The Broad Issues Behind Education and National Defense


By W. H. COWLEY, President, Hamilton College

Delivered at the Thirty-fifth Annual Convention of The Association of Life Insurance Presidents, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, December 12, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 202-207.

MR. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: It is difficult to talk about what must seem to all of you to be a very colorless topic in these troublous times, and it's particularly difficult to follow such a dramatic speaker as Mr. Linton Wells. And yet education is not undramatic either in terms of immediate national defense or in terms ofwhat the Chairman referred to in his introduction: the problems we shall face after the war.

I should like very briefly to dispose of the part that education will play in the immediate defense situation with just a sentence or two. Obviously, the universities and the colleges of the country are ready and anxious to do their part in thewar. We are at the disposal of the Nation: our faculties, our students, our laboratories, our campuses—everything we have. We are only awaiting orders of the Government, and when orders are given, along with all the rest of the country, we shall click to and do our important part.

But the Chairman has observed that many current writers are querying whether education is not in part responsible for the situation we are in as a people and whether education must not change substantially to be equal to the post-war period. It is about that that I should like to speak today.

Perhaps some of you have read Walter Lippmann's article in The American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa magazine, of last spring. Therein he dramatically suggested that if American education continues to follow its present practices, it will destroy western civilization. Perhaps some of you have also read similar statements by Lewis Mumford, Archibald MacLeish, and other writers, some of whom are associated with universities and some of whom are not. All these men are making serious accusations, so serious that they cannot be dismissed lightly. Instead they must be canvassed and appraised. 1 should like therefore to review the background of these statements and to discuss their significance.

In a few weeks we shall be into the year 1942, the centennial anniversary of the publication of one of the most important documents in the history of American education—a small volume written by President Francis Wayland of Brown University and entitled "Thoughts on the Present Collegiate System." Wayland wrote this important book to deplore the educational poverty of the United States and to propose that the pattern of higher education be completely reorganized. He pointed out that higher education didn't really exist anywhere in the country and that to be equal to the times we needed to establish universities comparable to European and especially to German universities. In 1842 we supported sixty-eight colleges but not a single university. Yale with 438 students was the largest, but it devoted all of its energies to educating boys, very young boys. By no definition could it be called a university. Wayland observed that we needed universities which would train men in advanced studies, men who would be prepared to solve the technical and intellectual problems of our expanding technology and our new and complex social structure.

Wayland's book attracted very little attention. Few listened to him. Twenty-five years later, however, an important group of educators appeared upon the scene who agreed with Wayland and who succeeded in bringing about the reforms that he had urged. Chief among these men were Charles W. Eliot who became president of Harvard in 1869, Daniel C. Gilman who organized Johns Hopkins University in 1876, and Andrew D. White, co-founder of Cornell in the early eighteen sixties. These men and their associates not only preached the same doctrine as Wayland, but they also found the times ripe for change. The "New Education" which they advocated soon came to be called "The University Idea," and, as everybody knows, they succeeded in their efforts. Indeed, they succeeded spectacularly.

In a word "The University Idea" amounted to this: that the colleges of the country should be transformed into universities after the German university pattern and that these universities should become great research institutions dedicated to "extending the bounds of knowledge" and to training research specialists prepared to meet the problems of our rapidly-changing society.

It is important to remember, it seems to me, that Wayland, Eliot, Gilman, White, and the other promoters of "The University Idea" looked to Germany for their models and brought back to this country the German philosophy ofhigher education. Until that time we had been in the British tradition, but since the British had ignored or seriously neglected research, these men turned to Germany for inspiration and direction. Following the proposal of Fichte, the Germans responded to their defeats at the hands of Napoleon by reorganizing their educational system and by putting their energies into the establishment of research universities and technical institutes. The University of Berlin opened in 1809 as the symbol of this German renascence, and rapidly German universities moved into the intellectual and educational leadership of, first, Europe, and then of the world.

Because of the remarkable success of these German institutions of advanced learning, Americans by the hundreds and thousands went to study there. England and France no longer attracted them, and by 1914 ten thousand Americans had returned home with German Ph.D.'s and with training as research men in all imaginable intellectual fields.

