Infomotions, Inc.Why Go to College? an address / Palmer, Alice Freeman, 1855-1902

Author: Palmer, Alice Freeman, 1855-1902
Title: Why Go to College? an address
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): college; college life
Contributor(s): Loyd, Lady Mary Sophia (Hely-Hutchinson), 1853-1936 [Translator]
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Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 9,651 words (really short) Grade range: 12-15 (college) Readability score: 51 (average)
Identifier: etext2361
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Why Go to College?

by Alice Freeman Palmer

October, 2000  [Etext #2361]

Project Gutenberg Etext Why Go to College? by Alice Freeman Palmer
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This Etext prepared by:  Stephanie L. Johnson (Wellesley '91)


Formerly President of Wellesley College

To a largely increasing number of young girls college doors are
opening every year.  Every year adds to the number of men who
feel as a friend of mine, a successful lawyer in a great city, felt
when in talking of the future of his four little children he said,
"For the two boys it is not so serious, but I lie down at night
afraid to die and leave my daughters only a bank account."  Year
by year, too, the experiences of life are teaching mothers that
happiness does not necessarily come to their daughters when
accounts are large and banks are sound, but that on the contrary
they take grave risks when they trust everything to accumulated
wealth and the chance of a happy marriage.  Our American girls
themselves are becoming aware that they need the stimulus, the
discipline, the knowledge, the interests of the college in addition
to the school, if they are to prepare themselves for the most
serviceable lives.

But there are still parents who say, "There is no need that my
daughter should teach; then why should she go to college?"  I will
not reply that college training is a life insurance for a girl,
a pledge that she possesses the disciplined ability to earn a
living for herself and others in case of need, for I prefer to
insist on the importance of giving every girl, no matter what her
present circumstances, a special training in some one thing by
which she can render society service, not amateur but of an expert
sort, and service too for which it will be willing to pay a price.
The number of families will surely increase who will follow the
example of an eminent banker whose daughters have been given
each her specialty.  One has chosen music, and has gone far with
the best masters in this country and in Europe, so far that she
now holds a high rank among musicians at home and abroad.  Another
has taken art, and has not been content to paint pretty gifts for
her friends, but in the studios of New York, Munich, and Paris,
she has won the right to be called an artist, and in her studio at
home to paint portraits which have a market value.  A third has
proved that she can earn her living, if need be, by her exquisite
jellies, preserves, and sweetmeats.  Yet the house in the mountains,
the house by the sea, and the friends in the city are not neglected,
nor are these young women found less attractive because of their
special accomplishments.

While it is not true that all girls should go to college any more
than that all boys should go, it is nevertheless true that they
should go in greater numbers than at present.  They fail to go
because they, their parents and their teachers, do not see clearly
the personal benefits distinct from the commercial value of a
college training.  I wish here to discuss these benefits, these
larger gifts of the college life,--what they may be, and for whom
they are waiting.

It is undoubtedly true that many girls are totally unfitted by
home and school life for a valuable college course.  These joys
and successes, these high interests and friendships, are not for
the self-conscious and nervous invalid, nor for her who in the
exuberance of youth recklessly ignores the laws of a healthy life.
The good society of scholars and of libraries and laboratories has
no place and no attraction for her who finds no message in Plato,
no beauty in mathematical order, and who never longs to know
the meaning of the stars over her head or the flowers under her
feet.  Neither will the finer opportunities of college life appeal
to one who, until she is eighteen (is there such a girl in this
country?), has felt no passion for the service of others, no desire
to know if through history or philosophy, or any study of the laws
of society, she can learn why the world is so sad, so hard, so
selfish as she finds it, even when she looks upon it from the
most sheltered life.  No, the college cannot be, should not try
to be, a substitute for the hospital, reformatory or kindergarten.
To do its best work it should be organized for the strong, not
for the weak; for the high-minded, self-controlled, generous,
and courageous spirits, not for the indifferent, the dull, the idle,
or those who are already forming their characters on the amusement
theory of life.  All these perverted young people may, and often
do, get large benefit and invigoration, new ideals, and unselfish
purposes from their four years' companionship with teachers and
comrades of a higher physical, mental, and moral stature than
their own.  I have seen girls change so much in college that I have
wondered if their friends at home would know them,--the voice,
the carriage, the unconscious manner, all telling a story of new
tastes and habits and loves and interests, that had wrought out
in very truth a new creature.  Yet in spite of this I have sometimes
thought that in college more than elsewhere the old law holds,
"To him that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance,
but from him who hath not shall be taken away even that which
he seemeth to have."  For it is the young life which is open and
prepared to receive which obtains the gracious and uplifting
influences of college days.  What, then, for such persons are
the rich and abiding rewards of study in college or university?

