Woodrow Wilson, with Professor William Libbey on his left, leads the academic procession in front of the Joseph Henry House in 1905.
Princeton University Archives.
The evolution of Wilson’s bold idea into the present system…

This article has been excerpted from two chapters of a forthcoming history of Princeton in recent times (1971). The author is a noted iconoclast and a longtime student of Princetoniana, especially as a former editor of PAW. – Editor (1971).

Not long after he became president of Princeton in 1902, Woodrow Wilson began the educational reform that he hoped would be his most lasting contribution to Princeton. It was to be a combination of innovation with old and sound principles of education. He felt that Princeton had then grown so fast that it was losing its old intimacy; he himself had already lectured to single classes bigger than the whole student body of his undergraduate days. Even though he was a splendid lecturer (and continued to give as president his lecture course in political science), he was contemptuous of the lecture system as a technique of instruction. With spoon-fed lecture notes, he said, one cannot “catch the infection” of any subject “except the lecturer himself.” Wilson believed what every good teacher knows and feels: the only way to get real results is by what he called “direct, personal, intimae intercourse” with his students, “not as a class but as individuals.”

He proposed a new system of teaching the upperclassmen in their fields of concentration, in small groups but not small “classes” – for it is “futile to instruct students in general [my italics] subjects by classroom methods,” and, anyway, “classroom work can’t deeply interest a man.” This would be a small discussion meeting with a young professor. It could be defined as an American variant on the Oxford and Cambridge tutorials, which profoundly impressed Wilson as the seed-bed of the British philosopher-statesmen he so passionately admired.

This system, at first called the “tutorial,” was later christened “preceptorial,” a term that had the virtue of novelty and no previous association. It would be discussion of five or six students with a “preceptor” (American for “don”) in which all would participate and none could bluff or remain silent. The upperclassman would not be quizzed on what he already knew, and the conversation would be directed to, in Wilson’s words, “what he doesn’t know.” Confined to what Wilson called the “reading” departments, since it was impossible in the sciences or mathematics, the system would get the students to “work up” subjects (not courses) on their own, by their own reading, by buying and marking up their own books, which would thereafter be the core of their personal libraries – exactly what Wilson had done in college. Princeton graduates would become his personal definition of educated men: “reading men.”

Shortly after taking office, Princeton’s new president explained what he wanted: “The preceptors are to be selected primarily on their standing as gentlemen…If their qualities as gentlemen and scholars conflict, the former will win them the place.”
Princeton University Archives.
Wilson believed that his plan would be still-born if executed by unworthy hands. So in an equally astounding innovation Wilson got authorization from the trustees to hire 50 (later increased to 58) “preceptors” – young men with the rank of assistant professor on a five-year appointment, whom he would personally choose. In the history of American universities there is no parallel, either before or after, for such a radical action or for such a reckless commitment of money – money that had not been raised and existed only in the endless optimism of the new president.

His method of recruitment was distinctive – no laborious sifting through graduate records or weighing of paper credentials, he just wrote a personal note to the best young men in the academic world inviting them to apply. When the young scholar came down to Princeton, after talking to the departmental chairman, he called on the president. Woodrow Wilson sat him down for an hour, not to cross-examine him but to talk to him about the preceptorial system and his glowing hopes for Princeton. The impression on these young men, often restless under their tradition-encrusted colleagues and elderly superiors, was astonishing. “Before five minutes had passed,” said one, “I knew I was in the presence of a great man…Had Woodrow Wilson asked me to go with him and work with him while he inaugurated a new university in Kamchatka or Senegambia, I would have said yes without further question.” They were chosen on personal grounds, on a face-to-face impression, and they came because of their interview with this great man.

The preceptors were an unusual group as personalities as well as teachers. Wilson set the pay at $2,000, the highest salary in the country for assistant professors – by no coincidence, the same figure he had asked for (and didn’t get) in his first teaching job at Bryn Mawr. As one old preceptor remembered, “You could get anybody you wanted, at that price.” Although most of them had left Princeton and many the academic life, 40 years later Wilson’s preceptors were still holding reunions: several were big businessmen, four were college presidents, one was a United States Senator, one was an army general, and one was a Benedictine abbot. Wilson was implacable on one trait that seems odd today: “Learning,” he said, “in order to be pervasive, must be social in its operation…The preceptors are to be selected primarily on their standing as gentlemen, as men who are companionable, clubbable, whose personal qualities of association give them influence over the minds of men. If their qualities as gentlemen and scholars conflict, the former will win them the place.”

