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Title:      The Pursuit of Knowledge
Author:     Stephen Leacock
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A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Title:      The Pursuit of Knowledge
Author:     Stephen Leacock

A Discussion of Freedom and Compulsion in Education


It is one of the most ancient of human beliefs that all things human
are under the influence of two contrasting forces moving in different
directions. Primitive man, no doubt, early became aware that certain
things made for salvation and others not: and that the division did
not correspond to that represented by mere pleasure or pain. Hence,
with the tendency of the dawning primitive intelligence to think of
all forces as living forces, to think of winds and storms and fire and
flood, as things animated like itself, there arose the notion of good
and evil, of a Deity and a Devil.

From the earliest twilight of our civilization this principle of
contrasted forces shaping our destiny appears and reappears.

In the present essay the attempt is made to show its application to
the advancement of learning. Here we have, on the one hand, the
principle of spontaneous, natural, untrammeled development of the
human mind: its native curiosity supplies the motive power of its
expanding knowledge. There, on the other hand, appears the principle
of compulsion, of discipline, of the assigned task and the stern
necessity. Which of these is God and which the Devil would be a
question hard to answer. In Scotland they would answer one way, in
the easy islands of Polynesia in the other. Yet at least the inquiry
is pertinent, to what extent each of these principles should govern
our modern education.


McGill University
August 20th, 1934



The process of education covers a large part of the activity of
mankind. It includes as its major elements the acquisition of
knowledge and the development of capacity. It carries with it, as
at least a by-product, the formation of moral character, once its
principal aim. It includes to an increasing extent the care of
physical health and the training of the body. The social momentum,
supplied by the institutions created for its use, carries forward
into the search for new knowledge, which thus becomes, as it were,
a part of education itself.

Hence, in one form or another, the process of education fills a
considerable part of the life of every individual. For at least ten
years it is the chief activity of all of us; for twenty years in the
case of many of us; and for some it represents the work and the
meaning of a lifetime. It follows that anything in the way of an
analysis of educational method and machinery, is of the highest
social import.

Now, there may be observed as running all through the processes of
education two rival principles, in a sense conflicting and yet
complementary to one another. One of these is the principle of
compulsion, of having to do what we do not want to for the sake
of some external or ultimate end. The other is the principle of
spontaneity, of doing what we want to do because we want to do it.
Such a principle is easily embodied in the familiar notions of "art
for art's sake," of "knowledge as its own reward", and similar
concepts. In the present discussion, I propose to consider the
relative values of these two principles, and the way in which either
of them may be carried beyond its proper use.

The history, the legends, and the very terminology of education
reflect the contrasted operation of the two. Here, embedded in the
Latin language, is the word _ludus_--which meant indifferently either
"school" or "play." But here is the grim word "examination" implying
a weighing in the scales of Justice first applied to criminals and
then extended to undergraduates.

Many of our educational terms suggest care and affection, love and
good-will and the happy pursuit of learning in common. "University"
and "college" are words of warmth, implying the whole ambit of
learning and the genial bond of fellowship within. But the "test" and
the "quiz" and the "imposition" are the words of medieval torture.

At different times and by different temperaments stress has been laid
upon either the value and the virtue of severe compulsion or the charm
of spontaneous activity. One recalls the famous Doctor Busby of the
Westminster School of Charles the Second's time, whose merit lay
in the use of the rod. "A great man," said Sir Roger de Coverley,
"he caned my grandfather." Indeed, for many centuries elementary
education was largely based on the idea that sparing the rod spoiled
the child and that the quickest way to reach the youthful intellect
was from below up. But one recalls on the other hand Rousseau's
little Emile wandering among the flowers, and the rise of the
Kindergarten--the children's garden--which has ascended from infancy
up throughout our system of education.

I can recall from my own childhood, in the England of nearly sixty
years ago, a little elementary primer called _Reading without Tears_.
This was regarded at the time as a pleasing innovation.

The point under discussion, then, is the extent to which each of
these principles enters into our curriculum, and whether Doctor Busby
or Jean Jacques Rousseau is to claim the major authority.