So great was the prestige of these German universities that others besides incipient professors went there to study. Among this number, interestingly enough, was the older J. P. Morgan. He studied mathematics at, I believe, Göttingen; and he made such an impression upon one professor that he received an offer to stay on as the professor's assistant. Many years later the professor came to America, and Mr. Morgan gave a large dinner party for him. In his speech following the dinner the professor, unimpressed by Mr. Morgan's position in American finance, remarked that it was a shame that he had not accepted the proffered assistant-ship because if he had he would undoubtedly have succeeded him in the professorship.

A century ago we had no universities, but today "The University Idea" dominates all our higher education, and it seems to me that that fact must be laid alongside of Mr. Lippmann's criticism of our current educational practices, our practices which in his judgment are undermining western civilization. It would be interesting to trace the relationship of the German university pattern to the rise of totalitarianism in Germany itself, but that is beyond our present scope, and so I should like to examine "The University Idea" as it operates in the United States today.

Such an examination will bring to light a number of subordinate ideas or concepts which constitute the structural foundation of "The University Idea." In an exhaustive examination of these foundations about ten such concepts should be discussed, but today I shall speak of only three of them. Personally I hold vigorously to the opinion that these three concepts must be widely discussed if we are to understand American higher education. I also hold to the opinion that each of the concepts is harmful to the future of American society. That is why I present them to you as a group of important laymen who should be informed of the direction of educational trends and who should be prepared, therefore, to assume leadership in the reconstruction of education that should follow the war.

The first of the concepts I shall discuss I call researchism. By researchism, I mean excessive emphasis upon research at the expense of teaching, or shall we say, education. The Chairman has introduced me as a research man, and yet I am critical of researchism. For fourteen years I have been essentially a research man. During these fourteen years I have been connected with two large universities and a small college. I have done little teaching, but instead I have devoted most of my time to research. Thus I have a natural predilection in favor of research. I am, however, forced to the conclusion that researchism is helping to undermineAmerican education and to justify the fears that Mr. Lippmann and others have expressed.

Let me illustrate what I mean, and to avoid being abstract, I shall name names. Harvard is a great University, and because of its prestige both directs and reflects American educational thought. But Harvard, in my judgment, has sold its soul to researchism. I am forced to this judgment because it seems to me that much evidence exists which indicates that the teaching or educational function is underprivileged at Harvard in comparison with the research function. Consider, for example, the status at Harvard of Charles Townsend Copeland, one of the great teachers of our times. When Professor Copeland retired a dozen years ago at the age of sixty-eight, his former students gave him a banquet and in other ways paid honor to him for the influence that his teaching had had upon their lives. Many important Americans, former students of Professor Copeland, joined in so honoring him. Harvard, however, did not participate or, at least, did not honor him during his long career on the Harvard Faculty. Instead "Copey's" associates on the Faculty frequently sneered when his name was mentioned. He was only a teacher, not a "productive scholar," and at Harvard to be "only a teacher" is to be outside the pale.

One does not need, however, to recall what "Copey's" fellow faculty-members thought of him. One needs only to look at the record to discover the official judgment of the University. The average age for promotion to a full professorship is about forty-five, but Mr. Copeland wasn't promoted to a full professorship until he was sixty-five. He had but three more years to teach, and it has been said that the promotion came as a sop. Here was a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher at Harvard, but he received recognition in neither rank nor salary until just before retirement. This seems to be a clear-cut demonstration of researchism at Harvard.

Consider another example from Harvard. You will remember that in 1936 Harvard celebrated its tercentenary. The proceedings of the celebration constitute a volume of almost five hundred pages in which all the events of the three days of ceremony are reported. There one will find President Conant's major address of the tercentenary wherein he described the four ingredients of a university: first, extending the boundaries of knowledge; second, a strong liberal arts college; third, effective professional education, and fourth, a healthy student life. But one can read the rest of the volume from cover to cover without finding a discussion (except for the speeches of three undergraduates) of the liberal arts college and its place in the university and without finding anything at all about the importance of a healthy student life. Both of these functions, constituting by Mr. Conant's own statement half of the work of the university, are almost completely ignored. The emphasis throughout the celebration was on research. Even professional education was shabbily handled. Research had the center of the stage, and research had the center of the stage because, in my judgment, researchism dominates Harvard.