One scientist remembered then as “a fine lot…good talkers. There were many former Oxford scholars.” Several had been Rhodes Scholars, and the preceptorial ideal was somehow like that of Cecil Rhodes, the red-blooded, athletic, Christian, full of pep and good talk and the spirit of learning. The young ladies of Princeton received them as “the dancing bachelors…what a thrill.” They soon made themselves heard as “good rooters at the games” but, interestingly enough, about 85% were not “Princeton men.” They were outsiders, bringing in a fresh breeze of criticism, of objective standards, of no-nonsense about the good old days of McCosh, Patton, and “the Princeton spirit.”

The model of behavior and teaching, the preceptors were told, was the Oxford tutor. They were to hold the preceptorials in their homes or studies, and with the rich aroma of professorial pipes, “smoke” the students. At the same time a new recitation hall was begun containing 26 preceptorial rooms – not the usual, square, blackboarded hall with nailed-down, one-armed seats but small, badly lighted chambers with chairs and a single table around which the men would gravely puff on their pipes (cigarettes were considered effeminate then) and allow the conversation to wander over literature and “life.” The preceptor, Wilson told them, was to be “guide, philosopher, friend,” and they were seen walking through the woods with the boys “without apparent embarrassment”; they were invited down to the Prospect Street clubs and invited their hosts back to the “Monastery.”

The nature of their teaching was distinctive, and their name denoted a rank – all they did was to “precept.” As a matter of fact, that’s all they had time to do. Each took a group of juniors and precepted it through the next two years in all departmental courses, returning after graduation to pick up another group of juniors. Their teaching hours ran as high as 15 a week*, and in the sprawling departments of those days they taught in as many as 24 different courses in a few years’ time. One preceptor remembers simultaneously teaching “American history, money and banking, public finance, municipal government, and goodness knows what else.” This involved a tremendous workload, reading as much as 10,000 or 15,000 pages a year; another remembers wryly, “I got an education, anyway, something any Ph.D. can use.”

The preceptors, if they were not already, became expert teachers and cultivated gentlemen – what Wilson called “generalists.” Racing through whole libraries of learning, they acted as guides and co-explorers of the reading. The focus of instruction was on the undergraduate and on the unity of knowledge, on analogy and comparison between one subject and another, on meaning rather than facts in themselves. Since the preceptor had the same group in each course for two years, he knew each student and his opinions intimately, and the precept became an intellectual club or walking symposium. Encountering the same problems in different courses, it developed a group mind.

This spirit seemed to permeate the whole college. Even the old professors got their backs up and re-wrote their lectures. “The method is taking hold,” Wilson reported, “we are all preceptors.” He even took a precept himself. Again and again in the memoirs and the memories of these men occurs the line of Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in the dawn to be alive.” One of the later appointees said he was “amazed at the spirit of the preceptors…they thought they had the answer to the educational problem.” Another attributed this success to the preceptors’ “intimate contact with the president…and the direct influence of his strong personality.” According to the younger faculty, at least, in a few short years Princeton had bolted awake from sleep-walking into an educational institution, one which was getting a reasonable amount of work out of its students and starting to turn out its ideal end-product, what Wilson described as “the most useful all-around Christian gentlemen…scholarly boys with red blood.” New men, young men for a joyous season believed Princeton was doing what it promised to do. Woodrow Wilson made himself believe it and made then believe it too. Older heads on the faculty preferred to reserve judgment.

That judgment came shortly after Wilson left Princeton. Whatever Wilson might have thought of the preceptors’ future, the original preceptorial system was against the main drift of American higher education. Apparently he thought of the rank as a lifetime career in which the “fellows” own the college, vote themselves salaries, have no thought of outside reputation or prestige, center their lives completely around the teaching of young men, and maintain a civilized contempt for what is called “scholarship.”

