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'Tis true 'tis pity,
Pity 'tis ’tis true. Twenty-five years ago the decline, apparently, had not commenced. The testimony of living graduates, and the records of the Societies, unite in assuring us, that the active members at that time included the large majority of the students; that the regular exercises were
; enthusiastically sustained, and a sound, vigorous progress seemed assured and inevitable for the future. Has this progress been realized?
Since then, indeed, the old distasteful, inconvenient places of meeting have been exchanged for new apartments no less beautiful than commodious-apartments built by the munificent enterprise of the Societies themselves. The libraries also have been placed on a better foundation, and removed from their former insecurity to safe and permanent quarters, while prize debates have arisen as an entirely new feature of interest and improvement. All this, it is true, is in the line of progress; but it is of that material, external sort which by no means precludes the existence, at the same time, of radical unsoundness—the insidious working of mortal disease. How much better-were this the alternative—to go back to unadorned poverty, with its strenuous, manly activity, than to linger out a living death surrounded by upholstery, statues and frescoes! How cheap the price—were this the necessity-could we exchange both library and hall, for a permanent return of the primitive spirit! There are not a few, at the present time, who, having watched for years the vicissitudes of their fortunes, seeing all end in final decline, are forced to confess to a growing fear that our Public Societies will be given up at no very distant day. Let us, then, in the light of the causes which for the last twenty-five years have thwarted the promised advancement, and even set the current backward, examine the reasonableness of this fear.
Careful investigation has led us to the belief, that one cause, or occasion of decline in the Societies, has been an increasingly higher standard of scholarship. The terms of admission to College have become more and more exacting, and the whole subsequent course extended and amplified in all directions. It is likewise to be remembered, that the entire system of scholarship prizes, with a single exception, has arisen within this period. The Bristed, Hurlburt, Woolsey and Clark Scholarships, the prizes for solution of Mathematical Problems, and the Berkeley premiums for Latin Prose, are all of recent date. Their influence in awakening emulation and elevating the
scholarly sentiment of College has been by no means insignificant. Now all this, we believe is, in itself, a most desirable change. No one who appreciates the true mission of the College will hesitate to recognize it as a healthful progress. If there could be shown to be an incompatibility between the severe, exact studies of the recitation-room and the cultivation of public debates and distinctively literary excellence, we should say, let the duties of the strictly collegiate course have the precedence. For with a broad foundation laid in the facile mastery of the classics and higher mathematics, in a thorough, familiar acquaintance with the principles of mental, moral, and political philosophy, we might hope ultimately and in other spheres to add those various accomplishments which fill out the proportions of a culture liberal and harmonious. On the other hand, he who allows this true order to be reversed, commits a mistake whose disastrous consequences are absolutely irreparable.
But at the risk of a seeming inconsistency, we affirm that there is in fact no incompatibility, and, indeed, no necessary antagonism. Scholarship is no more opposed to the legitimate objects of a Literary Society, than it is to friendship and social enjoyment. In asserting, then, that a higher standard of scholarship has operated disadvantageously on our public debates, we refer to an actual but not a necessary phenomenon. The real cause of this lamentable perversion will claim our attention at a later point of this discussion.
Intimately connected with the above considerations is the fact that the College curriculum includes, at the present time, a wide range of literary pursuits, which originally belonged to the Public Societies. The alternative is no longer presented to the student, to find his strictly literary culture in the Societies or neglect it altogether; but he is even obliged to cultivate the excellencies of composition and oratory, as an integral part of the prescribed course. We may say, in general, that the departments of Rhetorio and Elocution have chiefly grown up within the last twenty years. Here, again, as in the province of the Classics and Mathematics, the system of Prizes and Honors has been widely employed. Prizes for English Composition and for Declamation, Townsend Premiums and Deforest Medal, all offer themselves as incentives to exertion, and opportunities of renown. And we must not forget here, that while the College has inaugurated these various reforms, the students themselves have opened a new field of intellectual discipline. The Yale Literary Magazine scarcely antedates the period under review. This also claims, of course, its VOL. XXVIII.
share of attention, and presents itself as a means not only of general communication but of literary improvement. It may not be inappropriate to add here a single word on an aspect and influence of the modern Prize System, which has been already casually mentioned. Our Prize System not only operates directly to sustain the departments in whose interest it was established, but indirectly affords an opportunity for securing that reputation wbich, both within and without the College world, is a prime object of desire. It affords an opportunity, too, as we have seen, for gaining this reputation in those very fields of effort which, in earlier times, were found only in the Literary Societies. There are, however, many counter-balancing considerations connected with this subject of Prizes, which we are compelled to pass by without notice. Such, in brief, has been the change in the public features of the College life, which has been consummated within the last twenty-five years.
