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An essay by Agnes Repplier

The Girl Graduate

Title:     The Girl Graduate
Author: Agnes Repplier [More Titles by Repplier]

"When I find learning and wisdom united in one person, I do not wait to consider the sex; I bend in admiration."--LA BRUYERE.

We shall never know, though we shall always wonder, why certain phrases, carelessly flung to us by poet or by orator, should be endowed with regrettable vitality. When Tennnyson wrote that mocking line about "sweet girl graduates in their golden hair," he could hardly have surmised that it would be quoted exuberantly year after weary year, or that with each successive June it would reappear as the inspiration of flowery editorials, and of pictures, monotonously amorous, in our illustrated journals. Perhaps in view of the serious statistics which have for some time past girdled the woman student, statistics dealing exhaustively with her honours, her illnesses, her somewhat nebulous achievements, and the size of her infant families, it is as well to realize that the big, unlettered, easy-going world regards her still from the standpoint of golden hair, and of the undying charm of immaturity.

In justice to the girl graduate, it must be said that she takes herself simply and sanely. It is not her fault that statisticians note down every breath she draws; and many of their most heartrending allegations have passed into college jokes, traditional jokes, fated to descend from senior to freshman for happy years to come. The student learns in the give-and-take of communal life to laugh at many things, partly from sheer high spirits, partly from youthful cynicism, and the habit of sharpening her wit against her neighbour's. It is commonly believed that she is an unduly serious young person with an insatiable craving for knowledge; in reality she is often as healthily unresponsive as is her Yale or Harvard brother. If she cannot yet weave her modest acquirements into the tissue of her life as unconcernedly as her brother does, it is not because she has been educated beyond her mental capacity: it is because social conditions are not for her as inevitable as they are for him.

Things were simpler in the old days, when college meant for a woman the special training needed for a career; when, battling often with poverty, she made every sacrifice for the education which would give her work a market value; and when all she asked in return was the dignity of self-support. Now many girls, unspurred by necessity or by ambition, enter college because they are keen for personal and intellectual freedom, because they desire the activities and the pleasures which college generously gives. They bring with them some traditions of scholarship, and some knowledge of the world, with a corresponding elasticity of judgment. They may or may not be good students, but their influence makes for serenity and balance. Their four years' course lacks, however, a definite goal. It is a training for life, as is the four years' course of their Yale or Harvard brothers, but with this difference,--the college woman's life is still open to adjustment.

Often it adjusts itself along time-honoured lines, and with time-honoured results. In this happy event, some mystic figures are recalculated in scientific journals, the graduate's babies are added to the fractional birth-rate accredited to the college woman, her family and friends consider that, individually, she has settled the whole vexed question of education and domesticity, and the world, enamoured always of the traditional type of femininity, goes on its way rejoicing. If, however, the graduate evinces no inclination for social and domestic delights, if she longs to do some definite work, to breathe the breath of man's activities, and to guide herself, as a man must do, through the intricate mazes of life, it is the part of justice and of wisdom to let her try. Nothing steadies the restless soul like work,--real work which has an economic value, and is measured by the standards of the world. The college woman has been trained to independence of thought, and to a wide reasonableness of outlook. She has also received some equipment in the way of knowledge; not more, perhaps, than could be easily absorbed in the ordinary routine of life, but enough to give her a fair start in whatever field of industry she enters. If she develops into efficiency, if she makes good her hold upon work, she silences her critics. If she fails, and can, in Stevenson's noble words, "take honourable defeat to be a form of victory," she has not wasted her endeavours.

It is strange that the advantages of a college course for girls--advantages solid and reckonable--should be still so sharply questioned by men and women of the world. It is stranger still that its earnest advocates should claim for it in a special manner the few merits it does not possess. When President David Starr Jordan, of Leland Stanford University, tells us that "it is hardly necessary among intelligent men and women to argue that a good woman is a better one for having received a college education; anything short of this is inadequate for the demands of modern life and modern culture"; we can only echo the words of the wise cat in Mr. Froude's "Cat's Pilgrimage," "There may be truth in what you say, but your view is limited."

Goodness, indeed, is not a matter easily opened to discussion. Who can pigeonhole goodness, or assign it a locality? But culture (if by the word we mean that common understanding of the world's best traditions which enables us to meet one another with mental ease) is not the fair fruit of a college education. It is primarily a matter of inheritance, of lifelong surroundings, of temperament, of delicacy of taste, of early and vivid impressions. It is often found in college, but it is not a collegiate product. The steady and absorbing work demanded of a student who is seeking a degree, precludes wide wanderings "in the realms of gold." If, in her four years of study, she has gained some solid knowledge of one or two subjects, with a power of approach in other directions, she has done well, and justified the wisdom of the group system, which makes for intellectual discipline and real attainments.

