Abraham Flexner.

The American college; a criticism online

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situation. To them the boy's slipshod
conceptions go back; they habituate
him at the outset to passivity and pro-
198



GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

crastination. From this collapse, the
college usually seeks an escape through
a system of assistantships : let us ob-
serve its operation and outcome/

Briefly put, the lecturer lectures, as-
signs subjects for occasional written
theses and sets monthly and half-yearly
examinations; the assistant reads and
grades the themes and the examination
papers; besides, once a month he meets
the students individually for ten or
fifteen minutes to "talk over their read-
ing with them, and assists them by ex-
planation, advice and suggestion." ^

1 What 1 have said of the excessive prevalence of
lectures applies quite commonly to small as well as
large institutions. Increasing use of lectures is felt
to mark a college as "grown-up." The extent to
which assistants are employed and the scope given
to them is largely a question of the size of classes.
There is less uniformity in this matter than any-
where else. The type discussed in the text is, of
course, confined to some of the most populous institu-
tions.

2 Report of Harvard Com. on Improve. Instruct.
pp. 6, 7.

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The teacher has thus no necessary com-
munication with his auditors. To him
the class is an undifferentiated mass.
He has no effective way of knowing
whether his words tell, who works, who
shirks. He gets no illumination from
theses and examination papers: he
never sees either!

The actual teachers, the men with the
responsibility to see that the boy under-
stands and does are the assistants: who
then are they?^

It is difficult to characterize them in
general terms, for they form a motley
group. They are for the most part
meritorious graduate students —
"Young and therefore without much
experience in teaching" ^ — who are

1 Sometimes the lecturing Professor is eliminated ;
and the fundamental teaching is wholly in the hands
of assistants of the type described.

2 Report of Com. on Improv. Instr., pp. 6, 7.

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GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

earning their way as research workers
by sacrificing a few hours weekly to
other uses. Not infrequently an as-
sistantship is bestowed in order to
enable a man to continue his pilgrimage
to the Ph.D. degree; often, the assist-
ant is a Ph.D. of recent origin — a
fledgling not quite ready to fly or with-
out a place to fly to. Two features
stand out: the transitoriness of the
body, its absorption in graduate aims.
Can a changing body of more or less
inexperienced young men, with no real
stake attached to the performance of a
perfunctory and underpaid incidental
occupation, each of them simultaneous-
ly busy upon really congenial tasks to
which a twenty-four hour day is at best
inadequate, — can a body so constituted,
I ask, efl*ectively mediate between the
lecturer and his class? I am exceed-



THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

ingly anxious to be fair to the assistant,
however severely I comment on the sys-
tem; but my impression is that they
regard their duties as an interruption,
— a deplorable, unavoidable interrup-
tion, doomed to futility at that.

Let us follow the working of this
system in a concrete case.^ The sub-
ject will probably be entirely new to
the freshman, and certainly not easy.
For a general outline of the entire field
— ^the basis on which all subsequent
work rests — the college provides a
course of lectures given three times
weekly for a half-year: forty or fifty
lectures distributed over some three

1 1 discuss here the Harvard method of employing
assistants; other methods are in vogue at other large
institutions. But the particular method is of little
consequence. The entire practice of delegating im-
portant fundamental teaching to hard-pressed stu-
dents working for advanced degrees is, in my judg-
ment, indefensible.

202



GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

months. The lecturer suggests the use
of a general handbook to accompany
the course, — he does not, however, fol-
low closely its order or adhere strictly
to its views; from time to time more
definite recommendations as to addi-
tional reading are made for the eluci-
dation of special points. Now then,
all that the college does to make sure
that the boy can do and is doing his
work is once a month to give him a ten
or fifteen minute interview with an as-
sistant of the quahfications just des-
cribed! During this month something
like one-third of the whole field has
been traversed in the lectures; the es-
sential basic facts, concepts and prob-
lems stated and discussed; at its close
an assistant meets the beginner for a
quarter of an hour to test his know-
ledge, explain away his difficulties, and



THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

direct his stumbling footsteps for the
next thirty days! Not a single lecture
but raised more difficulties than can be
cleared up intelligently in the time al-
lotted to the crop of an entire month!

