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this was or was not due to the perhaps unconscious following of the English system need not be here considered, but nothing in modern history is more curious than that during this time of progress, the system of education itself scarcely changed at all, and it cannot be said that an American leaving his college was as fairly equipped for the battle of life as it was here to be fought, as the graduate of an English university, to say nothing of the fact that the latter had continued his training for that battle two or three years longer.
At a recent "gentle and joyous passage at arms" between our most distinguished college presidents, one of them is reported to have said, "I left Harvard College thirty years ago without knowing anything," and although he himself is the only man in the world likely to make such an assertion, and it was received with the incredulity it deserved, yet one may fairly put him on the stand, even though he be a biassed witness, and, as we lawyers say, let the objection to his evidence go to its credibility rather than to its competency. Just when and how it dawned upon our colleges that their system was not the best system for our own people need not here be dwelt upon. The "new departure" came at last, and whatever differences may exist as to where the lines should diverge, no one now pretends that the same course should be pursued by every student alike, without regard to his natural bent or capacity, or his future career in life. Few find fault with the hard and fast course at West Point—though even as this, some murmurings are beginning to be heard—for every cadet is educated to be a soldier, and there is little room for choice as to his studies. But the reason ceases in proportion as the after-college life shall vary in its objects, and this is now so thoroughly felt that whatever differences of thought exist among those who conduct colleges which justly claim to be in the front rank, they exist more in degree than in kind. While an extremist on the one hand may be alarmed at Fetich worship, and suggest that ultra-conservatism will turn out, as has been said, a "few grammarians and elegant scholars, and a multitude of baffled dunces," those who are thus accused protest against the well-meaning but misguided laxity which would let loose upon the world a graduate nicely skilled in graceful studies, an accomplished dilettante "in music, arts and French plays," but with little trained habit of thought, little fibre and suppleness of intellectual muscle, and as far as possible the opposite of a mental athlete.
And it may here be suggested that the crucial test of the future of our colleges must soon be tried. Hitherto, their ranks have been largely supplied by the sons of professional men—never overburdened by wealth—and others who have saved and denied themselves in order to send their boys to college, and these last have, for the most part, justified their parents by fairly good work towards earning their future livelihood. But the increase of wealth and luxury and the habits which come with these have found their way within our college walls. The sons of rich men are more in number than they used to be, and indulge in tastes and expenses in common with those at Oxford and Cambridge. But they and those who instruct them should remember that in England, a rich man's son has a future which may range from being merely respectable and useful, up to the highest honours and successes which the world knows. With us it is not so, and the sons of the rich are practically almost as heavily handicapped as the sons of the poor. The inducement for severe work being withheld, their education is naturally directed rather to that which shall please, than to that which shall strengthen. If our colleges shall yield to such insidious influences, they will largely cease to be schools of learning, and will become mere polishing institutions.
Apart from this, between the opposite poles of the present doctrines there is a large middle ground on which the great body of those who teach and those who learn can more or less nearly meet, and wholesome agitation stimulates thought and action, even as the existence of party is necessary to the healthy atmosphere of a State.
But while there may exist these amiable domestic differences, a real enemy is marshalling his forces for a conflict in which if he shall prevail, the problem of college education will largely cease to be of interest save to the future historian. For it is being widely asked, "Why college education at all? To the practical American who has his way in life to make, it is largely waste of time." Such questions as these, whether as between the colleges themselves or between the colleges and the outside world, do not arise without a cause, and perhaps one great cause may be the present cry of the educated unemployed. When thousands of young men throughout the country find themselves without the means of support in the condition of life which they had planned for themselves, it is natural that they should blame, for some part of the result, the education which they have received. It is perhaps not logical—it may be too like the child who kicks the chair he has fallen over—but it is natural, and at any rate it exists. And from finding fault with the education at any particular college, the gradation is easy to the conclusion of finding fault with college education in general.
As to part of the complaint, it was forcibly said in one of the numerous publications which have lately appeared upon the education question, that "a system may be most perfectly adapted to subsequent success in life—and even success in modern life with all its peculiarities—and yet fail of the best results by reason of indolence or want of enthusiasm or stupidity or preverseness on the part of the student." Without using such strong language as this, which however true as to a few can hardly be so as to the many, one may venture to suggest that a broad reason for this want of success lies in the student not having sufficiently measured the requirements of his intended calling with relation to his own capacity to meet them. Otherwise it would hardly seem rational that while it was asserted on the one hand that the professions were overcrowded, hundreds of young men should, on the other, every year deliberately prepare for and enter these professions, only to find that what they had heard was true. It would seem to ignore the usual law of demand and supply. Any one who, in commerce, should continue to manufacture an article with which the market was already overstocked and with no prospect of a change, would scarcely be considered wise. His only hope and excuse would be that his particular article was of such excellence that it would assert its superiority in the market. So with the professions. And as it would be idle to say that success is impossible in them, or even largely improbable, a word may be suggested as to their present exactions.
It may as well be said plainly that the day has passed when the mere fact of a college education is, of itself, an assurance of success in life, and those who have imagined that because they have received it, "the world owes them a living," as they put it, have been rudely awakened from their dream. While it was never so true as now that "there is plenty of room on the front bench," it cannot be known too soon that there is little room in the learned professions for mediocre talent. Especially is this true of the law, as to which there has been a great change. In the addresses delivered forty or fifty years ago, young men used to be encouraged by the assurance that industry, integrity and devotion to their profession would surely lead to a certain measure of success.