In the tercentenary volume are also printed the citations for the sixty-two honorary degrees conferred during the exercises. It seems to me to be significant, and to justify my belief that Harvard is dominated by researchism, that teaching is mentioned in only four of the citations as a reason for honoring the recipient of the degree; and in each case the man was a teacher of graduate students, not of undergraduates.

Honorary degrees have been called, and I think properly, the American way of knighting our outstanding men andwomen. Well, Harvard is knighting research men, not the men and women who are giving their lives to the broad education of our youth, the men and women who are attempting to interpret our culture to the rising generation, who seek to send into the world cultivated, educated people intelligently aware of the nature of our civilization. Research men, of course, have their very, very large place; but it must be patent that so also have our teachers whose function it is to keep civilization alive in the minds and hearts of each oncoming generation. At Harvard, however, teachers take a distant second-place to research men. That's what I mean by researchism.

I don't want to seem to be singling out just one institution for criticism, and so I cite an example of researchism at Yale. Perhaps some of the Yale men present today will remember the controversy of a dozen years ago concerning the problem of getting Robert Dudley French promoted from an associate to a full professorship. Mr. French had earned the reputation of being a great teacher, and in the course of time he came up for promotion. But he was turned down. He didn't get the promotion. At Yale, no one can be advanced to a full professorship without the approval of a majority of the full professors in his department. Mr. French wasn't approved by a majority of the full professors in the Department of English because he had given his time and his energies to teaching his undergraduate students. Thus he hadn't had the leisure to become "a productive scholar." And so he wasn't promoted.

But the students who had studied under Mr. French and who knew the quality and effectiveness of his teaching protested. So also did some of the alumni. So vigorous were these protests that President Angell found himself on the spot. On the one hand, his Faculty would not promote Mr. French, and on the other hand, the "customers" demanded his promotion. What to do? President Angell is a very clever man, and I don't know what went on in his mind. I do know, however, that Mr. French resigned, left New Haven for a brief period, and then Mr. Angell rehired him as a full professor. That's how he got his promotion. I submit that education has reached a sorry state when a man has to go through such circumventions in order to avoid the effects of researchism.

The fact seems to be that researchism has gripped the faculties of our universities so completely that teachers as teachers no longer have status. Those who are concerned with the interpretation of civilization to the youth of the nation are underprivileged in our universities. They are being flattened out by researchism.

I cite you another example—from the University of Chicago where I did my graduate work and from which I have a Ph.D. In October of this year, Chicago celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding and gave thirty-two honorary degrees. But, just as at Harvard, not a single degree went to a man who has devoted his life to teaching, to the sensitizing of young men and women to the meaning of our civilization. Instead the honors went to an expert in Hittite philology, to an authority on iconography, to a man learned in papyri, etc., etc. Just as Harvard and Yale are dominated by researchism, so also is Chicago. Indeed, I think it could be demonstrated that researchism controls all our universities.

May I make it clear that as a research man myself I respect research. I think we need more of it, not less. America would be completely unequal to the crisis we face were it not for our research men. Everyone knows that. But I protest, and I protest vigorously, against making teaching an educational stepchild, against underprivileging the education of our undergraduates in the interests of research. We musthave both teaching and research. One is as important as the other. Alas, however, researchism glorifies research and crowds education to the wall.

I might discuss researchism at much greater length, but instead I move on to the second concept, to wit, specialism. Specialism is not the same as specialization. It's a point of view which makes education for specialization more important than education for breadth. Those who support specialism are not, in general, interested in broad education. Instead they seem to believe that the only really important kind of education is education for specialization.

Obviously, I'm not opposed to specialization. I'm a specialist, and so is everyone here today. In the insurance business I imagine you require the services of two or three dozen varieties of specialists. The same situation exists in education. Modern life demands specialization. Thus education for specialization is right and proper. But specialism asserts that education for breadth is unimportant, or at least, that it will take care of itself. The only important kind of education—or of higher education—is education for specialization. The sooner college students specialize, therefore, the better. That is the doctrine of specialism.

