When Henry David Thoreau was jailed because he objected to paying taxes, his friend Emerson came and stood outside the bars. "Henry," he demanded, sadly, "why are you there?" "Waldo," returned the prisoner accusingly, "why aren't you here?" This attitude of non-conformity per se is reflected in the opinions of Dr. A. Herbert Gray, a well known Scottish clergyman, who has contributed an article to a current number of the "intercollegian."
Dr. Gray deplores the absolute lack of a spirit of question and revolt in the mind of the average American college student. Charming he finds them, and quick witted, but intellectually docile. They seem to be conscious conformists, utterly without that fierce sense of mental rebellion and the desire for intellectual freedom that characterizes the youth of Europe. They appear to be destitute of originality, and to be quite willing to subscribe whole-heartedly to the outworn theories of the older generation.
Dr. Gray, in stating that American colleges have not been subjected to the rending forces that have torn intellectual Europe, is undeniably correct; but he does not carry his proposition through to its logical conclusion. The resentment at things as they are and the desperate desire for freedom from constraint, which to his mind make the attitude of the European student more promising than the unquestioning conformity of the young American, are induced by a set of most abnormal conditions, and must therefor partake somewhat of abnormality themselves. Realizing that conditions in Europe are far from healthy, Dr. Gray assumed the existance of a similar situation in America, and, naturally enough, deplores the lack of revolt against it on the part of college students. He forgets that, taken all in all, the average American is well satisfied with his condition, that America has few problems compared with those of Europe, and that the absence of a radical party is only one more indication of general prosperity and content throughout the country as well as in the colleges. One reason that the American student shows less of the spirit of question and revolt than his European cousin is that he sees less to question and attack.
It is easy to explain differences between European and American students on these grounds; there is compensation for all things and the attitude of the European student loses some of its attractiveness when it is realized as the corollary of unstable and unhealthy conditions. But Dr. Gray has raised a problem. If prosperity and content lead to enfeebled intellects, if education is not great enough to force upon the mind of students the problems of wrong and un-justice that remain, America is following the primrose path to ruin.
Like foreign observers and critics of all countries in a strange land, Dr. Gray seems to have carried away an impression of the thing that struck him as unusual. There will be many who will feel that he has failed to look beyond the surface. But the fundamental criticism, which has been brought by others as well as Dr. Gray, remains a very real indictment. American universities supported by the state and philanthropic individuals, must answer this charge if they wish to maintain their right of existence. American students must answer if they wish to justify their right to a college education.