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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
For years that defy counting the traditional greeting of the Harvard Law School to its new students has been designed not to extend a hearty welcome to its neophytes, but rather to put the fear of God into those rash souls who dared to climb the steps of Langdell Hall and seek therein a legal education. "Gentlemen," the professors in charge of the first classes are reported in effect to have said, "The men who are sitting to the right and left of you today will not be here to graduate with you three years hence." But anyone who attended the introductory courses in the Law School yesterday morning must have been startled and abashed, and tempted to wonder at the new spirit of sweet reasonableness that pervaded the air. "Gentlemen," the new students were told. "You are a group of carefully selected applicants to the Law School. By a new system of assaying the legal aptitude of men before they enter school, it is possible to predict that all of you possess the capabilities of passing the Law School course at Harvard!"
This message marks an important day in the growth of the school. For in past years, when all who applied for admission to the school were let in, provided only that they held college degrees, it was necessary to weed out a large portion of each class at the end of the first year, a portion sometimes running up to thirty percent of the enrolment. The result of this drastic cut, despite the fact that it allowed the University to collect tuition fees for a year from the men whom it could take to the completion of their training, meant carrying along a large amount of the dead wood for a whole year in the classes, and for the men cut out at the end of that time it was nothing short of tragic. Thus the school lost through the inefficiency and waste that came from spending a long time over men who produce no results at the end, and the men, who might have gone to other schools or started other careers when they finished college, were held up in the pursuit of their life work.
Of course the process of weeding out students before they enter a given academic training rather than after they have tried and made a mess of it cannot be foolproof. Not all the new students who heard the cheering message yesterday will see the course through to the end. But the record of this fall's entering class will be watched with interest. For if the experiment of selective admission works out as well in the Law School as it does in other divisions of the University, it should mark the beginning of a new era of improvement at Langdell Hall. And those who have felt that Harvard has not been progressing as rapidly as other schools in recent years, will be able to banish their doubts of Harvard's continued leadership. Certainly the first days of the new Deanship have started not inauspiciously.
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