Occasionally the work is somewhat
differently organized. Lectures are
given only twice weekly. In the third
hour, an assistant meets a section of
some thirty or forty students, so select-
ed that each student attends one such
meeting monthly. But neither ar-
rangement is intimate enough to be ef-
ficient. A good teacher of boys in a
fundamental course must have his
hand on his pupil's pulse; no lecturer
can hear answers through an assistant's
ears or read theses through an assist-
ant's eyes. Finally, the time allowance
is frankl}^ ridiculous, — call it fifteen
minutes monthly for each boy, or fifty
204



GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

minutes monthly for a section of forty.
The most expert assistant cannot break
ground in such conditions. I know an
assistant who, utterly desperate, con-
fers in writing. He sets a few simple
questions, having answered which the
boy departs. The fact is that the ice is
thin and one must skate warily. The
assistants cannot afford by fearless
quizzing, to expose the shallowness and
superficiality in which such instruction
necessarily eventuates; they cannot, by
applying strict standards, permit the
students to throw the responsibility
where it belongs. The standard is thus
necessarily low.^

Naturally enough, these conditions

1 The passing mark is usually 50% and the mark-
ing is, as a rule, lenient. The Harvard committee
already quoted admits that the amount of study in
the undergraduate department is "discreditably
small."

205



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put an end to systematic study. The
professor does not know what is going
on; the transient youthful instructor
who represents him lacks compelling
authority. There is thus no pretence
that the student keeps pace with the
lecturer by concurrent reading or
studying. As a rule, lecture notes and
required reading silently accumulate
until an imminent conference or exam-
ination looms on the horizon. Then
there is a vigorous rattling of dry
bones ; a sudden flare of energy ; a hasty
session with an expert crammer ; a quick
skirmish with books of reference. A
well-known professor told me that he
entered the faculty resolved to break
up this practice. He determined to
quiz his students for a few moments at
every meeting on the subject of the
previous lecture before going on to de-
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GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

velop it further. Surely, an eminently
sensible procedure. Well, he was un-
able to persevere. The current was too
strong for him. Only concerted and
fearless action on the part of the entire
faculty could carry through so radical
a departure, and of such action there
was no hope. It continues generally
impossible to require college students
even to read their notes between lec-
tures. Plainly a loss of dignity, a re-
turn to the outgrown ways of the sec-
ondary school is involved in "studying
one's lessons !"

Quite recently Princeton has won
honorable distinction through an inde-
pendent experiment in this field. In
each of several departments, preceptors
or tutors have been put in charge of
small groups, with whom they meet in-
formally and intimately. The tutor is
207



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not, however, expected to go over the
ground covered by the professor in his
lectures. The tutor's work rather sup-
plements or illustrates the general lec-
tures. The professor thus continues
to expound principles which, in that
form, the boy may, or may not, grasp.
The tutor, without any direct responsi-
bility on this score, reads with his small
group additional or illustrative mater-
ial. Unquestionably the tutors do on
this arrangement enjoy a genuine ped-
agogical opportunity. But I cannot
see that the system offers any assurance
of a sound or adequate sub-structure.
The professor's lectures must still be
regarded as the backbone of the depart-
mental work, and only the examination
determines whether the student has
properly apprehended them. If not,
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GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

it is then too late to do anything but
register his failure/

Decided sagacity has been displayed
in some institutions by the students in
perfecting their own machine. The
logic of the thing runs thus : Survival
is essentially a question of passing a
regular succession of examinations.
No concurrent preparation of work is
required; no tests are sprung. An
easy standard acquits the student who
has paid with decent regularity the
perfunctory tribute of attendance at

1 1 should add that the preceptor ranks decidedly
higher than the assistant in dignity and salary; his
grade is practically equivalent to that of assistant
professor. The reader will find the aims and opera-
tion of the system discussed in President Wilson's
recent reports. It is claimed that it has already ef-
fected a marked improvement in the attitude of the
student in respect to his work. It will be interesting
to observe how the attitude and efforts of the pre-
ceptors are affected by the growth of Princeton's
graduate school.