Now, it must be admitted that to a certain extent the education of
to-day must be measured, circumscribed, formal and mechanical.
Everything has the defects of its merits. In democratic countries
where education is universal, compulsory, and is, to a great extent,
paid for by society in the lump and not by the recipient in
particular, the latitude of permissible freedom is at once greatly
curtailed. There must be fixed hours and fixed times and fixed
classes; and to a great extent fixed grades, fixed promotions. The
road to learning being a public highway the traffic must be moved
under direction, with fixed lights and fixed stops and a speed limit.

But the question still remains--to what extent do we lose by this
necessity for fixed and regular organization something of the spirit
and meaning of education? To what extent are we compelled by necessity
to sacrifice the spirit for the letter, the soul for the body?

Observe that a necessity is there. We cannot in our day leave
education to the unaided prompting of the individual's desire to know
and the individual's self-interest in knowing. Education cannot be
left to itself. To a great extent the creative arts of painting,
sculpture and music may be left with no further recognition by the
state and the law than a generous pecuniary support. But education by
obvious necessity must be under the constant care and the detailed
regulation of society at large. Whatever shortcomings are involved
need to be admitted and faced or mitigated as best we can.

I propose, therefore, to write, in turn, of the effect of such
necessity upon the organization of education, the method and process
of teaching, and the nature of the curriculum.



Of the first of these things, the organization of education, I will
not give more than an indication of the field implied. The subject
belongs mainly outside the limits of the present discussion. It
is clear that the organization of learning by grades, with fixed
times and means of promotion, fixed standards of acquirement to be
certified step by step, departs a long way from the ideal of an
education that aims to develop an individual impelled by his own
zeal for continuous and ever-widening knowledge. Of necessity,
the system largely overlooks the claims of genius, the right of
differentiated development, the special or gifted minds. It has all
the defects of the standardization of the intellect, of the "convoy"
system of progress, where each must conform to the pace of the lowest.
One or two practical examples may be cited for illustration's sake
at somewhat greater length. Here, first, is the question of an
"Attendance Rule" at the universities. Should the students, or should
they not, be compelled to attend the lectures? The example is all the
more valuable in that the subject concerned is not merely a matter of
what would be ideal, but a matter of an actual choice; at the same
time it illustrates very nicely the educational theory involved.

My own experience in this respect has helped me to reach an opinion.
When I was an under-graduate at the University of Toronto more than
forty years ago (1887-1891) attendance at lectures was not compulsory.
Registered students might come to class or not as they liked. The idea
was that the lectures were a privilege, an opportunity, a help towards
passing the examination. Students foolish enough to stay away might
do so. As a matter of fact many of us did stay away, sometimes from
a whole course at a time! If we found the lectures prosy and
uninteresting and the matter as easily and more conveniently learned
from a book, we ceased to attend. At the time it seemed to me an ideal
system, with a personal, academic freedom about it that contrasted
pleasantly with the outworn discipline of the schoolroom.

I experienced the same regime with the same satisfaction as a student
in the graduate school at Chicago ten years later. But when I came
to teach at McGill University,--my own incomparable Alma Mater of
to-day,--I was amazed and even horrified to find the rule the other
way. Students were compelled to attend, their names called daily from
a roll and their absence noted. Eight times in a hundred they might be
absent--but after that the dark. Whether the lectures were wise or
foolish, brilliant inspiration or mournful dictation, attend they
must. The rule is still with us and I have grown to see that it is
good. It is honored perhaps a little more in the breach as time goes
on, but in the main, in both law and practice, it stands.

The virtue of such compulsion rests on the admitted weakness of human
nature. Students will stay away not only from bad lectures, but from
good ones; will attend intermittently in place of regularly; will
allow pleasure to interfere with duty--and afterwards be sorry for
it. It is likely that even the worst lecture is better than none at
all,--though that is a bold proposition, not to be pressed. But
certainly most lectures, if they can be heard for nothing, are, as
might be said facetiously, well worth it.

