College Education

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By Victor Robinson.

MANKIND is bewitched with phrases. Take the phrase "law and order"; we are so used to this expression that we say it as naturally as we say "bread and butter." So, if you are dissatisfied with the government under which you live, or refuse to vote to maintain legalized graft, or are desirous of more freedom, or claim the peculiar privilege of publishing certain books not recommended by Anthony Comstock, or if you go still further and say you believe the human race would develop quicker and better were it not governed—in other words, just as soon as you admit you have no faith in law, you are at once branded as an enemy of order, a disturber of the peace, a rioter, a dangerous person. The mere fact that you can point out that often there is law and no order, and, on the other hand, order without law, is of no consequence. The Gibraltar-like phrase scorns all attacks. You may even quote, but without any apparent effect, America's most famous essayist, Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "I am glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing. Massachusetts, in its heroic days, had no government, was an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor, and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac."

Another one of the cheerful phrases is "religion and morality," and pious people will tell you that to attack religion is but one step removed from attacking morality, and if you have no religion you can have no morals, and if it wasn't for the Bible, no one would know what morality is, anyhow. The fact that you can point to the disgraceful lives of the beastly popes, quote Scripture that would make a horse blush, and tell them that George Francis Train was imprisoned on the charge of circulating obscene literature, when he published certain passages from the Bible, seems to have no effect.

And still another expression, around which the ivy of superstition has clustered, is "college education." When you hear parents say, "I intend to give my boy an education," you know they really mean, "I intend to send my son to college"—but don't try to explain that these are two entirely different things; your efforts will be wasted, and when the dear son graduates, he will be fondled by his parents, who will say, "Bless you, my boy, you're educated"—a proposition which he will admit. The fact that you can show that a majority of the big men of the world never went to college, or if they did go, stood at the bottom of the class; the fact that you can point out that neither our greatest modern statesman, Lincoln, nor our greatest poet, Walt Whitman, nor our greatest orator, Ingersoll, nor our greatest inventor, Edison, were college-bred men, goes for naught. We are bewitched with phrases.

Of course, I believe every one who can afford it should receive what is called a college education. The value gained is perhaps worth the four years in time, and the one thousand dollars in money. But I also believe, and believe strongly, that the university is not all it should be; yet on that point we cannot find sufficient ground to attack it—but the fact that it is not all it could be gives us a loophole through which to thrust our lance.

Whenever anything is wrong with an organization or an individual, we are apt to attribute the disease to different causes, and "who shall decide when doctors disagree, and soundest casuists differ, like you and me?" But there is a truth which cannot seriously be denied— that one of the main reasons why the college course is not satisfactory is because it is controlled from top to bottom, from foundation to flag-pole, by its patrons, its rich donors, by men who give millions, so they can control the colleges, and see that no objectionable doctrines are taught there. The influence of these men can distinctly be traced in the kind of presidents and professors our colleges have. Take Francis L. Patton, of Princeton, who recently declared that Herbert Spencer was one of the "world's grandest failures," and wound up his sermon by telling the pupils to "give their hearts to Jesus." To tell you that Spencer was one of the greatest intellects that ever existed, is assuming that the Synthetic Philosophy is to you a blank. If it is true, and I believe it is, that every great institution must have a big man behind it, what do you expect of Patton's Princeton Pootlynautch?


Another of this sort is Henry Mitchell McCracken, the chancellor of the New York University; he would like to have a law passed which would exclude from the colleges all students who could not furnish a Sundayschool certificate vouching for their moral character. You see, this proves the point I made before—the Sundayschool boy is the moral boy, and if you don't go to Sundayschool you can't get the certificate, and so you're not moral. In the superb chapel of the N. Y. U., printed in letters of gold, is this dictum: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Here is a maxim which would be improved vastly, were it changed slightly, to read: "The fear of the Lord is the end of wisdom." And let me tell you, the fear of anything is the end of wisdom. Are you afraid of your instructor ? You won't learn. Do you expect the brain to grow, to expand, to blossom, when it is dominated by fear? Fear is a paralyzer. I have been going to schools and academies and colleges as long as I can remember, and I say that that tutor who expects to acquire dignity by browbeating his pupils, who seeks to arouse awe and gain respect by putting on a stern demeanor, who thinks it becomes him to be aloof and unsympathetic, who has a loud mouth and a blustering stride, who thinks he adds to his greatness by treating his scholars rudely, who thus creates an atmosphere of uneasiness and uncertainty—that man, I say, is not worthy of the name of teacher; he should be driven from his position, placed in a kindergarten and taught to repeat over and over again, that only in moments of healthful expectancy and pleasurable animation can we absorb obtruse theories, solve knotty problems and track reason to its lair.

