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article number 250
article date 07-09-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Develop Our Modern School System, 1914-1928
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After. 1914 -1928.

THE outstanding achievement of the American school during the period from 1914 to 1928 was to make secondary education almost as universal as the previous hundred years had made primary education. In 1914 there were less than one and a half million high-school students in the United States; by 1926 nearly four million. By 1927 approximately half of all children of high-school age were enrolled in either public or private schools.

Most of this expansion was at the taxpayer’s expense, for private secondary schools and academies reported an enrollment of a bare quarter of a million, about one sixteenth of the whole.

“In every country,” wrote Professor Edward A. Ross, “the national education has the outline of a lofty mountain, broad at the base and tapering upward into a peak. Now the peculiarity of American education is not breadth of base, for there are countries which are more successful than the United States in getting children into the public elementary schools. It is not height of peak, for American universities stand no higher than those of certain other countries. But it is breadth of education in the middle range—say from the seventh year of instruction to the twelfth—for nowhere else do so large a proportion of the children receive secondary education.”

The new American High School.

Higher education—the college, the university and the professional school—showed a proportionate increase comparable to that of the high school, but much less in absolute amount, for while secondary-school instruction reached half the population of its age group, higher education reached only about one in eight. The federal bureau of education, comparing American statistics with European, estimated in 1928 that both secondary and higher education were offered to almost as many students in the United States as in all the world besides, although the elementary schools of the nation included less than three tenths of the world’s pupils.

The expenditure on education in the United States aggregated about half the world’s total, and was estimated in 1925-1926 at $2,744,000,000. The total cost of the public primary and secondary schools doubled from 1913 to 1920 and doubled again from 1920 to 1926. Only this latter increase was, however, a real gain, for the rapid rise in prices during the war kept more than even pace with the enlarged school appropriations, and, in terms of price levels, the schools were actually poorer in 1920 than they had been five years before.*

* Thus the evidence from expenditure on schools agrees with the evidence from so many other indices of prosperity that the real economic advance of the American people was entirely an affair of the middle and later 1920’s, the war and reconstruction period being one of inflated prices but not of enhanced prosperity, except for a few fortunate individuals or classes. G. S. Counts, “Education,” Am. Journal of Sociology, XXXIV, 185.

One of the gravest consequences of this price inflation was the heavy blow struck at the salaries of the teaching profession. These salaries, usually fixed by law, responded slowly to the upward rush of commercial prices and wages. In purchasing power the average teacher’s earnings in 1920 were less than those of 1915 or even 1905. As the teacher’s pay slumped from the level of skilled to that of unskilled labor, teaching itself ran some danger of becoming an unskilled occupation, and might have done so, particularly in the case of new recruits to the profession, but for the gradual closing of the gap between teachers’ income and costs of living.


As late as 1924 it was asserted that only half the rural and village school teachers had even a high-school education. Rural teachers usually earned from seven to eight hundred dollars; in towns and cities pay tended to vary with the size of the municipality.

The median salary in 1926-1927 for elementary-school teachers in small towns (under five thousand) was $1169; for high-school teachers, $1542. In the largest cities elementary teachers averaged two thousand dollars a year and high-school teachers twenty-five hundred.

Rural education remained, on the whole, distinctly inferior to urban, and only about a third as many country children went to high school as did city children. In hardly any city was a grade-school teacher’s pay equal to the minimum standard of living as proclaimed by trade unions and social reformers.*

* In general the highest salaries were in the great cities and on the Pacific Coast and the lowest in the Cotton belt but as this was true of wages and salaries generally, it still left the teacher everywhere at a disadvantage by the standards of his own locality.

One natural effect of the inadequate salaries was to drive family men almost entirely from the ranks of the grade schools. As late as 1915 one public-school teacher in five was a man, taking elementary and secondary grades together; in 1920, when the economic condition of the profession was particularly bad, less than one in seven; in 1925, about one in six. Most of these men were city high-school teachers, administrative officers, or teachers of some specialty, such as manual training, in the grades.


