Values of College Training for Women

by Mary E. Woolley

President of Mount Holyoke College

from Harper's Bazar, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 9, September 1904

College training for women - What is it worth? The question is inevitable in an age in which the thought of "values" is uppermost. It is not the intention of this article to discuss women as wage-earners, or the industries or professions which they should enter, but it should be borne in mind that the number of women dependent upon themselves for support is rapidly increasing, and the question of the best preparation for their work is a vital one. A college woman says in a recent article that five million women in the United States are engaged in four hundred different wage-earning occupations, and while the percentage of those trained in the college will always be small in the great industrial army, and there are forms of education other than the academic, the college training is necessary as a part of the preparation for many professions and desirable for many more. In clerical work as well as in teaching, in the more practical lines of domestic science and horticulture as well as in the practice of medicine or law, the training and discipline of the class-room have much to do with success. President Angell tells the story of a Baptist brother of a generation ago, who after preaching to empty pews and writing a book no one read, applied for a professorship in Brown University, and in response to the very natural query as to the chair which he was qualified to fill, answered, "Well I dun'no', but I think I could kinder slide into 'most any on 'em." The day of "kinder slidin' inter 'most any on 'em" is past, and in all lines of work it is the specialist, the man or woman thoroughly trained, who is in demand.

But it is not the utilitarian value, the ability to reduce education to dollars and cents, which I wish to emphasize. There is a higher value to be found in all forms of educational life, whether the training be manual or academic. Dr. Frissell of Hampton Institute, in a recent article on "Negro Education," reiterates the truth that "character is the main object of education" - while, at the same time, "the relative importance of providing young people with broad mental culture and of preparing them to earn their own living must be considered in any system." Culture of the mind and the ability to earn one's own living, whether it is necessary to put that ability into practice or not, are undeniably important; but mental culture simply for its own sake may become as selfish, if not as sordid, an aim of life as the desire for education solely as a means to earning a livelihood. Assuming, then, that "the foundation of character must be the first consideration," of what value to a woman is a college training? The answer to so broad a question, drawn from several years' study of college girls in their undergraduate days, and of college women in their life after graduation, does not attempt to be comprehensive, but simply to make plain the results which have impressed me.

First, a college training gives purpose to life. Kate Douglas Wiggin, in one of her inimitable sketches of Penelope's Progress, says that on a rainy night in the north of Ireland, there were eight persons packed into a second-class carriage, and totally ignorant of their whereabouts, when the porter, opening the door hastily, shouted, "Is there annyone [sic] there for here?" Is there annyone [sic] there for here has been too often the characteristic of life among women, more often than among men, an admission which can be made with equanimity only by recalling Mrs. Poyser's dictum: "I'm not denyin' the women are foolish: God Almighty made 'em to match the men." It is not strange that the sons of the American family have less frequently led an aimless life than the daughters. This follows naturally from the force of popular opinion and training. Except in the two extremes of social life, an idle man, without occupation or aim, has been despised, while his sister, drifting without responsibility for the home or for the manifold interests outside of it, has been accepted as a matter of course. It is inevitable that the college training should establish a different standard. Every day has its schedule; the entire course a definite aim. The insight into the history of achievement in literature and science, the association with earnest, purposeful men and women, have their untold influence in the formation of an ideal of life. The college graduate who is content to drift with the current is the rare exception, rather than the rule. Not that every holder of a degree is to vindicate her right to it by entering upon a "career," in the commonly accepted meaning of that term. At first she erred on the side of overstrenuousness, her ideal was that of "the achieving woman," and she failed to realize that achievements within the home were quite as essential, and sometimes much more so, than those of a more public character. The stage of perfection is not yet reached; the recent graduate often feels that she wishes to do something for herself and not "just stay at home," although she may be most needed there; but frequently this is only a temporary unrest, evidence of the deeper purpose and sincere desire to be of use in the world, which will make the life, wherever placed, of real value. Parents need to be reminded that adjustment to new conditions is not instantaneous and that the transplanted life, like the plant, must be given time to grow and not be constantly pulled up by the roots for inspection. They forget that four years before, a very homesick Freshman felt that she could never reconcile herself to that college life which, for the Senior, has become so congenial. It is not often that the patience and confidence of the home friends are disappointed. The horizon is broader, it is true. There are interests outside of the home as well as within it - a class in literature or gymnastics at the working-girl's club or the Christian Association, an afternoon with the children at the Settlement, a programme to arrange for the woman's club, a class of young girls at the church, an inquiry into factory and shop and tenement-house conditions. Life may be overstrenuous; the probabilities are that it will be for the first year or two, but it is far less likely to result in nervous prostration than the purposeless life.

