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A Glance at the Intellectual Attitudes of the College


Published in Semi-Centennial Anniversary Beloit College 1897


     The truest index of an institution is its attitude; its intellectual and moral attitude. The largeness or smallness of an institution may be more or less the expression of circumstances. Its richness or its poverty may be more or less the accident of personal friendship. Opulence and patronage may be indeed a true index of merit and may be the legitimate reward of industry, skill, and true worthiness, – indeed for the most part they doubtless are so, – but they are not uniformly and necessarily so, and we may not judge by these things if we would pass righteous judgement. But the attitude of an institution is a thing of its own creation. Cirumstances cannot control it unless it is the servile subject of circumstances. Riches and poverty cannot control it unless it is the slave of monetary considerations. Public opinion cannot control it unless it is the creature of public opinion. Even if its attitude be controlled by such influences, that attitude is none the less its truest index. It correctly portrays the moral character of the institution in the very face of exhibiting the causes that dominate it.

     During the past half-century Beloit College has been called upon to take its attitude upon questions of profound importance. These have lain alike in the intellectual, the moral and the spiritual fields. During the half-century progressive scholarship has unveiled vast stores of truth. It is doubtless far within limits to affirm that no previous half-century has made greater revelations of truth or has developed therewith more strenuous questions of appropriate collegiate attitude. These revelations are chiefly associated with the newer studies. A great group of these marshal themselves under the name science and the attitude of the college toward science may be taken to typify its attitude toward these questions and toward the newer fields of education that are rising into recognition.

     To show by tangible facts that the attitude of the College has been one of increasing sympathy and progressive hospitality to the younger studies there is need to cite the apportionments made to these in the earlier days. The smallness of these apportionments may not seem to bear a tribute of honor to the fathers whom we especially delight to honor today. But we must remember that the fathers are honored not in the dimensions and proportions of the tree they planted, but in the amplitude and symmetry into which that tree by its vitality and inherent virtue has grown. The earlier curriculum of the College was a reflection of the educational ideas of those times, improved upon indeed by the wisdom of the fathers, but none the less a reflection of the times. Its full merit can only be judged by those who knew that out of which it had grown, as I do not; who knew the conditions under which it took form, and who also knew, as we do, that into which it has grown. But to measure this growth, to determine the recent trend and the present outlook we must note the limitations of the earlier days. I trust that in this closing moment you will permit me to turn from grateful retrospect to frank comparisons for their prospective values. The day calls for thought of the future as well as of the past.

     We of the 50s and 60s recall the recognition which the fields of science had in the second decade of the College. The curriculum in its academic and collegiate requirements covered seven years; three terms per year; three studies per day, 63 units, all of which were required. Of the 63 units there were given to the study of the intimate constitution of matter and to the atomic energies which enter into all our environment and into all our acts and condition them, two units. To the study of the molecular and molar constitution of matter, and of the energies that permeate it, which likewise condition all our activities, there were given, out of the 63 units, two units. To the history of the earth, a vista of millions of years, full of the most profound and revolutionary problems, there were given, out of the 63 units, one or two units. To that broadest of all the sciences which leads out the thought to the immeasurable limits of the stellar universe and overwhelms the imagination by the immensity of creation, there was given, out of the 63 units, one or two units. To the vital world, to the study of the forces of life and the organization of living things, to the great field of biology, there was given, something, in certain years, I believe, but neither botany nor zoology found a place in my course. The members of our race were going into premature graves by hundreds of thousands, if not by millions, every year because sufficient biological knowledge to point out the way of escape had not yet been attained; but neither here nor in any other American college, so far as I know, were provisions made for the promotion of that knowledge at all commensurate with its extreme importance. Circumstances indeed placed their limitations, but I would that I could say that full appreciation and a proportionate allotment were always accorded. It thus appears that out of the 63 units, little more than one-tenth all told were given to these great fields, as necessary to broad culture, as they are to balanced intelligence.

     Today the fundamental sciences have much more ample space assigned them in the curricula, and beyond these there are large possibilities of election. He who would know the fundamental constitution of matter may seek it at notable length and with large facilities. He who would learn the inner mysteries of physical energy may prolong his search with excellent appliances. He who would learn of the forms and functions of life may find a goodly measure of time and of aids at his command. He who would know the story of creation may dwell long on its vast periods. He who would look into the depth of the heavens may prolong his vision with the telescopic eye, thanks to the gift of a noble woman and the self-sacrificing devotion of a noble man. In all these the bounds have been enlarged and the privilege of extension at the will of the student has been added. More than this, sympathy has increased. There has been a growth of the conviction that the works of God are not wholly inferior to the works of man as a subject of study. Equilibrium of study may not yet have been reached, but the balance are swinging and that means true equilibrium in the end. The College has made greater progress in enlarging and enobling the sphere of the sciences in the college courses than has its famous prototype on the north shore of Long Island Sound. Would that the Yale of the East would keep step with the "Yale of the West" in this laudable progress.