I recall the case of my late distinguished colleague, Dr. Francis
Shepherd, Professor of Anatomy and sometime dean of the Faculty of
Medicine at McGill University (_Clarum et venerabile nomen_). Dr.
Shepherd lectured on Anatomy at nine o'clock every morning. It was
his custom, as nine o'clock drew near, to stand at the door of the
classroom, his watch in his hand. At the exact hour of nine he
entered the room, closed the door, locked it and began his lecture.
Any student locked out was counted absent; locked out eight times
in the session he lost a year of his academic life. And who liked
the system? The students did. They boasted of it. There is a whole
generation of medical men who were brought up on it and still talk
about it. I introduced it into my own classes in imitation of Dr.
Shepherd, but I discontinued it as I found it meant locking myself
outside rather too often. This Dr. Shepherd never did, never once. In
the twenty years of his lecturing on Anatomy he was never once late.

One has to admit, of course, that this kind of compulsion, used to
replace the individual virtue that is wanting, only can be applied in
educational methods where public opinion will not be offended at it.
This is in accordance with a general law. There are many things which
are excellent in their effect, in their results, so long as no one
questions their right to be or feels degraded by their use. One thinks
here of corporal punishment in the schools. When I entered Upper
Canada College fifty-two years ago, the "caning" of the boys by the
masters was taken for granted. We perhaps felt hurt by it, but not
degraded; on the contrary it gave one something of the feeling of
a veteran at the wars or a proven Brave of the Plains after the
Sun-dance. We bore no grudge. On these terms the results, as a whole,
were probably very good. There was none of the harbored hatred over a
long imprisonment after school hours, no weary fingers and tired eyes
copying out unwelcome lines with the sunshine beckoning out of doors
and the voices calling from the playground. Justice was as quick and
final as capital punishment.

When I became in turn a master in the College, I handed out, for ten
years, the same treatment. When I look back at it now, I marvel at
the barbarity of it; but not then: the boys whom I licked the most
seem to cherish the kindest memories: and seem to have succeeded best.
Looking back on the list I find that I have licked no less than eight
cabinet ministers, two baronets and four British generals,--to say
nothing of about one-half of the bench and the bar in Toronto. Whether
these men would have come to the front without my assistance is a
matter I am not prepared to discuss.

But, observe, that once the idea arises that physical punishment is a
degradation, then it is. It has got to go. It is, as soon as you
reflect upon it, mere barbarism.

I hope I do not seem to have wandered from the point. I am trying to
say that there are some educational methods of organization, or
compulsion, of fixed and punitive regulation, which can only survive
while generally accepted: once questioned they have to go.

A similar instance occurs to me in the matter of compulsory cap and
gown. Fifty years ago the wearing of a cap and gown by the students
and by their teachers was a matter of compulsion in a great many of
the best colleges. In some of them, as in my own college, the rule is
still there, but the observance of it has vanished. Some false notion
of equality and democracy has created a public opinion against it. It
has had to go. Yet great, I think, is the loss. The college gown of
my undergraduate day cost one dollar and fifty cents. It lasted a
lifetime, and might indeed have served for burial. It was not killed
by the cost of it, though its declining use drove the cost up. Public
opinion killed it. Yet never was there anything more consistent with
the dignity and democracy of knowledge. The good old gown, like
charity, covered up a multitude of shabby clothes. It obliterated
all distinctions of rich and poor, and for those who knew its shape
and cut it was the symbol of a whole cycle of history. The doubled
sleeve of the gown was in reality and originally a bag in which the
impecunious student of the Middle Ages might place the food supplied
to him by kindly donors. It was the hall-mark of his local right to
beg. You will note that even to-day the doubled sleeve of the gown of
the doctor of philosophy has a larger cubic content than any other,
and that these gowns, with their capacious sleeves, are only worn,
as a rule, by the presidents of colleges!



But let me turn a moment from the discussion of the organization and
framework of our education, to observe the same contrast between
spontaneity and freedom in the method and process of our teaching.
Here it is even more obvious and important.

We may take our point of departure from the aforementioned little
Emile of Jean Jacques Rousseau of the year 1762, the world-famous
type of the natural, spontaneous child, naturally and spontaneously
educated. We may contrast him with his sturdy young contemporary, that
tough little Briton, Smith Minor of Westminster School--first cousin
a few degrees removed of John Smith of Smithville, Minnesota, Ontario
and elsewhere.

