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In an article in the Spring number of the "North American Review" Dean Christian Gauss of Princeton makes some significant statements which may be of help in answering that ever-recurring question: "What's wrong with our colleges?"
The educators of this country have taken an attitude which is much like that of the nurse who decided that if a spoonful of medicine would help a patient a half bottle of it would work wonders. During the last few decades America has so expanded the field of higher education that it has had no time to develop any efficient system of selecting the best students to put into it.
Dean Gauss's comparison between the European and American attitude in this respect will doubtlessly delight the "bigger-and-better" gentlemen, but should make all those interested in the quality of our education stop and reflect. In England, which has a population of forty-three million, there are approximately forty-six thousand students in the institutions of higher learning. In France the ratio is somewhat higher. In this country, on the other hand, eight hundred thousand out of a population of one hundred and seventeen million were attending the universities in 1925.
"All the better!" will be the answer of those to whom mere size is the most important factor. This attitude would make sense if there were any reason for believing that the masses of Americans could rise to the high level of education which in other countries is reserved for a fraction of our number. But, as Dean Gauss points out, the average intelligence of the American youth is hardly likely to be higher than that of the Briton or Frenchman.
The responsibility lies with the traditional American belief in an inflated democracy which presupposes that a college education is the inalienable right of every individual, like a free press or a free dental clinic. It found its purest expression in the program of the late Huey Long who was going to make new colleges spring forth full-armed so that "soon nobody will even hear of Harvard and Louisiana State!"
It would be no solution to cut down our educational facilities. Since we are able to accomodate many times more students than the foreign universities, it would be wise for the United States to make the best possible use of its superior facilities. The aches and pains of the last few decades come from the fact that a profligate selection of students has dragged the institutions of learning down to the lowest common denominator.
Signs are already appearing that the anarchy of American higher education is about to be curbed. The obvious fact, pointed out by Dean Gauss, that some of the most promising young intellects are kept out of college because of financial means, is being grappled with by Harvard's bold and promising venture, the Conant Scholarships. President Hutchins of Chicago makes his contribution in the proposed "shock-absorber" institution of the four-year senior high school-junior college combination, after which those really fitted for higher education would be permitted to acquire it. Starting with the small colleges of the East, a movement is now on to stiffen the requirements for admission. Throughout the West there is the inclination toward a return to discipline and an abandonment of the "cafeteria" plan of education established by President Eliot. America has the choice of giving up mere mass-production in education or suffering the lowered standards which such a system makes inevitable.
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