14 209



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lectures. Now, in periods varying
from a single hour to several days, an
expert tutor can train almost any sort
of student to clear the barriers; the
process is entirely mechanical. Ex-
perts in this line will undertake to train
a color-blind man to pass the railroad
color tests without in the least actually
improving his defective color sense!

This industry is mainly concentrated
in the hands of a small group of keen
business men, not overladen with either
scruples or scholarship. They take
into their service on commission as
many graduate students as the traffic
requires. Here at least is a teaching
staiF, running parallel with the college
catalogue. The business has grown
to enormous proportions. A few years
ago an instructor who described him-
self "as having gone every gait at col-
210



GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

lege" assured me that in his college
thousands upon thousands of dollars
change hands annually in the course of
this illicit commerce; that no small part
of it comes from students whose "nec-
essary" expenses are met by painful
sacrifices at home. The methods em-
ployed are explicitly adapted to the im-
mediate ends for which the service is
sought: — the adroit and painless ad-
ministration of minimum doses of pre-
digested lore. Through personal at-
tendance on the lectures or through an
agent, the tutor gets possession of the
material. He casts it into easily assim-
ilable shape; danger and the boy's gen-
uine absorptive capacity — which the
college persistently underrates — do the
rest. Nor does the trade confine itself
to "talking" subjects — literature, phil-
osophy, government, in which fluency,



THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

self-possession and a fact or two may-
make a brave show. I have met suc-
cessful instances of this death-bed treat-
ment in highly technical courses: —
cryptogamic botany, musical theory,
and physics, in some of which a highly
intricate terminology learnt for the first
time the night before examination
weathered a final three hour test next
day. The lecturers themselves rarely
appreciate the extent to which fraud
and evasion flourish; but the assistants
who read the papers mark the suspi-
cious sameness of the waters that flow
from one tutorial font. For the help-
lessness of the college in this situation,
the fatal division of authority between
lecturer and assistant is primarily res-
ponsible.

Before leaving this subject, I must
S12



GRADUATE AND UNDERGRADUATE

make it plain that I am condemning a
system, not men: the efforts of the
teaching staff to work an unworkable
machine, though unavailing, are unre-
mitting. They are caught between
absolutely inconsistent necessities.
They can neither teach deliberately nor
investigate composedly. The system
is hard on the boys, it is tragic for the
men who must administer it.. They are
both overworked and underpaid.^ For
the love of learning they have fore-
sworn worldly careers, with all the sac-
rifices for themselves and their families
therein involved. And now in lieu of

1 The financial status of the American professor
and instructor is exhaustively set forth and most
luminously discussed in Bulletin Number Two of
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching. I regret that its publication comes too
late to permit me to profit by its contents; the
facts that it assembles and interprets throw a flood
of light on the problems of university organization.

213



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the opportunity they sought they must
accept a wretched compromise, equally
fatal to good teaching and to unfetter-
ed research.



gl4



CHAPTER VI

THE WAY OUT

MY position thus far may be brief-
ly summarized as follows: The
American college is wisely committed
to a broad and flexible scheme of higher
education through which each indi-
vidual may hope to procure the train-
ing best calculated to realize his maxi-
mum effectiveness. The scheme fails
for lack of sufficient insight : in the first
place, because the preparatory school
routine devised by the college sup-
presses just what the college assumes
that it will develop ; in the second place,
because of the chaotic condition of the
college curriculum; finally, because re-
215



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search has largely appropriated the re-
sources of the college, substituting the
methods and interest of highly special-
ized investigation for the larger objects
of college teaching.

