Appeal to the Colleges


By STRINGFELLOW BAAR, President, St. Johns College, Annapolis, Md.

Delivered Over the Network of the Columbia Broadcasting System, May 6, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 700-701.

ALTHOUGH I am addressing this appeal to the liberal arts colleges of the United States, the function of those colleges is so vital to this Republic of ours that the problem I want to discuss is a pressing problem for every citizen of this country. Our forefathers knew what many of us have forgotten, and declared what many of us now doubt: that every human being has certain natural rights. They knew that those rights are natural because they derive from man's nature, and it is not in any man's power to alter that nature.

Because violent men have sworn to deny those rights and have sworn to destroy by force those who would exercise them, this Republic now fights for its very life. American victory will mean freedom to exercise those rights. That fight is putting to the test every institution in American life including our colleges of liberal arts. Indeed, I should say: especially our colleges of liberal arts. Trade schools, technical schools, and professional schools prepare only certain selected men and women for special occupations, and would be necessary even in a slave society. Liberal arts colleges should prepare all men and women to exercise their natural rights, as citizens of a free society. The college of liberal arts has therefore a stake in this War that technical schools have not. It is a stake that matters to every free citizen.

The War has already hit the colleges. It has hit them hard. It has raided their faculties and thereby weakened their instruction. It has raided their student bodies and thereby slashed their income. By taxing their potential donors, it has slashed again at income.

The impact of war invited one of two reactions from the colleges: they might assume that they were doing a good job; they might add special wartime "offerings" to an already overloaded curriculum; they might "accelerate" four years' work into three, and wait for the storm to blow over and allow them to return to "normalcy." Or they might make the storm an occasion for self-examination. Most of them have chosen to do the former. I appeal to them to do the latter. It is just possible that the War is showing up defects that were there all the time, in peace as in war.

I appeal to our colleges of liberal arts to consider the following questions. They are questions which not I, but the War, has posed.

Can free government survive, where suffrage is universal, but where only a few are well enough educated to votewisely? I submit, that just as we discovered that grade-school education had to be universal if a horse-and-buggy society was to govern itself, so our modern technological society now calls for universal liberal education at the college level. For the liberal arts, the arts of disciplined thinking, free those powers which, in varied degrees, are common to all men.

Those who cannot practice them may think they are free because under our Constitution they cannot be arbitrarily imprisoned. But they are not free, because they cannot under that Constitution govern themselves wisely and well, and it is still true that this nation cannot live half slave and half free.

Their most precious rights cannot be genuinely exercised until their common powers have been developed. Yet today educators write off from their responsibilities those who are, to use the favorite phrase, "not college material."

May a college of liberal arts properly exclude any student who has prepared himself adequately and submits willingly to its discipline? This Republic cannot stake its future life on an elite known as "college material."

Second question: May a college drop from its rolls a student who is learning—that is, developing his powers— although not fast enough to earn a degree, merely because his performance is below a certain fixed standard? I submit that the purpose of a liberal arts college is not to classify young citizens according to their I.Q.'s but to develop whatever intellectual powers they may possess.

Third question: Can this Republic afford longer to deny a liberal education to any citizen on the grounds that he lacks money? I submit that it cannot, for the sufficient reason that it cannot afford a foolish electorate. Then the American people must tackle the job of finding college scholarships for those who are willing and eager to develop their powers and thereby make themselves good citizens of a free self-governing society, but who cannot afford to go to college. That means finding more money for education. The richest country in the world can find more, if it is the price of maintaining free institutions. But the colleges, on their side, must make wiser use of the funds already at their disposal. Existing scholarship funds must be devoted to aiding needy students, not to competing in the market for the student who led his class in school.

Fourth question: Must not our colleges sacrifice some oftheir frills and furbelows for more solid subject matt erf For example, the Army is complaining that many college men cannot analyze or interpret a paragraph of plain English and that such college men make poor officers. But don't they also make poor citizens, poor lawyers, poor doctors, poor businessmen, poor artisans? The Navy complains that it is having a bad time making officers out of college men who understand little or no mathematics. But don't such men make poor citizens in a democracy whose economy is based on technology, which is in turn based on mathematics? Yet, mathematics has ceased to be required in most colleges, and is not required in the high schools of some states. If our schools and colleges had been teaching the liberal arts well, the fundamental discipline of language and mathematics would be the common equipment of college men. Yet, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation could report several months ago that 68 per cent of a total of 4,200 college freshmen "were unable to pass the arithmetical reasoning test" when examined as possible midshipmen. This is a scandal.

Fifth—and final—question: Ought not our colleges of liberal arts to do a thorough four-year job before draft age, demanding of the schools that they shall have done a similarly thorough job of preparation by the time a boy or girl is sixteen? The President of Fordham University, recognizing that our school system is hopelessly strung-out and padded, recently demanded that we substitute six years of grade school for the usual eight, three years of high school for four, and three years of college for four. I would suggest that the colleges at least forget the eight-plus-four educational escalator and substitute entrance requirements that a good student could hope to meet in two years of a good high school. That would be late enough in life for a young citizen to get his basic education. And we can do it if we drop the frills.

I have not preached this afternoon what I do not practice. The college in which I teach has based its educational policy on all but one of the principles I have suggested ever since 1937—two years before the outbreak of World War Two made those principles more obvious. The remaining reform it adopted this year, although again it had planned in 1937 to do so shortly. It has set up entrance requirements that a reasonably intelligent student may meet through two well-planned years of high school. But St. John's College in Annapolis is numerically minute and I am not talking

about St. Johns. I am talking about American liberal arts colleges in general, and of whether they choose to "adjust" to the War and salvage their present policies or whether they choose to recognize, under the impact of world revolution, that their basic policies call for re-examination. I appeal to them now for that re-examination.

Let me sum up. Under the relentless pressure of war, the American college of liberal arts, like many others of our national institutions, is showing up its defects. But these defects were just as genuinely defects in times of peace. I appeal to our colleges to recognize those defects now, and to pledge themselves to correct them rather than to make such petty and ineffectual adjustments to the War as accelerating their curriculum.

Specifically, I appeal to them to consider carefully the following reforms:

Let them aim at admitting every student, whether brilliant or dull, who has prepared himself adequately and is willing to learn.

Let them allow every student to stay out his four years in college so long as he is learning, regardless of whether he is likely to qualify for a degree.

Let them devote all scholarship funds to needy students, not to buying intellectual "ringers." And let the colleges seek additional funds if what they have will not go around.

Let them drop the frills and do a sound job on such basic fundamentals as language and mathematics, remembering that not merely officers in the Army and Navy but also free citizens in times of peace must think better, speak better, write better, understand better than our college graduates now do, regardless of what specialized or professional training they may acquire later for special or professional reasons.

Finally, let them demand of the schools the best basic training possible in time to let their graduates finish college by draft age. And let the colleges observe carefully whether by sticking to fundamentals, our educational system may not produce bachelors of art at twenty who have a more solid education than our college graduates now have by a later age.

It is one of the characteristics of free men that they learn from tragedy. Out of the sorrow and anguish of the Second World War we Americans may learn again what a college of liberal arts is and what are its obligations to itself and to this Republic.