THERE has lately been much discussion in student circles about that characteristic of Harvard undergraduates which we choose to call "indifference," - a term which is often used for laziness in very much the same way as, in the circles of outer darkness, "financial irregularity" is used for fraud. This indifference - to keep the more general term - is usually supposed to result from a precocious and unerring insight into the realities of things, and a moral and intellectual nature of too high a "tone" to take any interest in the vulgar and short-sighted struggles of the external world. The Harvard student is popularly supposed to be a handsome, well-dressed, and particularly self-indulgent Fakir. Like Lady Teazle, I admit all the rest, but beg leave most emphatically to deny the Fakir; and would earnestly question whether this indifference be not the result of our now superficial ideas and lack of special application. It is also true that, as we have some acquaintance with that life of polished dissipation and fruitless travel which we are pleased to consider "the world" our estimate of the real world, as we argue from a part to the whole, may naturally be of a peculiarly fallacious and depreciative character. Briefly, are we not indifferent from superficial thought, and superficial from desultory attention, divided energy, want of definite purpose, and laziness? A laziness fostered, it is true, by a little dilettante culture, and a great deal of affected disapproval of everything which is now done or though by ourselves or others.
It is a universal law that in all progress the development is from a homogeneous simplicity of construction to a heterogeneous complexity. Applying this to the evolution of an intellectual society, it is evident that, with the march of enlightenment, thinkers must both become more trained in mind and more specially and diversely educated. The place of the general lawyer is now filled by the marine lawyer, the criminal lawyer, the trust lawyer, and many others. But the growth of Harvard within the last few years has been rather to discourage special attention to any one study, and to tempt the student to rapidly glance over a large portion of the surface-outlines of human thought. A Harvard undergraduate is not yet sufficiently differentiated in mind to be adapted for any one profession or science in the organism of intellectual society; and therefore has not that enthusiasm - always more or less narrow-minded - for any subject, which is the result of exclusive attention and concentrated desire to excel. Our elective and lecture systems, our evening readings, present so many branches of study in such varied and attractive forms, that we are tempted to sip the sweets of various flowers, and leave any of them the moment when the taste becomes less pleasant or the appetite is cloyed. Hence this prevailing superficialness; the vast majority of students will choose "soft" or entertaining courses, which have little or no connection one with the other; while the readings and lectures, like all royal roads to learning, disgust one with the steeps of close study and independent thought.
And yet this indifference is the necessary, though temporary evil - if it be an evil - which attends the growth of our old College into a modern University; and is both the evanescent result and the prerequisite of modern modes of thought. From this general and comparative view of history, philosophy, science, and language, springs that broad, dynamic method, which considers things both in their past, their future, and their relations with coexistent things; a method which narrow-minded specialists have so often and so falsely termed atheistic or utilitarian, but which embodies and necessitates the highest possible conception of a God.
Is this a contradiction? Truly, so far as our present indifference involves laziness, or represses independent thought, it is reprehensible. But these faults conquered, - and experience shows that, as soon as our students go into actual special study, this is the case, - our methods of thought and study are precisely right for an academic course. Superficiality in one study becomes general culture when extended to all, general culture gives the only sound data for induction, generalization, abstraction, - the highest processes of thought. The object of a college is not that of a machine-shop; it does not fit a man directly for active life, but for broad and right modes of thought. To specialize or differentiate is the object of a post-graduate course, or a professional school. Modern induction requires the eye of the thinker to have a broad range, - college teaches us to see widely; then, properly, should begin that special investigation which is to turn our inert comparison and Fakir-like contemplation into the enthusiastic pursuit of that knowledge for which our collegiate course has shown us best fitted, - the Professional Schools teach us to see deeply.
A Western enthusiast would liken our temporary passivity to the falcon's poise in the air before his unerring swoop; a Harvard indifferentist rejects - the simile.
F. J. S.