Nearly everyone seemed to deplore in theory the “feminization” of the schools; but the only practical remedy, raising salaries to what a family man in the professional classes expects, would at least have doubled the salary budget, and even the most generous taxpayers did not desire to pay such a price to restore the balance of the sexes. There was a marked tendency towards equalizing pay as between men and women in the same grade and also towards reducing the former difference between elementary and high-school salaries.

Apart from the difficulty of securing well-trained teachers at a longshoreman’s wages, there was a most encouraging advance in educational standards. From 1915 to 1925—really from 1920 to 1925—the average number of days in the school session increased from 159 to 169 and the average attendance from 121 days to 136.

The number of one-room schools decreased by more than thirty-seven thousand from 1918 to 1926. This decline meant school consolidation, and was made possible by lavish public expenditure, amounting sometimes to over twenty million dollars a year, for the transportation of children from their scattered homes to large graded schools.

This is one of four, one room school houses abandoned when …
… this consolidated school was instituted.

Illiteracy decreased from 7.7 per cent in 1910 to 6.1 per cent in 1920 according to the decennial census, and the Southern states, where illiteracy was most common, made the most rapid progress in reducing it.

Though the foreign-born had the high illiteracy rate of thirteen per cent, so efficient were the school systems of the great cities where they congregated that the children of foreign parents had actually a lower illiteracy rate than white folk of native-born ancestry. As the oncoming generation was almost everywhere in school, such illiteracy as remained was largely among the older folk, a relic of past negligence.

There were many reasons for the enhanced cost of public education quite aside from the readjustment of salary schedules and the prolongation of the average period of schooling. Buildings and equipment were much more costly. The old-fashioned one-room “little red schoolhouse,” now so rapidly disappearing, was a cheap affair that any competent carpenter could put up. The modern school, a splendid structure of brick or concrete in several stories, was often better designed than the average college building.

School libraries and laboratories, auditoriums, gymnasiums, school theaters, swimming pools, playgrounds and athletic fields made the classroom the least costly part of the structure. The classroom itself, with its movable desks, wall blackboards, window boxes of flowers and reproductions of famous paintings on the walls, was not in the least like the plain little rooms of a previous generation.

The almost tripled high-school membership, in particular, necessitated the erection of new buildings and, because they were new, they had all the advantage of the latest theory in school construction.


In order to keep the overcrowded school plant in efficient full-time use, many large cities adopted the “platoon system,” sometimes called the “Gary system” after the Indiana city where it was first employed on a large scale. By this plan the pupils were divided into three groups, and while one group was using the classrooms another would be at work in the manual-training shops or on the playground or assembled in the auditorium.

William Wirt, who had fathered the scheme at Gary, was called by Mayor John Purroy Mitchel of New York City in 1914 to organize a similar system in the metropolis. The emphasis on manual training was disliked by some parents who wanted their children to rise in the world on the ladder of “book learning” and who listened sympathetically to the demagogic cry, “Rockefeller is stealing the schools,” voiced by the Hearst press and other opponents of Mayor Mitchel.*

* The General Education Board, a Rockefeller philanthropic enterprise, was offering financial aid to popularize the system.

Partly on the issue of opposition to the Gary system, John F. Hylan, the Tammany Hall candidate, defeated Mayor Mitchel in the election of 1917 and held office for eight years to the dismay of municipal reformers.*

* There were other factors in the Tammany victory. Mayor Mitchel, though a Catholic, had made enemies by exposing the mal-administration of some church charitable institutions which received public money; the Republican vote was split by an independent candidate, and the pacifists of all parties voted for Morris Hillquit, the Socialist, who polled an enormous vote, greater than that of any other Socialist candidate for any office in the history of the city. Hylan’s second election was secured by his struggle with the private transportation companies on the five-cent-fare issue. Under Mayor Walker, Tammany continued to rule New York for the remainder of the period.

In 1927, 115 cities had 740 schools on the platoon system and in thirty-four of these cities all the schools were so organized.