In households where there is little education, the college daughter is reverenced for what she knows,--for her Latin, her mathematics, her biology. What she does not know, being also unknown to her family, causes no dismay. In households where the standard of cultivation is high, the college daughter is made the subject of good-humoured ridicule, because she lacks the general information of her sisters,--because she has never heard of Abelard and Heloise, of Graham of Claverhouse, of "The Beggars' Opera." Nobody expects the college son to know these things, or is in the least surprised when he does not; but the college daughter is supposed to be the repository of universal erudition. Every now and then somebody rushes into print with indignant illustrations of her ignorance, as though ignorance were not the one common possession of mankind. Those of us who are not undergoing examinations are not driven to reveal it,--a comfortable circumstance, which need not, however, make us unreasonably proud.

Therefore, when we are told of sophomores who place Shakespeare in the twelfth, and Dickens in the seventeenth century, who are under the impression that "Don Quixote" flowed from the fertile pen of Mr. Marion Crawford, and who are not aware that a gentleman named James Boswell wrote a most entertaining life of another gentleman named Samuel Johnson, we need not lift up horror-stricken hands to Heaven, but call to mind how many other things there are in this world to know. That a girl student should mistake "_Launcelot Gobbo_" for King Arthur's knight is not a matter of surprise to one who remembers how three young men, graduates of the oldest and proudest colleges in the land, placidly confessed ignorance of "_Petruchio_." Shakespeare, after all, belongs to "the realms of gold." The higher education, as now understood, permits the student to escape him, and to escape the Bible as well. As a consequence of these exemptions, a bachelor of arts may be, and often is, unable to meet his intellectual equals with mental ease. Allusions that have passed into the common vocabulary of cultivated men and women have no meaning for him. Does not Mr. Andrew Lang tell us of an Oxford student who wanted to know what people meant when they said "hankering after the flesh-pots of Egypt"; and has not the present writer been asked by a Harvard graduate if she could remember a Joseph, "somewhere" in the Old Testament, who was "decoyed into Egypt by a coat of many colours"?

To measure _any_ form of schooling by its direct results is to narrow a wide issue to insignificance. The by-products of education are the things which count. It has been said by an admirable educator that the direct results obtained from Eton and Rugby are a few copies of indifferent Latin verse; the by-products are the young men who run the Indian Empire. We may be startled for a moment by discovering a student of political economy to be wholly and happily ignorant of Mr. Lloyd-George's "Budget," the most vivid object-lesson of our day; but how many Americans who talked about the budget, and had impassioned views on the subject, knew what it really contained? If the student's intelligence is so trained that she has some adequate grasp of economics, if she has been lifted once and forever out of the Robin Hood school of political economy, which is so dear to a woman's generous heart, it matters little how early or how late she becomes acquainted with the history of her own time. "Depend upon it," said the wise Dr. Johnson, whom undergraduates are sometimes wont to slight, "no woman was ever the worse for sense and knowledge." It was his habit to rest a superstructure on foundations.

The college graduate is far more immature than her characteristic self-reliance leads us to suppose. By her side, the girl who has left school at eighteen, and has lived four years in the world, is weighted with experience. The extension of youth is surely as great a boon to women as to men. There is time enough ahead of all of us in which to grow old and circumspect. For four years the student's interests have been keen and concentrated, the healthy, limited interests of a community. For four years her pleasures have been simple and sane. For four years her ambitions, like the ambitions of her college brother, have been as deeply concerned with athletics as with text-books. She has had a better chance for physical development than if she had "come out" at eighteen. Her college life has been exceptionally happy, because its complications have been few, and its freedom as wide as wisdom would permit. The system of self-government, now introduced into the colleges, has justified itself beyond all questioning. It has promoted a clear understanding of honour, it has taught the student the value of discipline, it has lent dignity to the routine of her life.

Some reverence for the laws ourselves have made,

is surely the first and best lesson which the citizen of a republic needs to learn.

Writers on educational themes have pointed out--with tremors of apprehension--that while a woman student working among men at a foreign university is mentally stimulated by her surroundings, stimulated often to the point of scholarship, her development is not uniform and normal. She is always in danger of sinking her femininity, or of overemphasizing it. In the former case, she loses charm and personality; in the latter, sanity and balance. From both perils the college woman in the United States is happily exempt. President Jordan offers as a plea for co-education the healthy sense of companionship between boy and girl students. "There is less of silliness and folly," he says, "where man is not a novelty." But, in truth, this particular form of silliness and folly is at a discount in every woman's college, simply because the interests and occupations which crowd the student's day leave little room for its expansion.

