It was a Saturday night in April a century ago. The country was at peace. The economy was stable. But the breezes of reform were blowing across the nation and progressive leaders were asking uncomfortable questions — about how society was organized, about whether the ladder of opportunity had been kicked aside, about whether the country was as dedicated to democratic principles as its founders had been.
In that atmosphere, in a hotel that now houses the student union at the University of Pittsburgh, a college president rose to speak to a group of Ivy League alumni who had poured into town on trains from around the region to sing their college songs, offer their college toasts and later to repair to a college smoker. An orchestra was present. So were some of the leading men of the day. It was an evening of high spirits and highballs. And then a member of the Class of 1879 rose to speak.
His name was Woodrow Wilson and he was the president of Princeton at a time when the institution was more college than university: a parochial, passive place that personified privilege far more than prestige.
A penetrating question
In less than seven months Wilson would be elected governor of New Jersey. In less than two years he would take the oath as president of the United States. He was not a frivolous man, and his were not frivolous words. He asked the sons of Old Nassau a penetrating question that had become his obsession, that tortured him as he contemplated Princeton and the world it occupied:
“Would Lincoln have been a better instrument for the country’s good if he had been put through the processes of one of our modern colleges?”
The question astonished his listeners, who amid the songs and the toasts and at their tables festooned with orange and black streamers had come to celebrate Princeton, not to question it, who had cheered the arrival of a papier-mache orange-and-black tiger, the college’s mascot, with illuminated eyes, and who had lustily devoured ice cream confections molded in the shape of tigers that were placed in front of them by an army of waiters. This was an occasion for a reunion, not for reflection.
Wilson’s question injected a moment of stunning sobriety to the Princeton proceedings. The account in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times carried this sub-headline: “President Wilson Startles.” The second headline in the Pittsburgh Dispatch read: “Princeton President’s Fiery Speech Received in Silence by Local Alumni.” The Dispatch’s account of Wilson’s remarks began this way: “Until Dr. Wilson began to speak, the affair was one of jollity.”
Wilson answered his own question, saying that Lincoln would not have been advantaged by a Princeton education, or a college education as it was understood a century ago. Here is his argument:
“The processes to which the college man are subjected do not render him serviceable to the country as a whole. It is for this reason that I have dedicated every power in me to a democratic re-generation. The American college must become saturated in the same sympathies as the common people. The colleges of this country must be reconstructed from the top to the bottom.”
Wilson’s theme was that American colleges were too marinated in exclusiveness and not sufficiently concerned with “moral advance.”
But his question — whether Lincoln would have been improved by a college education — is relevant to us now, when the rush to the colleges is at full flood but when college life is full of distractions, binge drinking, distorted sleep patterns and ever-shrinking hours of contemplation and study.
In the past several weeks I posed the Wilson question to a half-dozen college presidents, past and present, and most acknowledged, uncomfortably, that Lincoln somehow had become educated without stepping into a college classroom.
“He was street and politically smart — and had excellent values,” said C. Peter Magrath, who has been president of five universities and now serves as interim president of Binghamton University in New York.
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, said: “Though we take pride in helping to strengthen values, sharpen insights and develop a broader sense of social context, it appears that Mr. Lincoln did not need much help on any of those fronts.”
James E. Wright, who taught me history before he became the president of Dartmouth College, replied that “as hard as it is for an academic to admit, I can’t imagine that a college education would have enabled Lincoln to be of any greater service to the country.” Wright, who retired nearly two years ago, added:
“Today we often confuse certification with education. In fact our society seems to value the former more than the latter. That was not true in Lincoln’s time ... But he did need to be educated. And he clearly accomplished that largely on his own. I define being educated for this purpose as an individual having an understanding of his or her context — their place in history, in culture, in the physical and biological world. I define it as understanding others and knowing yourself — what you stand for and what you value. Lincoln had these things. He read widely and understood well who he was and understood his country at that time in our history.”
The Wilson question is important because it focuses us on the purpose of college when the word is not being used as a modifier to “football” or “basketball tournament.” This is not to minimize the importance of sport and healthy attitudes toward exercise. Indeed, one of Wilson’s predecessors and his persistent political rival, Theodore Roosevelt, championed and probably saved college football, a tale told in John J. Miller’s forthcoming “The Big Scrum” (HarperCollins).
Other paths to knowledge
But somehow Lincoln acquired experience, wisdom and perspective without sitting in a seminar room, developed a sense of spirit without being revved up by screaming announcers and wildly shifting light shows at a basketball arena, and learned to express himself without going to the campus writing center.
He did it by revering knowledge, respecting history, worshipping the written word, studying tradition — and daring to imagine a world where the ennobling traditions were enhanced and the rancid ones eliminated.
Those are the goals of the best college students, if not always the so-called best colleges. Everything else is ephemeral, as Woodrow Wilson taught the college revelers at their Pittsburgh reunion. He asked a question that should preoccupy us still.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.