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If ever there was a flaming exhortation to every student to bear down and show his true ability in the approaching Midyear and all future examinations, it was contained in President Conant's address delivered last night before the Association of American Colleges. Stressing the benefits of well-planned, stiff examinations to sift the "good risk" from the "bad risk" men, the President demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of bare pass students in college fail to do well in graduate schools, and, similarly, in after life. The familiar argument that a man can loaf through college and then change overnight to a brilliant law student, President Conant described as mythical.
In setting a "critical grade" between the promising and the less promising, President Conant said that subject matter is of little importance, the examination level and the intrinsic capacity of the student, whose intellectual places in the world are predestined at least by the time they enter college, being the significant factors. The only important requisites of a liberal education, in addition to good teaching which brings out the intellectual capacity of each student, are concentration in a limited field as opposed to smatterings of information, and a stimulating atmosphere which promotes discussion between men of different departments.
Although these prescriptions do not appeal to the self-indulgent side of any individual student's nature, a moment of consideration, must convince him of their validity. Stiff examinations, after all, help a man to measure his strength if he so desires, and to no other purpose can he conscientiously profess. Exhaustive inquiry into a single subject, moreover, is far and away superior to peering cautiously into a great many questions, only to scuttle away as soon as they begin to look difficult or exacting.
Borrowing from Macaulay's pleas for competitive civil service examinations, President Conant declared his suspicion of new fields of study, saying that to abandon the old disciplines is to jeopardize "the selective principle in our educational machinery". The issue here he showed to be whether an educated man is one who can do cross word puzzles, or one who has learned how to investigate, study, and draw rational and original conclusions. This distinction is highly important, and one which the student is in danger of over-looking due to the world's apparent disregard for it. Here the superficialities of life must be recognized; the real rewards go to the innovators for their vision and originality. There is little but the ego of man which is increased by knowledge "of wide surface and small depth", or as President Conant expressed it, "Few of the values which feed the human soul can be found by studying mere information."
The significance of these questions vitally concerns every student who is not in college merely as a social gesture. No longer is it possible to stake out a claim west of the Mississippi and sell at a profit in a few years. The world has come to demand more intensive training for the business of improving it, Lincoln Steffens notwithstanding. When the college man comes to realize this situation, he has awakened to the problems which confront him; and insofar as President Conant is able to carry out his precepts at Harvard, this student will be able to estimate his intellectual capacity.
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