Pre-eminently the college is a place of education.  That is the
ground of its being.  We go to college to know, assured that
knowledge is sweet and powerful, that a good education emancipates
the mind and makes us citizens of the world.  No college which does
not thoroughly educate can be called good, no matter what else it
does.  No student who fails to get a little knowledge on many
subjects, and much knowledge on some, can be said to have succeeded,
whatever other advantages she may have found by the way.  It is
a beautiful and significant fact that in all times the years of
learning have been also the years of romance.  Those who love
girls and boys pray that our colleges may be homes of sound learning,
for knowledge is the condition of every college blessing.  "Let no
man incapable of mathematics enter here," Plato is reported to
have inscribed over his Academy door.  "Let no one to whom hard
study is repulsive hope for anything from us," American colleges
might paraphrase.  Accordingly in my talk today I shall say little
of the direct benefits of knowledge which the college affords.
These may be assumed.  It is on their account that one knocks
at the college door.  But seeking this first, a good many other
things are added.  I want to point out some of these collateral
advantages of going to college, or rather to draw attention to some
of the many forms in which the winning of knowledge presents itself.

The first of these is happiness.  Everybody wants "a good time,"
especially every girl in her teens.  A good time, it is true, does
not always in these years mean what it will mean by and by, any
more than the girl of eighteen plays with the doll which entranced
the child of eight.  It takes some time to discover that work is
the best sort of play, and some people never discover it at all.
But when mothers ask such questions as these:  "How can I make
my daughter happy?" "How can I give her the best society?" "How can
she have a good time?" the answer in most cases is simple.  Send
her to college,--to almost any college.  Send her because there is
no other place where between eighteen and twenty-two she is so
likely to have a genuinely good time.  Merely for good times, for
romance, for society, college life offers unequalled opportunities.
Of course no idle person can possibly be happy, even for a day,
nor she who makes a business of trying to amuse herself.  For full
happiness, though its springs are within, we want health and friends
and work and objects of aspiration.  "We live by admiration, hope,
and love," says Wordsworth.  The college abounds in all three.
In the college time new powers are sprouting, and intelligence,
merriment, truthfulness and generosity are more natural than
the opposite qualities often become in later years.  An exhilarating
atmosphere pervades the place.  We who are in it all the time
feel that we live at the fountain of perpetual youth, and those
who take but a four years' bath in it become more cheerful, strong,
and full of promise than they are ever likely to find themselves
again; for a college is a kind of compendium of the things that
most men long for.  It is usually planted in a beautiful spot, the
charm of trees and water being added to stately buildings and
stimulating works of art.  Venerable associations of the past
hallow its halls.  Leaders in the stirring world of to-day return
at each commencement to share the fresh life of the new class.
Books, pictures, music, collections, appliances in every field,
learned teachers, mirthful friends, athletics for holidays, the
best words of the best men for holy days,--all are here.  No wonder
that men look back upon their college life as upon halcyon days,
the romantic period of youth.  No wonder that Dr. Holmes's poems
to his Harvard classmates find an echo in college reunions
everywhere; and gray-haired men, who outside the narrowing circle
of home have not heard their first names for years, remain Bill
and Joe and John and George to college comrades, even if unseen
for more than a generation.

Yet a girl should go to college not merely to obtain four happy
years but to make a second gain, which is often overlooked, and
is little understood even when perceived; I mean a gain in health.
The old notion that low vitality is a matter of course with women;
that to be delicate is a mark of superior refinement, especially
in well-to-do families; that sickness is a dispensation of
Providence,--these notions meet with no acceptance in college.
Years ago I saw in the mirror frame of a college freshman's room
this little formula:  "Sickness is carelessness, carelessness is
selfishness, and selfishness is sin."  And I have often noticed
among college girls an air of humiliation and shame when obliged
to confess a lack of physical vigor, as if they were convicted of
managing life with bad judgment, or of some moral delinquency.
With the spreading scientific conviction that health is a matter
largely under each person's control, that even inherited tendencies
to disease need not be allowed to run their riotous course unchecked,
there comes an earnest purpose to be strong and free.  Fascinating
fields of knowledge are waiting to be explored; possibilities of
doing, as well as of knowing, are on every side; new and dear
friendships enlarge and sweeten dreams of future study and work,
and the young student cannot afford quivering nerves or small
lungs or an aching head any more than bad taste, rough manners,
or a weak will.  Handicapped by inheritance or bad training, she
finds the plan of college life itself her supporter and friend.
The steady, long-continued routine of mental work, physical
exercise, recreation, and sleep, the simple and wholesome food,
in place of irregular and unstudied diet, work out salvation for
her.  Instead of being left to go out-of-doors when she feels
like it, the regular training of the gymnasium, the boats on lake
and river, the tennis court, the golf links, the basket ball,
the bicycle, the long walk among the woods in search of botanical
or geological specimens,--all these and many more call to the busy
student, until she realizes that they have their rightful place in
every well-ordered day of every month.  So she learns, little by
little, that buoyant health is a precious possession to be won
and kept.

