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Charles William Eliot.

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or four years, it is plain that there must
be some guiding principles, or demarcations,



158 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

natural or artificial, which avail to make free
choice judicious in the main, and particularly
to make it coherent. A just appreciation of
these guiding principles is absolutely necessary
to an understanding of the elective system.
The purely natural guides are obvious and
authoritative. The most thoughtless youth
cannot help taking up a new subject at the
beginning, and not in the middle. If he would
continue a study which he has already pur-
sued, he must take it up again at the point
where he left off. He soon discovers that
many subjects taught at a university cannot
be advantageously studied without a previous
knowledge of some other subject, or subjects.
He perceives that every advanced course pre-
supposes acquaintance with some elementary
course, or courses, in the same department.
He obeys the natural tendency to pursue a
congenial subject, once entered on. To be
sure, in order to render these natural guides
effective, the Faculty must supply full infor-
mation about the inevitable sequence of studies
in each department, and the mutual depend-



ELEMENTARY COURSES WISELY CHOSEN 159

ence of related courses. The giving of this
information in clear and compact form is an
important part of the administrative regula-
tion which must accompany any successful
elective system.

Students who, while in college, discover what
their future profession is to be, have another
natural guide through the intricacies of a wide
elective system. They can, and do, select those
college subjects which afford the best foun-
dation for their future professional studies. It
has already been pointed out that the rules con-
cerning honors and degrees with distinction
give a certain amount of artificial guidance
towards effective groups of studies.

(3) It has been supposed that American
students, when allowed to choose their studies,
would simply inquire for the easiest courses,
and take them. Such critics point to the
courses which are selected by large numbers
of students in any college with a wide elective
system, and say these largely attended courses
are all elementary, therefore they must be
easy, and they are chosen because they are



160 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

easy. Neither part of this proposition is founded
on fact. The elementary courses in a well-
conducted college ought to be as well taught
as any others, and ought not to be easy in any
proper sense. They are chosen by large num-
bers because they relate to subjects concerning
which almost all students want to know some-
thing. They represent in part the courses which
used to make up the old prescribed curriculum
in the American colleges, only they are now
taught in a much more interesting and effective
manner. They deal, indeed, with the inevitable
subjects of the less advanced courses under
any conceivable college system, prescribed
or elective. In the languages and mathe-
matics these courses carry on instruction from
the more elementary stages already reached
at school; in philosophy, political economy,
history, and the natural sciences they are the
necessary courses for beginners, that is, they
are the only gates to the more advanced
courses. They treat of topics full of interest
for the general mass of the students. They
are selected by college students who wish to



THE GROUP SYSTEM 161

carry on the studies they have previously pur-
sued, or to take up new subjects early in their
college course in preparation for more ad-
vanced instruction in the later years. They
are prudently selected by young men of limited
capacity who cannot succeed in the more ad-
vanced courses. They also afford the most pro-
mising refuges for the few lazy students who
exist, and will exist, under all college systems.
(4) In extending the elective system into
secondary schools, and in introducing it into
some colleges, a system called the group sys-
tem has naturally come into use, because it
is cheaper and easier to administer than a
thoroughgoing elective system. A consider-
able show of options for the individual may
be made by grouping a moderate number of
studies in several different ways. Thus in a
high school, nine or ten groups, bearing as
many different names, can easily be made with
from twenty to thirty different studies during
a total school course of four years. Certain
studies will appear in all the groups, though
in varying proportions, while other studies



162 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

will appear only in three or four groups, and
others in only one or two. This is an econo-
mical mode of producing an effect of large
variety. There are, however, serious objections
to the group system in schools, and still more
in colleges. When, under a free elective sys-
tem like that of Harvard, individuals exercise
freely their spontaneous diversity of choice, it
will appear in the end that no two individ-
uals follow the same path through a course
of four years. Out of hundreds or thousands
of four-year selections, no two will he found
to be exactly alike. This diversity corresponds
to the infinite diversity of mind and charac-
ter in the choosers. No two minds will spon-
taneously elect the same studies in the same
proportions and in the same sequence. Minds
left in freedom do not fall into nine or ten
categories, or fit into artificial groups of
studies arbitrarily compounded by some other
mind. It is, moreover, quite unnecessary for
some authority to prescribe these arbitrary
groups of studies, inasmuch as all desirable
concentration and continuity of work can be



OBJECTIONS TO THE GROUP SYSTEM 163

secured without doing such violence to liberty
of choice. The group system is also objection-
able because it commits a schoolboy of four-
teen, or a college student of eighteen, to a set
of studies from which he will find it difficult
to escape later in his course, however much
he may wish to. There is no need of this early
committal, either in high school or college.
To impose upon a boy for several years an ill-
fitting group of studies from which he can
hardly extricate himself, is a much more seri-
ous matter than to allow him to choose amiss
one or two studies which he can easily replace.

