“Character is higher than intellect . . A great soul will be strong to live, as well as to think."—Emerson
Many dozens of writers have sought to evaluate the effect upon the average student of a college education. Sundry bases of rating have been used; numerous conclusions have been reached. Usually the evaluator seeks to set down the net advantages in terms of money, which is far from being an all inclusive index, for a real college does so much more for its students than merely to increase their earning power.
Let us consider the average student as a boy of 17 to 19, born in a small or medium-sized town, and graduated from one of its high schools. Let us say his stock is American by at least two generations and that his vigor, mental and physical, is normal. The job of his college is to develop his intellect by teaching him to learn, to think, and to apply knowledge; and to develop his character by teaching him to live.
If the college is fairly large, the student meets other students from all parts of this country and, usually, from many other countries. He discovers new profiles and contours upon familiar topics when he hears them described from the viewpoints of the South, the Northwest, the Orient.
He learns that in order to become manager of the football team in his senior year a man must enter the contest in his freshman year and spend three years competing, and co-operating, with 30 or 40 other students who have the same objective. Only one man can win, but each competitor, if he is a sportsman, will give the competition his best work from the day he starts until that moment when he As selected as manager, or finally eliminated.
If he wishes to play varsity football or baseball or win a letter with the track team, the average student finds the competition and the obligations of sportsmanship even more exacting. No matter how skillful he may be, there are others as well or better qualified for the job that he is seeking. Long hours of tedious drill are required to fit him into the standards set down by his coach and to ground him in the basics of working with the rest of the team. Whether or not the individual makes his letter or executes the specialty which he likes best is of little consequence. The success of the team as a whole is the prime objective.
In lecture hall, laboratory, and classroom the student is exposed to education. Like a photographic film he may pick up much or little, according to the degree and type of his sensitization. Also, like a film, he may develop what he has picked up with high or low fidelity; with detail or without; with outlines clearly defined and very useful for further processing or dull and hazy, and quite incapable of satisfactory printing. The right college inspires the average student to get clear, usable pictures from his studies and to file them mentally so that they may be readily available for practical use.
Thus by widening the focal angle of the student, by teaching him to plan and concentrate his study, and by showing him how to co-operate with other men of all types, the college makes a splendid start at teaching him how to live. Between the years 1917 and 1919 the Naval Reserve took this job aboard where the colleges were forced to unload it, and for many hundreds of average students carried it a long distance further on its course.
In January, 1917, it became clear that sooner or later the United States would take an active part in the World War. At this point thousands of young men who had received their college degrees the preceding June or who were then undergraduates began looking around to find the branch of the service which would be most likely to accept them for active duty. Graduates of 1915, 1914, and 1913 became interested, too, but these classes had been out long enough to have found themselves in their professional and business careers. I should like to confine this discussion to graduates of 1916 and later, for two reasons. First, several hundred of them were ultimately accepted by the Naval Reserve and given training which returned them to civil life much better equipped to think and to live. Second, I was one of this group and therefore can write from first-hand experience.
In January, 1917 we 1916’ers were anxious to find our niches in the service— Navy, Army, or Marine Corps—we had little preference, but we did want to serve as volunteers and we wanted to use whatever special aptitude we might have to the best advantage.
When the big news of April came, it found most of us still unattached. Many of us were destined to remain so for some months to come. My first application was filed with the Army Air Service and I was given a prompt examination and an equally prompt rejection. My weight was too low for my height and my eyes were not all they should have been. With the volume of applicants flowing through the examination rooms, the supply of perfect physical specimens exceeded the capacity of the ground schools. During the next few weeks I filed application for artillery, motor transport, naval flying, Plattsburg, and signal corps.
In due course I received six rejections on physical grounds. These were a little discouraging but, because I was never rejected twice for the same defect, I concluded that I was still a good potential service man. A visit to my doctor confirmed this opinion, although my elation at being pronounced normal and healthy was dampened somewhat by his announcement that he was sailing for France the next day. He was a major in the Army Medical Corps and a very pleased major indeed.
I continued to carry packets of letters of recommendation with me at all times and to file applications on the slightest encouragement. In the late fall of 1917, I began to hear more about waivers. Filling out another application for the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, I took it to Washington in the hope that some Navy doctor might overlook my weight and realize that I was just naturally born to be skinny.
At Headquarters they didn’t even examine me physically. There were too many applications ahead of mine. They told me they would keep mine on file and, when my turn came, I’d be told to report for examination. I’ve never learned to play poker well, and at that time I had never even sat in a Navy bridge game, so my face must have drooped badly. On my way out a lieutenant in forest-green stopped me. He had overheard my conversation with the officer at the desk next to his.