It is significant that already statistical investigation in this
country and in England shows that the standard of health is higher
among the women who hold college degrees than among any other
equal number of the same age and class.  And it is interesting also
to observe to what sort of questions our recent girl graduates have
been inclined to devote attention.  They have been largely the
neglected problems of little children and their health, of home
sanitation, of food and its choice and preparation, of domestic
service, of the cleanliness of schools and public buildings.
Colleges for girls are pledged by their very constitution to make
persistent war on the water cure, the nervine retreat, the insane
asylum, the hospital,--those bitter fruits of the emotional lives
of thousands of women.  "I can never afford a sick headache again,
life is so interesting and there is so much to do," a delicate girl
said to me at the end of her first college year.  And while her
mother was in a far-off invalid retreat, she undertook the battle
against fate with the same intelligence and courage which she
put into her calculus problems and her translations of Sophocles.
Her beautiful home and her rosy and happy children prove the measure
of her hard-won success.  Formerly the majority of physicians had
but one question for the mother of the nervous and delicate girl,
"Does she go to school?"  And only one prescription, "Take her out
of school."  Never a suggestion as to suppers of pickles and
pound-cake, never a hint about midnight dancing and hurried day-time
ways.  But now the sensible doctor asks, "What are her interests?
What are her tastes?  What are her habits?"  And he finds new
interests for her, and urges the formation of out-of-door tastes
and steady occupation for the mind, in order to draw the morbid
girl from herself into the invigorating world outside.  This the
college does largely through its third gift of friendship.

Until a girl goes away from home to school or college, her friends
are chiefly chosen for her by circumstances.  Her young relatives,
her neighbors in the same street, those who happen to go to the
same school or church,--these she makes her girlish intimates.
She goes to college with the entire conviction, half unknown to
herself, that her father's political party contains all the honest
men, her mother's social circle all the true ladies, her church all
the real saints of the community.  And the smaller the town, the
more absolute is her belief.  But in college she finds that the
girl who earned her scholarship in the village school sits beside
the banker's daughter; the New England farmer's child rooms next
the heiress of a Hawaiian sugar plantation; the daughters of
the opposing candidates in a sharply fought election have grown
great friends in college boats and laboratories; and before her
diploma is won she realizes how much richer a world she lives
in than she ever dreamed of at home.  The wealth that lies in
differences has dawned upon her vision.  It is only when the rich
and poor sit down together that either can understand how the
Lord is the Maker of them all.