All the world, of education at least, recalls the training by which
little Emile was developed. It was a garden of flowers. The child
wandered at will. His awakening curiosity reached out for knowledge
and his hand reached out for the beautiful flowers around him. He
learned without having to learn. He was told nothing till he needed
to know it and asked to know it. The whole process was natural and

Not so with Smith Minor. No one asked him if he wanted to learn. He
had to. For him knowledge was not a garden. It was a steep and rough
ascent on a rocky path,--_gradus ad Parnassum_. Up he went, with the
stick to keep him moving. Unlike little Emile, he learned what he
didn't want to learn. He didn't understand what it meant, or where
it led to. He was driven like a donkey going to market, over the
_pons asinorum_ of Euclid. He learned the fact that similar
triangles are in the duplicate ratio of their homologous side. God
knows he didn't doubt it. He learned that the logarithm of a number
to a given base is the index of the power to which the base must be
raised to produce the given number. He was not allowed to ask why.
But with it all there went, however, in a certain sense the honorable
satisfaction of a task undertaken and done, a difficulty faced and
conquered--a feeling unknown to little Emile.

The two boys are long since dead but their souls are with us still.
All of us, who have taken pedagogical courses, have heard enough, and
too much, of the spontaneous system of education, proceeding from
the known to the unknown and from the concrete to the abstract. As
a matter of fact all such ideas are only half truths.

Take as an example the teaching of elementary English grammar. As
Smith Minor learned it, it began with the brutal, straight-out
statement "there are eight parts of speech: the noun, the pronoun,
the adjective, the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction
and the interjection." He had no idea what this meant or where it was
leading to. It was licked into him.

But little Emile--ah, no! He wandered among the flowers, murmuring
words at will, until presently he should say, "Dear mama, how funny
words are!" "Are they not, darling," replied his mother. "I believe
that some of them, dear mama, might be called adverbs." "They are,
darling, they are."

Later, let us say, the two little boys learned navigation, with a view
to entering the navies of their respective countries. Smith Minor was
brutally made to learn by heart that longitude meant the number of
angular degrees east or west of Greenwich. Emile had to wait till he
met an angular degree in the words and got in a question about it. In
time no doubt little Emile wandered onto the quarter-deck of a French
man-of-war. Yet, after all, which navy beat the other?

In other words, I am trying to say that in much of our education (in
practice at least) it is quicker to go from the unknown to the known.
To proceed _ad obscurum per obscurius_ is often as useful as to go
through a tunnel to save walking round a mountain.



One of the most important subjects which arise under the present
discussion is the written examination. I may express it as my opinion
that the written examination is the curse of modern education, and I
may add that I do not see how we could get along without it. There is
nothing which, in and of itself, is so contrary to the true spirit
of inquiry, the real search after knowledge. There is nothing so
much calculated to substitute the letter for the spirit: to check the
ardor of the native eagerness to know: to mislead the feet of the
student from the path of knowledge to the steps of the treadmill.
The situation is rendered all the worse when the written examination
recurs at intervals--generally of an academic year--as a necessary
condition of promotion. It becomes for most students a sheer economic
necessity to pass the examination: without that, they lose a year, are
compelled, perhaps, to abandon their career. They _must_ pass. This
superlative necessity overwhelms their minds. It colors all their
outlook. As the examination draws near it takes on all the imminence
of approaching danger, all the menace of a possible disaster. It is
like the roaring of a cataract in the ears of one borne swiftly down
the stream.

How can a student think about literature who has to pass an
examination on literature? How can a student meditate on philosophy
whose meditations must reach a value of fifty per cent or ruin him?
Who dare read a book not on the curriculum? Or think a thought that
has no value in marks?

As a result the attitude of the students towards their studies is
hopelessly perverted. All they want to know is what must they do to
be saved. In certain mechanical and elementary subjects this is no
great matter. In elementary mathematics it does not matter much if a
schoolboy learns the multiplication table, because he has got to, or
because he is merely inquisitive about the properties of numbers. Or
rather--let me correct myself--it does matter, in the ideal sense, a
great deal. There is such a thing as mathematical curiosity, a rare
and beautiful gift, often seen in children and nearly always fading
out as they grow. And there is the wretched process of learning the
multiplication table by heart and reciting Euclid by rote. But in
mathematics and physics the harm done can be wiped out. A man may
become a real mathematician in spite of passing examinations in
mathematics. So, too, a man may become a real doctor in spite of
having to learn by rote, brutally and mechanically, the two hundred
and fifty bones of first year anatomy.

