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THE AIM OF A LIBERAL COLLEGE 1
In the discussions concerning college education there is one voice which is all too seldom raised and all too often disregarded. It is the voice of the teacher and the scholar, of the member of the college faculty. It is my purpose to devote this address to a consideration of the ideals of the teacher, of the problems of instruction as they present themselves to the men who are giving the instruction. And I do this not because I believe that just now the teachers are wiser than others who are dealing with the same questions, but rather as an expression of a definite conviction with regard to the place of the teacher in our educational scheme. It is, I believe, the function of the teacher to stand before his pupils and before the community at large as the intellectual leader of his time. If he is not able to take this leadership, he is not worthy of his calling. If the leadership is taken from him and given to others, then the very foundations of the scheme of instruction are shaken. He who in matters of teaching must be led by others is not the one to lead the imitative undergraduate, not the one to inspire the confidence and loyalty and discipleship on which all true teaching depends. If there are others who can do these things better than the college teacher of today, then we must bring them within the college walls. But if the teacher is to be deemed worthy of his task, then he must be recognized as the teacher of us all, and we must listen to his words as he speaks of the matters intrusted to his charge.
1 An address given at the time of the inauguration of Alexander Meiklejohn as president of Amherst College. Reprinted through the courtesy of the author.
In the consideration of the educational creed of the teacher I will try to give, first, a brief statement of his belief; second, a defense of it against other views of the function of the college; third, an interpretation of its meaning and significance; fourth, a criticism of what seem to me misunderstandings of their own meaning prevalent among the teachers of our day; and, finally, a suggestion of certain changes in policy which must follow if the belief of the teacher is clearly understood and applied in our educational procedure.
First, then, What do our teachers believe to be the aim of college instruction? Wherever their opinions and convictions find expression there is one contention which is always in the foreground, namely, that to be liberal a college must be essentially intellectual. It is a place, the teachers tell us, in which a boy, forgettings all things else, may set forth on the enterprise of learning. It is a time when a young man may come to awareness of the thinking of his people, may perceive what knowledge is and has been and is to be. Whatever light-hearted undergraduates may say, whatever the opinions of solicitous parents, of ambitious friends, of employers in search of workmen, of leaders in church or state or business—whatever may be the beliefs and desires and demands of outsiders—the teacher within the college, knowing his mission as no one else can know it, proclaims that mission to be the leading of his pupil into the life intellectual. The college is primarily not a place of the body, nor of the feelings, nor even of the will; it is, first of all, a place of the mind.
Against this intellectual interpretation of the college our teachers find two sets of hostile forces constantly at work. Outside the walls there are the practical demands of a busy commercial and social scheme; within the college there are the trivial and sentimental and irrational misunderstandings of its own friends. Upon each of these our college teachers are wont to descend as Samson upon the Philistines, and when they have had their will, there is little left for another to accomplish.
As against the immediate practical demands from without, the issue is clear and decisive. College teachers know that the world must have trained workmen, skilled operatives, clever buyers and sellers, efficient directors, resourceful manufacturers, able lawyers, ministers, physicians, and teachers. But it is equally true that, in order to do its own work, the liberal college must leave the special and technical training for these trades and professions to be done in other schools and by other methods. In a word, the liberal college does not pretend to give all the kinds of teaching which a young man of college age may profitably receive; it does not even claim to give all the kinds of intellectual training which are worth giving. It is committed to intellectual training of the liberal type, whatever that may mean, and to that mission it must be faithful. One may safely say, then, on behalf of our college teachers, that their instruction is intended to be radically different from that given in the technical school or even in the professional school. Both these institutions are practical in a sense which the college, as an intellectual institution, is not. In the technical school the pupil is taught how to do some one of the mechanical operations which contribute to human welfare. He is trained to print, to weave, to farm, to build; and for the most part he is trained to do these things by practise rather than by theory. His possession when he leaves the school is not a stock of ideas, of scientific principles, but a measure of skill, a collection of rules of thumb. His primary function as a tradesman is not to understand but to do, and in doing what is needed he is following directions which have first been thought out by others and are now practised by him. The technical school intends to furnish training which, in the sense in which we use the term, is not intellectual but practical.
In a corresponding way the work of the professional school differs from that of the liberal college. In the teaching of engineering, medicine, or law we are or may be beyond the realm of mere skill and within the realm of ideas and principles. But the selection and the relating of these ideas is dominated by an immediate practical interest which cuts them off from the intellectual point of view of the scholar. If an undergraduate should take away from his studies of chemistry, biology, and psychology only those parts which have immediate practical application in the field of medicine, the college teachers would feel that they had failed to give to the boy the kind of instruction demanded of a college. It is not their purpose to furnish applied knowledge in this sense. They are not willing to cut up their sciences into segments and to allow the student to select those segments which may be of service in the practise of an art or a profession. In one way or another the teacher feels a kinship with the scientist and the scholar which forbids him to submit to this domination of his instruction by
kind depends upon a knowledge of the classics. No better training in logical processes was ever devised than the philological discipline of the classics. No discipline more thoroughly systematized, more uniform, more definite, more rigorous. No better training in the use of one's own language than translation from the classics. No better school of poetry or of oratory than the classics. No better gallery of lives—which to contemplate is to know that virtue is its own reward and vice its own penalty.
To the abandonment of the classics with their sweet simplicity and their majesty, their orderly restraint and their severe regard, I attribute in no small degree the declining ability to think clearly, to speak and write lucidly, precisely, effectively, the declining love of noble letters and noble art; the declining respect for tradition and authority, for the heritage and the faith; the declining splendor of the ideal. Shall Man, who is the heir of the society of all the ages, experience no quiver of historic sense, have no glimmer of that liberal art and life which led his rude forefathers to the enlightenment of civilization?
Twenty-nine years ago, the Right Reverend Samuel Smith Harris, Bishop of Michigan, pleading from the platform of a great university for the rights and privileges of complete education, said: “The allurements of mammon and worldliness are too often permitted to call our ingenuous youth from the proper business of the school and college. Short roads and by-paths are opened up to tempt them to abandon the proper work of education and to go prematurely to schools of professional and technical instruction. The consequence is the sending forth of half-educated men and inexperienced men to plead the causes, and heal the diseases, and lead the thinking of the