To-day above all things we need the influence of men and women
of friendliness, of generous nature, of hospitality to new ideas,
in short, of social imagination.  But instead, we find each
political party bitterly calling the other dishonest, each class
suspicious of the intentions of the other, and in social life the
pettiest standards of conduct.  Is it not well for us that the
colleges all over the country still offer to their fortunate
students a society of the most democratic sort,--one in which
a father's money, a mother's social position, can assure no
distinction and make no close friends?  Here capacity of every
kind counts for its full value.  Here enthusiasm waits to make
heroes of those who can lead.  Here charming manners, noble
character, amiable temper, scholarly power, find their full
opportunity and inspire such friendships as are seldom made
afterward.  I have forgotten my chemistry, and my classical philology
cannot bear examination; but all round the world there are men
and women at work, my intimates of college days, who have made
the wide earth a friendly place to me.  Of every creed, of every
party, in far-away places and in near, the thought of them makes
me more courageous in duty and more faithful to opportunity, though
for many years we may not have had time to write each other a
letter.  The basis of all valuable and enduring friendships is not
accident or juxtaposition, but tastes, interests, habits, work,
ambitions.  It is for this reason that to college friendship clings
a romance entirely its own.  One of the friends may spend her
days in the laboratory, eagerly chasing the shy facts that hide
beyond the microscope's fine vision, and the other may fill her
hours and her heart with the poets and the philosophers; one may
steadfastly pursue her way toward the command of a hospital, and
the other towards the world of letters and of art; these divergences
constitute no barrier, but rather an aid to the fulness of friendship.
And the fact that one goes in a simple gown which she has earned
and made herself, and the other lives when at home in a merchant's
modern palace--what has that to do with the things the girls care
about and the dreams they talk over in the walk by the river or
the bicycle ride through country roads?  If any young man to-day
goes through Harvard lonely, neglected, unfriended, if any girl
lives solitary and wretched in her life at Wellesley, it is their
own fault.  It must be because they are suspicious, unfriendly
or disagreeable themselves.  Certainly it is true that in the
associations of college life, more than in any other that the country
can show, what is extraneous, artificial, and temporary falls away,
and the every-day relations of life and work take on a character that
is simple, natural, genuine.  And so it comes about that the fourth
gift of college life is ideals of personal character.

To some people the shaping ideals of what character should be,
often held unconsciously, come from the books they are given by
the persons whom they most admire before they are twenty years
old.  The greatest thing any friend or teacher, either in school
or college, can do for a student is to furnish him with a personal
ideal.  The college professors who transformed me through my
acquaintance with them--ah, they were few, and I am sure I did
not have a dozen conversations with them outside their class
rooms--gave me, each in his different way, an ideal of character,
of conduct, of the scholar, the leader, of which they and I were
totally unconscious at the time.  For many years I have known
that my study with them, no matter whether of philosophy or of
Greek, of mathematics or history or English, enlarged my notions
of life, uplifted my standards of culture, and so inspired me with
new possibilities of usefulness and of happiness.  Not the facts
and theories that I learned so much as the men who taught me, gave
this inspiration.  The community at large is right in saying that
it wants the personal influence of professors on students, but
it is wholly wrong in assuming that this precious influence comes
from frequent meetings or talks on miscellaneous subjects.  There
is quite as likely to be a quickening force in the somewhat remote
and mysterious power of the teacher who devotes himself to amassing
treasures of scholarship, or to patiently working out the best
methods of teaching; who standing somewhat apart, still remains
an ideal of the Christian scholar, the just, the courteous man or
woman.  To come under the influence of one such teacher is enough
to make college life worthwhile.  A young man who came to Harvard
with eighty cents in his pocket, and worked his way through, never
a high scholar, and now in a business which looks very commonplace,
told me the other day that he would not care to be alive if he
had not gone to college.  His face flushed as he explained how
different his days would have been if he had not known two of his
professors.  "Do you use your college studies in your business?"
I asked.  "Oh, no!" he answered.  "But I am another man in doing
the business; and when the day's work is done I live another life
because of my college experiences.  The business and I are both
the better for it every day."  How many a young girl has had her
whole horizon extended by the changed ideals she gained in college!
Yet this is largely because the associations and studies there
are likely to give her permanent interests--the fifth and perhaps
the greatest gift of college life of which I shall speak.

The old fairy story which charmed us in childhood ended with--"And
they were married and lived happy ever after."  It conducted to
the altar, having brought the happy pair through innumerable
difficulties, and left us with the contented sense that all the
mistakes and problems would now vanish and life be one long day
of unclouded bliss.  I have seen devoted and intelligent mothers
arrange their young daughters' education and companionships
precisely on this basis.  They planned as if these pretty and
charming girls were going to live only twenty or twenty-five years
at the utmost, and had consequently no need of the wealthy interests
that should round out the full-grown woman's stature, making her
younger in feeling at forty than at twenty, and more lovely and
admired at eighty than at either.

