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Albert Perry Brigham.

Present status of the elective system in American colleges online

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Reprinted from the Educational Review, New York, November, 1897.
Copyright, 1897, by HENRY HOLT & CO.






VI

PRESENT STATUS OF THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM
IN AMERICAN COLLEGES

From ten to twenty years ago the elective system was
the theme of abundant, and not rarely of sharp discus-
sion. But the plan has been adopted into the common
thought and has quietly extended its range in our higher
schools. That can hardly be called a reputable college
which has not admitted it in some measure. Movements
toward liberty, unless radical, pass unchallenged, and arouse
no comment outside of the school concerned. In some
cases the system has been adopted sparingly and timidly, as
if under the stress of competition. More often it has been
received heartily up to a certain limit. In some conspicu-
ous instances the plan prevails throughout the undergradu-
ate course, but with inevitable checks which are too little
understood by critics.

The noteworthy fact to-day is the immense diversity,
amounting almost to chaos, seen in the application of the
elective system by American colleges. By college is here
meant the undergraduate school, whether the institution is
university or college. This diversity does not mean that
the plan is not good, but rather that it is alive. It is not
easy to classify a group of organisms which is undergoing
rapid and various modification. In these days the natural-
ist's difficulties are encountered by every student of
education.

College studies may be divided into three classes: re-
quired, restricted, and free. The educational faith of a
school appears somewhat in its proportioning of these three.
But the diversity goes much deeper, as a short analysis will
show. If a certain percentage of studies is to be required,
then what studies? No two schools give the same answer.

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EXPLANATION OF TABLE
The table has been prepared with care, on the basis of the catalogues of 1S95-96, or those of
the current year so far as they have come to hand. The variety in plan and in designation
of the same subject renders it difficult to secure accuracy, but it is hoped that no serious error
occurs. In the case of Michigan, 6 appears as the total because logic and psychology are alter-
native requirements. In several cases French and German are alternate prescriptions, but this
does not appear in the scheme. Subjects taught incidentally with other required subjects do not
have place, as Bible study at Bowdoin. The term philosophy is used in a somewhat variable
sense. Biology is made to include zoology and botany. Physiology includes military drill and
all other forms of physical training. Rhetoric includes public speaking. The sign + always
means requirement in the Junior or Senior year, but not exclusively, since, in some cases, the
requirement reaches downward. The sign — denotes requirement in the lower years only.
± indicates that studies may be taken either above or below the middle of the course, though
they fall usually below.



362 Educational Review [November

Many wise and many unwise things are said and written
about educational values. These values depend less upon
the subject than upon the goodness of the teaching and the
nature of the student. It is but natural that teachers should
regard their own subjects as essential to culture. The tra-
ditions and environment of colleges, rather than broad and
defensible principles, determine what subjects shall be re-
quired.

The reader is invited to study the tabular view of subjects
required for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, in a group of 25
higher schools which all will concede as representative. It
will be seen that 6 subjects are each thought essential by 1
college. These are: Law, natural theology, fine arts, peda-
gogy, astronomy, and mineralogy. Sociology, Bible study,
government, English language, geology, and biology are re-
quired in 2 to 4 curricula each. Economics has 8 votes, but
the subject probably does not languish in the other 17
schools. Ethics, psychology, and logic still stand before
all candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, in 10, 12,
and 15 colleges respectively. Fifteen colleges do not seem
to think the ethical theories of the lecture room are espe-
cially promotive of good conduct, and 10 appear to recognize
that correct thinking may be secured without formal logic.
In this view the writer concurs, believing that the fullest
liberty should prevail in the higher years of the undergradu-
ate course. The number of colleges requiring a given sub-
ject varies between 1 and 23. Twenty-three yet require
mathematics and Latin for the degree here in question.
The exceptions are Harvard and Cornell. Williams re-
quires the mathematics and the Latin, but not the
Greek. If we observe the number of subjects required
by any college, we find, out of 29 subjects, a range of 1
(Harvard and Cornell) to 24 (Rutgers). The disagreement
of the doctors is well-nigh complete.

