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Reprint of a Monograph

prepared for the

Educational Exhibit

of the

United States Government

at the

Paris Exposition of 1900


Professor in Princeton University


WAV 1 b 192b


Reprint of a Monograph

prepared for the

Educational Exhibit

of the

United States Government

at the

Paris Exposition of 1900

Professor in Princeton University

Copyright by





The American college has no exact counterpart in the
educational system of any other country. The elements
which compose it are derived, it is true, from European sys-
tems, and in particular from Great Britain. But the form
under which these elements have been finally compounded is
a form suggested and almost compelled by the needs of our
national life. Of course it is far from true to say that Ameri -
can colleges have been uninfluenced in their organization
by European tradition. On the contrary, the primary form
of organization found in our earliest colleges, such as Har-
vard, Yale and Princeton, is inherited from the collegiate life
of the University of Cambridge. But it was subjected to
modification at the very beginning, in order to adapt the
infant college to its community, and progressively modified
from time to time in order to keep in close sympathy with
the civil, ecclesiastical and social character of the growing
American nation. The outcome of all this has been an
institution which, while deriving by inheritance the elements
of its composition, and in some sense its form, has managed
to develop for itself a form of organization which notably
differs from the old-world schools.

Moreover the college, as might be expected from the fore-
going considerations, occupies the place of central importance
in the historic outworking of American higher education,
and remains to-day the one repository and shelter of liberal
education as distinguished from technical or commercial
training, the only available foundation for the erection of
universities containing faculties devoted to the maintenance
of pure learning, and the only institution which can furnish
the preparation which is always desired, even though it is not


yet generally exacted, by the better professional schools.
Singularly enough, but not unnaturally, the relation of direc-
tive influence sustained to-day by our colleges to the univer-
sity problem is not unlike the relation held in the middle
ages by the inferior faculty of arts at the University of Paris
to the affairs of the university as a whole.' The points of
resemblance are marked and are of a generic character. In
both cases the college, or faculty of arts, appears as the
preliminary instructor in the essentials of liberal education.
In both cases this earlier education is recognized as the
proper prerequisite for later study in the professional facul-
ties. In both cases the inferior faculty, even if still undevel-
oped or but partially developed, contains the germ of the
higher university faculty of pure learning, the faculty of
arts, sciences and philosophy. In this there is much that is
remarkable, but nothing novel. For the American college
in this respect merely perpetuates and develops a funda-
mental tradition of liberal learning, which found its way
from Paris through Oxford to Cambridge, and then from
Cambridge to our shores. The parallel of our college his-
tory with the old-world history holds good in other impor-
tant respects, and would be most interesting to trace. Still,
in order to understand the precise nature and unique influ-
ence of the college in American education, it is not neces-
sary here to trace step by step the story of its development,
for in its various forms of present organization it reveals not
only the normal type which has been evolved, but also sur-
vivals of past stages of development, instances of variation
and even of degeneration from the type, and interesting
present experiments which may to some extent foreshadow
the future.


The three commonly accepted divisions of education into
the primary, secondary and higher stages, while fully recog-
nized in America, are not followed rigorously in our organi-

' Rashdall : Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Chap. I, p. 318.


zation. The primary education is more clearly separable
from the secondary than is the secondary from the higher
or university stage. The chief cause for this partial blend-
ing, or perhaps confusion, of the secondary and higher
stages is the college. However illogical and even practi-
cally indefensible such a mixture may appear in the eyes of
some very able critics, it is still true that the historical out-
working of this partial blending of two different things,
commonly and wisely separated in other systems, has been
compelled by the exigencies of our history and has at the
same time been fruitful in good results.

Let us then take as the starting point of our inquiry the
fact that the American college, as contrasted with European
schools, is a composite thing — partly secondary and partly
higher in its organization. It consists regularly of a four-
year course of study leading to the bachelor's degree. Up
to the close of the civil war (1861-1865) it was mainly an
institution of secondary education, with some anticipations
of university studies toward the end of the course. But
even these embryonic university studies were usually taught
as rounding out the course of disciplinary education, rather
than as subjects of free investigation. Boys entered college
when they were fifteen or sixteen years of age. The average
age of graduation did not exceed twenty years. The usual
course of preparation in the best secondary schools occupied
four years, but many students took only three or even two
years. In the better schools they studied Latin and Greek
grammar, four books of Caesar, six books of Virgil's i^neid,
six orations of Cicero, three books of Xenophon's Anabasis
and two of Homer's Iliad, together with arithmetic, plane
geometry (not always complete) and algebra to, or at most
through, quadratic equations. There were variations from
this standard, but in general it may be safely asserted that
the Latin, Greek and mathematics specified above consti-
tuted as much as the stronger colleges required for entrance ;
while many weaker ones with younger students and lower
standards were compelled to teach some of these prepara-


