Mr. Wilson’s proposals with respect to teaching methods and residence arrangements came from a common observation and a common motive. He often said that he found the American undergraduate a schoolboy; he was determined that he should be, and should be treated like, a man.

What was Woodrow Wilson’s contribution to American college education? His papers and addresses, dating from 1877, when he was a sophomore at Princeton, to 1913, when he became President of the United States, which have been recently published by Harper and Brothers, reveal in him two dominating interests. He wanted to understand and so to share in the leadership of a democracy. He wanted also to prepare young people for the same understanding and leadership.

As to the relative strength of these two emotions, the papers are, I think, fairly clear. Only a few weeks before his death I had the privilege of talking with him about plans for educational work. At that time he said to me, in words that were soon to take on a quality of pathos in spite of their gallant courage, “You know I have still a great deal to do in this business of our international obligations; but when I have finished that I am going back into education.” The balance of interest in that statement is, I think, the balance disclosed by these papers. He had the teaching impulse and the teaching power. But primarily he was a leader in social and political action. The zest for teaching and study was directed by the zest for leading. Running through all his studies of administration there was a grim and passionate determination to get administration improved, to make government serve the public welfare, Woodrow Wilson was a great teacher because there was something that he wanted done, that he wanted to do.

It was chiefly from this practical enthusiasm that Mr. Wilson’s general contribution to college work in America came. “Princeton for the Nation’s Service” was the war cry of his Inaugural Address. And it was clear at once that he was a man in a hurry. It was a time when college studies seemed to be losing their connection with working values. Into this situation he brought the demand that studies be made vital. Both by preaching and by practice he gave to the college a sense of responsibility, of the urgency of its issues, the importance of its success or failure.

His favorite and most significant statement of his own programme for the college was that he planned to make it a community and to do so on the basis of its only fundamental interests – the intellectual. He found the college failing into separate parts. He found the parts dominated by social interests quite foreign to the intellectual. He was determined that the college should be again one institution of learning. The specific lines along which he sought to achieve this unity had to do (1) with the course of study, (2) with the methods of teaching, and (3) with the social organization of the college, with especial reference to its arrangements for residence. It is interesting to see how different in quality and in success were his dealings with these different phases of his general endeavor.

As to the course of study, Mr. Wilson was facing the confusion which followed the breaking down of the old curriculum. Required studies were giving way to elections; freedom of choice was taking the place of prescription. In the midst of this process he stood as a stalwart champion of general training. He was troubled to see that elective studies, when they were genuine, constantly tended to become professional or vocational. As against this, he demanded that professional study be preceded by and founded on liberal study; he declared that the liberal college must forever be the heart of the university; he argued that all students in a liberal college should take those essential studies which fill and enrich men’s lives. The college, he was fond of saying, deals not with the fortunes but with the spirits of men. At the basis of all its work he found an ideal, a compelling moral purpose.

Mr. Wilson’s proposals with respect to teaching methods and residence arrangements came from a common observation and a common motive. He often said that he found the American undergraduate a schoolboy; he was determined that he should be, and should be treated like, a man. What he meant was that the life of the undergraduate had broken in two. On the one hand, the studies were mere tasks, imposed by a faculty. On the other hand was the life of real interest, the activities in which men were trying to succeed, in terms of which they found their social groupings, in which also they aspired to relations with the graduates and with what seemed to them the spirit of the institution. It was Mr. Wilson’s purpose to break down that dualism. He wanted to center college life about the studies. He wanted to bring the faculty into living contact with their students. And by implication he wanted to destroy or transform a certain type of connection between undergraduates and graduates. He wanted, as he said, to subordinate the side-shows to the main circus.

As a corrective teaching method, Mr. Wilson secured the adoption, with some modification, of the English tutorial scheme of instruction. Students and teachers were to be brought into contact and intimate conference concerning the studies. The undergraduate was to be made to feel that he must take the initiative in his own work. He was also to discover that he could talk with his teacher as a fellow student working in the same field and in the same spirit. True education, Mr. Wilson said, is by contagion. His plan was that the faculty should, by personal contact, set the students on fire with intellectual enthusiasm.

The proposal with respect to residence arrangements was a further development of the same motive. In a very real sense Mr. Wilson wanted to take the undergraduates from the graduates and to affiliate them with the faculty. He found the interests of the college determined largely by the “clubs.” In these clubs the social lines of undergraduate life were chiefly drawn; in them the sentimental connections with the graduates were established and strengthened. Mr. Wilson’s plan was that the undergraduates should live in relatively small residence groups, that members of the faculty should be friendly and accepted dwellers in these groups, and that the clubs should be abandoned or should be transformed into the moulds of the new arrangement. The social life of the university was to be formed and shaped by the interests of the teachers. Mr. Wilson did not oppose the “activities.” He did, however, wish them to be the activities of students.


As one surveys these proposals and achievements of Mr. Wilson, two contributions to the college stand out as of very great importance. His preaching of the gospel of an intellectual community devoted to the public welfare was sorely needed and it was magnificently done. He was a great preacher.

And secondly, the establishing of the tutorial plan of teaching marks a turning point in college instruction in America. He put his finger upon the greatest weakness in our teaching method, that of the failure to develop intellectual initiative, and he pointed the way along which with pitiful slowness we are seeking the remedy.

