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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Henry Noble MacCracken: The Student Movement

On May 30, 1926, a few days before Commencement and before the meeting at which Vassar’s board of trustees would provisionally agree to abolish compulsory daily Chapel attendance—a reform long-sought by students—President MacCracken published his reflections on the “student movement.” He examined the place of students in the historical development of American education, the growth and “necessity” of campus social organizations and varsity sports, the importance of graduates as “an integral part” of colleges and the crucial lessons such developments held for the professoriate. Entitled “The Student Movement Surges” and written at the request of the editors of The New York Times, his essay was reprinted in its entirety in the June 4 issue of The Harvard Crimson.

A frequent contributor to The Times, MacCracken had published a long letter in the issue for February 23, 1926, defending and describing the place of “vocationalismin the collegiate curriculum.


Agitation against compulsory chapel, reports of undergraduate committees on the curriculum, scathing college-paper criticism of campus and classroom conditions proclaim a student movement in America. The modern undergraduate begins to evolve from the type of pre-war days, with a self-conscious and independent personality, and he is being heard on his own account in the councils of the college. At the request of THE NEW YORK TIMES, President MacCracken of Vassar College, one of the most understanding of observers among the college authorities, has written the following interpretation of what is going on in student circles today.

The student movement, long deferred, is beginning to make headway in America, but powerful influences have delayed its appearance.

The original American college was patterned rather after Eton College than Oxford University. It was a superior school with a few masters, by whom morals and manners could be carefully watched. It was under the strict control of the Church and subject to visitation. Until the middle of the last century library and laboratory facilities were almost non-existent. Textbooks were few and poor. The student gained a passing acquaintance with twenty standard texts, scarcely more. Standards inevitably suffered from the poverty and remoteness from cultural centres. The college of 1850 had developed scarcely higher than the best boarding schools of today.

These handicaps proved to be blessings in disguise. Had America taken over the fully developed European forms there would not have been the originality that our system displays today. The American college, because of its very poverty, turned its gaze to the instant need of things. It struck deep root in American soil and found the fertile springs of action.

More than one hundred years ago Stephen Van Rensselaer founded at Troy the first undergraduate engineering college. In 1841 the University of Michigan set up its Utopian heaven of a university in a democracy. Nearly one hundred years ago the college for women saw first light in the South. At the same time coeducation became the practice of the majority of American institutions. By the Morrill act of 1863, the agricultural and mechanical arts came to occupy honored and preferred positions in the university curriculum. These innovations were peculiar to America in the system of higher education.

Most striking of all was the incorporation in the university scheme of the undergraduate college with courses of a broad informational character filling out the scanty background in the American student’s home training. This purely collegiate living, in the midst of university environment, has been the cause of much shaking of heads by educational leaders whose eyes are fixed upon European models. They ignore the fact that without these undergraduate bodies the moral and financial strength of the university would not exist, and even the tremendous pressure that great educational foundations can bring to bear will never uproot this truly American feature.

Photographs of buildings at Princeton, Yale and Harvard accompanied President MacCracken’s essay.

Photographs of buildings at Princeton, Yale and Harvard accompanied President MacCracken’s essay.

The introduction of these elements into American higher education has occupied nearly a century. The increase in the number and the power of colleges, the immense sums raised for their maintenance, the overwhelming tide of students, the rapid turn in Faculty personnel, the incessantly expanding campus, the extending of the idea of going to college to all classes of the commonwealth – these and other movements have made education a rather perplexing thing. Standards have been built up with enormous difficulty. Weathering financial and other perils, the college has made its President a captain at the helm with complete power over his ship’s crew. In the midst of all this adjustment the student’s life outside of his classroom appointments, his leisure day, has perforce been excluded from the scheme of things. This has been most fortunate, for he has been permitted to turn it to his own account. He has devised a life of his own.

Most of the American colleges were originally situated in the smaller villages. As the body of students grew they were forced to provide their own housing accommodations and thus the fraternity—in form stimulated by the Free Mason movement; in substance, the substitute for the college hall of residence—came into being. The women’s colleges, however, having always provided halls of residence for practically all of the students, have escaped the fraternity.

These societies, like the “nations” of the medieval university, still preserved at Upsala in Sweden and elsewhere, were in form a college within a college. Many American students are more loyal to them than to their college. The attitude taken by the fraternity on moral and social questions determines its members’ attitude with more finality than chapel addresses or Sunday sermons. In recent years university authorities have wisely recognized this fact, and by stimulating a sense of responsibility in fraternities for the academic standing of their members, have secured the most helpful cooperation in improving the general habits of study among the fraternity members. The national officers of the great American college fraternities frequently exercise a stricter control and demand a severer conformity to accepted social behavior from their undergraduate brothers than the college authorities themselves feel able to enforce.