tory studies in the first year or the first two years of the
college course. With but few and unimportant exceptions
the four-year course consisted of prescribed studies. They
were English literature and rhetoric, Latin, Greek, mathe-
matics, natural philosophy, chemistry, the elements of deduc-
tive logic, moral philosopy, and political economy, and often
a little psychology and metaphysics. Perhaps some ancient
or general history was added. French and German were
sometimes taught, but not to an important degree. At grad-
uation the student received the degree of bachelor of arts,
and then entered on the study of law, medicine or theology at
some professional school, or went into business or into teach-
ing in the primary or secondary schools. Such was, in barest
outline, the scheme of college education a generation ago.



At the present time things are very different. With the
vast growth of the country in wealth and population since
the civil war there has come a manifold development. The
old four-year course, consisting entirely of a single set of
prescribed studies leading to the one degree of bachelor
of arts, has grown and branched in many ways. It has
been modified from below, from above and from within.
The better preparation now given in thousands of schools
has enabled colleges to ask for somewhat higher entrance
requirements and, what is more important, to exact them with
greater firmness. The age of entrance has increased, until
at the older and stronger colleges the average is now about
eighteen and a half years. A four-year course leading to a
bachelor's degree remains, although in some quarters the
increasing age of the students is creating a tendency to
shorten the course to three years, in order that young men
may not be kept back too long from entering upon their
professional studies. It was an easy thing a generation
ago for young men to graduate at twenty, and a bright
man could do it earlier without difficulty. After two or


three years spent in studying law or medicine he was ready
to practice his profession, and then began to earn his living
at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three. This was within
his reach. But to-day a college student is twenty-two
years old at graduation — as old as his father or grand-
father were when they had finished their professional studies.
If he follows in their steps, he must wait until he is twenty-
five to begin earning his living. Accordingly boys are now
passing in considerable numbers directly from secondary
schools, which do not really complete their secondary educa-
tion, to the professional schools, thus omitting college alto-
gether. If this continues the effect both on colleges and pro-
fessional schools will be discouraging. The problem is an eco-
nomic one, and it is affecting college courses of study. One
solution, as suggested above, is to shorten the course to three
years. This has been advocated by President Eliot of Har-
vard. Three years is the length of the course in the under-
graduate college established in connection with the Johns
Hopkins university. Another proposal is to keep the four-
year course and allow professional in place of liberal studies
in the last year, thus enabling the student to save one year
in the professional school. This experiment is being tried
at Columbia. A third proposal is to keep the college course
absolutely free from professional studies, but to give abun-
dant opportunities in the last year or even the last two years
to pursue the liberal courses which most clearly underlie
professional training, thus saving a year of professional
study. That is, teach jurisprudence and history, but not
technical law, or teach chemistry and biology, but not techni-
cal medicine, or teach Greek, oriental languages, history and
philosophy, but not technical theology. This seems to be
the trend of recent experiments in Yale and Princeton.
The one common consideration in favor of all these pro-
posals is that a year is saved. Against the three-year course,
however, it is argued that there is no need to abolish the
four-year course in order to save a yean Against the
admission of professional studies it is argued that work done


in a professional school ought not to count at the same time
toward two degrees representing two radically different
things. Against the proposal to allow the liberal studies
which most closely underlie the professions, it is argued that
this is a half-way measure, after all. Nevertheless for the
present, and probably for a long time in most colleges, the
four-year course is assured.


The four-year course, however, no longer leads solely to
the degree of bachelor of arts, nor has this old degree itself
remained unmodified. With the founding of schools of
science, aiming to give a modern form of liberal education
based mainly on the physical and natural sciences, and yet
only too often giving under this name a technological course,
or a somewhat incongruous mixture of technical and liberal
studies, the degree of bachelor of science came into use as a
college degree. Then intermediate courses were consti-
tuted, resting on Latin, the modern languages, history,
philosophy, mathematics and science, and thus the degree of
bachelor of letters or bacheJor of philosophy came into use.
Sometimes the various courses in civil, mechanical, mining
or electrical engineering were made four-year undergradu-
ate courses with their corresponding engineering degrees
virtually rated as bachelor's degrees. Still other degrees
of lesser importance came into vogue and obtained a foot-
ing here and there a.: proper degrees to mark the comple-
tion of a four-year college course. The dispersing pressure
of the newer studies and the imperious practical demands
of American life proved too strong either to be held in form
or to be kept out by the barriers of the old course of purely
liberal studies with its single and definite bachelor of arts
degree. New degrees were accordingly added to represent
the attempted organization of the newer tendencies in courses
of study accordinj;^ to their various types. The organiza-
tion of such courses was naturally embarrassed by grave