Emerson in writing of beauty declares that "the secret of ugliness
consists not in irregular outline, but in being uninteresting.  We
love any forms, however ugly, from which great qualities shine.
If command, eloquence, art, or invention exists in the most
deformed person, all the accidents that usually displease, please,
and raise esteem and wonder higher.  Beauty without grace is the
head without the body.  Beauty without expression tires."  Of
course such considerations can hardly come with full force to the
young girl herself, who feels aged at eighteen, and imagines that
the troubles and problems of life and thought are hers already.
"Oh, tell me to-night," cried a college freshman once to her
President, "which is the right side and which is the wrong side of
this Andover question about eschatology?"  The young girl is
impatient of open questions, and irritated at her inability to
answer them.  Neither can she believe that the first headlong zest
with which she throws herself into society, athletics, into
everything which comes in her way, can ever fail.  But her elders
know, looking on, that our American girl, the commrade of her
parents and of her brothers and their friends, brought up from
babyhood in the eager talk of politics and society, of religious
belief, of public action, of social responsibility--that this
typical girl, with her quick sympathies, her clear head, her warm
heart, her outreaching hands, will not permanently be satisfied
or self-respecting, though she have the prettiest dresses and
hats in town, or the most charming of dinners, dances, and teas.
Unless there comes to her, and comes early, the one chief happiness
of life,--a marriage of comradeship,--she must face for herself
the question, "What shall I do with my life?"

I recall a superb girl of twenty as I overtook her one winter
morning hurrying along Commonwealth Avenue.  She spoke of a
brilliant party at a friend's the previous evening.  "But, oh!"
she cried, throwing up her hands in a kind of hopeless impatience,
"tell me what to do.  My dancing days are over!"  I laughed at her,
"Have you sprained your ankle?"  But I saw I had made a mistake
when she added, "It is no laughing matter.  I have been out three
years.  I have not done what they expected of me," with a flush
and a shrug, "and there is a crowd of nice girls coming on this
winter; and anyway, I am so tired of going to teas and ball-games
and assemblies!  I don't care the least in the world for foreign
missions, and," with a stamp, "I am not going slumming among
the Italians.  I have too much respect for the Italians.  And what
shall I do with the rest of my life?"  That was a frank statement
of what any girl of brains or conscience feels, with more or less
bitter distinctness, unless she marries early, or has some pressing
work for which she is well trained.

Yet even if that which is the profession of woman par excellence
be hers, how can she be perennially so interesting a companion
to her husband and children as if she had keen personal tastes,
long her own, and growing with her growth?  Indeed, in that respect
the condition of men is almost the same as that of women.  It would
be quite the same were it not for the fact that a man's business
or profession is generally in itself a means of growth, of education,
of dignity.  He leans his life against it.  He builds his home in
the shadow of it.  It binds his days together in a kind of natural
piety and makes him advance in strength and nobility as he "fulfils
the common round, the daily task."  And that is the reason why
men in the past, if they have been honorable men, have grown old
better than women.  Men usually retain their ability longer, their
mental alertness and hospitality.  They add fine quality to fine
quality, passing from strength to strength and preserving in old
age whatever has been best in youth.  It was a sudden recognition
of this fact which made a young friend of mine say last winter,
"I am not going to parties any more; the men best worth talking
with are too old to dance."

Even with the help of a permanent business or profession, however,
the most interesting men I know are those who have an avocation
as well as a vocation.  I mean a taste or work quite apart from the
business of life.  This revives, inspires, and cultivates them
perpetually.  It matters little what it is, if only it is real and
personal, is large enough to last, and possesses the power of
growth.  .A young sea-captain from a New England village on a long
and lonely voyage falls upon a copy of Shelley.  Appeal is made
to his fine but untrained mind, and the book of the boy poet
becomes the seaman's university.  The wide world of poetry and
of the other fine arts is opened, and the Shelleyian specialist
becomes a cultivated, original, and charming man.  A busy merchant
loves flowers, and in all his free hours studies them.  Each new
spring adds knowledge to his knowledge, and his friends continually
bring him their strange discoveries.  With growing wealth he
cultivates rare and beautiful plants, and shares them with his
fortunate acquaintances.  Happy the companion invited to a walk
or a drive with such observant eyes, such vivid talk!  Because of
this cheerful interest in flowers, and this ingenious skill in
dealing with them, the man himself is interesting.  All his powers
are alert, and his judgment is valued in public life and in private
business.  Or is it more exact to say that because he is the kind
of man who would insist upon having such interests outside his
daily work, he is still fresh and young and capable of growth
at an age when many other men are dull and old and certain that
the time of decay is at hand?

