What follows is an excerpt from The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939, my Senior Honors Thesis in History. Part 2 is here.
Because the reported speech was so vague, people read their own meanings into Dennett’s speech. Consequently, his alumni address brought forth many different characterizations of Williams students and many different reactions to the speech: some of the people who wrote Dennett were sure he was referring to student snobs, and they applauded him for wanting to change the college’s character; others felt that he was against private school graduates, and they angrily wanted to preserve the character of the clientele. But all of the correspondents, whether in a derogatory or an admiring manner, spoke of the preponderance of “gentlemen” at Williams — wealthy, well-mannered, upper class students.
In an editorial, the Boston Herald deftly described the type of student that everyone noticed at Williams, and expressed surprise at wanting to have fewer of them:
Not only are graduates of ‘our best preparatory schools’ an adornment to any campus, with their well-washed faces and their studiously careless attire, but they are also usually well-mannered, urbane, and responsive to intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.
They provide a tone to college which no amount of Gothic architecture or zealously cultivated ivy can apply. Nor is the pleasant fact to be overlooked that their papas and mamas occasionally surprise the faculty — often just before examination time — with a check for a swimming pool, a baseball cage, or a new set of Dickens.
Nevertheless, a number of the alumni wanted fewer of them at the college; Talcott M. Banks, Jr. wrote to Dennett, “I am in entire sympathy with the idea of leavening the loaf.” Some alumni were quite bitter about the Williams they wanted changed. Reverend C. O. Hicks, Vicar of St. Ann’s Parish in Boston, wrote:
It is heartening to know that you are facing what has been a real problem at Williams for a long time, namely the rather artificial hot-house atmosphere there, due to the preponderance on the campus of the so-called leaders of tone, who have nothing to recommend them except a little wealth and a smattering of cheap sophistication, mostly gleaned form fashionable preparatory schools.
A member of the class of 1933 used more measured prose:
My family and I agree that your pronouncement in regard to the social situation at Williams is utterly and perhaps unfortunately true. We admire the courage behind such a declaration. We had the same criticism during my undergraduate years, 1929 to 1933.
On the other hand, there were alumni who agreed with Dennett that Williams was made up of “nice boys” — and felt that Williams should stay that way. Robert Carrick of the class of 1935 wrote:
Is it so un-American to be a ‘nice boy’? Judging from the Alumni and Undergraduate bodies Williams is, and always was, a ‘nice boy’s’ college. It is part of the inherent character of the institution that it has been made up of men of this type. I have no quarrel with the high-school boy, but who are your campus leaders? They’re the ‘nice boys’. The Gargoyle Society, which you admitted was such an invaluable aid to you in your first year at Williams was almost 90% uniform to the nice boy type.
President Dennett wrote a very polite letter in reply, but having received other letters of the same tone, wryly observed in a letter to another alumnus that some alumni would not have admitted Mark Hopkins had they been Williams admissions directors during the 1820’s.
Rather than claiming it was in “the inherent character of the institution” for Williams to enroll “nice boys,” Hugh Morton ’27 based his argument on the values of well-roundedness and social compatibility:
In other words, I suppose, the question boils down as to how important scholarship is in a college life. I agree that it is important. But over-emphasis may well result in graduates who are not as well-rounded as those of another day. The intangibles of association, sport, etc. bulk at least as large. I do not want Williams to be a country club. But neither has it been in the past. I do want it to be a place where a normal boy can develop normally and where his mind can be intelligently and sensibly trained…
I utterly disagree with your notion that Williams should be a cross-section of the United States…If I want my boy to go to a melting pot — which I don’t — I’ll send him to Harvard, Yale, or a state university. I value greatly the fact that I can sit down with almost any Williams man and find we have friends in common, that we speak the same language.
Another alumnus, obviously something of a conservative, complained about this new emphasis on scholarship at Williams, and somehow linked scholarship at Williams with the Democratic administration in Washington:
And in my opinion both the scholarship and the degrees are just as useless as all the gadgets on the car with the defective motor when they are picked up by people who haven’t first been aroused to the right attitudes. They are not only useless but plain dangerous, for they are responsible for most of the crack-brained theorizing that goes on among, for example, the Washington intellectuals — theorizing that resembles what would happen if you turned a five-year-old loose in a complicated laboratory.
John C. Jay, the President of the Society of Alumni, spoke for many graduates when he told Dennett,
I happened to go to a preparatory school, and so did my boy, and I frankly dislike being labeled myself or having him labeled a ‘nice boy.’
He went on to perceptively observe,
If I were Father Sill, or Sam Drury, or Lewis Perry, or the head of any of the great preparatory schools, and picked up the paper this morning, I think I should do everything in my power to prevent the boys in my school from going to Williams College. And that’s where the damage lies.
The irony of Jay’s comment is that Dennett could slowly patch up the misunderstandings with the headmasters; however, he could never begin to soothe the hurt feelings of the alumni. There were just too many of them. One outraged alumnus wrote Dennett asking for his resignation:
Without being unpleasant, it occurs to me that if it is your desire to work with a different type of student you should not attempt to change the College which has meant so much to us all, but perhaps change your endeavor.
