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An essay by George William Curtis

Extravagance At College

Title:     Extravagance At College
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Young Sardanapalus recently remarked that the only trouble with his life in college was that the societies and clubs, the boating and balling, and music and acting, and social occupations of many kinds, left him no time for study. He had the best disposition to treat the faculty fairly, and to devote a proper attention to various branches of learning, and he was sincerely sorry that his other college engagements made it quite impossible. Before coming to college he thought that it might be practicable to mingle a little Latin and Greek, and possibly a touch of history and mathematics, with the more pressing duties of college life; but unless you could put more hours into the day, or more days into the week, he really did not see how it could be done.

It was the life of Sardanapalus in college which was the text of some sober speeches at Commencement dinners during the summer, and of many excellent articles in the newspapers. They all expressed a feeling which has been growing very rapidly and becoming very strong among old graduates, that college is now a very different place from the college which they remembered, and that young men now spend in a college year what young men in college formerly thought would be a very handsome sum for them to spend annually when they were established in the world. If any reader should chance to recall a little book of reminiscences by Dr. Tomes, which was published a few years ago, he will have a vivid picture of the life of forty and more years ago at a small New England college; and the similar records of other colleges at that time show how it was possible for a poor clergyman starving upon a meagre salary to send son after son to college. The collegian lived in a plain room, and upon very plain fare; he had no "extras," and the decorative expense of Sardanapalus was unknown. In the vacations he taught school or worked upon the farm. He knew that his father had paid by his own hard work for every dollar that he spent, and the relaxation of the sense of the duty of economy which always accompanies great riches had not yet begun. Sixty years ago the number of Americans who did not feel that they must live by their own labor was so small that it was not a class. But there is now a class of rich men's sons.

The average rate of living at college differs. One of the newspapers, in discussing the question, said that in most of the New England colleges a steady and sturdy young man need not spend more than six hundred dollars during the four years. This is obviously too low an estimate. Another thinks that the average rate at Harvard is probably from six hundred to ten hundred a year. Another computes a fair liberal average in the smaller New England colleges to be from twenty-four to twenty-six hundred dollars for the four years, and the last class at Williams is reported to have ranged from an average of six hundred and fifty dollars in the first year to seven hundred and twenty-eight dollars in the Senior. But the trouble lies in Sardanapalus. The mischief that he does is quite disproportioned to the number of him. In a class of one hundred the number of rich youth may be very small. But a college class is an American community in which every member is necessarily strongly affected by all social influences.

A few "fellows" living in princely extravagance in superbly furnished rooms, with every device of luxury, entertaining profusely, elected into all the desirable clubs and societies, conforming to another taste and another fashion than that of the college, form a class which is separate and exclusive, and which looks down on those who cannot enter the charmed circle. This is galling to the pride of the young man who cannot compete. The sense of the inequality is constantly refreshed. He may, indeed, attend closely to his studies. He may "scorn delights, and live laborious days." He may hug his threadbare coat and gloat over his unrugged floor as the fitting circumstance of "plain living and high thinking." It is always open to character and intellect to perceive and to assert their essential superiority. Why should Socrates heed Sardanapalus? Why indeed? But the average young man at college is not an ascetic, nor a devotee, nor an absorbed student unmindful of cold and heat, and disdainful of elegance and ease and the nameless magic of social accomplishment and grace. He is a youth peculiarly susceptible to the very influence that Sardanapalus typifies, and the wise parent will hesitate before sending his son to Sybaris rather than to Sparta.

When the presence of Sardanapalus at Harvard was criticised as dangerous and lamentable, the President promptly denied that the youth abounded at the university, or that his influence was wide-spread. He was there undoubtedly, and he sometimes misused his riches. But he had not established a standard, and he had not affected the life of the university, whose moral character could be favorably compared with that of any college. But even if the case were worse, it is not evident that a remedy is at hand. As the President suggested, there are two kinds of rich youth at college. There are the sons of those who have been always accustomed to riches, and who are generally neither vulgar nor extravagant, neither ostentatious nor profuse; and the sons of the "new rich," who are like men drunk with new wine, and who act accordingly.

The "new rich" parent will naturally send his son to Harvard, because it is the oldest of our colleges and of great renown, and because he supposes that through his college associations his son may pave a path with gold into "society." Harvard, on her part, opens her doors upon the same conditions to rich and poor, and gives her instruction equally, and requires only obedience to her rules of order and discipline. If Sardanapalus fails in his examination he will be dropped, and that he is Sardanapalus will not save him. If his revels disturb the college peace, he will be warned and dismissed. All that can be asked of the college is that it shall grant no grace to the golden youth in the hope of endowment from his father, and that it shall keep its own peace.

This last condition includes more than keeping technical order. To remove for cause in the civil service really means not only to remove for a penal offence, but for habits and methods that destroy discipline and efficiency. So to keep the peace in a college means to remove the necessary causes of disturbance and disorder. If young Sardanapalus, by his extravagance and riotous profusion and dissipation, constantly thwarts the essential purpose of the college, demoralizing the students and obstructing the peaceful course of its instruction, he ought to be dismissed. The college must judge the conditions under which its work may be most properly and efficiently accomplished, and to achieve its purpose it may justly limit the liberty of its students.

The solution of the difficulty lies more in the power of the students than of the college. If the young men who are the natural social leaders make simplicity the unwritten law of college social life, young Sardanapalus will spend his money and heap up luxury in vain. The simplicity and good sense of wealth will conquer its ostentation and reckless waste.

(_October_, 1886)

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George William Curtis's essay: Extravagance At College