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McCormick, Bart E. (ed.) / The Wisconsin alumni magazine
Volume 28, Number 2 (Dec. 1926)

Frank, Glenn
An experiment in education,   pp. [51]-53

Page 52

by more or less common consent, call for
a decisive reconsideration.
  My one concern in asking the courtesy
of the floor this afternoon to make this
statement was to make it clear beyond
the possibility of doubt that, as far as
my part in the matter goes, I under-
stand this to be a commission charged
with a consideration- of the possibility of
our making at Wisconsin sovne real-con-
tribution to the better development of
the higher educational process, and not
merely a commission to consider certain
technical alterations of University pro-
   I do not know how better to empha-
size-this-than to-suggest by way of illus-
tration a sample of the kind of problems
I think it would be helpful for this com-
mission in, the beginning and for the
entire University ultimately to examine.-
Lvffer the following paragraphs not as an,
agenida. for this codm ission, but Simpljr
as anillustration of the type of problem
that seems to me to cry aloud, for sus-
tained consideration.
   It'happens that I have never: sub-
 mitted myself to the special discipline
 of any professional school-law, medic-
 ine, engineering, or theology.  Aside
 from- three years' experience in a sub-
 ordinate* but fairly intimate relation to
 the  administration  of Northwestern
 University, my sole contact with uni-
 versities has been with the processes of
 the College of Liberal Arts, first as an
 undergraduate, and then for the years
 since as an interested if unofficial ob-
 server of its processes. The type of
 problem that I suggest, therefore, is a
 problem relating to the College of
 Liberal Arts rather than the profes-
 sional schools.
   During the last hundred years the
 same thing has been happening to our
 education that has been happening to
 our civilization as a whole. It is suffering
 from structural overloading. It is finding
 it difficult to carry with ease and
 efficiency the increasing burden it has
 itself been creating.
    Students of civilization- whose social
 studies have begun with biology as a
 point of departure have lately elabor-
 ated with an alluring richness of detail
 the theory of the burden of civilization.
 One of the simplest, clearest, and most
 effectively laymanized statements of this
 theory has been made by Lothrop Stod-
 dard in his "The Revolt against Civili-
 zation." It is suggested that among
 civilized peoples each succeeding gener-
 ation elaborates the social environment,
 increases the number of demands made
 upon the members of society and com-
 plicates generally the problem of living
 and   working.    With   the biological
 strength of the race at a standstill or on
the decline, while the burdens it must
carry are on the increase, it is suggested
that the time is likely to come in the life
history of any civilized people when the
structural overloading will become so
great that the civilization in question will
collapse, either by the involuntary lapse
of the processes of society into chaos or
by a deliberate revolt of the people
against :civilization.
  Sir Francis Galton put this theory
  briefly when he said several years ago:
  "Our race is overweighted. It will de-
generate under circumstances which
make w eamands that excel its powers."
Galton pointed out that savage peoples
in Australia, Cape of Good Hope,- New
Zealand, and other places have been
swept away within three centuries by
coming into contact with a civilization
they were incapable of supporting. And
he added jthatwwe-civilized peoples are
beginning to show signs of being unable
to keep pace with the speed, to under-
stand and to. control the complexity,
to meet the multiplicity of demands and
to bear the burdens of the civilization
we are :creating. "Our civilization,"' he
concludesi "is more complex than our
statesmen are capable of dealing with.
There is crying need for greater ability
than men possess."
   I suggest that the enormous increase
 of knowledge and the increasing com-
 plexity of the curriculum in our, uni-
 versities is analogous to the increase of
 things and the increasing complexity
 of social organization in our civilization
 as a whole. It is, perhaps, more than
 analogous. It may well be an organic
 part of the larger social process that
 Galton suggested. We are witnessing
 to-day both the collapse of our curricula
 from  structural .overloading and the
 beginnings of a student revolt against
 the sterilities of current academic pro-
    A hundred or more years ago the out-
  lines of a college education were simple.
  In the centuries immediately preceding
  knowledge had not increased at a pace so
  rapid but that educators could digest,
  interpret and relate to previous knowl-
  edge the new knowledge as it appeared.
  But-if I may generalize rather roughly
  -with the nineteenth century the in-
  vigorating winds of a new critical and
  scientific spirit began to blow across the
  world. The scientific spirit began hunt-
  ing, blasting, boring, probing, boiling,
  cooking, and dissecting. Men animated
  by the itch to know began to throw up,
  at a disconcerting rate, all sorts of new
  facts and new knowledge. These facts
  and this new knowledge were, of course,
  thrown on the study tables of the edu-
  cators. Before long it became apparent
  that the new knowledge was coming
faster than .it could be digested and
fitted intelligently into any educational
scheme. And there happened in the edu-
cational field the thing I saw happen in a
Missouri hayfield about fifteen years
  Six of us were putting up hay on* Cal
Shinn's farm.. Among the six was a
swashbuckling braggart who offered to
bet five dollars that he could stack all
the hay that the other five of us could
pitch to him. We took the bet, pro-
rating it at a dollar apiece. We laid the
,base for a stack and began pitching in
dead earnest. The man on the stack
managed to keep his head above hay
for a while, but before long he was up to
his neck in hay that he could not handle.
He managed to extricate himself from
the mass of unstackable hay, slid off the
stack, stuck his pitchfork in the ground
and said, "Damn it, Stack it yourself!"
   It Was thus that the elective system
 was born. I mean the elective system as
 a really popular movement. I am aware
 of course, ,that the idea of the elective
 system was in existence at William 'and
 Mary College as, a deliberate, educa-
 tional theory, although but little de-
 veloped in practice, nearly half a
 century before its adoption at Harvard,
 and many years before it became gen-
 erally the basis of what seems to me to
 have been essentially a strategic retreat
 of educators from an increasingly uen
 manageable mass of modern knowledge.
 Looked -at* historically, I think the hay
 field episode is an accurate illustration
 of what has happened in our colleges
 during the last century. Overwhelmed
 by new facts that were coming faster-
 than they could be managed, educators
 slid off the stack, stuck the pitchfork of
 educational generalship into the ground
 and turning to green freshmen, said,
 with the profanity deleted, "Stack it
   I am not undertaking to lay the foun-
 dation for a wholesale indictment of the
 elective system. In fact I suspect that,
 with knowledgestill growing faster than
 we can grasp it readily, there may be the
 definite danger of a reaction somewhat
 sentimental and panicky against the
 elective system in favor of a more rigidly
 dictated curriculum. That is to say,
 just as our fathers, feeling helpless in the
 face of a mass of new knowledge they
 could not readily assimilate, made a
 strategic  retreat from   a  definitely
 planned   curriculum  to  an   extreme
 elective system, so it is possible that
 educators now, feeling disillusioned by
 the manifestly scrappy educational re-
 sult achieved by students who pick and
 choose a variety of more or less unre-
 lated courses, may make a merely
 strategic retreat from the freedom of the
 elective system. Even educators are not
 immune to movements of uncritical
December, 1926

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