The undergraduates at Williams did not ask for President Dennett’s resignation; they were, however, as vehement as the alumni in reacting to his speech. On March 13, two days after the talk, the Record came out with an editorial predicting what it would soon be like to apply for admission to Williams College:
Mr. Heller feels Willie’s biceps and asks Willie where he prepared for college.
‘I just went to a rotten little school here in town, sir,’ replies Willie with some pride.
‘Whaddaya mean, “sir”?’ is the reply. ‘Youse sound like a Kentfield pansy!’ With this Mr. Heller stalks out of the room leaving a spot of tobacco juice on the vestibule wall as he slams the door behind him.
Mrs. Glutz runs to her husband’s arms, sobbing bitterly. ‘We should have sent him to the Reformatory like the Feems’ boy.’
‘Or maybe I should have changed our name to O’Flannery like I thought first,’ replied here husband sadly.
An editorial in the following issue of the Record stated the same feelings again, this time in essay rather than satirical form:
Dr. Dennett has at last rung the gong. Instead of an outstanding institution, his ideal for Williams is now perfect mediocrity so that her alumni can go about the country perfectly adapted to their surroundings and content with them…
We admire Dr. Dennett’s evident desire to bring new blood and with that new perspective and new ideas into Williams. Transfusions of peasant blood are necessary even to the most aristocratic strains if they are not to wither and fade into degeneracy. Buy why, in the name of Mark Hopkins, scour the earth for high school boys capable of surmounting Williams’ prep-school-imposed-standards, just to make a perfectly average institution…
Dr. Dennett can recognize that Williams is destined to be the College of the upper classes, and he can bend his efforts to educating the youth of these classes wisely to administer their heritage. This nation needs enlightened economic royalists as well as educated labor union leaders.
Such remarks were forceful; they were also extremely insulting. For while the Record was intimating that an influx of high school boys would make Williams “a perfectly average institution,” it was a fact that one-quarter of the student body had graduated from public high schools. In other words, one-quarter of the students were blanketly told that they were mediocre, simply because they had graduated from public high schools.
Letters to the editor reiterated those incredible beliefs. An anonymous “Member of 1938” wrote to the paper complaining that the admission of “a less ‘nice’ element” to Williams would only
…stir up tremendous ill-feeling among the loyal supporters of the College who, in sending their sons to Williams, are anxious to increase their son’s manners, good breeding, the excellence of their social background, as well as their intellectual capabilities. I bear no personal grudge against the so-called ‘unnice’ but why should a premium be put upon the lack of superficial qualities any more than the existence of those qualities?
Such writing eventually provoked replies. One student sneeringly wrote to the Record that he joined with “A Member of 1938” in “viewing with Alarm Dr. Dennett’s menacing attitude towards Williams as a Gentleman’s College,” and announced with intense sarcasm in a postscript:
Like ‘A Member of 1938,’ I do not wish my attitude to be misunderstood. I, too, bear no personal grudge against the ‘unnice’, but I do maintain that they should presume to no higher than their Proper Place in Society.
By March 27, two weeks after the speech, there was a recoiling at the sharp words and comments that had been flying around the campus. One student noted, “The snobbery, self satisfaction, narrowness, and vanity which have come to the surface in the last two weeks are appalling and disappointing.”
In its March 27 editorial, the Williams Record still applauded the conformity and therefore the homogeneity of the student body:
We are prepared to admit that the average Williams undergraduate is a conventionalist…However, we hold no particular brief against the sort of conventionality which makes the student like to dress as his friends do, cry ‘wet-act’ in unison with them, and strive act as much as they do. In fact, this sort of conformity is an excellent characteristic insofar as it encourages high standards of social behavior and breeds a certain conservatism which is undoubtedly healthy…
However, the Record drew the line at snobbism:
It has been alarming to hear certain individuals speak in disparaging terms of people less privileged than themselves. Apparently they are laboring under the delusion that the words ‘gentleman’ and ‘snob’ are synonymous. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for the real gentleman is one who has enough understanding and tolerance of other people to be at ease with anyone under any circumstances. The snob, on the other hand, has neither understanding nor tolerance.
Within the space of two weeks, three editorials and six letters to the editor had appeared in the Williams Record, and over fifty letters had been written to President Dennett, simply because he had said at an alumni dinner that Williams had too many “nice boys.” The response was immediate, large, and vehement because he had thereby questioned a fundamental assumption of Williams undergraduates and graduates: that Williams College was a school for gentlemen.
Every comment, both congratulatory and indignant, betrayed this assumption — comments ranging from “Is it so un-American to be a ‘nice boy’?” to the sentence decrying
so-called leaders of tone, who have nothing to recommend them except a little wealth and a smattering of cheap sophistication, mostly gleaned from fashionable preparatory schools.
One student did not unconscioulsly assume, but bluntly stated that parents sent their children to Williams to help their
manners, good breeding, and the excellence of their social background, as well as their intellectual capacities.
The best proof that Williams paid attention to the concept of the gentleman was the fact that the Record finally called for a halt to snobbery — on the grounds that snobs were not gentlemen.