With the children themselves, the new emphasis on vocational training was very popular. “Boys bring repair work from their own homes; they study auto mechanics by working on an old Ford car; they design, draft, and make patterns for lathes and drill presses, the actual casting being done by a Middletown foundry; they have designed and constructed a house, doing all the architectural, carpentry, wiring, metal work and painting.”

Teachers of such special courses were usually better paid than those who taught the traditional academic branches. The necessary equipment of a kitchen in a “domestic-science” course for girls, or of a machine shop for boys, was much more expensive than the equipment necessary to teach Latin, mathematics or even elementary natural science.

Hence the diversification of the school curriculum added greatly to the school budget. The addition of doctors, nurses and physical-education directors or paid athletic coaches to the teaching staff also added to the obligations of the school.

There was constant pressure on school authorities, especially in the primary grades, to set aside certain hours for talks on fire prevention, the safe way to cross streets, the use of the toothbrush, the duty of keeping the street clean, kindness to animals, the virtues of milk and spinach as contrasted with the vices of pastry and sweet-meats, and many other worthy but too numerous causes.

Traditional courses in European history and American civics tended to yield place to vaguer courses on “world history,” “good citizenship,” “social problems” and various adumbrations of sociology for the youthful mind.

Changes so many and so rapid naturally provoked a conservative reaction, especially when hard times and high taxes hit the agricultural Middle West where school expenditure had been very lavish. “In Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and other neighboring states thousands of local school boards wiped out of existence their domestic science, manual training and physical education departments. ‘Back to the three R’s’ became the battle cry.”

The conservatives contended that the enrichment of the curriculum merely distracted attention from the essentials and that graduates of the elementary and even of the high-school grades were less well equipped for business life than their parents had been.


A partial answer to these contentions was supplied when one state superintendent gave examinations in spelling identical with those that had been in use several decades earlier and compared the new records with the old; he also arranged spelling bees between “stars” of the adult community and the children in his schools. Both tests were victories for the modern methods.

Some parts of the traditional curriculum stood out against the utilitarian spirit of the age with strange tenacity. Though Greek was rarely taught, Latin remained more prominent than any of the modern foreign languages in most high schools and its survival secured also as a consequence, the survival of many courses of ancient history. In a typical Mid-Western city, ten per cent of all student hours in the high schools were devoted to Latin, as against only two per cent to French and Spanish. German had hardly recovered from the effects of the temporary boycott of war time.

The rapid development of the junior high school and the spread of the junior-college idea broke up the traditional uniformity of the American public school. In 1914 most public-school systems included an eight-year elementary school and a four-year high school resting on top of it and not forming a separate educational approach like most European secondary schools.

Children kept together till about the sixth year of schooling and then began dropping out as family need or inability to meet school requirements or the temptation of an offered job might determine.

By 1928 many cities had shifted to the “six-three-three” plan, six years in the elementary school, three in the junior high school and three in the senior high school. But there were many other combinations. “Six-year elementary schools stand alongside seven-year elementary schools. We have three-year and two-year junior high schools . . . ‘regular’ four-year high schools and senior high schools. . . . The traditional four-year college is matched by new collegiate units of two years, three years, and six years.”


Federal aid to education was greatly extended, though each state maintained a completely autonomous school system, and the prolonged agitation for a separate secretaryship of education in the national cabinet did not achieve its aim. But much was done by subsidies shared between national and local funds.

The Smith-Lever act of 1914 provided for extension work in agriculture by cooperation between the department of agriculture and the land-grant colleges, and the more comprehensive Smith-Hughes act of 1917 established a federal board for vocational education and granted appropriations to aid work already locally undertaken in commercial, industrial and domestic-science vocational work as well as in agriculture.

Equal sums were contributed by the nation and by the states for the purpose. By 1926 federal aid in agriculture reached nearly one third of the rural high schools in the nation and in home economics over eight per cent of all high schools. The bureau of education, the children’s bureau and the departments of agriculture, labor and commerce proved useful sources of information to educators, business men and farmers.