Next to the development of the fraternity the student movement in the United States has occupied itself with the development of collegiate and intercollegiate athletics. Various games have been developed and standardized, sports and training have been brought under systematic development, and immense sums of money expended. As far as the students themselves are concerned, the movement has been almost wholly beneficial. Many an unwilling student has studied hard in order to make his team, many a law-breaking student has conformed to social custom in order to make good on the field, many an injurious habit has been given up for the Spartan regimen of the training table. Moral qualities of leadership and teamwork, the tough muscle and the steady eye are the reward of American athletes. And as in the case of the fraternity, the faculty which ignored the existence of this great institution has come to realize that unless it makes of athletics its friend and aid in the scheme of American education, athletes like the fraternity, may put an end to the college itself.

It is the fault of the Faculty. If the professors had really concerned themselves with the students’ leisure day they would not be in the predicament so eloquently described by the recent report of university professors condemning intercollegiate football as now conducted. That report reads like the expressions of dismay of the “wets” on the morning after prohibition. The professor engaged in his Addison walk of contemplation has bumped into the stadium and cannot imagine how it came into existence. Fear, which is the child of ignorance, cries “Down with it,” but second thought suggests that the institution is here and that the sooner it is brought into line with the general purpose of the college the better it will be.

 The Useful Graduate

The fraternity and the stadium are expensive necessities. Neither could have come into existence without the aid of a third party to the college contract, the graduate. He has furnished the funds, he has taken title to the property, he has controlled the details of the organization. Having no responsibility to the college administration and even openly contemptuous of its half-understood aims, the graduate has often worked completely at odds with the college with a sublime disregard of truth and has told the students that what they learned in the classroom was of no importance to them. It was the habits they formed outside the classroom which would be of value to young graduates. He has then shown his own worst side, half sentimental, half debauched, as a guide to their future course. He has professionalized the boy’s idealistic love of sport; he has encouraged the student in wanton extravagance in the organization and maintenance of fraternity houses.

Again the Faculty, and more frequently the President, have been astounded at this turn of affairs, and have taken a turn at denouncing the alumnus and his baleful influence. “It is the graduates who make all the trouble: they are to blame for such standards in the American college.” Thus the professors and the college President declaim, all the while standing cap in hand in vociferous appeal to the alumni for endowment. Such hypocrisy is treated by the alumni as it deserves.

The organized associations of alumni must now be accepted as an integral part of the college. The Vassar Associate Alumnae, for example, is a separate educational body, holding a charter for educational purposes granted them by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. They maintain a hall of residence with rooms for study and conference entirely managed by them, although the building is on the property and on the campus of Vassar College. They bring to their sessions leaders of thought who add greatly to the academic circle. The graduate, particularly in his leisure day, must be recognized as having something to contribute to the American college: and the Faculty has already responded generously to the intellectual appeal. Indeed, the graduate movement is a more powerful movement and will modify academic tradition more effectually than will any of the as-yet immature plans among the undergraduates themselves.

The Vassar Alumnae Association has as its chief executive of its Associate Alumnae an educational director, whose function is primarily adult education, and not the raising of funds. Princeton and Amherst and other colleges have developed various intellectual channels for reaching their alumni and the results have been most promising.

Just as the fraternity and athletic team are instruments of enormous potentiality ready to the Faculty’s hand in the furtherance of academic efficiency, so the graduate organization awaits the professor’s tardy recognition. It is entirely possible, without too much organization, to continue the education of the alumni group, inculcating respect for intellectual adjustment, securing their cooperation in business, professional and political opportunity for the students, using the alumni group as a recruiting agency for securing a more earnest and more intelligent student body, and most of all by developing a system of adult education to raise the whole cultural tone of American social life in their community.

If the college graduate is the figure that the comic papers make him out to be, and that some professors scold about, it is the fault of the Faculty. If he returns to the college and interferes unintelligently in the academic administration, if he demands reforms of which he knows nothing, it is because the Faculty persists in handing the undergraduate student his diploma in the attitude of “now be off with you,” while at the same time it seeks from the graduate the very means of its own existence.

