Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wilson and Education

Having just finished the very long Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr., I could write twenty posts about forty things. Wanting to write just one post about just one thing, I decided to cheat and write about “education,” a rubric that covers at least three subtopics.

Wilson, of course, served as the president of Princeton for many years. The institution was actually properly named the College of New Jersey at his time, but his policies pushed it up to the prestigious status it enjoys today and led to the upgraded title of University. His efforts included what we now call “general-education requirements.” (How sad it makes me to note how few universities, supposed Defenders of the Realm of Knowledge, know to hyphenate that phrase!) For what he called “reading subjects” – history, literature, and philosophy, for instance – he instituted tutorials similar to those in Oxford and Cambridge: very small discussion groups led by junior faculty. To encourage research, he founded a graduate college, although he didn’t get his way in positioning the buildings at the heart of campus. I was astonished to learn how much of the rhythms of university life I’m used to apparently go back to Wilson’s leadership. If someone has written a history of policies, structures, curricula, goals, and standards in American universities, I wish I knew of it so I could read it.

It should not have surprised me, although it did a bit, that Wilson saw his role of President of the United States as that of an educator, as well. As much as Cooper clearly adulates Wilson, his fair reporting left me at the end of the book agreeing with opposition Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that Congress rightly rejected Wilson’s pet idea, the League of Nations: it included a provision that member nations would send arms to repel any violation of its balanced edicts, and agreeing to that article would effectively take away Congress’s prerogative to declare war. But the President, with a situational ethic that made me uncomfortable several times during the reading, waved off that concern with the breezy declaration that Europeans would never expect the distant Americans actually to come all that way to fulfill their contractual obligations.

(Oh, yeah! I said I was only going to talk about education, and then I got side-tracked into complaining about Wilson’s casual relationship with promises. Back on track now.)

Seeing that the congressional stream flowed against the direction he wanted to sail, Wilson set out on a massive rail circuit of the States to speak directly to the people. The hectic pace and the stress of prolonged travel probably exacerbated his physical condition, but in any case, the educational tour came to an abrupt halt somewhere around Kansas when Wilson suffered the debilitating stroke that essentially ended his Presidency and his career. Cooper points out that the event represented the end of an era of public oratory, political education, and nuanced debate without electronics. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan were the last stars in the sparkling firmament of American political eloquence that included also the constellations of Webster and Clay, Lincoln and Douglas. American politicians used to have ideas. They studied rhetoric. They spoke in complete sentences and made nuanced, multi-tiered arguments that took sometimes up to two hours to lay out. And Americans listened: farmers stood for three hours to hear Lincoln and Douglas in 1858. Three score and one year later, crowds came out to meet Wilson at the train stations in Ohio and Wisconsin and Montana and California. They listened to him expound at length on all Fourteen Points and more. Then came the loudspeaker with its restriction on the expressive qualities of the voice. Then came radio and the soundbyte. Then came television and the picture worth a thousand soundbytes. Then came — ugh, I can’t and won’t say it.

The third subtopic: my education. I didn’t know just how much Americans wanted the U. S. to stay out of World War I. The Germans sank the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans with over 1,000 others, and still we wanted no war. They torpedoed American ships, and still we wanted no war. They came into Newport harbor and sank five merchant vessels visiting from other countries, and still we wanted no war. Can you imagine any organization (or disorganization, for that matter) coming into, say, San Francisco Bay today and conducting its warfare there without raising the vengeful wrath of the American public? I don’t know which response is more correct, but I do know that we are a very different nation from the U. S. of one-hundred years ago.

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