Again, the group system does not give
every teacher the precious privilege enjoyed
under a system of free election, the privilege
of having no student in his class who has not
chosen to be there. The group system forces
a student who desires to study some of the
subjects which compose a group to take the
rest, in which he may have no such inter-
est, and consequently it compels teachers to
receive reluctant pupils.

Lastly, the group system, if enforced, com-



164 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

pels specialization in studies, a kind of com-
pulsion which is peculiarly unwarrantable. If
the student be permitted to cut across the
groups as often happens in practice and
so to make up his own course of study, the
avowed objects of the group system will be
defeated, and the school or college might as
well have a free elective system within the
limits which its resources impose. In short,
the group system is only to be recommended
as a temporary makeshift, while resources are
narrow, or the raw material of a school or
college is crude.

(5) An elective system leads to a great in-
crease of intercourse between teachers and
students for intellectual objects, and of spon-
taneous association for the same objects among
the students. Conferences, clubs, and societies
are maintained by young men who find them-
selves associated in the pursuit of the same,
or kindred, studies, for the discussion of sub-
jects connected with these studies. The plea-
sure and profit derived from these societies
or clubs are much enhanced by the variety of



SIGNIFICATION OF THE A. B. 165

studies and intellectual interests found among
the members of each society, alongside of the
common study ; for to the benefits and de-
lights of intellectual companionship diversity
of gifts and acquisitions contributes quite as
much as community of interests. Every small
elective course, every laboratory course, and
every seminary or conference at Harvard is
a focus of common intellectual interests, and
the occasion of profitable personal relations
between teachers and students.

(6) It has been a common criticism of the
elective system that inasmuch as no two can-
didates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts
will have pursued the same studies in the
same proportions, the degree itself cannot have
a definite, constant signification alike for all
its recipients. Fortunately, it is quite true
that the degree of Bachelor of Arts in the
United States no longer means that the young
men and women who hold it have passed
through the same course of studies. Neverthe-
less, the possession of this degree testifies that
the holder has enjoyed certain valuable privi-



166 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

leges, and made certain definite attainments.
All Bachelors of Arts have spent from seven
to ten years somewhere between the ages of
thirteen and twenty-three in studies properly
called liberal. At school they have all learnt
the elements of Latin, and of some modern
language besides English, the elements of
mathematics, a little ancient history, and
something of English literature ; and in some
foreign language, and in mathematics, they
went somewhat beyond the bare elements. At
Harvard College they have further spent three
or four years upon a prescribed quantity of
liberal studies, all studies being accounted
liberal which are pursued in the scientific spirit
for truth's sake, and as means of intellectual
discipline. The degree of Bachelor of Arts
therefore remains the common goal of liberal
study pursued through many years. In many
institutions the degree of Bachelor of Science
or Bachelor of Philosophy has a similar signi-
fication, except that the terms of admission to
the course of study which leads to this degree
have generally been lower than those to the



SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HIGHER DEGREES 167

course which leads to the degree of Bachelor
of Arts.

The objection if it be an objection
that the A. B. has no definite and uniform
signification applies with much more force to
the higher degrees of Master of Arts or Sci-
ence and Doctor of Philosophy or Science.
No one of these degrees has any definite sig-
nification in regard to subjects of study or
specific achievements.

It will now be obvious that the advantages
of an elective system in a college cannot be
reaped, unless choice of studies is wide open
to the student for at least three years. Any
college which keeps the curricula for the Fresh-
man and Sophomore years mainly prescribed,
and allows free election only in the Junior
and Senior years, must fail to train advanced
students except in those subjects which are
well pursued for long periods in secondary
schools as well as in colleges; as, for instance,
in Latin, Greek, mathematics, English, and
history. A college student in any single de-
partment like chemistry, zoology, philosophy,



168 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

or economics, who begins his study of that
subject not far from its elements, must, never-
theless, follow a sequence of courses through
the successive half-years of his college course.
Thus, for example, he cannot attack the sub-
ject of quantitative analysis until he has stud-
ied general chemistry and qualitative analy-
sis. For developing this sequence properly, he
needs several half-years. If he has but two
years in all to give to the subject, a proper
sequence will not bring him near the top of
his subject.

