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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1890 Letter

Joseph D. Ibbotson

Delivered: June 1940

The annalist for the Class of 1890 was asked by some of his classmates to depart from the usual procedure in order to bring together the views of the class on college education and the College as it was 50 years ago. More than half of the men in our class have been engaged in educational work; others have followed the changes in higher education during the past half-century; all are concerned for the welfare of Hamilton. It was believed that their opinions might not be devoid of interest.

The annalist is therefore a reporter who does not venture to present his own judgments but rather a composite picture of the opinions of the class.

First of all, it is necessary to look at the College as it was in our day, with some glimpses of present conditions.

When we entered Hamilton in the fall of 1886, the College required for admission three years of Greek, four years of Latin, algebra, geometry, history, English composition and grammar. The curriculum required the completion of two years of Greek and of Latin, mathematics through analytical geometry, elementary courses in French, German, English, physics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, political science, economics, ethics, religion, public speaking, composition and debate. Electives were offered in the languages, mathematics, English literature, history, political science, philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy and geology. The traditional curriculum, which resembled that of most of the colleges of the day, was designed to discipline the mind and to give an introduction to subjects considered most important. It definitely achieved the first of these objectives, with its emphasis on studies that demanded close application and the exercise of the reason. Though it had broken with tradition so far as to permit electives in the upperclass years, it was still too rigid. It seems to have been constructed on the assumption that we were all to be fashioned in one mould.

Perhaps the curriculum was in a transitional stage. It was scrappy and ragged. It gave an elementary introduction to a large number of subjects, with little opportunity to go beyond the elements.

Education in the classical languages, at its best, is the study of great literature, and through that the study of history and politics, of philosophy and the fine arts; an attempt to get directly from the originals the great cultural and intellectual heritage of the classical civilization. Few of us gained this reward for the many hours of work, which we devoted to the ancient languages; few felt the power and beauty of Greek and Latin poetry. The study was chiefly grammatical. The authors were approached as if they had lived in a vacuum. The history, philosophy, art and culture of the ancient world were neglected. Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Catullus were not in the curriculum. The present extended courses in the classics include these writers, and with books, photographs and colored reproductions of ancient art, bring to the student a survey of the culture of the ancient world.

It has often been assumed that the sciences are outside the domain of the humanities. This we emphatically deny. The life of the individual, the relations of man in society and the movements of civilization are more and more being determined by the achievements of the scientists. And some understanding of the scientific method is an essential part of the equipment of the educated man.

Fifty years ago the curriculum gave relatively less attention to science than it did in the earliest days of the College. Physics and geology were one-term courses. Only in chemistry and mineralogy was laboratory work offered and there with meager facilities. In contrast, the members of the Class of 1940 had the opportunity to take four or five year courses in any of the sciences in which they were interested, in modern, well-equipped laboratories, under the personal guidance of stimulating teachers.

Most of the other departments have been similarly expanded and enriched during the recent years. The fine arts have begun to receive their proper recognition. The masters of music and painting were known to us merely by name, if at all. Now they are known by their works.

During our freshman year the College library was open only on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the traditional half holidays, under the charge of juniors. The books were neither classified nor catalogued. Browsing through the wide alcoves, the bookish student might enjoy the pleasures of the chase, while the debater made his way to the corner where bound periodicals were assembled with Poole’s Index as his guide. We cannot recall that any member of the faculty ever sent us to the library until Dr. Terrett surprised us with such a requirement in our senior year. In 1887 a beginning had been made with the classification and cataloguing of the books, and the hours of opening were extended to seven daily, but the library was still but little used. In our senior year, students and faculty drew out some 1,200 books; last year, more than 30,000.

A large part of the College work now centers in the library. In many of the courses, students are sent there to read books reserved for their use: they are required to write reports and papers for the preparation of which the library must be used: and they find encouragement for independent reading in the Browsing Room and the open stacks crowded with 185,000 volumes.

The physical well-being of the student is no longer neglected. Mens sana to be sure; but the rest of it is not to be ignored. As we look through the gymnasium, we recalled the small barn like wooden structure with its trapeze and bowling alley, for which we, without guidance, could find little profitable use. Now under the tutelage of four members of the faculty who gave all their time to the health of the boys, skill is acquired in games which may be kept up after graduation.

