By William A. Neilson
President of Smith College
Friends of American education are indebted to President Hutchins for the stimulus he has given to current thinking about our schools, colleges and universities. In education perhaps more than in most other activities there is a danger of falling into ruts of the crushing of progress by tradition, of the means getting in the way of the ends they were invented to further. Consequently, any one who by whatever violence of attack leads us to reconsider critically our objectives, our methods and our results is doing a service.
Of the violence of Dr. Hutchins's attack there is no question. In his recent public addresses he has told us that our system is hopelessly confused, that we do not know what we are aiming at, that we are bedeviled by love of money, and by false notions of progress and of the meaning of democracy in education. This result is, in his view, that our institutions of higher learning, instead of devoting themselves to the cultivation of the intellect, are in fact, definitely anti-intellectual. He therefore proposes a fresh start with a new allotment of time and a new organization of studies.
With the positive side of Dr. Hutchins's view of the objectives there is, I believe, much more agreement than he supposes among his fellow-educators.
Most of us believe in the central position of "the cultivation of the intellect." "To understand the past and our own connection with the past"; "to understand our fellow men and our relationship with them"; "to put us in a frame of mind in which we can deal intelligently with the future it gets here" -- most of these responsible for our liberal colleges would at once accept these as admirable statements of objectives at which they aim.
I think that Dr. Hutchins is mistaken in his view of a widespread confusion as to aims, and the evidence of this confusion which he elsewhere cites points rather to the multiplicity of methods and curricula forced upon school and college by the multiplicity of the demands made by the complex society in which we live and by the infinite variety of human nature.
In the countries and periods in which only a tiny minority of the population was concerned with the higher learning, it was easy to have a simple and unified educational policy. But where a high proportion of normal persons attend secondary schools and about a million students are enrolled in institutions of a still higher grade, a great variety of educational program is demanded. It is true that many of the problems involved in the demand are still unsolved, but they have come upon us with comparative suddenness, we are working hard upon them, and the fact that various schemes and methods are being experimented with should not be dismissed as evidence of mere confusion.
The unity and simplicity of the curriculum Dr. Hutchins proposes for American youth between the ages of 16 and 20 are largely deceptive. The cultivation of the intellect cannot be provided for on the assumption that all intellects can be cultivated in the same way. Successful stimulus to thinking is dependent on discovering subject-matters that interest the prospective thinker.
Mere access to the great classics from Plato to Adam Smith will leave thousands untouched. The student must be taught methods of approach, supplied with relevant data, given aid in the interpretation of the ways of expression of earlier ages. By the time the great classics have been arranged for those pedagogical services into groups dealing with philosophy, history, literature, science, economics and the rest, we are back again at the multiplicity of courses and subjects against which Dr. Hutchins is revolting.
In his choice of specific subjects to be retained in the curriculum of a general education President Hutchins is obviously resurrecting the medieval program. The ancient "trivium," prescribed for the candidate for Bachelors of Arts a thousand years ago, consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic. The "quadrivium," for the Masters of Arts, consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
In the new program we are to have the first five. English grammar we have long relegated to the pre-college years, where for some time less than justice has been done to it. Rhetoric, relieved of much of its ancient pedantry, is still taught in our courses on English writing. Logic is in the hands of the philosophers, most of whom are doubtful of the efficacy of the learning of its rules to insure sound thinking. As to the restoration of mathematics as a compulsory college subject, I need hardly take space for evidence that any educational administrator can supply.
With the rigor and bleakness of this curriculum, with its restriction to purely intellectual aims and its absence of concession to individual tastes or capacities, let us contrast the aims of and methods of a good liberal college in America today.
These aims, I repeat, give intellectual discipline a central but not an exclusive place. They are directed to the goal of the development of the whole personality, and being so directed cannot reject much that Dr. Hutchins finds irrelevant to a general education.
Whereas he excludes development of the body, they seek to teach the laws of health and to encourage their application in the practice of proper diet and exercise. Whereas he excludes the development of character, they seek to create an atmosphere in the class room, the dormitory and on the playing field that will favor the growth of worthy personal and social conduct.
Dr. Hutchins ignores the music of the ancient curriculum. The modern college more and more is affording opportunities for the development of insight and capacity for enjoyment or art, not only by departments of music and the fine arts, literature and the drama, but by the increasing beauty of its landscape and architecture. Those colleges that are free from State control for the most part seek to stimulate interest in in religion; and all of them see in the varied activities of the campus the opportunity for training in citizenship and life in a civilized community.
The training of the intelligence goes on in these fields as well as in others excluded by President Hutchins, such as foreign languages, and it is more, not less, effective because it is approached through a variety of avenues. If, as we agree, the student is to be trained to understand the past and his fellow-men and to deal intelligently with the future, his development on the physical, moral, spiritual, esthetic and social sides as well as the intellectual is an essential part of this training. And this development is the common and well understood aim of scores of American colleges of liberal arts today.
It will, I think, be the judgment of most leaders in these colleges that for such a training the present undergraduate is none too mature. To push the whole process back into an age period two years earlier would be to reduce its efficacy enormously.
In describing the aims of the better colleges today, I am not professing that these aims are completely achieved. No educational system ever was or ever will be 100 per cent successful. The selection of "college material," as it is called, will always be defective, though our methods are improving. The family and social support for our liberal aims will often be lacking.
Devices planned for perfectly good ends will at times run wild, as intercollegiate athletics have done in the men's colleges. There will be stupid administrators. There will always be a shortage of really good teachers. But the cure for these and other defects is in frank criticism, in patient experiment, in persitent devotion to the ideal we have conceived. It is not in pouring out the baby with the bath.