We must again emphasize the diversity of policy, if we
examine the restricted studies. Here we have reference to
the so-called group electives. The selection may be so nar-
rowed that what is granted in the name of freedom by one



1897] Present status of the elective system 363

hand is suspiciously withdrawn by the other. Or the
groups may be so general as to have small controlling value.
Or again, the groups may be of such a nature as to compel
excessive specialism. In fact, some schools have seized
upon the group system as a means of securing breadth and
symmetry, while others use it to promote specialism and
continuity. Symmetry as regards the whole range of study,
and continuity in some departments, appear as reasonable
and prime ends in curriculum-making. The system of re-
quired studies can provide for a kind of symmetry, but if all
claims are regarded, the resulting compromise will destroy
continuity. It is doubtful whether any group system yet
devised secures both ends. The groups are artificial; either
failing to restrict, or restricting too much, and often fail-
ing of individual adaptation. If, as in some conspicuous
cases, the groups are narrow and extend over two or three
years, how shall the student elect wisely at so early a stage
in his course? It becomes an election of curricula, and the
objections to> the elective system, as unsuited to immaturity,
apply here with double force.

After all, it is a fair question, whether the two. great ends,
symmetry and continuity, may not best be trusted, at a cer-
tain stage of maturity, to the student's choice. How and
when freedom shall be conferred, is the question. Most col-
leges think Juniors and Seniors can be — more or less —
trusted. Many of the strong and conservative faculties are
introducing a large measure of choice into the Sophomore
year. Harvard has had twelve years of experience with
Freshman electives, and Cornell has now followed her ex-
ample. And it can have escaped no observant eye that a
rational introduction of freedom into the high school is
rapidly taking place. The growing appreciation of the
practical and educational value of a large group of newer
subjects renders it impossible longer to> maintain a hard-
and-fast course of study in the secondary schools. Thus
the elective system is gaining ground, and it will be the aim
of the later part of this paper to show that the student can
be trusted with all the freedom that he is likely to receive.



364 Educational Review [November

We have intimated that the schemes of the several col-
leges are difficult of classification. This will appear more
fully, if a rough attempt be made. We may take first a
group of 8 colleges in which the studies are substantially
prescribed to the end of the Sophomore year, and are after-
ward more or less free. Here fall Columbia, Yale, Williams,
Hamilton, Colgate, Rochester, Rutgers, and Union. But
among these there is variety. Columbia, Hamilton, and
Colgate admit the elective principle slightly in the Sopho-
more year. At Williams the electives are somewhat con-
trolled by the group plan. At Rutgers 2 out of 9 very re-
stricted groups must be pursued throughout the two upper
years. The choice once made is irrevocable and compels
a considerable degree of specialism. At Columbia first-year
courses in the schools of law, mines, and medicine may be
taken as Senior electives for the degree of Bachelor of Arts.
In 6 colleges of the group the electives are free, but vary
much in amount. Thus, Columbia has, in the upper years,
12 term hours required, 78 elective; Yale has 15 hours
required, 75 elective; Colgate, 15 hours required, 82 elective;
Hamilton, 40 hours required, 63 elective; Rochester, 45
hours required, 45 elective; Union, 50 hours required, 47
elective; and Williams, 39 hours required, 57 elective.

A second group consists of schools which admit the elect-
ive plan to a marked degree in the Sophomore year, and
wholly or extensively in the upper years. Here we place
Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Oberlin, Syracuse Trinity, Ver-
mont, and Wesleyan. But here also strong differences ap-
pear. At Bowdoin two-thirds of the Sophomore work is
elective from a group whose sum is 28 hours per term. All
the Junior and Senior work is elective from a group aggre-
gating 36 hours per term. A similar plan prevails at Wes-
leyan for the Sophomore year, with a small amount of re-
quired work in the upper years. Sophomore electives are
also somewhat restricted at Amherst, Vermont, and Trinity.
At Syracuse a major and a minor, making 9 hours, run
through the upper years, leaving 6 hours of free electives.
Some of the ratios of required to elective upper-year work



1897] Present status of the elective system 365

in the group are: Amherst, 15 hours required, 76 elective;
Brown, 18 required, 72 elective; Trinity, 18 required, 72
elective.