There are two reasons why women need to cultivate these large
and abiding interests even more persistently than men.  In the
first place, they have more leisure.  They are indeed the only
leisure class in the country, the only large body of persons who
are not called upon to win their daily bread in direct wage-earning
ways.  As yet, fortunately, few men among us have so little
self-respect as to idle about our streets and drawing-rooms because
their fathers are rich enough to support them.  We are not without
our unemployed poor; but roving tramps and idle clubmen are after
all not of large consequence.  Our serious, non-producing classes
are chiefly women.  It is the regular ambition of the chivalrous
American to make all the women who depend on him so comfortable
that they need do nothing for themselves.  Machinery has taken
nearly all the former occupations of women out of the home into
the shop and factory.  Widespread wealth and comfort, and the
inherited theory that it is not well for the woman to earn money
so long as father or brothers can support her, have brought about
a condition of things in which there is social danger, unless with
the larger leisure are given high and enduring interests.  To health
especially there is great danger, for nothing breaks down a woman's
health like idleness and its resulting ennui.  More people, I am
sure, are broken down nervously because they are bored, than
because they are overworked; and more still go to pieces through
fussiness, unwholesome living, worry over petty details, and the
daily disappointments which result from small and superficial
training.  And then, besides the danger to health, there is the
danger to character.  I need not dwell on the undermining influence
which men also feel when occupation is taken away and no absorbing
private interest fills the vacancy.  The vices of luxurious city
life are perhaps hardly more destructive to character than is the
slow deterioration of barren country life.  Though the conditions
in the two cases are exactly opposite, the trouble is often the
same,--absence of noble interests.  In the city restless idleness
organizes amusement; in the country deadly dulness succeeds
daily toil.

But there is a second reason why a girl should acquire for herself
strong and worthy interests.  The regular occupations of women
in their homes are generally disconnected and of little educational
value, at least as those homes are at present conducted.  Given
the best will in the world, the daily doing of household details
becomes a wearisome monotony if the mere performance of them
is all.  To make drudgery divine a woman must have a brain to plan
and eyes to see how to "sweep a room as to God's laws."  Imagination
and knowledge should be the hourly companions of her who would
make a fine art of each detail in kitchen and nursery.  Too long
has the pin been the appropriate symbol of the average woman's
life--the pin, which only temporarily holds together things which
may or may not have any organic connection with one another.  While
undoubtedly most women must spend the larger part of life in this
modest pin-work, holding together the little things of home and
school and society and church, it is also true, that cohesive work
itself cannot be done well, even in humble circumstances, except
by the refined, the trained, the growing woman.  The smallest
village, the plainest home, give ample space for the resources
of the trained college woman.  And the reason why such homes and
such villages are so often barren of grace and variety is just
because these fine qualities have not ruled them.  The higher
graces of civilization halt among us; dainty and finished ways of
living give place to common ways, while vulgar tastes, slatternly
habits, clouds and despondency reign in the house.  Little children
under five years of age die in needless thousands because of the
dull, unimaginative women on whom they depend.  Such women have
been satisfied with just getting along, instead of packing everything
they do with brains, instead of studying the best possible way of
doing everything small or large; for there is always a best way,
whether of setting a table, of trimming a hat, or teaching a child
to read.  And this taste for perfection can be cultivated; indeed,
it must be cultivated, if our standards of living are to be raised.
There is now scientific knowledge enough, there is money enough,
to prevent the vast majority of the evils which afflict our social
organism, if mere knowledge or wealth could avail; but the greater
difficulty is to make intelligence, character, good taste,
unselfishness prevail.

What, then, are the interests which powerfully appeal to mind
and heart, and so are fitted to become the strengthening companions
of a woman's life?  I shall mention only three, all of them such
as are elaborately fostered by college life.  The first is the love
of great literature.  I do not mean that use of books by which a
man may get what is called a good education and so be better
qualified for the battle of life, nor do I mention books in their
character as reservoirs of knowledge, books which we need for
special purposes, and which are no longer of consequence when
our purpose with them is served.  I have in mind the great books,
especially the great poets, books to be adopted as a resource and
a solace.  The chief reason why so many people do not know how
to make comrades of such books is because they have come to them
too late.  We have in this country enormous numbers of readers,
probably a larger number who read, and who read many hours in the
week, than has ever been known elsewhere in the world.  But what
do these millions read besides the newspapers?  Possibly a
denominational religious weekly and another journal of fashion
or business.  Then come the thousands who read the best magazines,
and whatever else is for the moment popular in novels and poetry--
the last dialect story, the fashionable poem, the questionable but
talked-of novel.  Let a violent attack be made on the decency
of a new story and instantly, if only it is clever, its author
becomes famous.