In the period from 1870 to 1890 the pe-
riod of the rapid development of the elective
system at Harvard College a long time
elapsed before the faculty thought it pos-
sible to admit Freshmen to the elementary
classes in economics and philosophy. Fresh-
men were not considered mature enough for
these studies. Accordingly, the students who
were attracted towards these subjects found
themselves compelled to begin them in the
Sophomore or even in the Junior year. Yet
the advanced courses could not be attacked



ITS EFFECTS ON TEACHERS 169

until the long elementary course had been
mastered. Experience of the difficulty of pro-
ducing advanced students of these subjects
under such conditions within the period of
college residence, finally led the faculty to
risk abandoning its theory that a young
American of nineteen was not prepared to
grapple with either of these subjects. By trial
they made the encouraging discovery that
some Freshmen are more mature than some
Seniors. In general, an elective system limited
to two years will fail to develop advanced
teachers, as well as advanced students, unless,
indeed, they can expand and continue their
college teachings in a graduate school. No-
thing can replace for a teacher the inspiration
and incitement of training a few genuine ad-
vanced students, who become his devoted dis-
ciples and the diffusers of his doctrines. The
attention of faculties and the public has been
too often concentrated on the effects of the
elective system on young students; whereas
its effects on teachers, and on the develop-
ment of real scholarship throughout the coun-



170 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

try, ought to have received more attention ;
for it is there that its effects have been the
most beneficent.

The expediency, and even necessity, of a
broad elective system in colleges will be seen
clearly by all those who consider the great
variety of professional studies for which a
modern college prepares its graduates. In
a properly constituted university, all the pro-
fessional schools will prescribe for admission
a preliminary degree, such, for instance, as
the degree of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor
of Science. Now these university professional
schools divide among them the whole field of
knowledge, each taking so large a region that
further subdivision becomes necessary in order
to meet the wants of the young men who pur-
pose to practice professional specialties. It is
perfectly understood that under each profes-
sional course of study lie certain college studies
which are peculiarly appropriate to that pro-
fessional course, as, for instance, mathe-
matics and physics in preparation for a pro-
fessional course in engineering ; chemistry,



AN ELECTIVE SYSTEM IS COSTLY 171

physics, and biology as preliminary to the
study of medicine ; and Latin, Greek, Hebrew,
and philosophy as preliminary to the appro-
priate studies of a divinity school. When,
therefore, the American universities come to
be properly organized, with their professional
departments on top of their colleges and sci-
entific schools, and are therefore closed to
young men who have had no college or scien-
tific school training, the expediency and ne-
cessity of free election of studies in college
will be amply demonstrated.

Looking back on the development of the
elective system in the American colleges and
universities during the past thirty years, one
sees that the rate of the development and the
width of the resulting system in each case has
been in the main a question of the pecuniary
resources of the institution. There is no doubt
that a prescribed system is indefinitely cheaper
than an elective system; for with only one
curriculum of elementary courses to provide,
a college can get along with a comparatively
small number of inferior teachers. A broad



172 THE ELECTIVE SYSTEM

elective system requires many teachers of high
quality ; a prescribed curriculum needs only a
few teachers, and those need not be advanced
students or investigators. A professor who
gives half his time to advanced work with
classes of five to fifteen students is a far more
costly article than a professor who deals only
with classes of fifty to two hundred students.
Nevertheless, the great increase in number
and merit of the teaching staff in American
universities of late years is not all due to the
development of the elective system. A signifi-
cant part of the increased expense for salaries
is due to the increased amount of individual
instruction given to students by experts in
their several subjects. It is unnecessary to say
that although this increased cost has hindered
many institutions in the process of develop-
ing a wide elective system, the money thus
spent is the most productive of all educational
expenditures.

Finally, the permanence of the elective sys-
tem is assured by the demonstrated fact that
it provides on a large scale an invaluable



AN ADDITION TO HUMAN FREEDOM 173

addition to human freedom, and provides this
precious freedom for the most highly trained,
and therefore the most productive and influ-
ential, persons. When the student of history
reviews the great achievements of the human
race, he comes to the conclusion that those
achievements which have brought deliverance
from some form of terror or oppression, or
have been gains for some sort of freedom,
have proved to be institutionally the most
durable achievements, one might almost say
the only durable.



METHODS OF INSTRUCTION

METHODS of university instruction have
changed almost completely within fifty years.
The method of recitation from a book is al-
most extinct, except in language instruction ;
the lecture method, after being greatly ex-
panded, has been subsequently reduced quan-
titatively, and much changed in quality; the
laboratory method with its congeners has been
introduced, and now occupies a large part of
the field; and the demand made on the stu-
dent for written work of many sorts themes,
note-books, problems, reports, and theses
has become incessant. Fifty years ago, the uni-
versity teacher at the end of the hour gave
out a lesson in a text-book so many pages
and expected his class to recite that lesson to
him at the next meeting. Fifteen or twenty
students would take part in this recitation,
which was in the main an exercise of the