Our list includes two pronounced representatives of the
group system, New York University and the University of
Pennsylvania. In the latter the studies of the upper years
are mainly divided into 13 groups of 2 studies each. Each
group is narrow in range, consisting of 2 languages, 2 sci-
ences, mathematics and a science, philosophy and history,
economics and history, etc. Each student must pursue one
of these groups for 8 hours during the Junior and 10 hours
during the Senior year, leaving the balance either required,
or free electives. Here we have a large measure of con-
tinuity and some range, though it may be questioned
whether 2 hours in the Junior, and 5 hours in the Senior
year, are sufficient to secure the symmetry and individuality
that are desirable. In New York University the group sys-
tem goes farther. At the beginning of the Sophomore year,
one of 10 parallel groups must be chosen. Of these groups,
different members lead to the several bachelors' degrees.
In each group the subjects which give name to the group
run for three years. In the Senior year nearly two-thirds
of the work is freely elective. The plan, as a whole, how-
ever, amounts nearly to an election of curricula.

California can hardly be classed with any of the others.
One-half the work is said to be prescribed, though the plan
is modern and flexible. One-fourth of the total is in group
electives, and the remaining fourth is free. The plans of
Northwestern and Michigan are similarly flexible, though
the prescribed work is less in volume and the rest is without
restriction. In a general way, Chicago may be classed here.
Greek, Latin, English, mathematics, physical training, his-
tory, and philosophy are required for the degree in question,
and a limited amount of work must be done in the last two
subjects, whatever the prospective degree. In the Senior
colleges (Junior and Senior years of other colleges) the stu-
dent may take to the extent of half his work in one depart-
ment, and may not spread it over more than 4 in any 3 con-



366 Educational Review [November

secutive quarters. One-third of his work for a bachelor's
degree must come within a certain group of departments,
whose range, however, is wide. We come now to a final
group, in which the largest liberty prevails — Harvard, Cor-
nell, and, we may well add, Leland Stanford. At Cornell,
military drill is the sole requirement. At Harvard rhetoric
and English composition are required of all Freshmen.
French or German is also prescribed, unless the student has
offered both in preparation. All other work is elective.
That there are checks upon liberty, however, is here
instructively seen. The Harvard Freshman must elect
out of a group of 18 subjects, of which 6 are lan-
guages and 8 are mathematics or elementary science.
Only 2 courses can be taken in 1 department without
special permission, and the choice of studies must be
submitted to the adviser. Beyond the Freshman year, cer-
tain courses can be chosen only with the consent of the
instructor, and in all cases, sequence of courses in a given
department, fitness to pursue a course, and conflict of hours
between courses, must be regarded. It thus becomes evi-
dent that the student cannot do anything he pleases, even in
a university whose name is a synonym of liberty.

All freedom involves risk. The elective system is no ex-
ception. Suspicion of the abuse of liberty not seldom finds
official expression in the college catalogue. Thus, from
'^Bowdoin: " The elective studies are so grouped that, while a
reasonable degree of concentration is encouraged, excessive
and premature specialism is prevented." And this from
Vermont : " The abuse to which a system of perfectly free
electives is liable is avoided by the requirement of a certain
number of studies which are intended to secure some com-
pleteness and symmetry of discipline, while the number of
electives permitted gives room for the development of
special talents and the following out of individual predilec-
tions." Once more we may quote, this time from Pennsyl-
vania: "The courses have been planned with the view of
retaining as required studies those subjects which seem es-
sential for all who are candidates for a liberal decree, and, on



1897] Present status of the elective system 367

the other hand, of allowing the utmost freedom of selec-
tion consistent with the attainment of a sound education."
Thus it is sought to offset the evils of election by require-
ment and grouping. But, as we have seen, no two colleges
agree as to what studies are " essential for all who are candi-
dates for a liberal degree," and it will not help matters to
charge the freer systems with commercialism, as Cornell was
charged in a recent educational meeting in the Empire State,
and this because she had opened a wider but not shorter
highway to the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The writer
believes that the risks of the elective plan are overestimated.
This is not the place to argue its advantages. Little
could be added to the things already well said by many.
No candid observer of college life can deny that free choice
has promoted vital scholarship and hastened the growth of
manly judgment in college students. It has revolution-
ized college teaching by sealing the doom of the lazy in-
structor. It has steadily extended its conquests, and is push-
ing its way into more colleges and over wider areas of the
college course. That it should stand without important
checks few would contend, but that the college student does
not often abuse the elective privilege is, in the belief of the
writer, capable of proof. Toward such proof is here offered
the result of an inductive study of the choice of 82 members
of the last 4 graduating classes in Colgate University.
These records were chosen because accessible to the writer.
The names were taken as they come, and the choices relate
to the upper years. For the purpose of the study, the sub-
jects were divided into three groups; first, languages; sec-
ond, literature, history, philosophy, art, and pedagogy ,
third, mathematics and the sciences of nature. The year is
divided into three terms, with election at the beginning of
each. This plan is unfavorable to continuity, and hence
offers a more rigid test of the " evils of desultoriness," if
such evils exist. On the other hand, it should be said that,
for every man, there are doubtless some subjects about
which he desires to learn something, but for which he could
scarcely afford the time for a year course. The total term