The enormous expansion of secondary schools made possible a similar, though less striking, expansion ot colleges and universities. This increase was not at all regular. The war brought a temporary halt in 1917-1918, when many students of military age entered the army, but immediately afterward, in 1919 and 1920, the registration of most colleges and universities suddenly increased by half.


Between 1922 and 1924 there was another upward leap, followed by a period of more normal growth. From 1910 to 1920 the enrollment in institutions of higher education (excluding preparatory departments) rose from 266,654 to 462,445; in 1926 it reached 767,263. What would be the “saturation point”? Already collegiate attendance was about one eighth of the entire population between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one.

At least four or five times as large a proportion of American youth as of British, French or German were attending college. Of course this was a measure of quantity not of quality, as no one would pretend that all of the 975 colleges, universities and professional schools listed by the bureau of education ranked in academic merit with Germany’s modest score of historic universities.

Though nearly every endowed institution increased its fees, in many cases doubling the cost of tuition, this seemed to have no effect on registration. “Under present conditions,” wrote Arthur J. Klein in 1927, “the costs are not the decisive factor in determining whether students shall or shall not attend college.”

Higher educational standards had equally little visible effect, although entrance examinations were now supplemented in many cases by intelligence tests of the type made familiar by the army. The state universities were practically helpless under the flood, as they usually admitted directly from high school and it was the overflow from the high schools that was filling the colleges.

The endowed colleges and universities often used a “quota” method in stemming immigration, not unlike the policy adopted by the nation itself at the same period.

To apply too late for admission at such popular institutions as Yale, Princeton, Leland Stanford or Dartmouth was to be sent back to a waiting list. Particularly interesting was the Dartmouth plan of allowing a certain quota to each section of the country to insure against becoming a merely regional school.

One method of relieving overpressure on the four-year college was the establishment of junior colleges, offering no degree and giving only freshman and sophomore instruction. By 1927 one hundred and fifty-three junior colleges existed in thirty-one states. For economy’s sake such institutions were often housed with a large municipal high school, and their constant peril was that of sinking to be mere secondary continuation schools. On the other hand, they offered the advantage of a taste of higher education dissociated from the social perils of adolescence spent away from home.

Complementary to the junior-college movement was the concentration of some of the larger universities, notably Johns Hopkins and Chicago, on the junior and senior years of college work with a view to the eventual dropping of all freshman and sophomore work. Alumni influence was thrown against the change, not only as a departure from tradition but because the undergraduate years supplied nearly all the material for intercollegiate athletics.


Professional schools, also besieged by numbers, tended increasingly to become postgraduate or, at all events, to require two or three years of undergraduate preparation for entrance. Thus, in New York State, until the fall of 1924 the only law schools requiring pre-legal education were Columbia, Syracuse and Cornell. In 1924 Fordham and New York University law schools fell in line by adopting a one-year rule. The following year the University of Buffalo and the Brooklyn law school did likewise, and last year (1926) the Albany law school and the New York law school took the first step.

Kansas in 1921, Illinois in 1923, and several other states, including Ohio, West Virginia, Montana and Wisconsin, required two years of college work, some before beginning the study, others before the practice of law.

Medical and engineering training and the courses in education given by universities—as distinguished from the more elementary instruction in the normal schools—also became generally senior-college or graduate studies.

The so-called nonprofessional graduate schools, leading to the master’s or doctor’s degrees, provided essential professional training for ambitious teachers. More than ever before the best city high schools expected their new teachers to have a master’s degree, and most of the colleges demanded the doctorate of their young instructors, or took them on the understanding that the degree would later be obtained.

As the higher degrees became pedagogical necessities, the graduate schools became crowded with applicants who had little of the true spirit of research. A committee of the North Central Association issued in 1926 a significant word of warning: “. . . this crowding of the graduate schools has been so great as to raise some question as to the quality of the work done and the value of the degree. Certainly in some way the young, ambitious teacher should be protected as far as possible from spending his time and money in acquiring a graduate degree which will not be regarded favorably by his colleagues.”

