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October 16, 1921

In an interview published in The New York Times President MacCracken spoke at length about the changing influence of colleges in American society. Noting many institutions’ burgeoning applications, he said that Vassar’s registration books were closed until fall of 1927 and that the number of graduates since 1865 barely equaled those now registered, but not yet entered or graduated. MacCracken attributed the increase in college applications partly to generally increased affluence but, more importantly, to the greater extent to which collegiate institutions were molding community and national institutions—invigorating democracy and supporting personality and character rather than wealth or position. This vitality, he said, came from college social systems rather than their curricula.

“The result has been,” he said, “that the faculty of almost every American college has been at war with the social organization within the college campus, because the faculty did not realize the value of the education which came to the student in an unorganized form from what we call the college spirit…. They were so close to the individual problems of college life that they did not see that right under their very eyes was developing one of the most interesting phenomena in American education—the creation of a civic laboratory in which the student body by the trial-and-error process of inductive science was slowly working out the problems of co-operation and development in the spirit of self-reliance and of action, which is characteristic of the American people.”

MacCracken observed that foreign visitors to American colleges had recognized this spirit as something unique and something, in the view of a recent visiting professor from the Sorbonne, “for which there was no translation in French.” Educators “may not like to admit it,” MacCracken continued, but “the curriculum is, after all, not the thing of primary importance either to the student or the parent. It is the college life, the environment, the companionship—the character, in a word, of the institution—that counts.” Defining this character as “the total reaction of a personality to its environment,” MacCracken concluded, “we have been brought to realize that we must seize the great opportunity inherent in the social organism of our colleges as the greatest of all opportunities for real education.”

The New York Times

The Years