A portrait of Woodrow Wilson ’79.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 12, 1956.

Before addressing my attention directly to my subject I cannot deny myself one personal bit of testimony touching the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s educational philosophy on my own career. When I became President of Princeton I had not read a single professional book on education. Indeed I have read but a handful since; and it is probably a mark of my incorrigible innocence that I have never felt the loss keenly, for I believe that what is most worth saying about liberal education can be discovered in as few as half a dozen classical volumes. So it was not until my wife and I had been enjoying the comforts of Prospect, the home of the president of the University, for well-nigh a decade that I began seriously to examine Woodrow Wilson’s essays and addresses on education as distinct from public affairs. It was a truly humbling experience, for it revealed to me how much of what I had been saying about Princeton’s aims and ambitions had been said by him and said much better; how I had subconsciously absorbed his ideas by a process of osmosis from the intellectual atmosphere which he had created; and how effectively he had prepared both the scholarly and institutional foundations for what we call the modern Princeton. He was a prophet indeed. Although he left his University amid bitterness and violent controversy, he was not a prophet crying in the wilderness. “His body is buried in peace, but his name liveth for evermore,” at Princeton, as throughout America and the lands across the seas.

To qualify as a statesman, either in education or politics, one must be a man of action as well as a man of thought. Wilson was such a man. He not only advocated educational reform, he clothes his philosophy of reform in a living structure. And he did so according to a pattern so simple, so clear and so successful that all could comprehend. It was this happy marriage of sound theory and sound practice that made his administration of Princeton one of such “high visibility” throughout the nation. “Never,” writes Professor Link, his chief modern biographer, “had so much new life and vigor been injected at one stroke into an established faculty.” His skillful assembly of the first group of preceptors – “fifty guys to make us wise,” as the seniors’ faculty song had it – within a period of a few months was a feat that no other college president has matched. His success in proving that he had a system which men could operate with dramatic results spread his influence far beyond his own university.

It would be a grave mistake to evaluate his influence by the extent to which the preceptorial system which he devised was itself copied by other colleges. None has done so, at least in a comprehensive manner. For one thing, as President Eliot of Harvard remarked, it is very expensive; and firmly as we at Princeton believe in it, we must admit that President Eliot was right; it is expensive. No, the full sweep and effect of what Mr. Wilson wrought for higher education must be sought in broader fields, in the manner in which he lifted the sights and set new targets for all American colleges, the majority of which never contemplated for themselves a reproduction of his justly famed preceptorial system.

To fix correctly a man’s place in history one must understand the times in which he lived. The college world of today is not the college world of 1900 which Woodrow Wilson weighed and found wanting. The closing decades of the Nineteenth Century were for American colleges in general a period of untroubled pedagogical slumber. Not that students of the ’80s and ’90s derived no profit from their four years of college. Too many men are alive today to testify that they did to support us moderns in attitudes of complacent superiority towards our predecessors. Nevertheless, the times in which Woodrow Wilson began his teaching career did represent a low watermark in the intellectual vitality of our colleges and their relevance to the ever-changing world about them.

Professor Santayana, whose native mental vigor would have survived under any conditions and who, therefore is not to be considered a fair sample, defended the Harvard College of his undergraduate days in words applicable to all colleges of the era. His argument was not that the college stimulated or awakened thought in a positive manner, but rather that it supplied an environment in which the student “liberated for a time from the pursuit of money and from hypocrisy” could grow according to his nature. “Manhood and sagacity,” continued Santayana, “ripen of themselves; it suffices not to repress or distort them.” In my somewhat weather-beaten experience, this is a too passive and optimistic guide for educational policy, and certainly it did not satisfy Woodrow Wilson. As one would expect of a mind like his, he considered that, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, our colleges were in serious need of repair. He held that this repair could be accomplished only as it was realized that “the fundamental basis of a college community is the intellectual.” The traditional time-hallowed classical course of study he found too restricted to meet the diverse needs and aptitudes of young people about to move out into a world which was entering a period of turbulent change. In the words of his Princeton inaugural, college studies “were losing their connection with working values.” He argued that to be liberal an education must establish acquaintance with certain fundamental areas of human thought and experience. The currently popular free elective system, advocated by President Eliot of Harvard, he insisted to “impart intellectual discipline,” and he was a friend of discipline. College curricula should contain an element of planned order affording a “systematic sequence” of courses which would assure that young people would not be intellectual “yokels” and “provincials” destined to a sorry servitude to sprawling, superficial knowledge.

