Sunday, 20 December 2015 08:12

Some Reflections on Choosing a College

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Some Reflections on Choosing a College

John A. Howard

We have learned that John A. Howard, the former President of Rockford College and veteran of W.W. II, passed away this August at the age of ninety-three. John Howard was a long-time supporter of and a greatly appreciated author for The St. Croix Review.

All societies, primitive and advanced, Communist and free, have to provide education for the children to learn how to live responsibly in their own society. This is the central and totally essential element in education. Three-quarters of this speech is preliminary. The last quarter of it will attend to the title.

Choosing a college is not easy these days because there are so many of them and they are so expensive. Even more important - much more important - the ideals, the values, the priorities, the character of the friends, the pastimes in the life pattern, the importance of religion - all these aspects of the student's life at college are likely to affect the whole pattern of life after college.

Charles de Montesquieu was a Frenchman who is widely regarded as one of the wisest and most influential political philosophers since Classical Greece and Rome. His most important book was The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. It was well known to America's Founding Fathers, and key aspects of that analysis were incorporated into the American Constitution.

That book analyzed and compared various forms of government. Every government, like every other formal association of people, be it a kindergarten, a family, a business or a nation, has to have some means of influence over its members so that they will do what the group needs them to do to carry out the group's purposes.

A government in which one person is the ruler and decides what will and what won't happen in that country is a despotism or a tyranny. Fear is the human motive that causes the people to do and not do what the government requires of them. They know that if they refuse to follow orders, they are subject to imprisonment, torture, or other severe penalties.

A self-governing nation, Montesquieu stated, is the best form of government, and the most difficult one to establish and sustain because it can only operate successfully with a virtuous population. Each citizen must voluntarily abide by innumerable standards of conduct: lawfulness, honesty, truthfulness, fairness, patriotism, respect for the rights of other people, the fulfillment of the obligations of being a marriage partner and raising the children and many, many other requirements. There is nothing in human nature which causes the individual to be virtuous and conscientious. Each new generation must be trained to be responsible citizens. Once the free society is well-established, the daily life of the family and the society is such that becoming virtuous is not a monstrous chore for the young people. It comes naturally, like learning to speak the language, but the virtuous life has to be continuously reinforced by the cultural elements of the society. I want to repeat that. Virtue must be continuously reinforced by the culture.

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived three centuries before Christ. He also is widely considered one of the wisest and most influential thinkers of Western culture. With regard to government he said:

. . . Of all the things I have mentioned, that which contributes most to the permanence of Constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government.

The American nation was uniquely and overwhelmingly blessed in that the Pilgrim settlers of New England may have been the most virtuous group of people alive. They had dared to embark with their families on a relatively small boat to cross the dangerous Atlantic Ocean and settle in a wilderness, possibly inhabited by hostile natives, where there were no buildings, no stores, and certainly no medical facilities. During the year after they arrived, half of the hundred Pilgrim settlers had died. That treacherous venture was inspired by a determination to find a place to live in which they could carry on their Christian worship free from the persecution of the British Government. The degree to which Christianity dominated their lives is reflected in the following quotation.

The strict observance of the Sabbath was perhaps the most striking characteristic of this colony and of others of its time. Work ceased on Saturday after three o'clock, and the rest of the day was spent in learning the catechism and preparing for the Sabbath. [A catechism is a summary of Christian principles phrased in the form of questions and answers for teaching purposes.] The morning of the Sabbath was begun by home worship, and then at nine o'clock the Meetinghouse bell summoned every citizen to public service, only the sick and disabled being excused. The Meetinghouse was a crude, humble structure, built of logs chinked with clay or moss, with a thatched roof. It was surrounded by a stonewall or fort for protection against sudden attack by Indians. Every man above eighteen years of age brought his firearms to church, and sentinels paced their beat outside during the service. There were no pews, only benches, and the men and women sat on different sides of the aisle. . . . The service was long and solemn.
About two in the afternoon a second service was begun, followed by the baptism of children, which was an important ceremony, as Puritan babies were invariably taken to church for baptism on the first Sunday after birth, no matter how inclement the weather. At sunset the Sabbath was ended.
Stern and forbidding as that old worship appears at the present day, yet beneath it all we discover that simple, unswerving fidelity to Conscience and the Bible which compelled those men to make their Sabbath what it was. In that rugged spiritual soil were planted the seeds of a religious character which has exerted its influence on all their descendants, and we cannot help reverencing and respecting them for their consistency. [Incidentally this account of Pilgrim life was written in 1917.]1

In the colonies, the church and the family trained the children in Christian behavior which incorporated the standards of virtue required for the free society. On through the centuries of the settling of the American nation, each new community built a church and a school to train new generations for responsible living in their society.

The education of pre-college students in the 19th century was dominated nationwide by the textbooks written by William McGuffey. He was a Presbyterian Minister who became a university president. Beginning in 1836, The McGuffey Readers were used in American public schools. By 1963, 125 million copies had been sold over a period of 117 years. They taught vocabulary and basic reading and writing skills, but the main purpose was to teach Christianity and moral behavior. The books were filled with little stories that illustrate a moral principle. Reinforcing the virtuous life was the theme of McGuffey's texts.

What follows is an excerpt from a 1979 report published by the Hastings Foundation. The author is Columbia University Professor Douglas Sloan.