THE RECITATION METHOD 175

memory. The student recited a bit of the book ;
the teacher ordinarily made no comment what-
ever on a good recitation, confining himself to
efforts to extract some fragments of the text
from the incompetent or neglectful members
of the class. The good students could of course
derive no profit whatever from such an exer-
cise, except practice in making a brief state-
ment from memory before the class. The poor
students made public exhibition of their insuf-
ficiency ; but were seldom either mortified or
stimulated thereby, for experience taught them
that the consequences of habitual failure in
recitations were not serious they remained in
college, if they were regular in attendance on
prescribed exercises, both secular and religious.
Fifty years ago, the lectures were few in
number, and were not supported, as lectures
are to-day, by lantern-slide illustrations, and by
combination with note-taking, prescribed read-
ing, quizzes, and examinations. The lecture
courses were short, and lay outside the main
system. They were, however, oases of intel-
lectual interest in a thirsty land. In those days



176 METHODS OF INSTRUCTION

there were no laboratories open to college
undergraduates ; so that the individualistic
teaching of students in laboratories, now so
common, was then unknown except in a few
embryonic scientific schools.

The prime object of university methods of
teaching to-day is to make the individual stu-
dent think, and do something himself, and
not merely to take in and remember other
people's thoughts ; to induce the student to do
some thinking and acting on his own account,
and not merely to hear or read about other
people's doings. Bearing this main object
in mind, the student of educational adminis-
tration will review with interest the various
methods of instruction now in use.

The recitation still persists and will persist in
the language departments of a university. In
a recitation the student can be called upon to
translate the foreign language into English, to
comment on the text, and to translate English
into the foreign language. He can read aloud
in the foreign language, and write it from
dictation. These are all acts indispensable to



USE OF THE RECITATION 177

his acquiring the language ; and, on the whole,
experience has shown that these activities on
the student's part are the most helpful pro-
cesses in acquiring any new language. To that
end the recitation is the most profitable exer-
cise which has been invented. Experience has
proved, however, that for the individual stu-
dent the recitation is advantageous in direct
proportion to the fewness of the students who
take part in it. It requires a very skilful and
energetic teacher to make a language reci-
tation profitable for a class numbering more
than thirty or thirty-five students. Twenty
to twenty-five members is a wiser limit for the
average teacher.

Beyond the language departments the use-
fulness of the recitation in universities is
rather limited. It can be used in small propor-
tion in connection with large lecture courses,
and is there often called the quiz ; and it may
also be applied in a rather different form in
those elementary subjects which require drill
on problems or applications, as, for instance,
in mathematics, and parts of physics, and in



178 METHODS OF INSTRUCTION

formal logic. Such use of the reciting method
for drilling students together in problem-
solving is facilitated by the provision of large
blackboard areas in the rooms used. Every
member of a section or class can then be
kept at work for a considerable portion of
the hour, and yet the whole class will see
the solutions of a large part of the problems
given out.

In some university departments the lecture
became the principal means of instruction as
the recitation was abandoned; but it was the
unaided lecture in the least commendable forms.
Thus in teaching law the professors gave series
of lectures which constituted treatises on the
several branches of the law, and gave the same
lectures year after year. They referred students
to cases, but the attitude of the student was
purely receptive; the student took no part in
the exercise, he was merely listening and taking
notes; and no pains were taken to make sure
that he mastered, or even looked at, the cases
referred to. When the law professor had pub-
lished a series of treatises, his lectures often



USE OF THE LECTURE 179

degenerated into running comment on his
printed books.

In medicine, the pure lecture, without illus-
tration, prevailed to an astonishing extent.
Even the clinical teaching was given largely
by lectures of a descriptive or expository kind,
often without simultaneous exhibition of spe-
cimens or pictures. In the Harvard Medical
School of fifty years ago, there was no labora-
tory open to students except the disorderly
and dirty dissecting-room ; but for nearly four
months of the year there were five consecutive
lectures humorously called didactic lec-
tures on as many different subjects every
morning during the week. To be sure, medi-
cal education had another side which saved it
from habitual failure, the observation work
in hospitals and dispensaries, and the memory
work on manuals and dictionaries of medicine
and surgery.

In the arts and sciences, lectures during the
first half of the period under consideration
the past fifty years gradually displaced
the recitation, the lecturers relying on periodic



180 METHODS OF INSTRUCTION

examinations to test the industry of the stu-
dents and their own success; but gradually
the university faculties became convinced that
the plain lecture, without carefully organized
aids, was an unsuccessful method of teaching,
because it left the student in a passive and
inactive condition, and procured from him no
output, except spasmodic efforts of memory
just before the periodic examinations. The
last twenty years have seen a great reduction
in the number of lectures, and the invention
of various supplements to the work of the
lecturer, and of requirements accompanying
attendance at lectures.

The first of these supplements is prescribed
reading. This reading is of various kinds and
degrees in different subjects, and under dif-
ferent professors. Sometimes it consists of a
series of books used thoroughly one at a time ;
sometimes of three or four books to be used
simultaneously, though in parts only ; some-
times of a long list of books from which the
student may make his own selections, or to


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Online LibraryCharles William EliotUniversity administration → online text (page 8 of 13)