The value of graduate instruction was discovered by the manufacturers as well as by the high schools and colleges. In Wisconsin before the war, the majority of those who received the doctorate in chemistry became teachers—from 1899 to 1919 only eight persons with that degree had entered industry. On the other hand, of one hundred and nine who received the degree from 1919 to 1928, fifty-six were in industrial work.


The first effect of America’s entrance into the war was to paralyze ordinary academic work while spurring into furious activity the technical courses of a military or semi-military character. The American University at Washington turned over practically its entire plant for training camps and chemical research work. Most other institutions kept their grounds and buildings, but gave the curriculum a war-time color.

Courses were launched in the chemistry of explosives, in radio and field telegraphy, in military engineering, ship construction, aviation, food conservation, nursing, practical gardening, in the history of the war and international politics.

Many students hurried away from the campus to enlist. In the liberal-arts colleges the loss of enrollment was about twenty per cent; in most of the professional schools it was still greater. The teaching of German decreased in two years by about forty per cent.

In 1918 the government organized in most of the important colleges and universities, units of a Students’ Army Training Corps, designed to give technical instruction which would fit students to become either field officers or experts in special branches of service—such as the medical corps, engineering and chemical warfare—before the draft, now lowered to the age of eighteen, brought them into the ranks.

The temporary transformation of the American college into a sort of officers’ training camp necessitated much difficult readjustment after the armistice. The purely military courses were abandoned, or lingered only as drill offered, usually on a voluntary basis, for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The faculty had to be reassembled from industrial plants, censorship offices, experimental munition laboratories, the Red Cross, the Y. M. C. A. and the advisory staff of the peace commission.

The students, in the majority of cases, resumed their interrupted classes, bringing with them a horde of newcomers: wounded veterans seizing the chance at a college education which the nation allowed them, farmers’ Sons riding on the crest of the brief wave of agricultural prosperity, young business men converted by the war into a belief in the commercial value of college training, high-school boys whose college entrance had been temporarily delayed by war conditions.

Lecture rooms that had been more than ample in 1916 offered scant standing room in 1919. Laboratory courses had to turn away students who could not be provided with desks. Quiz sections were offered to young graduate students with any sort of passable academic record.

The greatest, or at least most pressing, problems were all financial. Building costs had doubled and new construction had been patriotically postponed during the war. Nearly every institution in the country found itself in cramped, inadequate quarters and with insufficient funds on hand for the necessary new building.

All kinds of equipment, from lawn mowers on the campus to the current newspapers in the library, and all kinds of service, from the janitor in the basement to the stenographer in the president’s office, commanded a higher price. At the same time the increase in student enrollment necessitated new courses and a larger staff of instruction. The salary of the faculty had been virtually cut to half by the rise in the cost of living, and the universities shared the fear of the elementary and secondary schools of a “flight from the profession.”


Every endowed institution girded its loins for a campaign among its alumni for new gifts, using much the same methods of persuasive appeal found fruitful in the liberty-loan drives of the war. Every tax-supported institution besieged the legislatures for a more generous share in the public budget.

The generosity of the response from private donors and taxpayers alike was remarkable. A British report at the end of the war showed that private benefactions to universities and colleges in the United States were over twenty times as great as in the United Kingdom. Rockefeller and Carnegie found many imitators, and the wealth accumulated in tobacco, chocolate and cameras went as readily to educational purposes as the wealth formerly accumulated in oil or steel.

Milton S. Hershey, the “chocolate king,” donated in 1918 about sixty million dollars for the industrial education of orphan children. George Eastman, inventor of the Kodak, gave about fifty million to higher education, and made Rochester one of the richest institutions of the East. James B. Duke, tobacco manufacturer, expanded Trinity College, North Carolina, into Duke University and made it the wealthiest institution in the South.

At the beginning of 1929 the Rockefeller Foundation was merged with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (founded in 1918) to form a new corporation with assets of more than a quarter of a billion dollars, “by far the greatest sum which has ever been concentrated in a single philanthropic endowment fund.” Many new funds, such as the Commonwealth Fund and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, gave opportunity for scientific research and travel.