In a word, the American college is no longer a college in the old sense of the word. It is a great social organization operating most powerfully in a democracy, where class lines are not yet strictly drawn, and where vast numbers of the people possess leisure. The professor may grumble about it, he may actively oppose it, but he will accommodate himself to the situation as the facts become clear; and he will be all the better for the change.

In particular, the sooner the professor realizes that the graduate’s influence over the undergraduate is even more powerful than his own the sooner he realizes that the student’s leisure day is the one with which the professor should be most concerned, the better for the intellectual integrity of the college. And the professor is beginning to realize this. The department of music has discovered the glee club, the department of physical education has discovered the crew, the department of political science has discovered the debating society, and the department of English has discovered the college paper.

The result has been the introduction of courses paralleling everywhere in the curriculum the structural elements in the undergraduate leisure. Even the hobbledehoy dramatic pretensions of fraternity night have been capitalized to develop dramatic production by Faculty teachers who seek to extend their sway over every histrionic impulse of the undergraduate. In this new recognition of the values of evolving from student life itself, there is coming about an understanding and cooperation between professors and students; out of this cooperation and out of this increase of contact is coming the modern student movement.

Like Grown-Up Men

Left to themselves the students would probably have continued happily concerned with the enjoyment of their leisure time; brought face to face by their professors with world currents in politics, economics and religion, they have discovered that their own playthings were somewhat immature. It was much more fun playing with the tools of grown-up men. They responded with avidity. Free speech in the classroom and on the campus, for which the professors had been fighting in their university association, became in turn the rallying cry of the student. The right of a radical professor to retain his collegiate chair became in turn the right of the radical college organization to university toleration. The casting off of the narrower forces of denominational theology by the professor became in turn a movement for the abolition of compulsory religious ritual at the college.

The college professors who organized the league to enforce peace have consciously or unconsciously fostered in every American college definite political organizations whose aim is similar to their own. Professors with strong proclivities toward social sympathy with the downtrodden have, by close association, fostered the development of strike leaders. Thus the professors themselves, so far as they have recognized their own trend in the student’s leisure day, so far as they have applied their own knowledge to current problems, have produced the student movement of our time. This is recognized by the supporters of the unchanged order of things, who in denouncing the youth movement very seldom denounce the student leaders of it, but bitterly attack the professors for saying what they believe. The very extravagance of imprecation that fills the clubs and luncheon rooms is evidence of the ignorance of what is going on.

Even student concern with the curriculum, the latest development in the student movement, is largely a following of academic leadership. President Aydelotte denounces the classroom. Professor Melklejohn shouts, “Away with all lectures.” President Frank says that the college is sick and proposes an isolation ward where it can be taken apart and examined and experimented on; Secretary Flexner wants to abolish the college altogether at university centres. Professor Johnston Ross denounces compulsory chapel. Professor William B. Otis denounces compulsory drills. Professor J. E. Kirkpatrick would abolish the college Presidency. But if students propose any reforms in these fields, we call it a student movement! [See notes below.]

What, then, does the student movement in the United States amount to? It is in no sense parallel to the student movement in Europe. The European student has been face to face with crushing economic burdens, with political disqualifications, with the bitterness of religious feuds. He is exploited by Fascismo and swastika, by trade union and international, by militarists and pacifist. As a result he is either enlisted in these camps and immediately formed into the flying squadron as an active participant in the movement, or by violent reaction against such exploitation he has withdrawn either into quasi-Oriental mysticism or the idealistic medieval romance of the wandering student of old. Such movements have practically no counterpart in the United States. In spite of capitalist and Communist the American college student is still remote from current world movements. In his leisure day he is chiefly concerned with his own affairs.

The student movement in American is taken up with the demand for student autonomy in student matters. Undergraduates are quarreling with alumni over the management of teams. They are refusing the sentimental code of college sport handed down to them. They are defending the leisure day against the inroads made upon it by competing Faculty departments. They are going further just now in demanding some share in the control of the working day at college. They are questioning not only the requirements of subjects, but the methods of teaching. The time is soon coming when innovations in the curriculum will not be imposed upon them without conference, when they will retort with “tu quoque” to the professor. “if we study badly it is because we are taught badly,” “if we have no intellectual enthusiasm it is because of your own attitude toward it,” “if some of you gentlemen with Ph.D.’s showed any real enthusiasm for research we might ourselves respect it more,” “we know what an interesting lecture is as well as you do,” “we know when a course is well taught as well as you do,” “if we soldier on our job it is because you soldier on yours.”

