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CGCL VII: President Garfield’s Address

I chose to discuss Harry Garfield’s 1908 speech because I lived in Garfield house one summer at Williams, and because his father James Garfield is the only American president to have come up with his own original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. I’m happy that Garfield’s chosen topic was, “What is the chief end of the American college?” because it is quite an interesting question.

Garfield’s answer is that “the chief end of the American college is to train citizens for citizenship.” I am not surprised that Garfield was concerned with students’ becoming good citizens, not only because his father was President (presiding over all citizens), but also because as teenagers, Harry Garfield and his brother watched in horror as their father was assassinated (by a bad citizen).

Garfield says that at preparatory (high) schools and vocational schools,

the work of the instructor is with the individual, for the use and benefit of the individual himself; whereas the business of lifting citizenship to a higher level requires work with the individual and a life for the individual of a kind that will fit him to think and act for the State and for the whole body of society.

How often does Williams coursework break away from “the use and benefit of the individual himself” towards “the business of lifting citizenship to a higher level”? I would have to wager that it happens but rarely. This exhortation reminds me of Phillips Exeter’s deed of gift, where its founder stated that,

above all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.

When I taught at Phillips Exeter, I put this quotation on my students’ end-of-semester evaluations and asked them if they thought that anything in my class had achieved these goals. None of the students had anything substantive to say on the matter, so in this regard, I had failed.

However, it may be that students are learning to be better citizens, but they don’t notice it at the time. As Jay said in our recent discussion of Sheafe Satterthwaite’s teaching ability,

Give yourself some time to reflect on the course you took with him before judging it quite so harshly. … Again, if I could fill out my evaluation now, 5 years later? I would rate him much higher.

Some lessons take years to show their true value.

Garfield’s plan for applying these ideals to the college include this observation, relevant to the Neighborhood Housing idea:

There must be a broad, vigorous common life, and it must include the whole body — faculty as well as undergraduates. Anything which separates men into classes, based on objects opposed or unfriendly to the main object of the college, will inevitably divert the aim of the institution and change its character. There will always, of course, be groups within the whole body … but each, according to its kind, must contribute its share to the great end for which the whole exists.

This is one thing that I find lacking at Williams, a kind of common purpose, feeling that you are part of a larger thing. I was especially struck by Garfield’s insistence on refusing to separate faculty and students:

The tradition which separates the faculty and students is wholly inconsistent with this principle of a common life. There is a distinction between the two groups, of course, but it is based on something higher and finer than mere authority. The active body of the college is, in reality, divided into five large groups, of which four are undergraduates [the four class years]. The fifth is composed of graduate students, commonly called the faculty, who, by virtue of their larger experience and longer training, are given places of authority.

Isn’t that interesting, his insisting that there are five groups, rather than just two? The idea that the division between sophomores and juniors is not inherently different from the division between seniors and faculty?

Garfield then goes on to discuss “the care of the body, the training of the mind, and the development of the moral and religious nature”:

(on the care of the body)

Careful attention should be given to physical training. Every college man should participate in some sport. Bodily skill and balance furnish not only healthful and enjoyable relaxation from the pursuits of the study, but contribute directly to one’s control of the intellectual faculties. … It is neither fitting nor necessary that college students should cultivate professional skill in any of their sports. They should “play the game” with as much skill as is consistent with devotion to the chief end of the college … with as much skill as is possible to those who are devoting themselves to the task of training their minds to grasp and deal with the most serious problems of the age — the problems of citizenship; with as much skill as is consistent with membership in an institution whose chief end is intellectual rather than physical.

It seems that this doesn’t really answer the question. “How much emphasis should scholar-athletes put on athletics?” he asks, and then essentially he replies, “As much emphasis as scholar-athletes should put on athletics.”

(on the training of the mind)

Extensive knowledge cannot take the place of intensive training. While all subjects lend themselves to this result, some are more suitable than others. Experience has proved the value of [classical] language, mathematics, philosophy, and science. … To those who advocate [learning spoken languages rather than classical languages], I have only to repeat that the college is not a vocational school, and that mastery of one’s mental processes is more important than fulness of knowledge and ease of expression. “There is love of knowing without the love of learning,” said Confucius; “the beclouding here leads to dissipation of the mind.”