If one asks as to the limitations of Mr. Wilson’s contribution it is to be remembered that he was President of Princeton only eight years. Apparently he met with opposition all along the way he went. But on the other hand frankness compels the admission of limitation in his own point of view. After all, he was an administrator and a student of administration. In a very unusual degree he was of a non-philosophic type. This quality, or lack of it, appears at two points. First, in his advocacy of “general training,” of the necessity of studying those fundamental things which nourish the spirit, one finds a peculiar lack of certainty of touch. His lists of “essentials” are apparently arbitrary and variable. His mind did not reflect upon the work of knowledge as a whole, did not contribute to the discovery of that unity on which he felt that the organization of the course of study must depend. He was not a student of the theory of the curriculum. And again, it must be noted that the tutorial plan of instruction was not substituted for the older plan of teaching. It was simply added to it, superimposed upon it. There was here no drastic policy of removing causes of trouble.

It is interesting and very significant to find so startling a contrast between Mr. Wilson’s dealing with study and teaching and his dealing with the clubs. In the latter field he did not propose addition of the new to the old. He demanded that the old give way before the new; he insisted on the transformation of the residence arrangements to the very bottom. Why was he so radical in the field of social organization and so lacking in radicalism in the field of educational theory and practice? Was it because he was so much more at home in one field than in the other? Was it because he was so much more at home in one field than in the other? Was it because of the knowledge that however dangerous the graduates may be, the teachers are still more deadly when jolted from their ruts? The field of speculation is a fascinating one and a proper understanding of it would through much needed light, not only upon Mr. Wilson, but also upon the residence situation within which he worked. But whatever the explanation, two things may be said as to Mr. Wilson’s dealing with college teaching. First, he led all American colleges by his introduction of the tutorial plan. But second, that plan was not radically established; it was not considered in relation to other teaching methods and to the course of study. And this is what the American college imperatively needs. We must have radical reconsideration of what we should teach and how we should teach it. If we can teach properly, clubs and other such things will take care of themselves.


One cannot read these papers without feeling the charm and mastery of the man who wrote them. He had a gay with that startles and fascinates. He dealt with hearer and reader in words of challenge and defiance, and yet with graciousness and courtesy. He speaks to bankers and tells them what bankers might do and not do. He has the same message for the lawyers, for the teachers, for the ministers. And when he speaks to the descendants of New England he gaily explains the virtues which New England did not possess. All in all, whether or not one agree with him, one must admire and thrill at the gallantry of his spirit.

It is interesting to see how dominating was a single motive, a single idea, in all his writing and thinking, even from the earliest days. From the beginning he was thinking and writing about great public leaders. He dreamed of the power of a man’s mind and speech to guide his fellows into proper action. And always over against such a high and open leading by individuals there was for him the manipulation of men and affairs by groups of men who plan in secret. This was the principle of the amazing paper on Cabinet Government in the United States, written while he was still a graduate student. It was the basis of his attack upon the Trusts when he was running for the Presidency. He said that when men rule by committees and boards it is the small, shrewd man, the manipulator, who controls and who does so in terms of self-interest which cannot bear the light of public debate. But Mr. Wilson believed in leadership by individual men, who must perforce command the confidence of their fellows by open avowal and advocacy of their motives and beliefs. His hospitality to “Secret Diplomacy” was not a late development. It was the permanent motive of his thought and action.

Growing out of the attitude just described was one of Mr. Wilson’s virtues which has been made to serve as a bitter reproach against him. He was more devoted, we are told, to his own ideas than to his friends. In a time and country in which “party” is made more and more to mean a group of men bound together by common interest, seeking to find or devise some idea or shibboleth by means of which they may secure for themselves victory over other like groups, such disloyalty to one’s friends is unforgivable. That he met this reproach seem to me to show how high Mr. Wilson rose above the partisans around him. For him a party was a group of men joined in support of a common idea or common ideal. If men were not, or if they ceased to be, so joined, then, as mere matter of course, they separated and went their honest ways. He was essentially in public life a man of principle, willing to take whatever private consequences the following of principle might involve. I doubt if any lesson which he taught was more sadly needed than is this lesson for which he has been so bitterly condemned.

One other point should perhaps be noted. In all these papers one gets no impression of an interest in general popular education. Rather casually Mr. Wilson speaks of those who do not go to college as doing mechanical tasks. But his mind dwells upon the leading and upon those who do it well or ill. Always he hates dishonest, self-interested cunning leadership. Always he has the passion for directing well the affairs of his fellows, for doing it openly, honestly, and with intelligence.

It is, I think, quite evident that Mr. Wilson was the sort of man who sooner or later fails in what he undertakes. But that means that he was of the resolute, fierce-fighting type that takes desperate chances and is not dismayed by fear of personal failure. More fundamentally, I think, it means that he was one of the men who set their hearts on the greatest causes which cannot be achieved by one man or by one endeavor rather than on the little tasks which even little men can do and finish. It means also that he was on the list of those among whom the world seeks for and find its greatest heroes.

If anyone reads what I have here said I hope he will remember that these impressions are based upon papers written before the greater period of Mr. Wilson’s life. I should like also to express thanks to the editors of the books for making these papers available in such usable form for general reading. We shall look eagerly for the like publication of the writings and sayings of Mr. Wilson during and after his Presidency of the United States. He is a man whom Americans need to know.

This was originally published in the June 17, 1925 issue of PAW.