A score of universities and technological institutes raised their endowments beyond the ten-million mark. The state universities and agricultural colleges spent collectively in 1926-1927 over a hundred millions for maintenance and over twenty millions for new buildings.

Yet with all this enlargement of funds, the universities were much in the plight of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Through the Looking Glass who found that she had to run as fast as she could to stay in the same place. The expansion of numbers and the increase of costs absorbed the most munificent gifts and still left many serious inadequacies. For example, though the average salary of all ranks of instruction in three hundred and two liberal-arts colleges had risen from $1724 in 1914-1915 to $2958 in 1926-1927, yet the buying power of the latter was only about a hundred dollars more than the buying power of the former.

The increase of nearly thirty per cent from 1919-1920 to 1926-1927, however, was a real increase as it came at a time of falling prices and restored the losses of 1914-1920. In 1923 an investigation of the family budgets of half the married members of the University of California faculty (where salary scales were far above the national mean) showed that these families spent an average $900 for food, “a sum that passes everywhere just now as the cost of minimum food requirements for those living at a subsistence plus level,” that “two-thirds of the, husbands and one-half of the wives spent annually between $100 and $200 each for their personal wardrobes,” and that “ten per cent of these wives of professional men spent nothing for help in their housework. Fifteen per cent paid $25 or less during the year. . . . No family with a total expenditure below $6000 had a full-time resident help.”

The need for rapid expansion of educational facilities affected the American teacher unfavorably in several ways. It dispersed over new courses and a larger staff the funds that might have been used to raise the salary of the existing faculty, it made some presidents and trustees timid of offending wealthy givers and thus endangered academic freedom, and it imposed on the university or college an autocratic political structure.


Faculty control does very well under European conditions, where an anciently endowed institution has only routine administrative tasks and can devote its main energies to teaching and research. But where an institution is rapidly developing from a college of a few hundred to a university of ten thousand, where millions of dollars must be raised within three or four years, where a rigid classical curriculum is being rapidly broadened into an elective system which offers every imaginable course from aeronautics to cemetery planning, where the university is expected to serve a whole state with extension courses, correspondence work, loan libraries and agricultural demonstration stations, there is imperative need for an executive of the “captain-of-industry” type.

Under such conditions the president becomes a general manager responsible to a board of regents or trustees as “directors,” the deans are managers and division superintendents, the department heads are foremen, the rank and file of the teaching staff employees, the students are the raw material, and the alumni the manufactured product, bearing the “college stamp” and, too frequently, standardized on a single pattern.

Against this system many voices of protest were raised. J. McKeen Cattell, Thorstein Veblen, J. E. Kirkpatrick and many others of the “professoriat” advocated the establishment of a system of faculty control. The American Association of University Professors kept vigilant watch for local violations of academic liberty and its reports are the most accurate source book for that subject.

In the South the chief danger was the Fundamentalist attack on evolution which caused three states, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, to forbid the teaching of man’s animal ancestry in any tax-supported institution. In the North the attack shifted from the religious to the political and economic front, and internationalism, pacifism and all the shades of socialism were the chief quarries of the heresy hunters.

The indefatigable crusader Upton Sinclair attempted to show in The Goose Step (1923) that all the colleges and universities in the United States were bound hand and foot to capitalism. This thesis was at once exaggerated and inadequate—exaggerated because interference by wealthy donors or trustees was the exception, not the rule, and inadequate because such pressure was but one of many enemies to academic freedom.

Yet in the bag of chaff were several grains of truth. The shadow of wealth hoped for was a much greater danger than the substance of wealth given, for the latter was usually given with few conditions and spent without much deference to the opinions of the donors. John E. Kirkpatrick was dismissed in 1926 from Olivet College in Michigan on the avowed ground that his views on faculty control were displeasing to wealthy friends of the institution, though this degree of frankness was highly exceptional.