Two questions are very familiar to those who are interested in college training for women; the first is, - "Does college unfit a woman for home life?" and the second, "Do college women marry?" The writer has often wondered whether the first question is urged upon the faculty of a man's college? The man's work for the home is different from the woman's, but is it not quite as definite in its own way and as important that his training shall fit him for it? It is assumed that the broader his culture, the wider his horizon, the more will he be able to add to that which should be the centre of his life, however manifold his outside interests. It is illogical to think that the contrary result is to be expected from the education of a woman, and experience always proves that logic is right. Discontent, lack of appreciation and inefficiency in the home are less often seen among college women than among those who have never been away from home and thus do not realize its full value. Certainly in no class of women is the home instinct stronger than among those whose lives are spent largely in the college.

The question "Do college women marry?" has been so often answered in the affirmative that it seems hardly necessary to answer it again. The college girl does not look upon marriage as the only possibility, and consequently is not likely to marry simply for home or position. She generally does not marry as early, but the marriage is likely to be a wise and happy one, and in these days, when the divorce evil has become a serious menace to society, no careful thinker can deprecate a condition which leads to a saner, purer family life.

A second value of college training for women lies in the fact that it gives a truer perspective. The power of "seeing large things large and small things small" is one of the fine arts of life, an art which the woman has had less opportunity than the man to acquire. He has had to deal with large questions; she, with the smaller details of household life, which often loom upon her horizon, shutting off the broader view. Her home is truly her castle, but she has sometimes made it her prison and herself a prisoner, captive to exacting duties rather than mistress of them. The microscopic method is popular in many a home, and the petty annoyances and perplexities of the ordinary household are magnified until they fill all the field of vision. It is far better to bring the telescope into play and realize that there are other worlds besides one's own little sphere. This does not mean the neglect of the ordinary, the so-called commonplaces. "The soul occupied with great ideas best performs small duties," says Martineau. The woman who desires that another woman should have something like a home in a light, clean, wholesome tenement, rather than an unhealthy, depressing, degrading corner in a rookery, is more likely to appreciate the blessing of her own home and to be an inspiration in it. The ability to put one's self in another's place and to realize that ambitions and aspirations are not confined to those who have opportunity to gratify them, makes her better able to see the domestic problem in its true perspective and thus to solve it. The training in appreciation of the beautiful, whether it be of painting or poem on sunset, glorifies the commonplace and makes even drudgery blessed.

A true perspective implies poise. There is a conception of self-possession which is purely superficial, an emphasis on manner, deportment, attained by strict regard to conventions, without reference to character; but poise means more than that. A group of college girls were asked what was the most valuable thing that they had gained from the college training, and the almost unanimous answer was, "Self-control." Poise carries with it the thought of self-possession and of self-control, which is only another way of saying, the possession, the control of self, and includes the thought of steadiness, balance, serenity. The lack of these qualities is often the weak place in the armor, and good impulses, high purposes, real ability, fail of their end. It is the attitude of the philosopher. Many centuries ago, Epictetus said, "What is it to be a philosopher? Is it not to be prepared against events? Do you not comprehend that you then say, in effect, 'If I am but prepared to bear all events with calmness, let what will happen'? Otherwise you are like an athlete, who, after receiving a blow, should quit the combat." Poise is not an attitude to be cultivated for occasions; rather it is an expression of character and must become habitual. It is in the midst of the petty annoyances and perplexities of home and business life that the need is felt most keenly for men and women of equilibrium, who will not be carried away by impulse or swept off their feet by the current. "To live in the presence of great truths and eternal laws, to be led by permanent ideals, that is what keeps a man patient when the world ignores him and calm and unspoiled when the world praises him." It is a lofty conception and the college cannot claim that all her graduates have attained it. Is it not admissible to change the somewhat caustic saying, "The college does not make fools, it only develops them" to "The college does not make wise women, it only develops them?" The thoughtful observer of college life does not need to be reminded of the gain in control and possession of self during the undergraduate years. It is necessary only to compare the Senior with her Freshman days to realize that, like Kipling's ship, she has "found herself."

Power is a word with which to conjure, and the search for it is the secret of the greed of wealth and place so characteristic of our day. A noble word is often used ignobly. The busy twentieth century needs men and women of force, the "affirmative class," and the education which turns out simply encyclopaedias or machines has no right to the name. Knowledge is not always power, notwithstanding the tradition to that effect. If the knowledge is simply acquirement, information, without being vitalized by its possessor or used for service, it may be as ineffective as an unopened dictionary. The college cannot hope to send out only geniuses, even if that were desirable, but it should expect to develop men and women of power in the truest sense of the word. To learn to concentrate the mind is more essential to the peace and happiness of the Freshman than valuable information concerning Latin roots or Logarithms, and the girl who can concentrate her thought on an original in the midst of a rollicking group of classmates, or write a theme to a merry accompaniment from the tennis-court or the basket-ball field, has learned much in a not-to-be-forgotten way.

The college reveals a girl to herself, and therein often lies its greatest influence. She learns her own possibilities and limitations and gains a sane and reasonable confidence in her ability to do what is required of her. Acquirement and training become means to an end, rather than an end in themselves, factors in the development of that power which is the secret of effective service.