But the fashions in reading of a restless race--the women too idle,
the men too heavily worked--I will not discuss here.  Let light
literature be devourered by our populace as his drug is taken
by the opium-eater, and with a similar narcotic effect.  We can
only seek out the children, and hope by giving them from babyhood
bits of the noblest literature, to prepare them for the great
opportunities of mature life.  I urge, therefore, reading as a
mental stimulus, as a solace in trouble, a perpetual source of
delight; and I would point out that we must not delay to make
the great friendships that await us on the library shelves until
sickness shuts the door on the outer world, or death enters the
home and silences the voices that once helped to make these
friendships sweet.  If Homer and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and
Browning are to have meaning for us when we need them most, it
will be because they come to us as old familiar friends whose
influences have permeated the glad and busy days before.  The
last time I heard James Russell Lowell talk to college girls, he
said,--for he was too ill to say many words--"I have only this one
message to leave with you.  In all your work in college never
lose sight of the reason why you have come here.  It is not that
you may get something by which to earn your bread, but that every
mouthful of bread may be the sweeter to your taste."

And this is the power possessed by the mighty dead,--men of every
time and nation, whose voices death cannot silence, who are waiting
even at the poor man's elbow, whose illuminating words may be
had for the price of a day's work in the kitchen or the street,
for lack of love of whom many a luxurious home is a dull and
solitary spot, breeding misery and vice.  Now the modern college
is especially equipped to introduce its students to such literature.
The library is at last understood to be the heart of the college.
The modern librarian is not the keeper of books, as was his
predecessor, but the distributer of them, and the guide to their
resources, proud when he increases the use of his treasures.  Every
language, ancient or modern, which contains a literature is now
taught in college.  Its history is examined, its philology, its
masterpieces, and more than ever is English literature studied
and loved.  There is now every opportunity for the college student
to become an expert in the use of his own tongue and pen.  What
other men painfully strive for he can enjoy to the full with
comparatively little effort.

But there is a second invigorating interest to which college
training introduces its student.  I mean the study of nature,
intimacy with the strange and beautiful world in which we live.
"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her," sang her
poet high priest.  When the world has been too much with us,
nothing else is so refreshing to tired eyes and mind as woods
and water, and an intelligent knowledge of the life within them.
For a generation past there has been a well-nigh universal turning
of the population toward the cities.  In 1840 only nine per cent
of our people lived in cities of 8,000 inhabitants or more.  Now
more than a third of us are found in cities.  But the electric-car,
the telephone, the bicycle, still keep avenues to the country open.
Certain it is that city people feel a growing hunger for the
country, particularly when grass begins to grow.  This is a healthy
taste, and must increase the general knowledge and love of nature.
Fortunate are the little children in those schools whose teachers
know and love the world in which they live.  Their young eyes are
early opened to the beauty of birds and trees and plants.  Not
only should we expect our girls to have a feeling for the fine
sunset or the wide-reaching panorama of field and water, but to
know something also about the less obvious aspects of nature,
its structure, its methods of work, and the endless diversity of
its parts.  No one can have read Matthew Arnold's letters to his
wife, his mother, and his sister, without being struck by the
immense enjoyment he took throughout his singularly simple and
hard-working life in flowers and trees and rivers.  The English
lake country had given him this happy inheritance, with everywhere
its sound of running water and its wealth of greenery.  There is
a close connection between the marvellous unbroken line of English
song, and the passionate love of the Englishman for a home in the
midst of birds, trees, and green fields.

    "The world is so full of a number of things,
    That I think we should all be as happy as kings,"

is the opinion of everybody who knows nature as did Robert Louis
Stevenson.  And so our college student may begin to know it.  Let
her enter the laboratories and investigate for herself.  Let her
make her delicate experiments with the blowpipe or the balance;
let her track mysterious life from one hiding-place to another;
let her "name all the birds without a gun," and make intimates
of flower and fish and butterfly--and she is dull indeed if breezy
tastes do not follow her through life, and forbid any of her days
to be empty of intelligent enjoyment.  "Keep your years beautiful;
make your own atmosphere," was the parting advice of my college
president, himself a living illustration of what he said.