Evidence of Thinking

These and other equally irreverent rejoinders are now being heard on the college campus. They constitute the real student movement in America today. To the present writer the movement seems wholly good if the professor recognizes the situation in time. The students’ questioning of the value of religion in daily life is equally to the good if church leaders recognize the situation in time. All these revolts and objections are evidences of keen intellectual enthusiasm, of the discovery that participation in the real life of the world is much more fun than playing with the ephemeral ideals of the campus.

The student may go further; he has already gained control of his own membership through self-government, he may go further and organize student banks and subsidies in the form of loan funds and other aids to enable students of all classes to attend college. If the students will do this they will postpone for another generation the sharp class distinctions into which America seems to be rapidly falling. The Bryn Mawr labor school, the Summer camps and institutions teaching students to fraternize with members of the laboring classes, are evidences of the wish to know how others live. At Vassar last Winter the debating team of Vassar College met students from Brookwood Labor College; the trade unionists preached socialism and sang the “Internationale” as their college cheer when they left.

All this may seem startling to conservative elements, who like the hatches nailed down over the fire in the hold; but it is just as well to recognize that there are still vast numbers to whom a college education is an innovation and as our wealth increases our social groups are likely to draw away from each other. The church has been giving ground before this movement; and the college has a unique opportunity if it will but grasp it. The students may provide the forum in which farmer and artisan, extra help and foreign laborer may come to know something of the other groups in this democracy, and at first hand.


A footpath on the grounds of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, said to be a favorite diversion for the essayist, poet and playwright Joseph Addison (1672–1719), is known as “Addison’s Walk.”

Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764–1839) founded The Rensselaer School—later Rensselaer Polytechnique Institute—in 1824, “for the purpose of instructing persons…in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

Frank Aydelotte (1880–1956) was president of Swarthmore College between 1921 and 1940. An early Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he argued in The Oxford Stamp and Other Essays: Articles from the Educational Creed of an American Oxonian (1917), for the abolition of classroom lectures and the institution of a tutorial pedagogy. 

Alexander Mieklejohn (1872–1964), professor of philosophy at Brown University, was dean of the university between 1901 and 1912 and president of Amherst College between 1912 and 1923. In Freedom and the College (1923), Mieklejohn severely questioned the value of college social organizations and athletics and proposed a radical restructuring of the collegiate curriculum. In March 1926, he accepted the invitation of the president of the University of Wisconsin, Glenn Frank (1877–1940), to establish the university’s Experimental College, which opened in 1927. In the two-year curriculum of the Experimental College, young men studied Athens in the 5th century in the first year, wrote an anthropological study of their home regions over the summer and studied 19th and 20th century American history in the second year. The Experimental College closed in 1932 at the end of the academic year.

The academic distractions frowned on by educational analyst Abraham Flexner from his powerful position as secretary to the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board included undergraduate athletics, student government and other student activities. Flexner was founding director—1930–1939—of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

In a letter to The New York Times for March 1, 1925, Dr. G. A. Johnston Ross (1865–1937), professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, noted his surprise, as a guest preacher “in several Eastern colleges…that the monstrous medievalism called ‘compulsory Sunday chapel’ still survives in some of them.” Short of abolition of the practice, he said,  “the logic of the situation of ‘compulsory chapel’” required “the limitation of invitations to preach to prison chaplains or other persons accustomed to deal with audiences reluctantly present.”

Dr. William B. Otis (1878–1969), professor of English at The City College of New York, spoke out in January 1926 in support of protests by students at several college and universities against the compulsory military drills instituted in over 80 institutions after passage of the National Defense Act of 1920. Otis was quoted in Militarizing Our Youth (1927): “Never before in American History has the freedom of our higher educational institutions been thus threatened…. The freedom of faculties to determine their our curriculum has been invaded for the first time.”

In a detailed study of the evolution of governance in American higher education, The American College and Its Rulers (1926), John Ervin Kirkpatrick (1869–1931), professor of history at Olivet College, argued that college and university governance had developed into an intelligent and benevolent autocracy and—pleas of presidential subjection to faculties and trustees aside—that this form of governance subtly but thoroughly thwarted any development of true democracy. A chapter in his book questioned the utility of college presidents.

Brookwood Labor College, established in Westchester County in 1921, was a residential college supported by affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Closed in 1938, the college had developed a reputation as a testing ground for radical pacifist and socialist ideas.

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Henry Noble MacCracken, “The Student Movement Surges,” The New York Times, May 30, 1926

CJ 2012