Problem of College Preparatoy Student is Not the Entire Question in Secondary Education, Says Smith in Article

The following article in the Crimson series of studies in secondary schools was written by Howard T. Smith, Executive Secretary of the Secondary Education Board.

In the problem of transition from secondary school to college doubtless the most important element is the adjustment of the individual to a new environment, a different routine, and in most cases a greater freedom of decision and action. The latter is likely to be regarded as a liberation from a more restricted past rather than as an opportunity and a responsibility for a permanently satisfying future. I would emphasize this the more because I have neither space nor qualification to elaborate upon it. My contribution to the discussion is better confined to another element, the relation between the curriculum of secondary and of higher education, which I believe to be a consideration second only to the personal equation.

During the past two years I have been associated with some fifty teachers and administrators engaged in a study of the aims and the curricula of secondary education. Although the majority of this group are members of faculties of secondary schools, representatives of elementary and of higher education are also participating. I write with this background; but any opinions which I venture to express are personal and do not involved my colleagues in the present project of the Secondary Education Board.

Much as we rightly insist that the needs of the individual should be paramount in education, a system is unavoidable if we are to deal with large numbers. There is some justification for dividing formal education into different periods or levels; but it must be borne in mind that there are no exact boundaries traced for each by nature. For convenience we set arbitrary division points; in reality the levels are separated by twilight zones which vary in extent with individual development. For this reason, if for no other, cooperation between those responsible for successive levels is most important, as has already been pointed out in the discussion conducted by the CRIMSON.

We cannot approach the subject of secondary education simply from the viewpoint of preparation for college. Indeed secondary schools are often criticized because they degenerate into cramming institutions for entrance examinations. Rather the secondary period should afford the pupil an opportunity during the early years to discover under guidance his particular aptitudes, to acquire such a factual knowledge as is essential for his future development, to gain some acquaintance and initial facility with the tools of learning. Intelligent thinking requires imagination and a capacity for abstract reasoning; but it is no less nobly based on ability to command or to discover facts, to evaluate them, and to perceive their relations.


Teachers' Problem

It may be urged that in the very process of improving the opportunities which the secondary school places before him the student will master the fundamentals of sufficient subject fields to make him actually prepared for college. But the college naturally does not leave this to chance or theory. The college does not wish and is not equipped to do secondary school work. The candidate must prove his attainment through the content of the subject. Difficulty arises from the circumstance that we are so highly departmentalized both in school and in college. It is not always easy for the secondary teacher to remember that he is teaching whole boys and girls, not subjects! The college teacher, in deciding where the division shall be made between secondary and collegiate work in his department, may not be keenly aware of the problems of secondary teaching in this very field, much less of the relations between the several fields represented in the curriculum of the secondary school. Probably everyone will agree that specialization,--the only answer which the adult mind can make to the complexity and range of modern civilization,--has no place in the secondary school. But it is less easy to agree on what constitutes specialization in this or that subject field.

Two Periods

Without attempting to discuss the details of the curriculum study to which I have referred, I will only remark that we have first considered a six-year secondary curriculum sub-divided into two period characterized by somewhat different trends. The first three years are exploratory. The pupil is brought into touch with all the major fields of learning; but his attention is not confined to the acquisition of facts and disciplines to the neglect of the appreciative side of his personality. During the later years there is a gradual change of emphasis. The pupil has been led to try himself out in different subjects, to attack similar and diverse problems in different media. The teacher has had an opportunity to study the pupil. It is too early for specialization, but not too early to seek more coherence and purpose in the individual's program than commonly obtains, to make the last three years less a collection of courses for Old Plan points or New Plan finals and more a consistent and progressive plan, guarded for breadth but related to the interests and aptitudes which have been revealed during the exploratory years.

Last Three Years

I am convinced that the detailed college entrance requirements should not operate to hamper or restrict the first three years of the secondary course. The term "exploratory" is not to connote superficiality; the secondary school should be as interested as the college in thoroughness and quality. During the last three years there is especial need for mutual understanding between secondary school and college. In my opinion this is a concern of departmental faculties as much as of headmasters, deans, and chairmen of committees on admission. These closing years of the secondary period should afford opportunity for concentration of the individual's courses about a core-curriculum reflecting his particular needs and aspiration. This does not mean free election nor radical restriction of the total number of courses. A reduction of one or possibly of two courses out of the fifteen carried in some schools (several even now have no more than thirteen) would afford sufficient hours for all the concentration that is desirable. It is much more a matter of organization of material within subject fields and of attitude on the part of teacher and pupil.