This doctrine, it seems to me, is now widely followed in our universities. It has grown in prominence along with "The University Idea," and everywhere breadth of education is being sacrificed to education for specialization. At Harvard, for example, the Student Council of three years ago wrote a report on their own initiative about the weaknesses of the educational program of Harvard College. They sent it to President Conant and particularly called his attention to their judgment that specialism has gone so far at Harvard that it is difficult these days for a Harvard undergraduate to get a broad education. Mr. Conant paid his respects to the Student Council statement in his next annual report and remarked that he thought the students had a point. He observed, however, that the time didn't seem to him to be ripe to do anything about the problem. He wrote, therefore, that he'd take the problem under advisement. As far as I have been able to discover it's still under advisement.

Specialism has gone so far that the young men and women who go on to graduate and professional schools are apparently quite uneducated. They are, most of them, unaware of the background and significance of our civilization. I will illustrate what I mean by reporting a study that I conducted at the University of Chicago a dozen years ago. A friend of mine on the Faculty and I agreed one evening that an individual's breadth of education might be discovered by asking him to identify a hundred of the great leaders of history. We made out a list of a hundred such leaders: ten famous generals, ten great poets, ten religious thinkers, and so on. We had the list mimeographed, and then we asked twelve groups of graduate students to identify each name listed. Because at the time I was an administrative officer of the University we succeeded in getting the cooperation of members of the Faculty in various graduate departments who gave us class time for their students to identify the hundred names.

When the results were tabulated we were even more disturbed about the education of graduate students than we had expected to be. In fact we were amazed at the ignorance of these young men and women who were soon to receive Ph.D. degrees and join the faculties of the colleges and universities of the country. Mary Baker Eddy was alleged to be a movie actress, Samuel Johnson a baseball pitcher, Browning a real estate man, and Lorenzo de Medici a gangster.

I cite spectacular examples of ignorance, but even morespectacular was the fact that the graduate students in the physical sciences as a group were able correctly to identify only an average of twenty-seven of the hundred names on the list. The social scientists averaged in the lower forties, and even the students of literature (who chiefly spend their time reading) made an average in the sixties.

We are fighting today to defend a culture, but because of specialism the men and women who have created that culture are largely unknown to those who are presumably preparing to teach its significance to the youth of the land. It's a fair assumption, it seems to me, that if one doesn't know the names of the historical characters who have made large contributions to civilization, then one isn't very likely to understand what our concepts behind civilization are.

This is what specialism has done for us. It has cut so deeply down into undergraduate education that breadth of knowledge and range of understanding are fast disappearing from among college students and therefore from among the people of the nation generally.

Again may I point out that I am a specialist, that I respect specialization, and that obviously specialization must be continuously supported in education. I insist, however, that a broad education must precede specialization—at least for those who are to become the responsible directors of the future of our country and our world. Because of specialism, however, and its adoption along with "The University Idea," American higher education has all but abandoned breadth and range for earlier and still earlier specialization. This, I am sure, is one of the reasons behind the pessimism for the future expressed by Lippmann and other critics of education.

The third and last concept about which I should like to speak can best be described, I think, under the name of impersonalism. As a nation we are dedicated to democracy, a doctrine which honors the uniqueness of each individual. But in our educational institutions, particularly in our large universities, the individual is largely ignored. More than that the individuality of the student is specifically berated and even denied in the concept of impersonalism. Taken along with the University Idea directly from Germany and subsumed in "The University Idea," impersonalism is the educational doctrine that the student as an individual is unimportant. Colleges and universities, so the doctrine runs, should be concerned only with the minds of their students. Nothing else matters.

