orderly facts we call a textbook.

At least in the humanities, our concern is not facts so much as spirit, less deeds than ideas. History is not a schedule of events, but a way of life and what came of it. Literature is not a series of biographies of famous authors with notes on their published works; it is baptism by immersion into the world of creative thought. A new language is not a new accomplishment; it is not an ‘accomplishment’ at all, but an opening, a key to a new culture.

It is here, perhaps, that the teacher becomes indispensable in college education. Facts can be learned by solitary reading, over the radio, or from phonograph records. But to open out the subject into living issues for individual students a wise guide — if possible, an inspired one — is needed. The methods are various, and it would be presumptuous in a non-educator to suggest them in detail. Merely this is important, that each subject shall lead beyond the acquisition of facts for facts’ sake, and shall somehow touch the curiosities or the emotions of the student.


What has this to do with graduate study, and with the theses which started this train of thought? Perhaps even more than with undergraduate work, where some of the students are probably incapable of inspiration or curiosity.

When universities started, learning was still in the threatening pass between the expansive days of Greece and Rome and the Dark Ages. Scholars were few, and each one could feel with reason that he was desperately needed. Creative scholarship quite aside, even the preservation or recovery of old knowledge was a task important and thrilling.

A little later scholars grew in number. They had time, and the spirit, to investigate new things. Many branches of learning were organizing themselves into ordered sciences. The very attempts to organize and classify revealed great gaps in knowledge, and fresh paths to explore.

Education adjusted itself rather splendidly to this new need for investigation and creative scholarship. Possibly the most useful invention toward this end was the thesis. Every scholar who was a candidate for an advanced degree was required to study intensively some small field of learning, or (especially in the sciences) to contribute some item of absolutely new knowledge. His ‘ thesis ’ was examined by competent scholars, and he was sometimes obliged to defend it to win his degree.

This was excellent. Even the laziest scholar had to make some positive contribution to learning, or forgo the honor and financial rewards of a degree. Better scholars were trained in the methods of original thought, and sometimes the habit of research clung to them.

In our century something has happened to the thesis system which needs scrutinizing. A consideration of the number of graduate degrees conferred in the United States 1 will make this clear: in 1910 there were 2825; in 1920, 4853; in 1932, 19,000. The 1932 figure, just released, is probably too conservative; the government says ‘not less than 19,000.‘

As far back as 1913, Edwin E. Slosson was writing in the Cyclopedia of Education that theses, ‘being produced in such large numbers in the United States and Germany and sometimes written in an arid and prolix style, tend rather to encumber than to facilitate further research.’ If that was true when there were about 3000 theses a year, what must be true now when probably some 20,000 are spawned annually!

Has not the thesis, too, drifted into the educational swamp? Most theses are being written simply for the sake of writing a thesis. Neither the student nor his professor is fired with the hope of contributing to man’s knowledge. Even where, aided by luck and the unquenchable enthusiasm of youth, a real discovery or a fresh point of view is gendered, it is apt to be buried beneath the sheer mass of the 19,999 others.

What began as an exciting, important adventure by which education met a pressing need has bogged down into an expensive, laborious, time-consuming task unlikely to benefit anybody and almost certain to quench any spark of real curiosity or inventiveness the student may possess.

The sheer figures, showing a tendency to double or more each decade, are warning that something must be done speedily. Obviously we must be reduced to such subjects as ‘The Economic Significance of Extra Ribs in Pigs’ if we must find 20,000 new subjects every year. And equally obviously the thesis will become more of a mockery than it now is, and true research will desperately suffer. The thesis must be drastically curtailed or discontinued, and some new outlet broken open for the energies of graduate students.

Some curtailment is already taking place. A few universities no longer demand a written thesis for at least the master’s degree. Publication requirements are also being relaxed, relieving students of a useless expense and permitting the hope that research libraries may yet escape death by suffocation.

But to suppress is not to solve the problem. This merely robs the graduate student of one more outlet, turning graduate study more and more upon itself, into deeper stagnancy. It is also a pity not to accept the gift of eager enthusiasm these students bring. For this gift is priceless, and many improvements we desperately need can be won only by persons too tireless and too inexperienced to know that they are impossible.


As a suggestion of what might be done, let us take the social studies, with which I am somewhat familiar. It is probably true that the most important inventions of the next fifty years will be in the field I like to call human engineering — the effective use of power in man and for man. We have already wrested from nature more secrets than we are yet fit to use. Unless we learn better how to live with each other, catastrophe is ahead. It is the social sciences which need attention now.

Many graduate students are specializing in this field. And by what method? Every organization conducting social research receives a steady stream of letters reading something like this: —

I am taking advanced work in sociology at Blank University. My subject is the Causes and Cure of Poverty. Please send me all the free information you have on this subject. I would like to have it at once, since it is for a thesis I have to get in very soon in order to win my degree.
Very truly yours . . .

Now useful social facts are not acquired in quite this manner. But facts are needed in the social sciences, and, even more than facts, people of energy and imagination to put into execution known facts and test untried theories.

Is it not possible that education can once more adjust itself to a need of its age, and turn at least a portion of its eager advanced students into doers and testers — into laboratory sociologists instead of library sociologists, for example?

Let us take an extreme illustration, not as a serious proposal in itself, perhaps, but to suggest a trend which work for advanced degrees might explore.

Here is a prospective doctor of philosophy in sociology. He thinks he would like to study housing. Normally he might read thirty books on the subject and then submit a thesis fortified by a dozen statistical tables carried out to three decimals. Instead, we will point out to him two existing hovels which are indefensible as human habitations. He is informed that one requirement for his degree is the removal of those hovels, accomplished by any means (short of arson and crime) which he can invent.

It will not be easy. Perhaps he will try to convince the owners the houses ought to be removed. He will discover that first he must find out about rents and carrying charges for such houses, why they are built, what land values are, what motives affect landowners and renting agents — perhaps also how that property could be used otherwise at greater profit, and where else the tenants could afford to go. He may have to learn about zoning laws, and who the housing inspectors are, and whether they have been accepting gifts to overlook this and that. He may have to learn how to deal with politicians.

When he is through, society will be the richer by the removal of two hovels, and possibly by a discovery in the practical technique of getting rid of others. As for the student, he will have read out of sheer interest more books on housing than a library sociologist, and he will remember them far better. He will know a good deal more of how to coöperate with men, how and when to fight them, and what housing means in terms of owner, renter, fellow citizen, economics, health, and human prejudice. He will almost deserve the title of Philosophiœ Doctor — Learned in Philosophy.

Extend the principle, improve the technique — but let learning run clear again because it has an outlet in the life of to-day, because it cries for all a man has of knowledge and courage and imagination, because it has importance and a purpose.

  1. FromScience and the United States Department of the Interior’sBiennial Surveys of Education. — AUTHOR