Not Specialist

In certain subjects, such as the languages, achievement is inherently cumulative. If the necessary structural elements are mastered in the early years, continued practice and broadening of vocabulary brings added power for those who have capacity for linguistic study. In other instances, where we have been accustomed to think in terms of different divisions,--Algebra, Geometry, or Physics, Biology,--there must be more conscious effort to bring out the common elements and underlying principles and to establish continuity between courses in the same field. Again, even with a homogenous group of student in a course of concentration the instructor must not assume the attitude of the specialist. He is teaching for mastery; but he is not endeavoring to develop mathematical prodigies nor biological experts nor classical scholars. He is utilizing the educative values inherent in his subject as stimuli to the increase of intellectual power. He is not making technical details an end in themselves, but is guiding the pupils in the discovery and re-discovery of principles which recur in different aspects and in other connections. Finally, as opportunity presents itself, he directs attention to points of contact with other subject fields and enables his pupils to perceive through concrete examples the relation between the different departments of learning. Concentration will be impossible without continuity; it will be out of proportion unless correlation be maintained between subject fields.

College Interest

If the objectives which I have mentioned are worth realizing,--and I believe this to be the case for the prospective college Freshman as well as for his non-academic classmate,--the attitude and interest of the college are of great importance at this juncture. There is need for earlier identification of those pupils who will probably profit by the type of training offered by the college, of greater flexibility in the arrangement of their programs of study for this period, of such cooperation that the last two years of the secondary course and the freshman year in college may be viewed together and planned as successive sections of a whole that is consistent, though subject to modification by the selection of alternatives.

These suggestions are not especially novel, if we consider their bearing upon present, methods of admission to college and organization of the first-year curriculum. I am not concerned with the detailed requirements in any subject field nor would I ascribe superior value to any particular type of test or entrance examination. We need the evidence of the essay type as well as that of the more recent objective test. It takes more than one instrument to ascertain not only what a candidate knows and what mental capacity he has, but also to what extent he will use his knowledge and ability. The importance of the school record, which consists of both subjective and objective elements., is unquestionable. In fact it seems to me that the principle of the New Plan (plan B), which includes all this, is eminently sound; the spirit of that Plan needs to be extended in its application.

Different Opinions

Although every college desires that its prospective students lay the proper foundation for advanced work, opinions differ as to the educative values to be derived from the several subjects during the secondary period. A smaller institution may find it advisable to set up more restricted prerequisites in order that there may be less range in the type of preparation which its students shall have received. The larger college has facilities to serve students of widely differing tastes and interests, provided that they possess certain common fundamentals and are equipped to do work of high quality. Similarly preparatory schools in their own requirements will differ in the emphasis which they place upon certain subjects. This amount of variation seems to me highly desirable and not inimical to the interests of the college. Beyond those sources which provide the factual basis for higher education. I believe reasonable alternative should be presented. It may be agreed that the claims of English as the mother tongue are paramount from every point of view. As to the other courses which the student will select probably not more than three others during each of the last two years,--both school and colleges are interested in an intelligent choice group about a major of concentration. Even if a college confers only a single degree, its experience may lead to the designation of certain courses as prerequisites to corresponding major curricula in college. Again a college may offer special advantages to those candidates whose secondary work has been carried to a more advanced stage in specific fields. Such seem to me positive considerations looking toward the individual's future rather than arbitrary regulations, which even though they, reach beyond the recognized fundamentals must be met by all candidates for college, of whatever aptitudes and intellectual interests.


If there were any danger that further cooperation between pupil, school, and college would eliminate the difference in environment and attitude which distinguishes the college from the secondary school it would be detrimental. The positive value of such a change of viewpoint and mental "set" for the pupil is obvious. But we could eliminate this effect of the transition if we would. I believe that its benefits will be retained and some of its no less recognized difficulties, lessened if in matters curricular the relation between the last two years in the secondary school and the first years in college is more consciously in mind. This again is in the trend of the New Plan.