The history of the rise of impersonalism in American colleges and universities is a fascinating story that I wish I had time to tell. Enough to observe that discipline constituted the largest problem of college presidents and professors a century ago, and those trained in Germany were sure that German impersonalism gave them the answer to all disciplinary questions. Riots and rebellions constantly interfered with college work; and since the dormitory bred these disorders, it seemed to be the part of wisdom to abolish dormitories. Moreover, the men trained in Germany wanted to spend their out-of-class time on their research; and they objected to acting as monitors and being subjected to students' missiles and general destruction. As late as 1855, it was the annual custom at Yale for students in the spring to light the college coal pile and then throw the burning embers from shovels into the windows of their professors. Even in small and peaceful Hamilton the students loaded the college cannon and blew its charge into the President's study. It didn't kill him, but it is reported that it blew off all his clothes.

Now, obviously, that sort of lack of discipline had to go. It had to be killed off, but in killing it off, faculties also tossed into the discard the personal relationships betweenstudents and faculty that had dominated American colleges and which had been one of its most precious characteristics. Dormitories slowly disappeared, and all down the line students and faculty members were divided into two separate and hostile groups. The faculty went about their research and the students about the affairs of the extra-curricular life which they began to organize on a grand scale beginning in the seventies and the eighties. Most important of all, faculty members soon began to applaud the new order which they had created and to assert boldly that they were concerned only with the minds of their students. To them nothing else counted.

For seventy years now the trend has been steadily to make our colleges and universities more and more impersonal. In recent decades there has been a reaction, but the great majority of professors still give their allegiance to impersonalism. In this point of view they have the cordial support and endorsement of President Hutchins of the University of Chicago. I have great respect for Mr. Hutchins and for some of his criticisms of American higher education, but unfortunately in his writings he expounds and supports impersonalism, and in this—in my judgment—he is doing higher education and the nation a great disservice.

Now obviously it is impossible to follow the doctrine of impersonalism and to do a sound educational job. It's impossible to separate the mind of a student from the rest of him. He is a whole person, and his physical and social and spiritual states and activities affect his intellectual states and activities. I can best make this generalization clear, I think, by telling of an experience which I have had—one of many similar experiences.

In the summer of 1938 I arrived on the campus of Hamilton College to take office as its eleventh president. The first person to come to see me was a student who told me in his first sentence that he had just flunked out of Hamilton for the second time and that he had come to me for advice. He knew that he couldn't be admitted for a third chance, but he told me that the president of another institution (who had roomed in college with his father) was willing to give him another opportunity to do college work. He came to see me, he said, to see what I thought about the idea.

As a psychologist I observed that I couldn't give him an answer to his question because I knew too little about him. I pointed out that if he had a stomach-ache and went to a physician for help, the physician would gather some clinical facts about him from various tests, and then he would make a diagnosis. I suggested that to give him an answer to his educational problem I too would have to make a diagnosis of his difficulties. He agreed to the reasonableness of the proposal, and so he submitted himself to a series of psychological and achievement tests.

When the results of the tests were assembled, I couldn't understand why he had flunked out of Hamilton twice. His intelligence percentile stood in the nineties. His reading, mathematical, and reasoning skills produced similarly high scores. In general he appeared to be an unusually able fellow. But twice the Hamilton Faculty had dismissed him. Yet I knew the tests were valid, and I couldn't imagine that Hamilton was such a difficult college that a youngster as gifted as he couldn't manage to stay in. Hamilton, I was sure, wasn't that good! It followed, therefore, that some other factor or factors were involved, and in an extended conversation I attempted to discover what they were.

The trouble soon came to light: during his two years at Hamilton the youngster had been struggling with two sides of a serious emotional problem. He had come to Hamiltonas a legacy of a well-established and prominent fraternity. His father was a member, and all during his life he expected that when he went to college he'd be a member too. From childhood he had sung the songs of the fraternity, had expectantly and frequently fingered his father's pin, had learned the history of the society and the names of its prominent alumni, and he looked forward to the time that he'd be pledged and initiated.