The way out lies, as I see it, through
the vigorous reassertion of the priority
of the college as such. The point of
emphasis must be shifted back. There
is the meat of the whole problem.
Historically Yale, Columbia, Harvard,
Princeton are colleges. The B. A., not
the Ph.D. is, and has always been, the
college man. The college has been
richly endowed. And it is the college,
where a boy may be trained in serious-
ness of interest and mastery of power,
that the nation pre-eminently needs.
The graduate school is a late develop-
ment: a proper beneficiary of the col-
lege surplus, if such there be, not the
216



THE WAY OUT

legitimate appropriator of the lion's
share of its revenues.

I mean neither to depreciate nor to
disparage graduate work ; to the extent
of advocating a more exclusive treat-
ment of its privileges, a more thorough
fitness for its opportunities, I am doing
just the reverse. But I insist that
rapidly won distinction as research cen-
tres is no compensation for college
failure. The diversion of college
resources to graduate uses is defensible
on the theory that college work is anti-
quated or superfluous : but this plea can
hardly be urged, at a time when the
graduate schools themselves suffer
from slighted college work. Its neg-
lect of its primary duty in favor of
wider adventure subjects the college
to exactly the same criticism and dis-
aster that befall a merchant whose capi-
211



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tal is inadequate to the scale on which
his imagination and ambition lead him
to do business.

I suspect that the moment the dis-
tinctively educational function is
strongly emphasized it will become evi-
dent that the college is nowadays edu-
cationally headless. The two officials
nominally responsible for its direction
lack time and scope. The President of
the University is too busy and remote;
his duties are executive, administrative,
financial, representative. His inter-
ests and activities are necessarily less
and less pedagogical; his contact with
students, class-rooms, instructors, prac-
tically nil. The college dean, who
takes his place, lacks pedagogical au-
thority. His office has become increas-
ingly clerical, hortatory and punitive.
He is the keeper of the records, the
218



THE WAY OUT

interpreter of statistics, the chief pro-
bation officer. His intercourse with
the individual student tends to be con-
ditioned on the latter's delinquency.
The boy who fulfils the minimum re-
quirement is let alone. In any event,
the dean's relations are with students
only; over instructors or instruction, he
has no real authority and no great in-
fluence. He is not appointed to the
deanship by reason of pedagogical
eminence. He is only a professor, de-
tached for a while from his depart-
ment because he happens to add execu-
tive ability and tact to the prevailing
type of scholarship. The dean is not
then fitted by the range of his acquire-
ments or by distinctively pedagogical
interest for the task of supervising the
college organization and procedure.
Either then the deanship must be re-
^19



THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

constituted or a new office, say the
principalship, be created. Not other-
wise will the teaching function, as
such, get adequate recognition. It
certainly can get no such recognition
from the department heads among
whom it is now loosely scattered.
These scholars and scientists are not
going voluntarily to concede that the
college interest is either distinct from,
or prior to, or inconsistent with the in-
terest of research. Left to themselves,
as to a large extent they now are, they
will continue to develop their depart-
ments in the research sense. They will
proceed further on the theory that ele-
mentary teaching and special research
"are both best done when done to-
gether," even when the teaching is lit-
erature, and the research philology or
phonetics; that all new Ph.D's are ipso
220



THE WAY OUT

facto qualified to teach "what and as
they think fit," during the period of
incubation, when the university keeps
them under observation to find out
whether they will make good as investi-
gators; finally, that the personal predi-
lections of the scholars who constitute
a department are bound automatically
to provide just the courses that an un-
dergraduate is in search of. Now, at
every one of these points sharp em-
phasis of the college point of view will
develop a conflict between the need of
the boy and the procedure of the in-
vestigator. And for this reason: in
the higher reaches of a fertile subject,
where the investigator is busy, there are
innumerable points of departure. It
is practically immaterial where investi-
gation begins; every trail leads some-
where. But at the lower level, that of
^^1



THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

the college boy, this is by no means the
case. There, some things are more im-
portant than others; there, co-ordina-
tion within each subject, and between
subjects that support and interpret
each other, is indispensable, if the be-
ginner is to achieve solid comprehen-
sion. Now this sort of thing does not
take place automatically and incident-
ally, while the several instructors are
pursuing their favorite scents. On the
contrary, courses must be selected,
mapped out, and conducted with the re-
quirements of the student distinctly in
mind.