The comparisons in which we have been indulging are not intended to cast reflections upon the Hamilton of 50 years ago. In the later 1880s the College was poorly endowed and burdened with debt. But there were men in the faculty who, by their personality and scholarship and character, profoundly influenced the students. No one can ever forget those conversations with “Square Root” in his home or under the trees of that lovely garden where the boys were invited to stroll; the intimate hours by the fireside in Brandt’s home, when the girls who were members of the German Club had departed and the pickle jar had been passed around and the professor whom we had once feared in the classroom became a very human friend. Terrett, to whom we gave the name of “Bill Nye” by which he was affectionately known to later generations of students, came only in our senior year, but his qualities as scholar, teacher and friend were straightway recognized. And there was another, whose greatness was already a tradition, who by his scientific discoveries had carried the name of Hamilton College across five continents. To most of us he was a legendary figure. Some of us were too dull to recognize his distinction as a man, his modesty, his kindliness, his ability to inspire. But now we like to think of Christian Henry Frederick Peters as one of us; for it was only a few days after our own Commencement that he closed the door of his observatory for the last time to take his place among the immortals.

Among the most stimulating experiences of College days were the intimate relations with fellow students, the discussions in the dormitory or fraternity house, the contact of mind with mind. As to the courses of instruction, there is general agreement in regard to the modern languages. Building on them, we found continual satisfaction as well as indispensable values for our professional work.

Members of the class venture to offer suggestions in regard to the curriculum. Opportunity should be given for the study of sociology, and a larger place should be made for psychology. We question the inclusion of any professional courses in the curriculum. Is it not the responsibility of the College to lay broad foundations for graduate study of all the professions rather than to undertake to prepare students for the practice of any, even just one? Therefore we believe that, if the schools required professional training for teachers, those who wish to teach should not seek such preparation in college but in the graduate school.

An interesting proposal comes from one who has gained wide recognition in his profession.

The College might offer short, extracurricular courses, purely cultural, dealing with the historical, theoretical and scientific background of the major professions, including engineering and business. The proposed extracurricular activities would be accomplished by bringing serious students into a close personal contact as might be feasible with successful alumni engaged in these various professions, not with the object of luring them into particular vocations but to give them some perception of the history, background and problems for the professions. For this purpose the trustees might authorize the formation of a ‘Reserve Faculty,’ which would include alumni who were acceptable to the president. The reservists would be subject to invitation by the president to hold short time conferences at the College. These conferences would take the form of colloquia or lectures of a very informal character, or such other form as the reservist might desire, subject, of course, to the approval of the president. Since an appointment to the ‘reserve faculty’ would be a distinct recognition of outstanding ability and loyalty to the College, there should be no difficulty in getting the men.

Another stated the general opinion when he wrote:

With rare exceptions, college boys cannot be educated men when they graduate. Education cannot be imparted. It may be acquired only by the individual’s hard work through years of application. The teacher can show where the tools are, in the library and laboratory, can show how to use them, and above all can stimulate the desire of the youth to use such tools and never to be satisfied till he has found the final answer. It is primarily in stimulating the desire to learn that real teaching lies. The only hope for the small college is in securing a little group of broad-minded, broadly cultivated teachers, who like youth, and know how to encourage and stimulate youth.

This leads up to the question of the size of the College, in which we are all interested. We are satisfied with the present limitation in the enrollment. We are convinced that Hamilton should not attempt to enlarge its numbers until adequate funds for expansion have been obtained. It should first provide such salaries as will attract to the faculty the ablest teachers, and it should make sure that the equipment of every kind is such as to satisfy such teachers. Especially should it make provision for the maintenance and enrichment of the library, which bears an increasingly heavy responsibility in modern college education.

It has been said that the high school must convey the subject matter of its studies chiefly as information to be accepted, while the college should present its materials as the object of critical examination, as phenomena the causes and relations of which are to be discovered. The college, then, cannot be satisfied with the “cistern theory” of education, the notion that youthful minds should be filled with facts and beliefs, should be conditioned to accept traditional opinion. That is the method of the dictatorships. They are busily engaged in conditioning the minds of their youth to accept the dictates of authority. For our democracy, the only safety lies in the practice of democracy in the field of higher education, but developing in the student the capacity to think, to reason, to find his way through the clamor of conflicting opinions and theories to sound convictions. With this in view, the college must educate the youth to analyze his impulses and fears, to control his emotions and to think clearly.

We are confident that the College is on the way to accomplish the art, doubtless vastly more difficult than it was a generation ago, of training its students in the exercise of self-discipline and of imparting to them a strong sense of personal responsibility.

In summary, the class believes that a college course should enable the student to acquire these definite benefits:

• A developed curiosity, so that the mind will not be closed to new ideas and situations, but will be an inquiring mind, capable of continual growth.

• A background of the past, historical, literary, cultural, for personal satisfactions and for the better understanding of the present.

• An awareness of the problems of our own time in the arts, in public life and in society.

• Some knowledge of the method of science and of philosophy.

• Capacity to think things through and to reach independent judgments.

• Ability to practice self-discipline and to assume personal responsibility.

• The realization that man does not live by bread alone; that the sources of permanent satisfaction are within; that the enduring values are moral and spiritual.