But in what are called the "Humanities"--those indefinable studies
which underlie the world of thought and find expression in the world's
literature, studies distinguishable only by their apparent
uselessness--the result of the examination system is deplorable,
devastating, often fatal. As the college examinations draw near one
hears such questions as "Please, sir, are we liable for Rousseau's
Social Contract? Do we need the Declaration of Independence? Are we
responsible for Chaucer?"

Those who live in the colleges will know that these quoted questions
are not a whit exaggerated. The student as the examination draws
near, takes his studies as the manly criminal takes his sentence. He
has been sentenced to two years of Shakespeare; all right, he will see
it through, get it done and come out to live it down. He puts into it,
in fact, just the same kind of courageous endeavor with which he meets
the oncoming difficulties of life.

And there it is,--one sees in a moment the other side of examinations.
One contrasts the determined, hard-working student who has _got_ to
pass and _means_ to pass, with the lackadaisical dilettante, reading a
limp-leather book in a garden of lilies,--not having to pass anything,
and not able to. One asks, which is the better man?

In other words, we have to admit that examinations make for character
just as adversity makes a man, and the Westminster Catechism makes a
Scotchman. But after all is character quite the same as learning?
Moral worth and spiritual eagerness may be better things than the
desire to know and the pursuit of knowledge, but they are not the
_same_ thing.

We should, no doubt, most of us agree that we cannot abolish the
written examination. But if we understand its shortcomings and its
defects we can at least avoid some of the dangers of its overuse. One
of these lies in the confusion of high percentages with high
standards. In certain institutions, and in one which I know so well
that I will not name it, many people think that the standard of the
students' work can be raised by raising the percentage of the
examination pass mark. No more misleading idea ever damaged education.
After a certain point a high percentage is only obtained by an
inordinate and undesirable completeness. Each successive increment can
only be obtained with greater and greater labor, with increased
repetition, with multiplied interaction, holding back each advance in
knowledge till the ground before has not only been cleared and
covered and cultivated, but meticulously scratched with a pin point.

If we had to get a hundred per cent in spelling, to spell all the
words in English correctly, which of us would ever get out of the
spelling book? If matriculation in Latin meant one hundred per cent
knowledge of all the genitives and all the genders, who would ever get
beyond it? Gray-bearded scholars would be wheeled into the examination
room for their sixtieth attempt to matriculate. After a certain point
excellence is unwholesome. Outside of a reasonable latitude accuracy
implies a limited mind, neatly and completely filled, and with no
draught in it to blow anything away. The first beauty of any subject
is its broad outline: the first charm of literature is its large
features, of history its universal surface, of physics its grander
truths. All the little meticulous details peppered in afterwards,
are necessary, like the masonry between stones, but it is the stones
that make the building. In learning any language what is needed is
a "thorough smattering": what is not needed is a hundred per cent
correctness of accidence and syntax. Boys who get a hundred per cent
in what is called a modern language paper,--consisting of in-and-out
translation of such gems of thought as "Give some of it to them, do
not give any of it to me for him,"--such boys will never speak a
language more modern than Choctaw. They are equipped perhaps to
translate the Bible into Eskimo, _praeterita nihil_. Yet still
the cry goes up: raise the per cent, raise the per cent.

But the full devastation of the examination system is seen, I say, in
its application to the humanities and above all in its application to
literature. Here it defeats its own end and destroys what it would
promote. A student is assigned,--shall we say _sentenced?_--to a course
on English poetry in the nineteenth century. It is one of the "units"
for the "credits" by means of which in two more years he will get a
license to be a druggist. He buys and studies what are called "texts,"
a reverent word straight out of the fifteenth century. He is a
conscientious fellow and he "does" it all, does every poet, except two
or three for which he is told he is not "responsible." Then comes the
written examination,--"Name the five chief beauties of Keats. Name
two beauties which Keats had which Tennyson didn't have. Indicate
under six heads the philosophical ideas of Robert Browning. What other
ideas had he? 'Twilight and Evening Star and after that the dark.' Who
said this? And at what time is it twilight in the Isle of Wight on
June 20?"...and so on.

