Once upon a time, circa 1927, Atlantic Monthly published an article called “Revolt of a Middle-Aged Father” in which a I.M. Rubinow set down his observations of Swarthmore. He was on a quest to find a suitable place of higher learning for his daughter. Impressed by Swarthmore’s beauty, but not it’s brains, he ultimately decided that Swarthmore would be a ‘great place for a vacation’, but not so much as a ‘place of vocation’.
He ended up sending his daughter to a state school in the Midwest, in hopes that she would find intellectual stimulation there.
Of course, this was back when, according to Everett B. Hunt in “The Revolt of the College Intellectual”, the Swatties of yore insisted that a 30 hour work week was entirely unfair and excessive–except for maybe the odd student in the brand-new Honors program. Ten years later, Swarthmore was a changed campus. The 30 hour work week was a thing of the past–Swatties now were insisting that it simply wouldn’t be possible to get all the work done in under 60 hours!
What happened in between? Swarthmore, like many other elite American colleges, experienced an awakening of sorts. Student attitudes and motivations molded an intellectually vibrant community that began to place a premium on academic endeavors in a way that it did not do so before. At Swarthmore, this revolution happened under the leadership of President Frank Aydelotte, who served from 1921-1939.
Aydelotte graduated from University of Indiana as a Rhodes Scholar, and spent time studying at Oxford University. He observed that the peer culture at Oxford was vastly different from the academic cultures at American univerisities. As President of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson commented that the ‘side shows’ (i.e. athletics and social activities) at American universities swallowed up the ‘main tent’ (ie. academics). However, Aydelotte observed a vibrant community of scholarship and learning at Oxford. Determined to bring this sort of intellectual culture to American campuses, he accepted the Presidency of Swarthmore College in 1921.
His appointment marked the beginning of a reform movement that revolutionized Swarthmore’s culture and image. The most visible academic, and arguably most important, reform was the introduction of the Honors program. The college hired faculty who were experts in their fields and reduced the student/faculty ratios. Acceptances to Swarthmore became significantly more competitive. While the program started with only 22 juniors enrolled, participation gradually rose to 40% of the class. Of the graduating class of 2004, 35% of the students were Honors graduates. Swarthmore students became more attractive to graduate schools due to their experience with the Honors program. The intellectual rigor and intensity of the program created an environment at Swarthmore unlike any other undergraduate insitution, raising Swarthmore’s profile among American colleges and universities.
Aydelotte also significantly changed the social and extracurricular aspects of campus life. He accepted the position of the presidency only under the condition that athletic scholarships be abolished. He was a vigorous supporter of the abolishment of sororities, and de-emphasized the roles of fraternities on campus. Fraternity dances were reduced, and hazing was prohibited. Finally, he took control of the athletic program away from alumni, and put it under the supervision of the college.
Predictably, Aydelotte faced widespread opposition from the alumni. The fact that his reforms at Swarthmore were taking place 35 years before reforms at peer institutions did not help. Neither did the fact that football scores had declined so much that Swarthmore’s traditional rivals had to be abandoned. But even beyond that, alumni were afraid that the college would experience a crisis in cultivating qualities of character and leadership. Up until then, college was not to be valued for the facts and ideas that were put into one’s head, but for the ‘character building’ experiences. These experiences were derived directly from leadership on the field, in fraternities, and in class loyalties, not through aquiring Ph. D’s at graduate institutions. Alumni feared that Swarthmore was being sucked into a bubble of academia removed from the real world.
Many today would say that exactly that has happened. Swarthmore has bucked the traditional models of collegiate life that still exist on most campuses in the U.S. Instead, we have embraced our Ph. D-aquiring ways. We take pride in our bubble of academia. We glorify in our companionship with books. What we lost in leadership-building in our frat houses, we have gained in leadership-building in our social action movements. The 30-hour work week seems very far away now as students fight misery poker battles and embrace a “nerd culture”. And we don’t even have football to kick around anymore.