difficulties which are as yet only partially overcome. Com-
pared with the old course they lacked and still lack defi-
niteness of structure. They aimed to realize new and
imperfectly understood conceptions of education, and were
composed of studies whose inner content was changing rap-
idly, as in the case of the sciences, or else were "half-and-
half " forms of education, difficult to arrange in a system
that promised stability, as in the case of studies leading to
the bachelor of letters or bachelor of philosophy. A graver
source of trouble, in view of the too fierce practicality of
American life, was the admission of various engineering and
other technical studies as parallel undergraduate courses,
thus tending to confuse in the minds of young students the
radical distinction between liberal and utilitarian ideals in
education, and tending furthermore, by reason of the attrac-
tiveness of the "bread-and-butter" courses, to diminish the
strength of the liberal studies. When in addition it is
remembered that the newer courses, whether liberal, semi-
liberal or technical, which found a footing of presumed
equality alongside of the old bachelor of arts course, exacted
less from preparatory schools in actual quantity of school
work necessary for entrance into college, it will be seen that
the level of preparation for college was really lowered.

The present drift of opinion and action in colleges which
offer more than one bachelor's degree is more reassuring
than it was some twenty years ago. There is a noticeable
tendency, growing stronger each year, to draw a sharp line
between liberal and technical education and to retain under-
graduate college education in liberal studies as the best
foundation for technical studies, thus elevating the latter to
a professsional dignity comparable with law. medicine and
divinity. The more this conception prevails, the more will
college courses in engineering be converted into graduate,
or at least partially graduate courses. No doubt most inde-
pendent schools will continue to offer their courses to young
students of college age, but where such schools have been
associated as parts of colleges or universities the tendency


to a clearer separation of technical from liberal studies in
the manner indicated above seems likely to prevail. If this
happy result can be considered assured, then the under-
graduate college course, the sole guarantee of American
liberal culture, will have a good chance to organize itself in
accordance with its own high ideals, however imperfectly it
may have realized these ideals in the past.

Another hopeful tendency which is gradually gathering
strength is to give the various bachelor's degrees more defi-
nite significance by making them stand for distinct types of
liberal or semi-liberal education. Three such types or forms
are now slowly evolving out of the mass of studies with
increasing logical consistency. First comes the historical
academic course, attempting to realize the idea of a general
liberal education, and consisting of the classical and modern
literatures, mathematics and science, with historical, polit-
ical and philosophical studies added, and leading to the
bachelor of arts degree. The second is the course which
aims to represent a strictly modern culture predominantly
scientific in character, and culminating in the degree of
bachelor of science. As this course originated in the
demand for knowledge of the applied sciences in the arts and
industries of modern life, the ideal of a purely modern lib-
eral culture, predominantly scientific in spirit, was not easy
to maintain. On the contrary, the technical aspects of the
sciences taught tended more and more to create a demand
for strictly technological instruction to the exclusion of the
theoretical and non-technical aspects. It is this cause more
than any other which has tended to restrict the energies of
schools of science to the production of experts in the various
mechanical and chemical arts and industries and has caused
them to do so little for the advancement of pure science.
Conscious of this difficulty, many schools of science have
been giving larger place in the curriculum to some of the
more available humanistic studies. Fuller courses in French
and German have been provided for and the study of Eng-
lish has been insisted upon with sharper emphasis. Eco-


nomics, modern history and even the elements of philosophy
have found place. Some improvement has also been effected
by increasing the entrance requirements in quantity of school
work. But in spite of all these efforts the course still suffers
from an inner antagonism between technical and liberal
impulses, and until the bachelor of science course finally set-
tles into a strictly technical form, or else comes to represent
a strictly modern liberal culture, its stability cannot be
regarded as assured. In the independent scientific schools,
unassociated with colleges, it seems probable the course will
keep or assume a highly technical form, but Avherever it exists
side by side with other bachelor's courses as a proposed rep-
resentative of some form of liberal education, it does seem
inevitable that the bachelor of science course will tend to
conform to the ideal of a modern culture mainly scientific
In character. But even if this result be achieved, the pro-
cess of achievement promises to be slow and difficult. Few
American colleges are strong enough financially to make the
experiment, which it must be admitted involves considerable
financial risk, and even where the risk may be safely assumed
there still remains a serious theoretical difficulty in realizing
this form of liberal education. The antagonism between
the technical and liberal impulses in the course seems very
difficult to eliminate completely. ¥or if the question be
asked, Why should an American college student seek as his
liberal education the studies which represent a purely mod-
ern culture rather than pursue the bachelor of arts course,
which professes to stand for a more general culture? the
preference of most students will be found to rest upon their
instinct for something useful and immediately available,
rather than on a desire for things intellectual. This con-
stantly militates against devotion to the intellectual value
of their modern studies and tends more and more to drag
them toward technical standards.

