Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A College Training
By Daniel Coit Gilman (18311908)
[Address at the Opening of Adelbert College, Cleveland, Ohio, 26 October, 1882.]
SKEPTICS in regard to higher education may point to Shakespeare, with his little Latin and less Greek; to Franklin, the philosopher and statesman, with his homely English and poor French; to Grote, the historian of Greece, who had no academic life; to Whittier, Howells, and Cable, our own gifted contemporaries, and to many more writers who never went to college; and I confess that such examples seem at first to show that colleges are not essential to literary culture. But we must remember that our institutions are not devised for an oligarchy of intellect, but for a democracy; not for a few royal dignitaries, but for a throng of faithful workers. In a recent biography of Spinoza you may meet this pithy saying: The secret workings of nature which bring it to pass that an Æschylus, a Leonardo, a Faraday, a Kant, or a Spinoza is born upon earth are as obscure now as they were a thousand years ago; and if this be admitted, surely, colleges are not to be built up and maintained for such extraordinary phenomena. We call these men gifted; we say they have genius; we except them from rules. They will win renown under any circumstances, hindered but not repressed by acting parts in a theatre like Shakespeare; or setting type in a printing-house like Franklin; or managing a bank like Grote; or learning the trade of a bookbinder like Faraday. It is neither for the genius nor for the dunce, but for the great middle class possessing ordinary talents, that we build colleges; and it can be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that for them the opportunities afforded by libraries, teachers, companionship, and the systematic recurrence of intellectual tasks are most efficient means of intellectual culture. Mental discipline may indeed be acquired in other ways; the love of letters is not implanted by a college; the study of nature may be pursued alone in the open air; but given to each one in a group of a hundred youths a certain amount of talent, more than mediocrity and less than geniusthat is to say, the average ability of a boy in our high schools and academiesit will be found in nine cases out of ten that those who go to college surpass the others during the course of life, in influence, in learning, in the power to do good, and in the enjoyment of books, nature, and art. Mental powers may be developed in other placesthe mechanics institute, the mercantile library, the winter lyceum, the private study, the gatherings of good men, in the haunts of business, and in the walks of civil life, but not so easily, nor so systematically, nor so thoroughly, nor so auspiciously, nor so pleasantly. With all their defects, colleges are the best agencies which the world has ever devised for the training of the intellectual forces of youth .
A good college gives training in the arts of expression as well as in those of observation; it not only favors the acquisition of knowledge by its students, but it shows them how to bring forth their knowledge for the benefit of others. This function of a college has not always been sufficiently developed. The learning of appointed lessons, the memorizing of rules and dates, the solution of problems, and the observation or performance of experiments, all this is undoubtedly good discipline, but it is not enough. The scholar should be able to express himself clearly, neatly, and fitly, and there are very few, indeed, who can do this without long and careful practice. I have talked with some of the leading publishers of American books, regarding the manuscript submitted to them, and I have spoken with editors of the very best magazines, and from both these sources, which are doubtless perfectly well informed, I receive the same impression, that this country is now prolific in writers, but that the number of trained literary men who can write well, and make of literature a profession, is very small. There are many who are eager to print their effusions; there are few who are willing to elaborate their work, rewriting, rearranging, pruning, condensing, shaping until the best form possible is attained. It is a mistake to suppose that writers who win the highest renown are commonly hasty, that they dash off what they say by a stroke of genius. The biography of Dickens shows what pains he took to secure even the right proper names; for example, note his choice of the title Household Words. Pages of his proof-sheets which I have seen show how carefully he revised every paragraph. The very last proofs of Peveril of the Peak (owned by President White) show that a romance of Walter Scott received the masters final touches just before the printing began. Bret Hartes famous poem on the Heathen Chinee was corrected and recorrected, and on the ultimate revision received, I believe, that satirical touch which gave it world-wide fame: We are ruined by Chinee cheap labor. Emerson is considered by many as a sort of oracle, simply opening his mouth to let fall aphorisms of profound importance, but recent and authentic narratives of his life show that he forged his sentences like the gold-beater who is preparing a setting for pearls .
You may think it very trifling for me to speak of penmanship, but I cannot refrain from telling a story of one of the most illustrious mathematicians of the nineteenth century, whose great treatise lay unnoticed for nearly three years in the archives of the French Academy, because, as Legendre himself acknowledged, it was almost illegible, being written with very faint ink and the characters being badly formed. Resurgent from the temporary grave to which its bad penmanship consigned it, this treatise of Abels became the point of departure for profound researches, still in progress fifty years later, by Cayley and Sylvester in Cambridge and Baltimore. All this seems to me to indicate that training, imposed by ones self or by ones teacher, is essential to literary success. Colleges provide such training.