How Do Future Students Get a Whiff of College? A Century-Long Perspective

When few students pursued higher learning, the decision to attend college was based chiefly on family background and geographical propinquity. In the last century, however, attendance at college and university has become much more frequent—at least half of American secondary school graduates eventually pursue some kind of higher learning. Not all students have choices about where they matriculate, but many do. And whether or not they matriculate at their “first choice,” a large majority of students surely arrive on campus with some expectation of what they can expect to encounter—both in the classroom and beyond (e.g. the surrounding grounds, abundant extracurricular activities, various social circles). From where do these impressions emanate?

As far as I can tell, we don’t have much direct evidence of how—in earlier times—prospective students thought about and imagined their imminent college experience. But I suspect that impressions came significantly from works of art—and particularly from works of fiction.

The strongest evidence can be found in a novel by Owen Johnson called Stover at Yale, serialized in McClure’s magazine in 1911 and published as a book a year later. From a literary point of view, there is nothing remarkable about the book—a straightforward account of the experience of one “preppy” (graduate of the prestigious Lawrenceville School) who attended the New Haven Ivy League college around 1900.

But as a description of a college, Stover at Yale is arresting. There is virtually nothing about teaching, studying, learning, mastering a canon, or conducting research, let alone pursuing new scholarly questions. Instead, the book focuses almost entirely on getting ahead in the social sphere—partly through extracurricular activities (especially football) but even more so through membership in elite secret societies—the coveted sophomore clubs and the prestigious senior clubs, with the legendary “Skull and Bones” clearly constituting the top rung to which the most ambitious students aspire.

Upon reading Stover at Yale, anyone, no matter how well or poorly informed they were, would assume that college was about social advancement, especially surpassing peers with whom one is fiercely competitive. It was not about scholarship or learning or public service or reflection on one’s life. To be sure, there is a bit of tension in the novel. As his college years pass, Stover becomes increasingly concerned about the social and financial inequities that he encounters on campus. And so, he decides provisionally to align himself with the “outsiders”—those who do not fit comfortably on the campus or are oriented toward public service or are simply more idealistic—and not to care whether he is invited to join a secret society.

If you think that the climax of the novel features Stover overthrowing the status quo, joining the misfits, the outcasts, the saints, or the “thinkers,” you will be disappointed. The climax involves a countdown as the fifteen members of Skull and Bones are announced, one by one. Sure enough, when number 15 is reached, Stover is announced, anointed, and celebrated. I am not certain of the intended moral of the story, but here’s my takeaway: “You can have it all, not sacrifice your values, and still end up at the top.”

In This Side of Paradise, a novel published less than a decade later, F. Scott Fitzgerald focused on the experiences at Princeton University of his thinly disguised alter ego Amory Blaine. While the physical plant of Yale is largely ignored in the Stover saga, the fabled appearance of Princeton—its tall steeples, long and leisurely lawns, and intimate village atmosphere—is lovingly portrayed. Thick descriptions pervade the book. Within a few pages, indeed paragraphs, I was reminded that I was reading a talented writer—one whom you read at least in part because of his choice of words, evocative imagery, and sense of structure. In literary talent, F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Owen Johnson is no contest.

The protagonists are also very different. Blaine has social ambitions and an active social life, but he is also a serious young student—in his case, of literature. Fitzgerald portrays him as reading widely, talking incessantly to friends about what he has read, and writing a great deal of verse as well as other more prosaic forms. There are many passages in which the students argue philosophical issues with one another, and many examples of poetry—some verses better than others—written by the protagonist.

At Stover’s Yale, the role of teachers and of classes is minimized; in contrast, the world of knowledge—in humanistic, not scientific form—is foregrounded in Fitzgerald’s novel. I suspect that, even today, many at Princeton would be proud of that portrayal. Still, the novel manages to convey a message that the classroom and learning are not really the essence of the college experience. Finding one’s own identity, midst the welter of local and societal issues, is what college is about. Commenting on Fitzgerald’s novel, then President of Princeton John Grier Hibben said, “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spiral of calculation and snobbishness.”

In This Side of Paradise, one particular sentence caught my eye. The narrator says, “Stover was our Bible.” I read this line as confirming that the knowledge of college that Fitzgerald (and his literary creations) brought to campus is based significantly on what Owen Johnson had taught them. Such was the power of literature—at least in those long-gone times.

And what of Harvard—typically mentioned in the same Ivy breath? I did not find a novelist of the period whose description of Harvard was as salient as Johnson on Yale or Fitzgerald on Princeton. But one contemporary novelist was clearly thinking a lot about Harvard, and that was Thomas Wolfe—Fitzgerald’s sometime friend and sometime antagonist.

