The Spirit That Makes a College

Ken Daniszewski

  • Article
  • November 23, 2009

Given the problems facing higher education today, this speech on the purpose of college delivered by Justice Wendell Phillips Stafford at the Sesqui-Centennial of Dartmouth College in 1919 seems as timely as ever. Here is an excerpt:

(The spirit of college) has shown itself in men who never knew how the inside of a college looked. When Lincoln jotted down the main facts of his life for the Congressional Directory, he wrote: "Education defective." And yet, tried by the test we are applying now, he was college-bred. The question is not, whether you studied Euclid in a classroom or stretched out on the counter of a country store. The question is, whether you mastered it. Lincoln did. And the thews and sinews of his mind, which he developed so, stood by him in the day when he threw Douglas down. John Keats was as innocent of the Greek language as the new curriculum assumes all men should be; yet out of some stray book on mythology the " miserable apprentice to an apothecary " contrived to draw into his soul the very spirit of Hellenic art, until he left us poems which Hellenists declare to be more Grecian than the Greek. He, too, was college-bred, as we now mean it, for he was impelled by that determination to subdue and fructify his powers, with the aid of all the past has left us, until they yielded something glorious and undying for his fellow men. His spirit was not the spirit of the dove, but of the eagle: "My spirit is too weak! Mortality Weighs heavily on me, like unwilling sleep; And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die, Like a sick eagle looking at the sky." If I am right, there lie wrapt up in this determination those three aims: (1) to discipline one's powers and make them fruitful; (2) in order to accomplish this, to make use of all that men have gained before us; and (3) to devote these powers and acquisitions to the common weal. The advantage the college has is this: that here the determined spirit finds the tool-shop and the arsenal. That spirit itself the college can foster and encourage but cannot create. It can and does lay open to its use the weapons and the tools. It can and does teach, in a fair, general way, what men thus far have done. It leads the newcomer to the point where they left off, and says: "Begin here, if you would not waste your time. This territory has been conquered. Go forth from this frontier." It also shows the worker of the present day what other men are doing. It brings him into touch with them, that he may put his effort forth where it will tell the most."

Stafford's entire text can be found here.

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