In the larger schools there is opportunity in many field for "Honor Sections" composed of boys who show special ability either in general or in a particular direction. These pupils surely have covered the minimum essentials necessary as a basis for college entrance before the end of their course. Let them qualify in a preliminary way for college entrance on the basis of their school record and by taking some or all of their examinations at the end of the year before graduation. Then let their courses for the last year be arranged with some regard for the alternatives open to them in their freshman year. Such further examinations as might be desired at the end of the secondary period would be for these boys a means of determining placement in freshman courses, exemption from courses otherwise required, admission to more advanced or "honors" courses in college. A guarded experiment in this direction might throw light upon other measures designed for candidates of average rather than superior qualifications.

Limited Circle

Unless a college draws from a very limited circle of preparatory schools or limits its enrollment to the notably superior student, several subject fields will need to avoid rigidity in the arrangement of courses for first-year students. The point may be illustrated by reference to the mooted question of linguistics in the curriculum of the secondary school. By nature and profession I am disposed to maintain the educative values in this branch of study although I recognize that there is a certain type mind which is not so constituted as to profit largely by these values. But I am speaking here of the student of average ability in this department. Such an individual can hardly develop oral command of a foreign tongue, aside from the stereotyped phrases of classroom and textbook, in the time that is reasonably available for the study and practice of language in the secondary curriculum. (It is another matter with the student who is exceptionally gifted linguistically or who is in contact with the language outside of the classroom.) Now if there were no educative value in acquiring a reading and writing knowledge of the language or if its pursuit in college were not worth while unless it began on a basis of oral and aural proficiency, we should say that linguistic study in the secondary school was only for those possessing a high degree of aptitude. The school cannot make linguistic specialists of its average pupils except at the sacrifice of other things more valuable for the time and circumstances. Yet its students should be encouraged to derive the benefits which language study affords and to become acquainted with the culture of which the language is an expression. To meet this situation a modern language department of a college which desires to promote the study of language by larger groups of secondary students and also to make the most of those who enter college with a high degree of attainment in this field may need to arrange two courses in the freshman year or to admit especially able entering students into a more advanced course.

I have perhaps been ill advised in referring frequently to the average student. It is vitally important that the superior student have individual attention commensurate with his potential development. But even if one subscribes to the belief that a college education is adapted only for an intellectual aristocracy, it makes a difference whether the 'aristocracy' is held to comprise the upper 10 percent or the upper 50 percent of the secondary pupils. On the supposition that the definition includes at least more than the former proportion we cannot escape consideration of the 'pupil) whose general capacity is only average. Of such a person superior attainments can be expected only in the field of concentration, and the secondary pupil can hardly concentrate in more than one field.

The colleges are increasingly providing that members of the faculty who conduct freshman courses shall be not merely scholars and experts in their fields, but also interested and qualified teachers. If they are somewhat conversant with teaching conditions in their subject in the secondary schools they will be able to facilitate the transition to college without adopting secondary school methods nor depriving theid students of the stimulus of a different atmosphere and a new approach. The schools, on their part, by placing the seniors more on their own responsibility for the time and place of study and by apportioning assignments in larger units are coreshadowing some of the conditions of college work. It is not improper oramming nor slavish imitation of college methods to give the students during their last year an opportunity to realize what a lecture is as a teaching device, to appreciate some of the possibilities of a "reading period", and to gain some conception of the independent use of a libary and of material for research.

Intellectual Curiosity

In speaking of cooperation between school and college I have not meant to overlook the more vital element of cooperation on the part of the student. The theory that a subject is good for a boy because it is hard and distasteful has long been discredited. The subjects which are difficult and abstract should indeed be taught in as interesting a manner as possible; and the boy whose inaptitude for them has been clearly demonstrated should not be forced to continue. But the modicum of truth remains that progress does not regularly take place along the line of least resistance. Unless the secondary graduate has learned that the satisfaction of a problem vigorously and wisely attacked, of a job well done, is an adequate substitute for the thrill of superficial interest, unless he has developed a measure of intellectual curiosity and mental will-power, he is unlikely to be a success in college, whatever his facility in a direction where he may have found case and entertainment. These are the most important liquid assets which the secondary school can assist him to acquire. His permanent intellectual capital consists not in a completed educational structure but in the foundation which he has built broad enough and strong enough to carry either the superstructure that he has planned and begun to erect or even a different type of edifice which he may later find better suited to his needs and desires