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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p76  Chapter VII
His Fight for Democracy in Education

"America will tolerate nothing except unpatronized endeavor" — Raising the standards of education — Broadening the curriculum — The preceptorial system — The controversy over student clubs — College must be reconstructed from top to bottom — The "Battle of Princeton"

"It is service that dignifies, and service only." — Wilson

"I have told the authorities I will not be the President of a Country Club. Princeton must either be an educational institution or I will not remain."

With these words, spoken in telling of the long drawn-out contest at Princeton, Mr. Wilson, then President of the College, voiced his attitude against permitting the "side-shows", as he called the numberless activities of college social life, to crowd out the serious business of obtaining an education. "Too many college students," he went on, "give their initiative and enthusiasm to other things and bring a jaded mind to their classes." It was to such a young man that he made an oft-quoted retort. "This is a dull subject," said the student seeking to excuse his low marks, to which the College President replied, "The only dull thing about this subject is the mind brought to it."

His quarter of a century of teaching before he became an executive had given Mr. Wilson opportunity to know the defects of college life. The growing aloofness of the  p77 scholar from the problems of the world in which he lived was a matter that gave the new President concern. He had long been of the opinion that the air of superiority assumed by college graduates, which often blocked their way to service, was the result of a lack of democratic practice in the colleges and the universities. In his classes he had found men coming with the fag end of their powers to their studies. He debated with himself whether a college was primarily an educational institution or a social club. When, therefore, with practical unanimity, the trustees of Princeton in 1902 elected Dr. Wilson to succeed Dr. Patton as President, the opportunity came to put into practice the ideas he had long been evolving. The election of Dr. Wilson, with his lack of reverence for Things as They Are, was to cause much anxiety in the breasts of those who were well satisfied to permit Princeton to be a favorite of youths who enjoyed the pleasure of living in its clubs and cramming enough to skin through their examinations.

Wilson had made a reputation in the educational world. As early as 1900 suggestion had been made of his availability for President of the United States. But this was only by scholars and a few others who knew of his mastery of questions of government. It added to Princeton prestige to have its President highly regarded. The reactionary group, joining heartily in his election, were later to have a jar and regret their choice. Cradled in Presbyterianism and the child of the church, Princeton had had none but a preacher as its President. It was a departure to elect a lawyer, even though he was an elder and the son of a preacher. Disregarding ministerial succession broke a precedent, and the new President was to break many others.

 p78  Soon, before the end of the first year of his incumbency in fact, Wilson startled the students by letting them know that if they wished to remain at "the most charming Country Club in America", as Princeton had been called, they must pass their examinations. Social and all other kinds of "pull" were at an end, the new executive announced. The rule created a sensation. In addition to requiring scholar­ship, a new system of collegiate study was evolved. Students were required, if taking elective studies, to master the subjects they undertook. The next step was to bring students and faculty into nearer relation­ship by adopting the preceptorial system, which has since been adopted by a number of other colleges. Having taken these two progressive steps within a few years, President Wilson laid his hand on the system that was responsible for the lack of diligence in study — the social system. He proposed the quadrangle or dormitory, which should house a certain number of men from every class, with a young professor as the head of the house, so to speak. It was the logical next step in the preceptorial plan. There was everything to commend it except the fatal defect: it was too democratic and cut across the grain of the exclusive system of sumptuous club houses. The objection to the club houses was that only a portion of the student body was admitted and there grew up a feeling that those who were not chosen were ostracized. The ambition for selection to these exclusive clubs was such that young students sometimes devoted more time to electioneering for admission into the charmed circles than to preparing their lessons. It ministered to snobbery.

Because Wilson's "quad" system would have taken the place of the clubs, the intensity of feeling against him  p79 was greater than can be described. "He wants to make a gentleman chum with a mucker" was the cry raised by the club group, and they asked what the world was coming to when a man must be "compelled to submit to dictation as to his table companions." The clamor by certain of the alumni against the "quad" system influenced the trustees. The Board had approved the "quad" plan, but on account of the protests, requested President Wilson to withdraw it. He was not that kind of man. But the fight was so bitter that echoes of it remain to this day. President Wilson was not fighting clubs as such. He was the last man to wish to deny anyone the right to choose his own associates. All he was trying to do was to make Princeton a real educational institution. If the clubs stood in the way of a better educational development, so much the worse for them. The object was education. It was a contest between two principles — Privilege and Democracy. They have been at war for all time. When Wilson, solely in the pursuit of educational efficiency, became the champion of Democracy, the old order of Special Privilege fought him at Princeton as later it did when he was in the White House. He replied as President of Princeton as he did at Washington. He neither asked nor gave quarter.

The division at Princeton between President Wilson and his antagonists reached the crucial stage when a lady left $250,000, and William C. Procter, of Cincinnati,​a offered to give $500,000 for a graduate college. The conditions were the location of the graduate school at a certain site considerably removed from the undergraduate schools and that another $500,000 should be raised to match Mr. Procter's half a million. The trustees "looked a gift horse in the mouth;" informed Mr. Procter that the  p80 plan of a graduate college had been adopted only tentatively, and asked him if his gift was conditional upon permitting him and those at Princeton in touch with him to control the location, or whether he wished to make a donation and trust to the wisdom of the college authorities to use it in the wisest manner. He withdrew his offer of the money. President Wilson had before expressed his belief that in colleges there was "a strong tendency to glorify money" unduly, and that with the increasing wealth of the country this tendency would be accentuated and that we would "drift into a plutocracy." He said he believed that at Princeton, to which many sons of rich men came, the policy should be one that would "so impress those boys with ideas of democracy and personal worth that when they became, in the ordinary course of nature, masters of their fathers' fortunes, they would use their undoubted power to help, not hurt, the commonwealth."