     The early days, here as elsewhere, were days of extreme specialization. For the preparatory years and two years in college more than one-half of the time was given to a few selections of ancient literature, grand selections indeed, but limited selections none the less. The justification of this, if it were justified, lay in the cruder state of most other lines of study, a state which was perhaps as much a result as a cause of the general collegiate policy of the preceding centuries. The educational world had not then fully learned that a new field offers a rich disciplinary opportunity when cultivated lay the investigative method. This method has scarcely yet come to a well recognized place as a supremely effective instrument of education. In its absence choice fell upon the classics and mathematics as best organized for disciplinary purposes, and for five years but little else was pursued. The substance of thought was scant but the exercise was abundant. The educational process was not so much growth by nourishment as development by exertion; – plenty of work on a light intellectual stomach. The more varied studies of the later college course added something of breadth but the course remained one of severe limitation and specialization. It is one of the idiosyncrasies of educational language that this most specialized of all culture courses has long appropriated to itself terms of peculiar amplitude, while more distributive courses have been characterized by adjectives of limitation. Collegiate language is fearfully and wonderfully made, as witness our "commencements" at the end, our "bachelors" made by a parchment instead of celibacy, our "Arts" for a Greek course, our "broad" for what is intensive, our "specialization" for what is distributive, and so on to the end of the list.

     But there has been much easement of this former specialization. The thoroughness which prolonged courses alone can give is still retained and even more extreme specialization along the old lines is still possible for those who choose it. But an inflexible specialization is no longer the imposed lot of all. A wider range in substance of thought and a more varied discipline are now offered.

     This amelioration has been attained chiefly through the decadence of the curriculum system and the growth of the elective system. The early days, here as elsewhere, were the days of the fixed curriculum. From beginning to end the course was predetermined for each and all alike. Those were the days when the committee on curriculum in the wisdom of its closet, and the faculty in the wisdom of its chamber determined that choice of subjects and that order of study which was to give the best outcome for everyone no matter how his intellect had been fashioned by nature. But the days of the rigid curriculum are passing. The attempt to make the highest possible product out of every kind of material by a uniform process is being abandoned. The required factor of the curriculum system, while it still lingers, is on the road to a natural and merited obsolescence. A fixed curriculum may have been a necessary concession to the scantiness of available knowledge, the smallness of available means and the limitations of available teachers. But these limitations are passing. Careful personal adaptation of varied processes to varying talent is the rational mode which is growing into use and must prevail. Rigid curricula are now confined to the freshman year, and even there a choice is offered between three courses. The introduction of electives from the freshman year onward facilitates personal adaptation and affords the departments a means of individualization and of development.

     All these internal evolutions are most vital. They lie at the heart of the college's intellectual work. They signify an amplification of its scholarly spirit. They testify to an increasing impartiality of intellectual attitude. They reveal a broadening of sympathy. They exhibit an enlarged recognition of the individuality of the student. They imply a more tender care for the younger and struggling departments.

     In outward relations the liberalizing of the list of entrance studies is another laudable step, implying an increasingly generous attitude toward the secondary schools and toward the choices of parents and students.

     A change of attitude more demonstrative, and certainly not less significant than any yet noted, has recently taken place. Throughout nearly the whole half-century the College was not open to man generic, but only to man specific. One-half of man generic – the better half – though endowed with intellects keen and subtle, though possessed of natures noble and responsive, though inspired with strong desires for culture, were yet debarred its halls. This was but an expression of an inherited and cultivated prejudice. But the College has had the courage to move on across the prejudice in the line of equal justice and a profounder apprehension of the functions of education. Blessed be the College!

     But there have been issues profounder than even the problems of the curriculum and the problem of the sexes. The incoming flood of new truth has touched upon the basis of faith. The College has been compelled to determine its attitude toward the inflow of truth when it threatened a change in cherished beliefs. Mark, I do not say compelled a change of belief, but threatened a change of belief. The College has had to face the question of welcoming unwelcome truth. It has had to face the further question whether it should not be itself a producer of unwelcome truth. Seeing the snow upon the mountain and its melting inevitable it has had to consider whether it should be at the springing of the floods giving them early and free release and guiding them into their appropriate channels, or far down the valley building intellectual dams. The attitude of the College has been neither radically progressive nor radically conservative. If the College has not always been working enthusiastically at the springing of the floods it has not altogether been building dams in the valleys. It has held with much tenacity to the old, but it has not excluded the new. And as the years have gone on there has been a transference of effort from the defensive to the productive. There has been an increasing recognition of the fact that safety lies in leadership in the production of truth; leadership and control at the very inception of the inflowing tide, and the College and her sons have made their modest contributions to the inflow of new truth. If the atmosphere of faith proves the most fertile mother of new-born truth the children will be at once the jewels and the proof of maternal vitality.

     Limitations of resources may put narrow limits on the contributions which such a college as ours can make to the growing sum of knowledge, but it puts no limits on the sympathetic attitudes it may assume toward them. It is grateful to note that that attitude has been one of increasing hospitality. Faith best expresses itself in such a steadfast confidence in the universality of the divine imminence that it invites the most unhesitating search in all fields, confident that the outcome cannot be other than ultimate good.

     The College has ever been earnest and steadfast in its loyalty to the moral and spiritual factors of education. So pre-eminent was this at the outset that growth was scarcely possible. No changes of attitude, except in forms and aspects, are to be discerned here. And, save in free rectification by advancing knowledge, may there never be such. Circumstances and conditions may put limitations upon the intellectual riches that may be offered here, but no circumstance nor condition should abate by one jot or tittle the earnestness of moral endeavor which is the distinctive characteristic of the College. The truth should ever make that endeavor free and keep it free from all bondage. If its forms must change, let them change, but let the earnestness of endeavor remain. This is the peculiar birthright of the College. This is its great treasure. It should be cherished as its one great possession. This is not a thing apart from the intellectual work, but the soul of the intellectual work. Scientia vera cum fide pura. Purity of faith is conditioned on sincerity and rectitude of intellectual action. May there be no bounds to the search for true knowledge. May there be no limits to the purity of faith. Scientia vera cum fide pura.