There is no exaggeration in that. The underlying truth is that you
cannot "examine" on literature and that you cannot "teach" literature
in any regulated, formal, provable, examinable way without destroying
literature itself. Which leads me to another of the ghastly
short-comings of our organic compulsory education, the attempt to
_teach_ things that can't be _taught_,--in any way, that is, to be
measured, estimated, commended and condemned. The only time when you
and I really entered into literature, entered the kingdom of letters,
was when each of us sat as a child absorbed in the magic pages of a
book: in some snug corner of a quiet room or sheltered in some lost
recess of the seashore with the muffled sound of the wind and sea to
concentrate our thought--that is reading, that is literature.

I often think in this respect of Charles Dickens, my favorite author
of a lifetime,--and all the people who have read Dickens. All over the
world for a hundred years, almost, there have been people reading
Dickens. In town and in country, at home and abroad, in winter with
the candles lighted and the outside world forgotten; in summer beneath
a shadowing tree or in a sheltered corner of the beach; in garret
bedrooms, in frontier cabins; in the light of the camp fire and in the
long vigil of the sickroom--people reading Dickens.

And everywhere the mind enthralled, absorbed, uplifted; the anxieties
of life, the grind of poverty, the loneliness of bereavement, and the
longings of exile, forgotten, conjured away, as there arises from the
magic page the inner vision of the lanes and fields of England, and on
the ear the murmured sounds of London, the tide washing up the Thames,
and the fog falling upon Lincoln's Inn.

But at the end we must add the college class reading Dickens as a unit
of credit for a distiller's license, getting ready for the Dickens
examination. Name the six humorous sides of Mr. Pickwick. Distinguish
four particular kinds of villainy in Jones Chuzzlewit, etc., etc.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the University of Toronto for the
course in "Honor English"; and especially to the fact that there were
no lectures on Dickens.

I am not implying here that there should be no such subject as English
literature in the curriculum of the school or college. I only mean
that we should all understand the limitations under which we teach
it, understand what we _can_ do and what we cannot do. You can take
a horse to the water but you cannot make him drink. You can give a
student the opportunity to read, to enjoy, and to appreciate. But you
cannot make him do it. The more definite and formal and systematic
the instruction the worse its ultimate results. The true professor of
English would be a sort of inspired person, a little silly, fond of
reciting and reading aloud, unconscious of time and place, filled
with intense admiration and terrific denunciations, admired and
pitied by his students. Such a man with his childish conceit, his
tattered wits, his flushed cheeks, and his transparent sincerity is
the inspiration of the classroom, he is the spirit of literature
itself. Can a man like that _examine?_ Of course not. He lets them
all through. But even the least gifted has caught something of our

Observe that none of this can be reduced to rule and plan and system.
Imagine a college advertising for such a man: Wanted a professor of
English, half-silly, slightly flushed, etc., etc.... Yet some people
are never satisfied with a discussion on education unless what is
said can be reduced to statute, embodied in legislation. But in
reality statutes and legislation are just the embodied effects,
the crystallized form of the rock for which first was needed the
incandescent heat of thought.

I trust that I am not misunderstood in what I say in regard to the
study of literature in the colleges. I am not in any sense endeavoring
to deprecate or belittle it. On the contrary, there is no study that
seems to me of more transcendent interest and importance. There is
none where the professor can do so much for his students: none where
good lectures can count so much and personal inspiration aid in the
unfolding of the minds. The lonely study of literature is a meager
thing. All forms of art live on companionship, on intercourse, on
discussion. Appreciation that is shared is multiplied. Divided, it
increases. When we read a good book we want to talk about it; when
we are thrilled by a drama we want to discuss it. So it is with
literature in the classroom,--a forum of discussion, a market place
for thought.