President Wilson felt that the graduate school, as proposed, was more ornamental than necessary. He asked, "When the world is looking to us as men who prefer ideas even to money, are we going to withdraw and say 'After all, we find we were mistaken: we prefer money to ideas'?" He justified his position further by saying: "We should be forever condemned in the public judgment and in our own conscience if we used Princeton for any private purpose whatever." That seems so sound that at this distance it is remarkable that there was any sentiment among the trustees in opposition to President Wilson's views. However, fourteen out of thirty trustees stood against him. Some wavered. The bulk of the faculty, the alumni, and student body approved his declaration when he said, "I cannot accede  p81 to the acceptance of gifts upon terms which take the educational policy of the university out of the hands of the trustees and faculty and permit it to be determined by those who give money."

The conflict was to the bitter end. It was not lessened by the plain speech of the fighting President. He loved peace — he believed there might be occasions when a man should be "too proud to fight" — but he was not the man to remain silent when he saw influences at work which he felt would undermine the spirit and scholar­ship of his beloved alma mater. He hurled defiance at his opponents in an address to the Pittsburgh alumni, saying:

"You can't spend four years at one of our modern universities without getting in your thought the conviction which is most dangerous to America — namely, that you must treat with certain influences which now dominate in the commercial undertakings of the country.

"The great voice of America does not come from seats of learning. It comes in a murmur from the hills and woods and the farms and factories, and the mills, rolling on and gaining volume until it comes to us from the homes of common men. Do these murmurs echo in the corridors of universities? I have not heard them.

"The universities would make men forget their common origins, forget their universal sympathies, and join a class — and no class can ever serve America.

"I have dedicated every power that there is within me to bring the colleges that I have anything to do with to an absolutely democratic regeneration in spirit, and I shall not be satisfied — and I hope you will not be — until America shall know that the men in the colleges  p82 are saturated with the same thought, the same sympathy, that pulses through the whole great body politic.

"I know that the colleges of this country must be reconstructed from top to bottom, and I know that America is going to demand it. While Princeton men pause and think, I hope — and the hope arises out of the great love I share with you all for our inimitable alma mater — I hope that they will think on these things, that they will forget tradition in the determination to see to it that the free air of America shall permeate every cranny of their college.

"Will America tolerate the seclusion of graduate students? Will America tolerate the idea of having graduate students set apart? America will tolerate nothing except unpatronized endeavor. Seclude a man, separate him from the rough and tumble of college life, from all the contacts of every sort and condition of men, and you have done a thing which America will brand with its contemptuous disapproval."

A windfall of three million dollars, and the renewal of Procter's gift, inclined the trustees to undertake the plans which they had declined and which Wilson had not approved. What college has trustees who could consistently throw a brick at the Princeton authorities? President Wilson, seeing fate and money had combined to give the victory to his old opponents, accepted the situation. He had made the bravest fight recorded to democratize university life. One of the queer slants of the contest was that in 1910, at the very meeting where the opponents of Wilson won as to site, thanks to three million arguments in the way of three million dollars, in the election of a trustee, the anti-Wilson candidate, Mr. Adrian Joline, was defeated for trustee. He was the  p83 same Mr. Joline to whom Dr. Wilson had written in 1907 that he wished "we could do something to knock Mr. Bryan once for all into a cocked hat."

The scars of that famed university contest were still fresh when Mr. Wilson went to Washington. Often, when he was assailed, he would refer to incidents and lessons from "the battle of Princeton." It cut deeper than political contests, for in the college town it affected whole families. The first Mrs. Wilson, who, in addition to her beautiful affection, was far more ambitious for her husband than he was for himself, had felt the strain of the differences in Princeton which the outside world thought of as quiet and serene classic shades far removed from clash and conflict. The turn of affairs, however, could not destroy the principles he enunciated at Pittsburgh. "Democratic regeneration in spirit" in college was not defeated. It was only deferred. College submission to the dictation of wealth always proves the undoing of the right kind of higher education. To‑day few gifts are made conditional upon permitting the donor to determine what course the institution shall take. The democratization of colleges received an impulse from Dr. Wilson's courageous stand. Princeton, and all institutions, even if for a time the great issue was confused, have felt the blessing of the democracy in education proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson. With a brief period of redeeming New Jersey from the thraldom of trusts, opposing privilege and the power of wealth in the commonwealth as he had in college affairs, Mr. Wilson went to Washington to continue, on a larger scale, leader­ship in the age-old war between Democracy and Privilege.

He blazed the way.

Thayer's Note:

a Of the family that founded Procter & Gamble; at the time of his proposed gift, he was president of that company. A biographical sketch of him may be found at Ohio History Central.

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