The third aspirant to be considered a type of liberal col-
lege education is the course intermediate in character
between the two already discussed. It is labeled with the


degree of bachelor of letters or bachelor of philosophy. It
differs from the other two courses mainly in its treatment of
the classical languages. In its desire to placate the practical
spirit it drops Greek, but retains Latin both as an aid to
general culture and as a strong practical help in learning the
modern languages. Notwithstanding its indeterminate and
intermediate character, it is serving a valuable end by pro-
viding thousands of students, who do not care for the clas-
sical languages in their entirety, with a sufficiently liberal
form of education to be of great service to them. It is by
no means technical in spirit. Judged from the standpoint
of the historical bachelor of arts course, it is a less gen-
eral but still valuable culture. Judged from the standpoint
of the bachelor of science course, it appears to escape the
unhappy conflict between the technical and liberal impulses
and anchors the student somewhat more firmly to funda-
mental conceptions of general culture.

These three are the principal forms of undergraduate col-
lege education which in any degree profess to stand as types
of liberal culture in this country at the present time, and
they are usually labeled with three different degrees, as
already indicated.

But some colleges, following the example of Harvard,
have dealt with the bachelor's degree very differently. The
degree has been retained as the sole symbol of liberal col-
lege education, but the meaning of the degree has been
radically altered in order to make it sufficiently elastic to
represent the free selections and combinations made by
the students themselves out of the whole range of liberal
studies. In these colleges it therefore no longer stands
for the completion of a definite curriculum composed of a
few clearly-related central studies constituting a positive
type. What it does stand for is not quite so easy to
define, because of the variation of practice in different col-
leges and the wide diversity in the choice of studies exer-
cised by individual students in any one college. But, gen-
erally speaking, it means that the student is free to choose


his own studies. In the undergraduate college connected
with the Johns Hopkins university at Baltimore choice is
regulated by prescribing moderately elastic groups of cog-
nate studies, the student being required to say which group
he will choose. In Harvard college the range of choice is
restricted in no such way. The student is allowed to choose
what he prefers, subject to such limitations as the priority
of elementary to advanced courses in any subject, and the
necessary exclusions compelled by the physical necessity of
placing many exercises at the same time, in order to accom-
modate the hundreds of courses offered within the limits of
the weekly schedule. In Columbia college the degree is
still different in respect to the mode of the student's freedom
of choice, and especially in the admission of professional
studies in the last year of the course. A Columbia student
in his senior year may be pursuing his first year's course in
law or medicine, and at the same time receiving double
credit for this work, both toward the degree of bachelor of
arts and toward the professional degree of doctor of medi-
cine or bachelor of laws. These examples are sufficient to
indicate the variety of meaning found in colleges which
have changed the historical significance of the bachelor of
arts degree.


Up to this point we have looked at the American college
mainly from the outside. We observed in the college of a
generation ago an institution of liberal education providing
a single four-year course, consisting entirely of prescribed
studies for young men from sixteen to twenty years of age,
and culminating in one bachelor's degree of fairly uniform
intentional meaning. We observe in the college of to-day
the developed successor of the earlier college, providing a
four-year course consisting generally of a mixture of pre-
scribed and elective studies in widely varying proportions.
The average age of the students has increased at least two
years, and at the end of the course there is a multiform
instead of a uniform bachelor's degree, or in some instances


a single bachelor's degree of multiform meaning. To some
extent the undergraduate collegian has become a university
student. To what extent ? is the real question around which
a controversy of vital importance is raging.

The profound change indicated by these external symp-
toms, a change so full of peril in the directions of disintegra-
tion and confusion, and yet so full of promise if rationally
organized, has been in progress since the civil war, and is
still steadily and somewhat blindly working along towards

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Online LibraryAndrew Fleming WestThe American college → online text (page 1 of 4)