But it is a short step from the love of the complex and engaging
world in which we live to the love of our comrades in it.  Accordingly
the third precious interest to be cultivated by the college student
is an interest in people.  The scholar today is not a being who
dwells apart in his cloister, the monk's successor; he is a leader
of the thoughts and conduct of men.  So the new subjects which
stand beside the classics and mathematics of medieval culture are
history, economics, ethics, and sociology.  Although these subjects
are as yet merely in the making, thousands of students are flocking
to their investigation, and are going out to try their tentative
knowledge in College Settlements and City Missions and Children's
Aid Societies.  The best instincts of generous youth are becoming
enlisted in these living themes.  And why should our daughters
remain aloof from the most absorbing work of modern city life,
work quite as fascinating to young women as to young men?  During
many years of listening to college sermons and public lectures in
Wellesley, I always noticed a quickened attention in the audience
whenever the discussion touched politics or theology.  These are,
after all, the permanent and peremptory interests, and they should
be given their full place in a healthy and vigorous life.

But if that life includes a love of books, of nature, of people,
it will naturally turn to enlarged conceptions of religion--my
sixth and last gift of college life.  In his first sermon as
Master of Balliol College, Dr. Jowett spoke of the college, "First
as a place of education, secondly as a place of society, thirdly
as a place of religion."  He observed that "men of very great
ability often fail in life because they are unable to play their
part with effect.  They are shy, awkward, self-conscious, deficient
in manners, faults which are as ruinous as vices."  The supreme
end of college training, he said, "is usefulness in after life."
Similarly, when the city of Cambridge celebrated in Harvard's
Memorial Hall the life and death of the gallant young ex-governor
of Massachusetts, William E. Russell, men did well to hang above
his portrait some wise words he has lately said, "Never forget the
everlasting difference between making a living and making a life."
That he himself never forgot; and it was well to remind citizens
and students of it, as they stood there facing too the ancient
words all Harvard men face when they take their college degrees
and go out into the world, "They that be wise shall shine as the
brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness
as the stars for ever and ever."  Good words these to go out from
college with.  The girls of Wellesley gather every morning at
chapel to bow their heads together for a moment before they scatter
among the libraries and lecture-rooms and begin the experiments
of the new day.  And always their college motto meets the eyes
that are raised to its penetrating message, "Not to be ministered
unto, but to minister."  How many a young heart has loyally
responded, "And to give life a ransom for many."  That is the
"Wellesley spirit;" and the same sweet spirit of devout service
has gone forth from all our college halls.  In any of them one
may catch the echo of Whittier's noble psalm,--

    "O Lord and Master of us all
    Whate'er our name or sign,
    We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,
    We test our lives by Thine."

That is the supreme test of life,--its consecrated serviceableness.
The Master of Balliol was right; the brave men and women who
founded our schools and colleges were not wrong.  "For Christ
and the Church" universities were set up in the wilderness of
New England; for the large service of the State they have been
founded and maintained at public cost in every section of the
country where men have settled, from the Alleghanies across the
prairies and Rocky Mountains down to the Golden Gate.  Founded
primarily as seats of learning, their techers have been not only
scientists and linguists, philosophers and historians, but men
and women of holy purposes, sound patriotism, courageous convictions,
refined and noble tastes.  Set as these teachers have been upon a
hill, their light has at no period of our country's history been
hid.  They have formed a large factor in our civilization, and in
their own beautiful characters have continually shown us how
to combine religion and life, the ideal and practical, the human
and the divine.

Such are some of the larger influences to be had from college life.
It is true all the good gifts I have named may be secured without
the aid of the college.  We all know young men and women who have
had no college training, who are as cultivated, rational, resourceful,
and happy as any people we know, who excel in every one of these
particulars the college graduates about them.  I believe they often
bitterly regret the lack of a college education.  And we see young
men and women going through college deaf and blind to their great
chances there, and afterwards curiously careless and wasteful of
the best things in life.  While all this is true, it is true too
that to the open-minded and ambitious boy or girl of moderate
health, ability, self-control, and studiousness, a college course
offers the most attractive, easy, and probable way of securing
happiness and health, good friends and high ideals, permanent
interests of a noble kind, and large capacity for usefulness in the
world.  It has been well said that the ability to see great things
large and little things small is the final test of education.  The
foes of life, especially of women's lives, are caprice, wearisome
incapacity and petty judgments.  From these oppressive foes we
long to escape to the rule of right reason, where all things are
possible, and life becomes a glory instead of a grind.  No college,
with the best teachers and collections in the world, can by its
own power impart all this to any woman.  But if one has set her
face in that direction, where else can she find so many hands
reached out to help, so many encouraging voices in the air, so
many favoring influences filling the days and nights?

End of Project Gutenberg Etext Why Go to College? by Alice Freeman Palmer


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