The three best things about the college life of girls are its attitude towards money (an attitude which contrasts sharply with that of many private schools), its attitude towards social disparities, and its attitude towards men. The atmosphere of the college is reasonably democratic. Like gravitates towards like, and a similarity of background and tradition forms a natural basis for companionship; but there is tolerance for other backgrounds which are not without dignity, though they may be lacking in distinction. Poverty is admittedly inconvenient, but carries no reproach. Light hearts and jesting tongues minimize its discomforts. I well remember when the coming of Madame Bernhardt to Philadelphia in 1901 fired the students of Bryn Mawr College with the justifiable ambition to see this great actress in all her finer roles. Those who had money spent it royally. Those who had none offered their possessions,--books, ornaments, tea-cups, for sale. "Such a chance to buy bargains," observed one young spendthrift, who had been endeavouring to dispose of all she needed most; "but unluckily everybody wants to sell. We know now the importance of the consuming classes, and how useful in their modest way some idle rich would be."

That large and influential portion of the community which does not know its own mind, and which the rest of the world is always endeavouring to conciliate, is still divided between its honest desire to educate women, and its fear lest the woman, when educated, may lose the conservative force which is her most valuable asset. That small and combative portion of the community which knows its own mind accurately, and which always demands the impossible, is determined that the college girl shall betake herself to practical pursuits, that she shall wedge into her four years of work, courses in domestic science, the chemistry of food, nursing, dressmaking, house sanitation, pedagogy, and that blight of the nursery,--child-study. These are the things, we are often told, which it behooves a woman to know, and by the mastery of which she is able, so says a censorious writer in the "Educational Review," "to repay in some measure her debt to man, who has extended to her the benefits of a higher education."

It is to be feared that the girl graduate, the youthful bachelor of arts who steps smiling through the serried ranks of students, her heart beating gladly in response to their generous applause, has little thought of repaying her debt to man. Somebody has made an address which she was too nervous to hear, and has affirmed, with that impressiveness which we all lend to our easiest generalizations, that the purpose of college is to give women a broad and liberal education, and, at the same time, to preserve and develop the characteristics of a complete womanhood. Somebody else has followed up the address with a few fervent remarks, declaring that the only proof of competence is performance. "The world belongs to those who have stormed it." This last ringing sentence--delivered with an almost defiant air of originality--has perhaps caught the graduate's ear, but its familiar cadence awakened no response. Has she not already stormed the world by taking her degree, and does not the world belong to her, in any case, by virtue of her youth and inexperience? Never, while she lives, will it be so completely hers as on the day of her graduation. Let her enjoy her possession while she may.

And her equipment? Well, those of us who call to mind the medley of unstable facts, untenable theories, and undesirable accomplishments, which was _our_ substitute for education, deem her solidly informed. If the wisdom of the college president has rescued her from domestic science, and her own common sense has steered her clear of art, she has had a chance, in four years of study, to lay the foundation of knowledge. Her vocabulary is curiously limited. At her age, her grandmother, if a gentlewoman, used more words, and used them better. But then her grandmother had not associated exclusively with youthful companions. The graduate has serious views of life, which are not amiss, and a healthy sense of humour to enliven them. She is resourceful, honourable, and pathetically self-reliant. In her highest and happiest development, she merits the noble words in which an old Ferrara chronicler praises the loveliest and the most maligned woman in all history: "The lady is keen and intellectual, joyous and human, and possesses good reasoning powers."

To balance these permanent gains, there are some temporary losses. The college student, if she does not take up a definite line of work, is apt, for a time at least, to be unquiet. That quality so lovingly described by Peacock as "stayathomeativeness" is her least noticeable characteristic. The smiling discharge of uncongenial social duties, which disciplines the woman of the world, seems to her unseeing eyes a waste of time and opportunities. She has read little, and that little, not for "human delight." Excellence in literature has been pointed out to her, starred and double-starred, like Baedeker's cathedrals. She has been taught the value of standards, and has been spared the groping of the undirected reader, who builds up her own standards slowly and hesitatingly by an endless process of comparison. The saving in time is beneficial, and some defects in taste have been remedied. But human delight does not respond to authority. It is the hour of rapturous reading and the power of secret thinking which make for personal distinction. The shipwreck of education, says Dr. William James, is to be unable, after years of study, to recognize unticketed eminence. The best result obtainable from college, with its liberal and honourable traditions, is that training in the humanities which lifts the raw boy and girl into the ranks of the understanding; enabling them to sympathize with men's mistakes, to feel the beauty of lost causes, the pathos of misguided epochs, "the ceaseless whisper of permanent ideals."

[The end]
Agnes Repplier's essay: The Girl Graduate