Let us turn now to a more direct cause of the decline-a cause, moreover, which is chargeable with much of that mischief which we have set down as incidental to other influences. Beyond a question, the greatest obstacle in the way of our Public Societies is the swarm of Class organizations which infest the first three years of the College course. With the possible advantages of these smaller societies, in themselves, we have no direct concern; we have only to consider their actual influence upon the larger Societies, and their worth in comparison with them. Neither are we concerned with the question whether these organizations ought to be secret or open, for their injury to the interests we are here advocating would, in either case, remain essentially the same. We confess, however, to the decided conviction on other grounds that secresy is far preferable. But the discussion before us is upon the direct issue that, with any such prominence as is at present attached to them, their existence in either form is detrimental to the welfare of Linonia and Brothers in Unity. The rationale of this is clear both to experience and reflection. For presenting themselves at the very outset of the College course, they monopolize the time and enthusiasm of at least their own members. Now it is not difficult to perceive, that where this membership includes nearly the entire body of a Class, they must, from this simple fact, exert a powerful influence. But their effects outrun the circle of their own members. Gathering to themselves the great majority in point of numbers and of talent, they not only withdraw from the active support of the large Societies the best portion of every Class, but
inevitably mould College custom and sentiment, paralyzing the originally good intentions of the little remnant they exclude. Does some one interpose the plea, that the Freshman societies are schools of discipline preparatory to the higher advantages of the larger bodies ? They are in theory, they might be to a certain extent in fact; but, as in many another instance, the actual result disappoints the design. Absorbing, as they now do, the chief attention and interest on themselves, it is impossible that they should fail to conflict with whatever in similar fields makes the same requisitions. The same is true in a still greater degree of the societies of Sophomore and Junior years.
But, in all fairness, let us look for a moment at the comparative importance of these claims, lest, having marked the fact of a practical conflict, we may yet have erred in assigning an inferior place to that which is in reality of preëminent importance. What, then, are the merits of these modern aspirants to the lion's share of attention and respect? Forsooth, some are literary societies. But is this characteristic peculiar to them? We speak advisedly when we say that in our own experience we have found a single participation in the literary exercises of Linonia, of more value than a half-dozen in our Fresbman society, though that was the best among them all. But some, again, present a field for the development of the social qualities ! Is there, therefore, no room for community of interest or feeling among the active members of the larger Societies ? Let us picture to ourselves, for a moment, the spectacle which might follow the annihilation of all these class organizations. In the first place, we should certainly miss a special phase of social culture which they afford, and which in itself is desirable. We should also, no doubt, miss the petty jealousies, the undignified recriminations, the childish rivalry which they at present so actively foster. We should, above all, miss that false eclecticism and pitiful conceit of literary culture, which usually finds its culmination in the third collegiate year.
What, on the other hand, might we gain? We might gain College Societies worthy the name, -Societies inviting to generous emulation, to solid intellectual discipline, to a fraternity of feeling truly social and disinterested. We might, in fine, establish a Republic of earnest thinkers, wbere the incoming classes seized with the contagious inspiration, should find a home for their enthusiastic affection, an arena for their manliest development, and rewards of honor open, and open only,
, to the competition of worth and talent. Who then can doubt which of the parties in this conflict of interest should yield ? “Under which
king, Benzonian? Speak, or die!" For ourselves, we are ready to say, let the class societies referred to all perish, rather than allow these vastly higher interests to languish and be lost; for, in the comparison, the former are an imposition and a nuisance.
Thus far we have considered the general tendency of these Class associations to injure the large Societies, by the withdrawal of the healthful interest wbich belongs to them. But their influence stops not there. Not content with having accomplished this, they return to increase the mischief, Could the Public Societies be left to themselves, they might endure the neglect which they receive. He who takes the solemn pledge “to do his best to promote their welfare," and forgets from that hour that they are in existence, is no apostate in comparison with the man who remembers them only to filch away their honors by selfish coalitions and packed meetings ; nay, is true and loyal beside the man who takes the honor, without either the abil. ity or disposition to meet the attendant duties. How, we ask, shall å Society flourish, when such as these presume to lay their hand upon “ the ark of her magnificent cause."
There remains one great fault, which may be said to inhere in the Societies themselves. It is the adoption of a criterion of success, not radically false indeed, yet inadequate. No sound judgment will ever recognize in numbers, or College Prizes, or in any incidental Honors, the ultimate standard by which to try superiority. It is the weekly debates, and not the summary of the Banner, nor the Libraries, nor the Treasurer's reports, which reveals the essential excellence of a Literary Society. Of the system of electioneering which has arisen under this partial conception of success, we have little complaint to make. It has its faults, yet it is unphilosophical, as it is unjust, to make it the object of sweeping attack. Experience has enforced what reason teaches, that it is the only system which is germain to the end in view. Moreover, as we have suggested, this end so far as it reaches is a legitimate one. The only practicable way to secure a prepon
. derance of talent, is to secure a majority of numbers. But the rivalry should not, as at present, stop here. So long as you reckon triumphs chiefly by success in any annual contest, you must be content with the present disproportion between the earnestness displayed in "campaigns,” and in the subsequent weekly exercises.
We come back, now, to the vital question.—Is there any remedy for this decline ? The question must be answered in the light of the underlying causes which have been partially enumerated. The higher stand