Harvard was important for Wolfe, but he did not attend as an undergraduate. He spent more than two years there as a graduate student with a focus on preparation to be a scholar, a somewhat different experience from that of collegiate students Stover and Blaine. Accordingly, much of Wolfe’s writings about the undergraduate college experience focus on a mythical school called Pine Rock (also called Pulpit Hill), at which the young protagonist Eugene Gant initially feels alienated; immerses himself in philosophical and literary texts; interacts as a peer with professors; and, because of his intellectual strengths, ultimately becomes a respected leader on campus.

Harvard figures in Wolfe’s three novels as more aspirational and symbolic than as a textured campus—the place he wants to attend to continue his education, to study and rub shoulders with giants (like the drama teacher George Pierce Baker and the Shakespeare scholar George Lyman Kittredge—note the patrician names!), and to get the seal of approval as an educated person.

But even in Wolfe’s books, one can discern the shadow of earlier novelistic accounts. At one point the narrator says, tellingly, of Gant, “His conception of university life was a romantic blur, evoked from his reading and tempered with memory of Stover of Yale.”

Picking up the question that I posed in the beginning, I think it’s fair to conclude this: young students (at this point, only men) who read the novels of the period could find literary inspiration in Amory Blaine and intellectual modelling in Eugene Gant; but neither could escape the social aspirations and pressures felt by Dink Stover. And indeed, college as primarily a social experience, rather than an intellectual one, has cast a shadow across these one hundred years. Of course, it’s also possible that the writings attracted different kinds of readers (more social types to Johnson, more intellectual types to Wolfe) or that readers took away different through lines from the same text.

By mid-century, the broadcast media—first radio, then increasingly television—became important molders of public thought. And of course, young persons learned about college from news reports, theatrical productions, and published guides, like The Fiske Guide to College. But I would submit, far greater influence came from portrayals in the movies—ranging from the spoofs in Animal House to the more serious portrayals in Love Story. And of course, nowadays, websites devised by the colleges and gossip purveyed in online networks are significant molders of young person’s anticipated college experiences. In future blogs, I’ll review some of these “media-ted” portrayals of higher education.

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2 Comments on “How Do Future Students Get a Whiff of College? A Century-Long Perspective”

  1. David Handlin August 1, 2017 at 6:35 pm #

    You raise so many interesting questions: what is the history of the Admission Office at places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton? I imagine that for the first couple of centuries it was done by the President and maybe an advisory committee, but at a certain point it became formalized into the bureaucratic nightmare it has become. (See the recent story about UC Irvine.) Also, when did said admissions office start putting out literature or brochures about the institutions? What did this say?

    A related issue: what was the geographic spread of the student body and how did that change over time? For that matter, how did anomalies like John C. Calhoun hear about and choose Yale or Robert E. Lee’s son come to Harvard (as narrated in Henry Adams’ Autobiography)? For that matter, why did Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry W. Longfellow go to Bowdoin rather than Harvard, closer to home?

    The Owen Wister novella about Harvard (Philosophy 4) describes in more detail than Stover, apparently, the academic side of student life. Pretty daunting.

    • Howard Gardner August 1, 2017 at 7:24 pm #

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      By coincidence, I recently read Philosophy 4, Owen Wister’s novella. The book, published in 1903 (almost a decade before Stover at Yale) chronicles the adventures of two wealthy Harvard undergraduates, Billy and Bert. They pay $5 an hour to an impecunious classmate named Oscar. (One of the commentators on a website wondered whether Oscar was Jewish–clearly Oscar did not live on the luxurious “Gold Coast” along Mt. Auburn Street.)

      The plot of the novella is transparent. Oscar is a total grind, the preppies are screw-offs who blow off studying on the last day before the exam. And Billy and Bert get a higher grade on the final examination than Oscar because they draw on life experiences and on their imaginations while Oscar just spews back the contemporary version of Cliff’s Notes on Berkeley, Hume, existence, and reality.

      And in a brief epilogue, Wister mentions that Billy and Bert end up as successes in the financial sector, while Oscar has written a monograph on an obscure topic and earns spare change by writing book reviews for a newspaper. No further comment needed!

      On the broader question of college admissions, of course there is now quite a scholarly literature. I still wonder why Jared Kushner was admitted to Harvard College, and it’s embarrassing to think about how many of Trump’s inner circle (both for his private companies and his public administration) went to Harvard College, Harvard Law School, or Harvard Business School. It’s worth noting that to this date, none attended the Graduate School of Education or the Design School.

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