Just as Woodrow Wilson remarked some years ago while addressing an audience of educators, in college the side shows have crowded out the main circus, and the varied undergraduate activities, to be sure both "active and interesting," are attracting the main body of students. The number of men who come to college with the intention of pursuing scholarship as their chief interest from the start of their academic career is lamentably small, for young men realize that at present the activities of the scholar are not attended with band playing or cheering. Almost unnoticed and unknown the man who devotes himself primarily to the cause of scholarship labors incessantly for four years and finally receives graduation honors. To him this official stamp of success is his reward. Yet, in spite of the fact that the undergraduate scholar of his own accord chooses this career which he knows receives small recognition from his fellows, when he may be quite able to win high distinction in the so-called "outside interests and activities," he is dubbed a narrow-minded, self-seeking "grind," who seeks to take all from and give nothing to his University.
This is the greatest of undergraduate delusions. In the first place, Harvard University exists now and for all time to disseminate learning and to increase the fund of scholarship. Hence all efforts to raise the standard of scholarship of this University are worthy of the highest praise, for they perpetuate Harvard as an institution of learning and maintain her in her leadership of American universities. So the devotion of any undergraduate to the cause of scholarship does not in itself signify that he is a narrow-minded, parasitic, and incapable being. Furthermore, it is claimed that the undergraduate scholars work solely for grades and that they are not truly interested in scholarly endeavor. Such a contention is not true. Of course marks stand as an index of proficiency in scholarship, and naturally if a man is striving to attain a high standard, he will ipso facto receive high grades. But the high grades are not the sole aim and object of his work. When a candidate for a paper or, an athletic team reports, he is not prompted by any feeling of altruism, but is out to do his best to gain a position on an editorial board or to win the insignia of a team. The editorial position or the letter represent his proficiency in the line of work he pursues. Similarly the undergraduate scholar is ambitions to distinguish himself in scholarship and is cager to win the mark of proficiency in his field as is the athlete. The facts of the matter are that both are striving for excellence in their respective fields, and for excellence as measured by the standards set in those fields.
Why the athlete receives all the cheering and praise and the undergraduate scholar none, is a moot question. Yet one answer may be suggested. A group of sturdy college athletes can play a game of football as well as it ever can be played. On the other hand, it is highly ridiculous to compare for an instant the theses or examinations of undergraduate scholars with the productions of famous scholars and professors. The crux of the question is this: the college man is just about in his prime physically and can performs athletic feats as well as they can be done; the undergraduate scholar, on the contrary, is just beginning to ripen intellectually and does not attain his full mental development until many years after graduation. Hence undergraduates and the public are not interested in puerile performances, which represent only training for higher things, whereas they are intensely interested, in athletic performances that cannot be bettered.
But here again the old question of the primary purpose of a university arises. An institution of learning exists to train minds for future usefulness, and all efforts conducive to the most complete fulfillment of this purpose promote more than anything else the welfare of the university. Hence the highest praise is due to undergraduate scholars who are willing to forego the praise and emulation of their fellow students and often suffer under terms of opprobrium in order to further the real purpose of their college and to prepare themselves to extend its influence in the future. So to the men, who after two and three years of great exertion and hard, earnest work have distinguished themselves as the leading scholars of Harvard College, we extend our heartiest congratulations upon their election to Phi Beta Kappa.