The fatal mistake is this: an attempt has been made to graft the German elective system upon the American high-school system of marks.
The marks were possible and useful under the old method of required studies; they are absolutely impossible under the new method of electives.
The two cannot exist together, for the marks defeat the very object of the electives. If a foreign system of education be imported, the machinery that makes its working possible must be imported too.
When the public hear that a student stands high in his class at Harvard, the public applaud; but we who have been made acquainted, know better what it means. It means that being a person of ability and application in the first place, he has likewise been fortunate in the choice of "soft" electives and - pardon the expression - "soft" instruction.
Genius - or, better, patience - may triumph over the evils of unfair marks, but it more often suffers from them; and all the genius of a Newton could not obtain ninety per cent when an instructor never gives over seventy. The result is natural. Ambition to stand well yields to the temptation to choose "soft" though unprofitable courses.
The German student, on the other hand, is hampered by no marks, no routine, no surveillance, no compulsory recitations; he is not treated like a school-boy, and hence does not behave like one. He cannot calculate what per cent he must obtain in order to scrape through. He must either leave or drop out, either succeed or fail. Hence he does not "cram" for an examination with matter which he will throw away afterward, but studies with a view to permanent results. In short, he is free to be what his own talents and energy may make him. The result is known. It has made a knowledge of the German language indispensable to men of letters. It will be many years before Harvard can have a system like the German, with its gymnasia, that send forth men fully trained for a higher education, and its professors, who mould the thought of the civilized world, it will be eternity, if Harvard continues in its present ruts.
The first objection to this method that suggests itself is that it would give no way of advancing the classes. We reply that examination would answer every purpose, - not such examination as we have at present, nor, indeed, the exaggerated English system; but a system which should combine the present method and the English thoroughness and fairness, which should announce merely failure, success, or excellence, and not parade results before the public in a deceitful rank-list.
The second objection, and the chief one with instructors, is that scholarships could not be assigned. It is a delicate matter to tell a student that he is unfit for a scholarship when his rank is not based on definite marks. In other words, a false and injurious method is to be maintained, because, forsooth, instructors are afraid to speak the truth unless it is shielded in a specious disguise. It is strange that they do not see that it is all the same, whether they tell a student outright, or mark him and then tell him. However, special examinations for scholarships might be instituted.
The third objection is that Commencement Parts could not be assigned; and this seems insurmountable. But what if Commencement Parts were not assigned? Would much be lost? Under the present method those who are most capable of offering interesting parts often fail to attain them through their devotion to difficult courses. But if exercises at Commencement must be had, would not treatises in different branches by students who have won distinction therein be more interesting than the present exercises? Indeed, they could not well be less so.
It may be urged that it would be fatal to do away with distinction and rank; but the proposed system would not do away with it. Special examinations for honors could be held, as at present, and they would become the only, as they are the best, way of conferring distinction.
It has been said that universities are the last places into which reform penetrates; but we feel that there is a tendency in the right direction here. If the German system were adopted, Harvard would no longer train up hot-house scholars, but men who would put forth their best energies, not for marks, but to assimilate their studies.
Says Wolf, "They study ill who study for examination; well, who study for themselves and for life." Under the German system it would be no longer true that distinctions conferred by the students are more prized than those conferred by the college. It would be no longer true that the most successful men in after life are not those who have been most successful during their college career. To discourage a spirit of ungenerous rivalry and to curb the impatience of a morbid ambition, is the noblest work of the higher education. This work Harvard not only does not advance, but even retards.
Would we, then, have the entire German system? We answer, No. We would not have the German system, nor the English, nor the so-called American. We would not have the German lack of moral control, nor the English "cram" and conservatism and absurd mediaeval customs, nor the American routine. But we would have the German liberality, the English manners, and the American customs. We would have a system which, while it avoided the evils, should combine the advantages of all.