The next move must be in the direc-
tion of reconstructing the preparatory
school. As things now stand, the col-
lege is in fact the main hindrance to the
vital, pedagogical treatment of the
secondary period. External pressure
222



THE WAY OUT

has failed to make the preparatory-
school effective. A totally different
conception must be introduced into the
relations between the secondary school
and the college. They must become
continuous where now they fall apart.
The motive on which the college vainly
relies, self-realization, has got to be ren-
dered operative at the earlier stage.
As a matter of fact, the secondary
period is far more favorable than the
college to free exploration of the boy.
In college, the proximity of the practi-
cal ends which loom up just ahead con-
trols the situation. Imminent vocation-
al or professional necessities should
there largely determine both the content
of the curriculum and the form of the
instruction. In the secondary school,
however, the material can be much more
freely handled. It can be more
223



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readily derived from, less pedantically
connected with, the boy's experience.
Moreover the boy is himself more trac-
table. Early adolescence is a period of
natural expansion, quick appreciation,
ready responsiveness. It is preem-
inently the time for the liberation and
recognition of the boy's power and pur-
pose.

Reform of the preparatory school in
this direction would require the tran-
sition to college to be less mechanically
regulated. The examination system
cannot be at once wiped out; but it can
be gradually reconstituted. Entrance
to college can, whenever the colleges so
desire, be treated as a privilege. The
range, seriousness and cohesiveness of
previous study may be made the main
factor in deciding to which of the ex-
cessive number of applicants further
224



THE WAY OUT

opportunity shall be extended. The
College Entrance Board might readily
be converted into an instrumentality for
the ascertaining of these really vital
facts.

Assuming now that the secondary
school has actually laid bare the indi-
vidual, has started up vital and charac-
teristic activities, the college has some-
thing to build on. The elective system
— for the time being I retain the name
— becomes capable of intelligent appli-
cation. The youth chooses; he selects
or is effectively assisted to select his
status. The college must then organ-
ize for him the intermediate steps to his
chosen end. For this purpose it is
worse than useless to maintain a diffuse
and practically endless course of study.
A compact, related and organized body
of instruction in each of the fields
15 225



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which the college undertakes to cover,
must be substituted for the disjecta
membra of the present catalogue.
Only in the very last stages can the
undergraduate be credited with the
knowledge necessary to a prudent
choice between highly specialized alter-
natives. Seminary and research courses
must be closed, not only to undergrad-
uates, but to graduates, whose slender
acquisitions require them still to re-
pair to undergraduate classes. We
shall thus have seen the last of two ab-
surd phenomena now frequently ob-
served: the undergraduate student,
who, in default of thorough fundamen-
tal training, has prematurely escaped
into a narrow research, which, whether
worth doing or not, is not worth his do-
ing then ; and the mature graduate who
takes part in an advanced seminary,
226



THE WAY OUT

while simultaneously making up funda-
mental deficiencies by attending ele-
mentary courses.

With the definite realization that the
undergraduate comes to college in
search of teaching in the pregnant
sense of the word, other changes will
take place. For example, the Fresh-
man may there renew acquaintance
with a teacher who won his spurs in a
secondary school. Again, college teach-
ing will do its painstaking piecework
at the beginning of a new subject, in-
stead of as now, only in the later and
last stages, after wretched preliminary
teaching, rather than demonstrated in-
capacity or uncongeniality has thinned
out the ranks, and thus limited the size
of the more advanced classes. The
middleman, whether he be the changing
assistant, detailed by the college, or the
227



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tutor hired by the boy, must be abso-
lutely eliminated. The college pro-
fessor will not only offer courses, but
teach. I happen to know one, who, de-
spite large classes, so construed his
duty. His predecessor in the chair had
lectured; unofficial quiz-masters did the
rest at ten dollars per head. The new
appointee declared war on the system;
he frankly stated that he would put the


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Online LibraryAbraham FlexnerThe American college; a criticism → online text (page 8 of 9)