Throughout most of the 19th Century the most important course in the college curriculum was moral philosophy taught usually by the college president and required of all students.
The full significance of moral philosophy in the 19th Century curriculum can only be understood in the light of the assumption held by American leaders and most ordinary citizens that no nation could survive, let alone prosper, without common moral and social values.
However moral philosophy did not carry the whole burden of forming the students' character and conduct; the entire college experience was meant above all to be an experience in character development and the moral life.2

Fast forward to World War II. At that time, American education still engaged in character education. I graduated from high school in 1939. In the public grade school and the junior high school I attended, the morning began with an assembly for all the teachers and students in the auditorium. First, there was a prayer followed by a talk about some famous American, or an event from American history, and then a patriotic song. After announcements, people dispersed to the classrooms.

During those years there were already powerful forces aggressively pushing for radical changes in the American nation and American schooling. In the 1912 election, the Socialist Party had a membership of 118,000. It received 900,000 votes that year and elected 56 socialist mayors. After World War II the radicalizing of American education proceeded swiftly and unceasingly. The profound turmoil of the radicals on the college campuses in the 1960s, spray-painting and burning campus buildings, shouting down speakers, defying the military draft, spreading the use of mind-altering drugs, celebrating the filthy speech and slovenly dress movements, occupying the offices of university presidents and so on, was so devastating that President Nixon appointed a White House Task Force on Priorities in Higher Education. The sixteen members included the presidents of the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vanderbilt, Tuskegee Institute, and the University of Minnesota. I was then President of Rockford College and was a member.

We were called to the White House and given our marching orders by the White House Chief of Staff, Dr. Arthur Berns. He said the President wanted us to make proposals about what the Government might do to calm things down on the campuses so the academic community could get on with its proper work. We met off and on for a year and a half and gathered at New York University, where the President, Dr. James Hester, was our chairman. He distributed copies of the report that had been prepared by the Task Force staff. It said the government could help by providing funds for six different aspects of college operations and for special groups of students, and by creating a National Academy of Higher Education. Dr. Hester asked what we thought of it. Everyone said it was just fine. I raised my hand. Dr. Hester said, "What is it, John?" I said I was astounded by the report and the reaction to it.

We are supposed to represent all the colleges and universities of America and there isn't one item in the report that attends to the request of the President

"Explain your concern, John," said the chairman.

I said:

We seem to be fighting a war in Vietnam. People are raising a huge fuss on the campuses about the war's legitimacy. The government needs to provide a periodic and extensive reporting to the colleges and to the nation on what we are trying to do, and why, and how it is progressing. Faculty and student revolutionaries are causing us all kinds of trouble. What are the organizations that are engaged in the destructive acts and what can we do about them? We have a serious problem with mind-altering drugs.

One of the members interrupted:

John, all these things involve value judgments. We can't commit ourselves to policies involving value judgments.

Nonindent: The others agreed with him. I said if that's the case we might as well close the colleges. The report was adopted with one dissenting vote. Mine. That was 1970.

An institutional policy of value-neutrality, or non-judgmentalism, had already banished right and wrong on many campuses. Let me provide just one other instance of the earthquake that had laid waste to the marvelous academic program that had for centuries trained Americans in virtue. In 1968, the American Council on Education published a report on a study about the purposes of universities. A questionnaire was sent to 10,000 faculty members and administrators at 68 universities. They received more than 7,000 usable answers. The respondents were asked what are the purposes of your university and what should they be? The questionnaire included a comprehensive list of possible answers. The tabulated results showed that the number one purpose, outdistancing all others by a wide margin, was "To protect the faculty's right to academic freedom." That was also number one as to what should be the purpose. Number two was to maintain the prestige of the university.

Only one of the top seven goals involved the students. It was "Training the students for scholarship and research."3

Educating the students used to be the purpose of the colleges and universities. There couldn't be a more stunning proof that in universities, the professors place their own careers above everything else.

I am confident that college faculties, in contrast to universities, would have answered that questionnaire quite differently. Before offering my list of suggestions about college selection, here are a few generalities. The colleges and universities that are regarded as the very best in the country are almost all value-neutral and non-judgmental like those represented on the White House Task Force. It's my impression that at state universities, the schools of medicine, business administration, engineering, agriculture, etc. where sensible people are training themselves for careers, radicals have far less influence than at the Ivy League Universities. Also the junior colleges are primarily devoted to serving the students.

Now, here are nine suggestions about college choice.

1. Subscribe to the student newspaper of any college that interests you at least two months before it is decision time.

2. Visit the campus and have a meal in a college dining facility to sense the atmosphere.

3. Check out what is posted on the bulletin boards.

4. Ask about a campus policy regarding marijuana and other mind-altering drugs, and, if there is one, is it enforced?

5. Stop in at the chapel and find out if there are regular services and how well they are attended. Are the hymns traditional or contemporary? Visit with the chaplain if possible.

6. Learn who were the prominent guest speakers during the year and who gave the Commencement Address.

7. Are there co-ed dormitories?

8. Is patriotism important on campus, because it should be.

9. Read the statement of purpose in the college or university catalog before you visit and raise any questions you have when you get there.

I hope these suggestions are helpful to you.


1William J. Lamson, Descendants of William Lamson of Ipswich, Massachusetts (New York, NY: Tobias A. Wright, 1917).

2 Douglas Sloan, The Teaching of Ethics in the American Curriculum 1876-1976, The Hastings Center Report, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, NY, December 1979, pp. 21-23.

3 The book reporting in this study is University Goals and Academic Power, Edward Gross and Paul Grambsch, American Council on Education, Washington DC, 1968, pp. 30, 31. *

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