Modern students might argue that skills are necessary for jobs after college, rather than just this training of the mind; otherwise college becomes

a place of pleasant comradeship; a place where cultivated ease and boisterous zeal join hands for a season; a charming valley, as it were, where the waters of the stream of life, let through protecting locks, flow gently between banks made glad by a thousand flowers, through groves set with stately and noble trees, a place happily removed from the dust and heat of the weary highway over which the schoolboy has trudged; a place from which one embarks on the main stream of life after a season of preparation, which consists of learning how to paddle one’s own canoe without responsibility for the consequences.

However, Garfield has an answer for this poor interpretation of the work of a college, and this overemphasis on practicable skills and jumping into the workforce:

The eagerness of our students to get into the thick of things as quickly as possible is typical of American life. We would be masters without serving an apprenticeship. We would solve age-long problems overnight. The college student … would plunge at once into the midst of questions that are taxing the powers of the most experienced. What men are doing and thinking today is useful as illustrative matter for undergraduates; but it must be carefully distinguished from that which is finished … lack of experience and ignorance of human nature are as fatal to good government as the prejudices of self-interest…

With Williams undergraduates doing research in “cutting-edge” fields, we might have to consider this warning in a different light, but of course Williams students are usually not tackling the most difficult problems in their fields.

Garfield’s thoughts on lectures:

Moroever, the lecture loses nothing of its inspirational value by reason of numbers. But, as a means of training the mind and strengthening the intellectual powers, the lecture is of the least possible value. Nothing can take the place of hard, regular work on the part of the student, under the personal guidance of a popular instructor.

Hard work and deep thinking is the only way to learn. I am always exhorting my students, “if you want to learn math, you have to do math.” In my math lectures, I often call a student up to the board to try a problem. It may have looked easy when I did it, but it somehow becomes harder when they try it on their own. It is this process of trying and failing and eventually figuring out the correct path that is the way to learning.

For certain subjects, I am convinced that no better method will be found than that which is pursued under the preceptorial system at Princeton, and which is substantially the method of the great teachers a generation or more ago. It makes the largest possible allowance for the personal equation. It accommodates itself to the ambitions of the scholar and to the necessities of the man of average ability or poor preparation. It is an effective means of binding together faculty and students, and make plain the way to a strong common life.

The system Garfield describes is probably similar to the tutorial system. Indeed, Frank Morgan once said that he would love to teach a tutorial called “Questions.” The students would ask questions about topics they was wondering about or interested in, and then the professor would help them figure out the answers. This does seem to be an ideal way to learn.

Then Garfield breaks students into three categories:

(1) Men of earnest purpose, with native powers of unusual character and promise; (2) men of earnest purpose without unusual native powers; and (3) men who may, or may not, be endowed by nature with special gifts, but whose most striking characteristic is lack of earnest purpose.

This could be summarized as: (1) smart kids who work hard, (2) average kids who work hard, (3) kids who don’t work hard. Of this third class, he says:

The young man who enters college and remains there without discovering an earnest purpose to be the best that he can; to do his part to the best of his ability; and to bear his full share of responsibility, ought not to be in college. He is an unprofitable member of the community, and is likely to prove unprofitable of a citizen: — it is of such stuff that our undesirable citizens are made.

To have such lazy people at Williams simply dilutes the quality of students, and could even distract the hardworking students from their “earnest purpose.”

Frequently they are good fellows, as the phrase goes; but to be merely a good fellow is not sufficient to qualify one for a place in college. In the language of the campus, this kind of man is a loafer. … The men against whom we should close the doors promptly and effectually are those who loaf because they choose to, and who do not propose to change their occupation. For the college to do otherwise, is to foster and encourage qualities most hurtful to the great object we are seeking to accomplish.

I think of this as an “admissions problem”: it is the job of the admissions officers to prevent such students from being admitted in the first place. However, if lazy students are somehow accidentally admitted (especially 100 years ago when it was much easier to get in), one would hope that the lofty curricular goals that Garfield outlined above would convert even a lazy student to a better citizen.

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