The question about the preceptors’ future had been asked by the men themselves when they saw that promotions and preferment were going to the men who received “calls” from other universities, and the way to be “called” was to publish scholarly books and articles – but the preceptors by temperament and the nature of their duties were not able to do research. Teaching on a heavy schedule in many subjects, with wide reading on a broad spectrum, specifically selected by a clubbable rather than a scholarly criterion, they were not scholars (for all their abilities) and not inclined to pretend they were. Even in Wilson’s time there had been a mild mutiny because of the heavy schedules and the lack of concrete rewards.

When the preceptors’ contracts came up for renewal, decisions could be made without Wilson’s overpowering presence. In the expanding world of American scholarship and university development, Princeton had deliberately chosen a reactionary tack to restore the intimacy of the 19th century college by centering its energies on the undergraduate in the manner of the British universities. But the rest of America was following the pattern of the continental universities, especially the German, of specialized scholarship, the advancement of knowledge, of graduate training, and extensive publishing of the higher learning. In educational theory, as in political theory, Wilson was just what Teddy Roosevelt called him, “a sincere, rural Tory.” President Hibben was no scholar but he had studied in Berlin; Wilson took his graduate work at a specialized research center built upon the German model – Johns Hopkins – and hated it.

Here was a university in name only, financially over-extended, faced with a large group of assistant professors trained to a discontent with conventional scholarship and intensely committed to the memory of a now-repudiated president. The outcome was inevitable. Eleven preceptors resigned from a single department in four years. Men of ability, almost all became something else – administrators, businessmen, college presidents – a few changed their direction completely and became Princeton scholars, and supremely successful ones as well.

A faculty committee took the matter under consideration in 1913 and came up with a confidential report, which, considering the insoluble nature of the dilemma, worked out an admirable compromise. Its conclusion was that the name “preceptorial system” was a misnomer, since it was a “method” and not a “system” whose weakness was that it used only assistant professors because of their closeness in age to the undergraduates, who were therefore cut off from “older men with ability and knowledge.” The name “preceptor” hereafter should be not a “rank” but a “function;” now Wilson’s figurative statement would be literally true: “we are all preceptors.” Every professor would do precepting, but not in a large number of courses, confining his efforts to his own field of specialization and his own course. Since the new graduate college loomed large on the southern horizon, he would also offer a graduate course in that topic too. Now the scholar could meld his teaching and his research, and with teaching duties repetitive and thus lightened, “publish” to his heart’s content.

As the teacher ascends the academic ladder he would be given a large lecture course and fewer precepts, because the lecture platform is where the prestige is. Unless that recognition was accorded, the whole system would break down. To precept in the grand manner required either youth or youth in heart.

The result was different from Wilson’s concept of the precept, and there is little question that teaching suffered a good deal. The original preceptors had been replaced by either older, uninterested men or mediocre instructors simply trying to get ahead. Now the undergraduates lost contact with the preceptors, bouncing form one to another with each course. The preceptor, no longer “guide, philosopher, and friend,” talked down to the students from the heights of his specialty. Now that the faculty itself was subdivided into narrow departmental compartments, there was little effort to relate one field to another.

Even when honored in the breach, the preceptorial system is a distinctive system of education, has concrete results, and, in comparison to the three-lectures-a-week courses at other universities, stands like Hyperion to a satyr. But if the students will not volunteer their opinions, half-baked or otherwise, and sit like bumps on that log, or if the professor is indifferent, the results are horrendous, as one professor put it, like “a dinner party where the guests keep falling asleep at the table.”

But this, perversely, is its very excellence, in that it forces the student and the professor into direct contact and to see if they have anything in common and whether anything useful is being accomplished. The professor, to his embarrassment, is forced to discover what his students don’t understand about his careful lectures; the students find out, perhaps, that their professor is what they call privately “a dull tool.” Wilson said he wanted to create “the social embarrassment of associating with men who know you do not know anything.” In the end, it may be that he met that goal only too well.

* An Oxford tutor can teach as much as 35 hours a week.


This was originally published in the November 9, 1971 issue of PAW.