The colleges teach many good and useful subjects— political economy, for instance; but what kind of political economy? There used to be a professor in college who was a Socialist; it was found out that there was a professor in college who was a Socialist, and then there wasn't a professor in college who was a Socialist. In recent years, however, I believe this rule has not been so strictly enforced. Socialism is becoming fashionable— that's why I dropped it. Especially in Germany, those professors who believe in Socialism, but are opposed to putting it into practice, are allowed to retain their chairs.

The colleges teach science. Good! That's the very best thing they could teach; but it is taught in a sneaky, roundabout way. A student may take a scientific course, learn geology, study the testimony of the rocks, and read the history of the world back for millions of ages, which destroys the Biblical account of the creation of the earth, 4,004 B. C; he may learn astronomy, and, scanning the heavens, see circling 'round the sun countless worlds, compared to which this earth is but an atom —one would think that the student could no longer credit the Biblical story that God took nearly six days to create this grain upon which we live, and only a part of an afternoon to make the rest of the mighty universe. He may even study the doctrine of evolution, and beginning at the simplest cell, at the lowest form of life, trace the progress of that cell, step by step, prove every conclusion, until he arrives at the highest organism, at the most complex development—man; and this, of course, destroys absolutely the idea of the special creation of Adam and Eve, of the fowls of the air, of the beasts of the field, of the fishes of the sea. Yet, incredible as it may seem, in such a way has all this been taught, and in such a manner has it been drilled, that this same student may still claim that the Mosaic, the Miltonic, the Biblical account of creation does not conflict at all with science, and in some cases he may even descend to the absurd depths of Gladstone, who in his "argument" with Ingersoll actually declared that Moses and Darwin agree.

I will give an instance or two of this roundabout way of teaching. Sir John Lubbock, best known by his worst book, "The Pleasures of Life," says that we should study science, even if it does sometimes destroy an ancient or poetic myth. Then very cautiously he relates an old Hindoo legend which science does away with. He passes quickly on, extremely careful to say nothing of the Christian or Jewish myths which science demolishes. Now, Lubbock is a scientist—he knows "there is not a dogma of Christianity, not a foundation on which that dogma rests" which is not swept away, which is not proved false, by the testimony of the fossils, by the glittering pagan— named stars, by the facts of evolution, by the origin of species, by biology and philology; but to say so would offend popular opinion, and Lubbock rests content within his shell.

Beginning with the lower grades, we learn history, which is a record of people and events. Well, in this country there was once a man who was the first abolitionist, the first to declare in favor of negro freedom; he was the first man to write an article against cruelty to animals; he was the first to advocate woman's rights; he was the first man to advise us to separate from England and become a free and independent nation: he it was who first wrote the phrase, "The United States of America"; when the colonial troops at Valley Forge were in despair, it was his wonderful pamphlet, beginning with the ringing words, "These are the times that try men's souls," that stirred those soldiers to feverheat and victory at Trenton; he was the first man to suggest the Declaration of Independence; he was the first to suggest the Constitution under which we live; and yet, you may go to school from the first class to the last, from the lowest grade to the highest, and never once come across that man's name. You may look through the indexes of a hundred text-books on history and never once read that beacon-light—Thomas Paine.

Yet, as I said before, those who can go to college, should; and when the two baleful influences, the rich patron and the theological element, are eliminated, then, indeed, will the value of a college education be great . Even now, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, a stubborn fact, which neither patrons nor professors can beat down, raises its head once in a while. Imperfect, unsatisfactory, and often one-sided as are our institutions of learning, yet upon every school-house I read the story, "I am the enemy of superstition." Yes, go to college. But do a little thinking, a little studying on your own account. It won't hurt the college—it won't hurt you.

  • Victor Robinson, “College Education,” Mother Earth 2, no. 2 (April 1907): 72-76.