One of the most thoroughly investigated cases of the dismissal of an admittedly competent professor for his economic views was that of Louis Levine (Lewis Lorwin) at the University of Montana in 1919. At the request of the chancellor, he had prepared some studies of taxation. The conclusions reached favored heavier taxation of the copper-mining interests and the chancellor, fearing a political fight that would injure the university, forbade the publication of Dr. Levine’s findings and suspended him for insubordination when he refused to acquiesce. Prompt agitation of the case resulted in Professor Levine’s reinstatement by the state board of education.

The fear of “capitalist” influence led the University of ‘Wisconsin to refuse all further financial aid from private philanthropic foundations—perhaps an excessive scruple. It would be easy to match every such case as that of Professor Levine with a dozen where no principle at all was involved and dismissal came as the result of a purely local, personal or factional disagreement within the university.

The real menace to the independence of the teacher was not capitalism, but insecurity of tenure and the absence of a deeply rooted tradition of free speech.

There was a strong tendency towards educational innovation and experiment, resulting partly from the dislocation of accustomed methods by the war and the increased student load, partly from the desire to break away somehow from the “education-factory” standardization with which the universities were threatened.

Harvard University, as in all periods of American history, was one of the pioneers. Among the devices there tried were comprehensive final examinations for all seniors to test their mastery of an entire field of study, such as economics or literature; a large force of tutors to encourage independent reading outside the formal courses; and a period of term time without lectures to be entirely devoted to study and self-education.

Perhaps the most discussed innovation, and one which met with considerable criticism from students, was the construction of dormitory units within the university, not unlike the individual “colleges” inside Oxford or Cambridge.

Special independent work for honors, in which reading and consultation with the professor displaced in large part attendance at lectures or examinations in course, was found in many institutions, notably Columbia and Swarthmore. Independent work for honors was in part an approach to the English distinction between “pass” students who desired only a general cultural education and “honors” students with genuine scholarly interests and in part an attempt to break down the arbitrary slicing of the living unity of education into courses, “points” and “hours,” which had given to American higher education so mechanical an aspect.


On a small, what might almost be termed a laboratory, scale, some institutions dropped the lock step of courses altogether. President Hamilton Holt abolished the compulsory lecture system in Rollins College, Florida, and substituted conference work for the whole school.

Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College from 1912 to 1924, worked out a plan which merged the work of several departments into one comprehensive study of classical civilization and, after the trustees of Amherst had terminated his presidency, disliking his radical innovations as well as his financial management, President Glenn Frank of Wisconsin called him in 1926 to carry through the experiment there.

Since Wisconsin was too large a university to remodel its entire curriculum on the new plan, a special experimental college was created within the university and housed in a special dormitory. Bennington College for Women, Ashland College (Michigan), and several other small experimental groups for education by association and discussion rather than by formal instruction were significant new ventures at the end of the period.

The summer lectures by distinguished European statesmen at Williamstown, Massachusetts, afforded a type of advanced study in the realities of international politics to professors as well as to students.

Former President Eliot of Harvard shortly before his death referred to Antioch College as “the most interesting and perhaps the most important experiment now going on in the whole range of American education.”

A little college in Ohio, first directed by Horace Mann, Antioch was completely reorganized by President Arthur E. Morgan as an “in-and-out” combination of cultural college and industrial school. Students were encouraged to take five or six years to obtain the degree, but in the meantime they spent about half their time in actual industrial employment in neighboring cities. To hold down the job, two students would ordinarily go into partnership and alternate with each other between the college and the shop or factory.


Minor reforms and innovations were widely adopted throughout the land; for example, orientation and survey courses, such as the “contemporary civilization” course at Columbia; “new-type” examinations, which could be more objectively graded; and the sectioning of classes on the basis of ability.

Some critics charged that university, presidents thought more of heralding some striking new project or method than of soberly building up a strong teaching force in the traditional departments. See, for instance, W. B. Munro, “Quack-doctoring the Colleges,” Harper’s Mag., CLVII (1928), 478-482.

The most common complaint against the American college was neither the capitalistic conservatism of the trustees nor the pedagogical pedantry of the faculty, but the light-hearted carelessness of the students, who seemed apt, in the punning popular phrase, to interpret “college bred” as equivalent to a “four years’ loaf.”