368 Educational Review [November

hours for the 82 men in two years was 7954. The total re-
quired term hours (greater than in future, as appears in
table) was 2319. We have left to free election 5635. Did
the choices fail in continuity? The total term hours taken
in three-, four-, five-, and six-term courses, was 2847. The
total in two-term courses was 1080. Deducting, we find
1708 term hours taken in single-term courses. We now
take into account that certain subjects are offered for but
one term, and also the fact that changes and reorganiza-
tions of departments have been very numerous during the
past five years, thus affording sources of irregularity beyond
the control of the student. The Junior and Senior in Col-
gate University cannot, therefore, be accused of desultori-
ness, or of falling upon a search for " snap " courses. Any-
one who knows the care with which most of the men make
up their programmes would scarcely need the assurance here
given. So much for continuity. The other desideratum is
symmetry. The college student should specialize but
moderately.

The number of language courses taken by the 82 men was
258. The number of courses in the second group (history,
philosophy, etc.) was 982. The number of courses in the
scientific group was 573. The average was 3, 12, and 7 per
man respectively. It should be remembered that most of
the language work is done in the lower years. Only 1 1
elected no languages, and 25 took year courses in some one
language. Only 2 elected less than a full year of science,
and of these 1 took a term of physics and the other a term
each of botany and zoology. All had physics and chemistry
as required studies in the early years. A large number
divided the Junior year somewhat evenly between the sci-
ences and the humanities, then dropped the sciences, and
elected heavily in the second group in the Senior year.
Could curriculum-makers do better for most students of a
small college than this? Only 6 were deficient in the middle
group. Of these 1 leaned toward languages, and 5 toward
science. Three of the 5 secured positions in practical work
or as teachers, impossible to them but for a degree of



1897] Present status of the elective system 369

specialization. In two cases of able men, post-graduate
work was probably out of the question, without an interval
for the acquirement of means. It must not be forgotten,
in the cry against specialism, that beginnings in the narrow
paths of specialism often lead the best men out into the
broad fields of culture. Some of the weaker men of the
classes whose records were studied made remarkably good
programmes. Many schemes could have been improved,
but, as a whole, the study indicates the sobriety, earnestness,
and intelligence of the college man, and goes far to estab-
lish the broad claim of President Jordan that " the average
student finds a better course of study for his own develop-
ment and his own purposes, than any consensus of educa-
tional philosophers can possibly make out before becoming
acquainted with him."

In 1885 Professor George T. Ladd, writing in explanation
of changes toward freedom at Yale, said, " The students
have responded with unexpected wisdom and manliness to
the new trust which has been placed in them." A couple
of years later, from a university differing much in its policy
from Yale, Professor George H. Palmer made an utterance
that deserves a new hearing by friend and foe of modern
educational freedom. " Election invigorates the springs
of action. Formerly I did not see this, and I favored pre-
scribed systems, thinking them systems of duty. That
absence of an aggressive intellectual life which prescribed
studies induce', I, like many others, mistook for faithfulness.
I no longer have any question that, for the average man,
sound habits of steady endeavor grow best in fields of
choice. Emerson's words are words of soberness,

" He that worketh high and wise,
Nor pauses in -his plan,
Will take the sun out of the skies,
Ere freedom out of man."



Albert Perry Brigham



Colgate University,
Hamilton, N. Y.



PD 5.





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Online LibraryAlbert Perry BrighamPresent status of the elective system in American colleges → online text (page 1 of 1)