But who that sees a good play would want forthwith to write an
examination on it? Who would go to moving pictures with a view to
writing a "test" on them the next day? The point which I am trying to
make is, that there are once and for all certain studies which cannot
be subjected to examination without being destroyed.

Would it not be at least conceivable that the work of a college might
include certain studies for which ample time was provided for lectures
and for discussion, and which did not provide for "tests," or count
as a qualification for doing something else? Do we think so poorly of
ourselves as to call that impossible? Do our students _never_ study?
Is there no such thing left as learning's sake, as art for art, as
literature and reading for their own absorbing enchantment? Perhaps
not. It may be that for such a thing we go outside the colleges, to
the people who have had no "opportunities," who read because they want
to, who discover for themselves the entry to the kingdom of letters
and the gateway to the by-gone world of the past. Such people, save
the mark! are generally filled with a vague regret at what they have
missed by never going to college. Life is filled with such little
ironies as that.



What has been said incidentally leads me at once to another topic of
this discussion. I refer to the fact that our modern college education
has developed into being very largely a qualification for entrance
into something else,--not immediately connected with it. It has taken
on, in the evolution of four centuries, the form of a statutory, legal
qualification for entry into a profession. It thus becomes one of the
necessary steps towards earning money, making one's living. This is
all very well where the thing studied and the thing practiced are one
and the same. It is clear that to be a lawyer one must study law, that
to be a doctor one must learn anatomy, and that to be a clergyman one
must read the Bible, and to be a teacher one should study teaching.
But it is a little harder to see why a dentist has to study algebra,
or a veterinary surgeon read Shakespeare,--except, perhaps, the play
of Richard III--"a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"

In the college where I teach there are young men studying political
economy because they want to be surgeons, studying poetry in order
to qualify for the navy, and trigonometry in order to get into the
Church. Only by resort to the artistic valuation of background can
such studies seemingly be justified.

These statements are not intended facetiously. They merely convey the
facts. The whole area of our college study is shadowed and darkened
with the gloom of this dull atmosphere of musty traditional
prerequisites. A large percentage of our study is not a labor of love,
of choice, or even of obvious utility. It is merely undertaken through
the indirect compulsion of our traditional social organization. We
have to live. We have to earn money to live. We have to enter a
profession to earn money to live. We have to take a degree to enter a
profession to earn money to live. We have to take algebra to get a
degree to enter a profession to get the money to live. This is the
house that Jacques built,--Jean Jacques Rousseau: or rather which he
didn't mean to. No one seems able to show why certain subjects must be
attached as a preparation for professional skill.

One asks what are we going to do about it The answer is,--nothing.
There is no evident way of rearranging all this without sacrificing
the main outline of organized education, and leaving it a mere chaos
of caprice. There is, therefore, no suggestion here of legislative
change, but only a change of spirit, of thought, of attitude. In
all the problems of human life the step towards a solution is the
recognition that there is something that needs solving, even though
it seems insolvable. In the brutal days of John Hawkins there was no
problem of slavery. But in time the tears that fell upon the fetters
on the slave broke through the chain.

So it is with education. The idea must come first: its translation
into action will find a way. All through this discussion I have sought
to lay stress on the idea that education must carry with it, for its
own sake, a certain element of external compulsion: but that it is
equally vital that it should have as its animating spirit _inner
compulsion_, the prompting of free will, of the desire to know. It
would seem that in our education of to-day the emphasis has grown
too heavy on the aspect of compulsion from without. The balance
dips at one end. The compulsion implied is not, or not chiefly, the
direct compulsion of command and obedience. It is rather the form
of compulsion represented by the fixity of the organization, the
stabilization of the studies, the grading of units and credits and
promotion, the application of mechanical tests as a means of computing
knowledge. The sum total of these things lies heavily upon us. Under
such circumstances the enchantment of knowledge is rudely dispelled
by the need to live.

The remedy, such as there is, is purely intangible,--a quickening of
the spirit, a recapture of the soul, a revival of the childhood of
man. Perhaps an educational prophet will arise with the vision of a
college education directed by teachers so inspiring that young people,
athirst for adventure in worlds illuminated by research, will be
enchanted by the truths and ideas therein revealed, and therefore
above the present needs of administrative compulsion.


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