As a matter of fact, the attitude of the student body was, on the whole, better than that of the preceding generation. Not only did there seem to be less drunkenness, but there was certainly less hazing and general riotousness. Standards of admission and graduation were almost everywhere more exacting than ever before—the heroes of George Fitch’s delightful “Siwash” stories might well have been dismissed from a postwar college in their first semester. Athletic contests were, on the whole, cleaner and less brutal and, though much more costly, were probably not more absorbing.

Yet there were undoubtedly some symptoms which might cause not unreasonable disquiet. Social life in coeducational institutions became yearly more feverishly intense. Dancing was a universal convention, and the formal balls, “proms” and “hops” became extremely expensive affairs. Campus organizations multiplied beyond all reason, some large universities containing several hundred clubs, associations and fraternities.


What with campus politics, social activities and athletics, the average student was content to keep up with the required reading in his courses and not venture on any independent reading above the level of the magazine stand. Debating fell on evil days and, except in a few colleges like Bates, was scorned and neglected. The literary societies and magazines, which two or three generations before had been the chief relaxation from the steady grind of study, now usually languished in poverty or ceased altogether.

The only types of publication that prospered were the daily or weekly news sheet, valued for information as to campus doings, and the monthly comic paper. Now and then would appear an “outlaw” paper, such as Challenge at Columbia in 1916 or G. D. Eaton’s Tempest which ran a brief career at Michigan, as the expression of a small knot of discontented students but such ventures rarely survived more than a year or two.

Aside from athletics, fraternity life and purely commercial journalism the only important student activity in most colleges was dramatics. In the staging and acting of plays, and occasionally in their authorship, American students displayed remarkable aptitude. Literary societies gave revivals of Elizabethan plays; classical clubs revived the Greek drama; modern-language societies presented French, German and Spanish comedies, often in the original; dramatic associations boldly undertook Ibsen, Molnar, Capek or Shaw; and there was often, in addition, a huge comic opera with elaborate costumes and topical hits.

In spite of the despotic reign of jazz, glee clubs, varsity bands and student orchestras were frequently capable of real music; and many students sketched admirably, the illustrations in the comic papers being as good as their jokes were feeble. Perhaps in the field of the drama and the fine arts, so greatly neglected by the “colleges of arts,” the American student was beginning to find a field of intellectual self-expression.


The unspoken questions of many parents found voice in an article by I. M. Rubinow, “The Revolt of a Middle-Aged Father,” who estimated the average annual cost of sending a student to college at fifteen hundred dollars a year to the parents, not to mention the social cost of supporting the institutions from philanthropy or taxation and the postponement of active business life for four critical years.

Even granting that students were not more idle or mischievous than formerly, their parents were paying more for their good times, and many more were paying. Could society endure the cost of burdening middle age so heavily for the pleasure of the younger generation? Various critics of the article concurred in thinking that fifteen hundred dollars a year was an overestimate or, at all events, applicable only to the more expensive institutions.

For the nation as a whole, eight hundred dollars a year seems closer to the average. Moreover, much of the expense was shouldered by the students themselves. The bureau of education ascertained that nearly half of the men and almost a quarter of the women students earned all or part of their own expense while in residence. Complete self-support was perhaps more rare than formerly, because only the exceptional student could carry a full schedule of classes and earn from six to twelve hundred dollars in leisure hours or during summer vacation.

One asset of the larger American universities was the considerable attendance of foreign students who flocked to the United States in even greater numbers than the Americans who had gone to German institutions a generation earlier. The Institute of International Education found in 1923-1924 nearly seven thousand foreign students in four hundred American institutions.

A very large proportion were Orientals. In a single institution within a brief period there was an Egyptian, a Chinese and a Japanese on the football squad, a Filipino captain of the swimming team, and an East Indian captain of the polo team.

European students often came to the United States on traveling fellowships. American postgraduate work was considered by many critics as superior to that in Europe, while the undergraduate work was often inferior.

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