He repeatedly stressed the intellectual awakening that arises by “contagion” or “infection” through reading and conversation between students and teachers. The function of this preceptorial system was to be a carrier of this contagion. The natural next step, taken at Princeton twenty years later, was to add a new superstructure of independent study which includes an original senior thesis to Mr. Wilson’s basic foundation to enable a student to engage in creative research of his own and thus learn how to hammer out further education for himself, to experience both the pain and the joy involved in the search for truth.

Always deeply loyal to America, he was naturally a firm friend of that typically American institution, the college of liberal arts. His plans for Princeton were no pale reflection of British or Continental universities; they were strictly American. In his pattern for American colleges he did not neglect extracurricular life. He cautioned that extracurricular activities do not by any means comprise all of what a college should give its students, but he likewise believed “if young gentlemen get from their years in college manliness, esprit de corps, a release of their social gifts, a training in give and take, a catholic taste in men and the standards of true sportsmen, they have gained much.” Nevertheless a Yale football game was no proper reason for cutting his lecture and the record shows that he severely flagellated absentees on at least one such an occasion. He did not go to the extreme of a Scottish predecessor, Dr. McCosh, who sent away the students who had assembled to serenade him at his home after an important athletic victory with the acid declaration, “I am more interested in the gymnastics of the mind.” Wilson would have received them and shared their elation, yet no more than McCosh did he want physical gymnastics to obstruct mental exercise.

Against the heavy opposition of advocates of specialized pre-professional college education, he argued, that professional training in law, medicine and the ministry should be preceded by four years of “antecedent” liberal education. In one biting sentence he dismissed those who advocated shortening college preparation to two years in order to hasten professional preparation, by remarking, “I take it for granted that those who have formulated the proposals (to award the baccalaureate degree at the end of sophomore year) really never knew a sophomore in the flesh. The sap of manhood is rising in him, but it has not yet reached his head.”

Foremost always in his mind was the college as a preparation for citizenship. This was a special mission of the American college, in distinction to the narrower function of the universities of Continental Europe. To accomplish this mission required a reasonable time, and he brooked no compromise in the interest of speed.

This is no occasion for rehearsing the conflicts of temperament and personalities which marked Mr. Wilson’s final years at Princeton. As one looks back down the perspective of half a century, it is possible to separate the clash of contending persons from the debate regarding basic educational aims and to realize how general, after all, was the agreement regarding the latter. I have intimated that, even when Mr. Wilson was talking most directly to Princeton and Princetonians, the whole college and university world listened. When he exposed the weaknesses of Princeton he was but exposing the prevailing malaise of all American colleges. To the mounting unrest in educational circles of the time he gave inspiration and direction and leadership. That so much for which American higher education strives today was explicit in his policies for Princeton is the greatest tribute we can pay him as an architect of educational progress.

Of course I should be the last to suggest that his ideals have been fully realized, at Princeton or anywhere else, despite all the significant improvement in hundreds of institutions over the intervening years. To paraphrase Browning, education’s reach should always exceed its grasp, “or what is Heaven for?” May it always be so.

Mr. Wilson liked to describe liberal education in terms of one’s awareness of the world of nature and of the spirit. He would remark how inaccurate it was to say of a man who had lost his way in a jungle or a desert that he had lost himself. Himself, he insisted, is the one thing he has not lost. “What as a matter of fact he has lost, is the rest of the world,” because he has lost his relation to it. “The perfectly informed individual, if you can find one,” he once told a high school teachers association, “may not be an educated person,” for facts are (but) crude raw material of the mind. The goal of liberal education is to enable one to weave from the raw material of facts the previous pattern of enlightenment and wisdom. He drove the point home by a story about Lincoln, as follows:

“Lincoln was sending a gentleman on a very delicate mission, and this gentleman had sat up until a very late hour with Secretary Seward and the President going over all the possible contingencies of the case. When midnight came and they found themselves jaded and tired, the gentleman, rising to depart, said, ‘Well, Mr. President, if there is anything that we have overlooked are there any general instructions you can give me as to what I shall do?’ Lincoln answered him in this way: ‘When I was in Springfield I had a little girl neighbor who was presented with some beautiful alphabet blocks. She was so fascinated with them that she did not want to part with them even at bedtime, so she took them to bed with her. After she had played with them until she was very sleepy, she recollected that she had not said her prayers. So she got on her knees and said, ‘O, Lord, I am too sleepy to pray, but there are the letters, spell it out for yourself.’”

The moral for liberal education in contrast to mere training in skills is clear. May no American college or university ever lose sight of it for a moment.

This was originally published in the October 12, 1956 issue of PAW.