But when he arrived on the campus, the undergraduate brothers decided that they didn't like him. Perhaps it was the way he combed his hair, or the ties he wore, or the way he wore them, or his handshake, or his table manners. In any event, they didn't pledge him. They passed him by. The results in the emotional life of the boy were of course terrific. The chief dream of his life wasn't to come true. He was a reject, a cast-off, an undesirable, a leper. Very naturally he brooded. He brooded so continuously that he couldn't study. When he opened a book, he'd read a line or two and then start taking himself apart. What was wrong with him? Why wasn't he acceptable? These thoughts dominated him so completely that he wasn't able to concentrate upon his studies, and very naturally and very properly he flunked out. Intellectually he was sound, but emotionally he was sick. Obviously he couldn't do successful college work.

His high school record, however, was excellent, and so the college authorities readmitted him for a second trial the next fall. Then one of those unexplainable things happened: the fraternity brothers changed their minds and pledged him. You can imagine how that affected him emotionally! From the depths of despair he soared to heights of elation, and he determined that he'd show the brothers that in their first judgment they were wrong about him. He'd prove to them that he was a "good guy" after all, indeed a better guy than they were. And so he spent a good deal of time out-playing, out-drinking, out-prom-trotting the brethren. And he succeeded. Indeed, he succeeded so spectacularly that he had no time for his books; and he flunked out again.

There is a sequel to the story. I recommended that he give thought to the reasons for his failing at Hamilton and that he matriculate at the other institution with the fraternity measles out of his system. He entered the other college that fall, and last spring he graduated with honors. He did so well in fact that a middle-western university gave him a fellowship for graduate study. He's there now, and I'm sure he'll make good. He has the ability, and he has long since solved the emotional problem that made him fail at Hamilton.

I could tell dozens of stories similar to this. All of them would illustrate the stupidity of the doctrine of impersonalism. The mind of a student cannot be abstracted from his whole personality. Yet in our colleges and universities, large and small, we are ignoring students as people and asserting that we are concerned with their intellectual development alone. The result is that every year thousands of youngsters are being thrown on the educational scrap-heap labelled failures and misfits and undesirables. Impersonalism is taking a large toll of our youth, but we do little about it. "The University Idea" has saddled it upon American higher education, and where it will lead us, God only knows.

These three concepts—researchism, specialism, and impersonalism—constitute three of the foundation stones of "The University Idea." Six or seven other stones seem to me to be no less important; but I cannot discuss them today. I've said enough, it seems to me, to give point and justification to Mr. Lippmann's warning that western civilization is being undermined by our present educational practices. I believethat Mr. Lippmann is right. I also believe that we can and must overhaul our colleges and universities so that the dangers that now threaten us can be avoided.

It is because of this hope for the future that I have spoken so vigorously. I know that many of you here today are loyal graduates of some of the institutions that I have mentioned. Perhaps among you are trustees of these institutions. It must be clear to you that I am not criticizing either institutions or individuals as such. I am criticizing educational doctrines and educational practices which seem to me to be dangerous. I have spoken forthrightly, therefore, with the frank intention of stimulating discussion. Perhaps I misinterpret the current educational situation. If I do, I should be corrected. Meanwhile I am convinced that we are too polite in education and that because we are too polite we allow dangerous doctrines to flourish.

The other night I read the address that Dean Gay, emeritus head of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, gave at the fiftieth anniversary this summer of the founding of Stanford University. Therein he told of a large business organization that had hired a staff economist to keep the officers informed of economic trends. At a critical point during recent years the economist, he reported, strongly advised that the company retrench because of animpending recession. The sales manager, however, protested that the outlook had never been brighter, that orders were coming in faster than ever, and that the economist must be crazy to suggest retrenchment.

The sales manager won the brief debate, but just as the economist had predicted, the recession came, and the company had a very difficult time surviving. The president of the company, remembering the economist's warning, berated the sales manager for his stubborn stupidity; but the sales manager had a defense. It was this: the economist, he said, had spoken softly; he had not banged on the table; he had been too polite to carry his point.

In education we are, it seems to me, much like the economist in Dean Gay's story. We have not banged on the table at one another.

Today, however, I have pounded with vigor purposely intent upon creating discussion of these important educational issues. Obviously in wartime, we must be immediately concerned with military problems and with putting our colleges and universities at the service of the nation. But we are also defending a culture, and when the war is over I most sincerely hope that the significance of "The University Idea" in our culture will be given the attention that it so urgently needs.