“What was your course at college?” he asked.
The “sir” was a little slow but the intentions were good.
“Why don’t you file an application for the inspection engineering course at Navy Ground School? Only engineers are eligible. It’s more selective. You might hear from us a little sooner.”
When I got back to my office there was a telegram on my desk. It directed me to report at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and it was signed by five mystic capital letters which I was never to see again in that particular arrangement without a slight increase in blood pressure—“BUNAV.”
At the Navy Yard I was told that a captain would talk with me and my knees felt more vibratory than ever they had in the presence of medicos with power to say “No.” I was getting a little hardened to stethoscopes and sphygmomanometers. But to be interviewed by a four-striper! He had my application before him. I stood up as straight as I could and he smiled and pointed to a guest chair beside his desk. He asked me some questions about education and present job which I must have answered badly. Then he asked where I lived. It just happened that my family was renting a house in Hastings- on-Hudson which had been built by Admiral Farragut. I told the captain about the place and sketched a floor plan for him. We talked about Farragut a few moments and then he sent me to the medical officer. This time I was not rejected.
At 8:00 a.m. two days later I was the first civilian admitted to the Boston Navy Yard when the gates were opened. Two hours after that I was sworn in as a seaman second-class for aviation and ordered to ground school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At Walker Memorial I found 18 or 20 other novices, M. E.’s like myself, about to start ground school in my flight. We were elated at having been accepted and awed at our abysmal ignorance of the Navy. I think our awe outweighed our elation by a wide margin. If we completed ground school successfully, we would become candidates for commission in the Naval Reserve. How could we hope to learn enough in a few weeks to enable us to hold down a commissioned job in the Navy? One lad from Stevens summed it up for us.
All we have to do is to live one day at a time. We’ll hit everything as hard as possible, and we’ll either come through, or we won’t. If we don’t come through, we’re still in the service, anyway. They could send us to sea on a transport or a mine sweeper. At least that would be better than sitting at a civilian desk wishing we were in uniform.
So we went at it, one day at a time. And what days they were! During that winter when we took intervals for morning setting-up in front of Walker Memorial, the wind off the Charles River Basin had a temperature of 6 to 10 degrees below zero. We were soft and we more than half expected to get pneumonia. Instead we contracted prodigious appetites for breakfast.
After breakfast, detachment assembly and classes until noon; luncheon and more classes until four; then drill, dinner, study period, and bunks. At the end of the second day we knew we could never live through a week of it. At the end of the second week we were astonished to find ourselves gaining weight, hardening up, and wading into theory of flight, materials of engineering, metallurgy, internal-combustion engines, and naval procedure. We had quizzes every Saturday morning and inspection every Saturday noon. Living one day at a time we survived both, and I defy anyone to find a finer appetizer for the Saturday night liberty dinners in Boston than a “4” on a particularly tough test.
All through the week the Navy kept steadily on the job of improving our capacity to live as potential officers. At drill one of us would be suddenly designated to take command of a section or a company. We had a tendency to make the simplest evolutions very complicated indeed, often getting in the way of our guides. Yet we contrived to avoid making the same mistakes twice. As the long suffering drill sergeants knew all too well, we made enough mistakes without duplicating any. We learned, after a fashion, to think at the head of a moving command and, I suppose, reached a state of proficiency in this art almost equal to that of a plebe at the Naval Academy at the end of his second or third week. We had no delusions of skill; but we had other and more pressing concerns.
In the engine lab, for example, an instructor in the test shed would “conk” an engine and assign one of us to locate the trouble and to start the engine. Cold shivers! We’d think of the mark against us if we failed and whether that would lose the course for us. Then we’d remember that our concern was with engine failure and not personal failure. Common sense would come to the rescue. When an internal-combustion engine quits, one of two kinds of trouble is usually to blame: ignition or fuel supply. Systematically, then, we would check up and find breaker points too far apart, a gasoline cock nearly closed, or a choke control stuck. If there was a sweeter sound than the roar of a properly doctored engine “revving up,” we had not heard it, up to then.
In less time than it once took a ship of the line to cross the Pacific, we reached the end of our ground school course, with orders to stand by. We passed the longest hours of our enlistment waiting for our names to be called. Had we passed? Had the Navy decided to take a chance on us? The Navy, it developed, was ready to let most of us proceed to the next step. Some were ordered to the Bureau of Steam Engineering, some to Construction & Repair, and the rest of us to duty at plants where various classes of equipment were being made for the flying branch of the Navy.
My own orders and those of several classmates took us to a New Jersey factory where primary training planes were being built. Under a naval officer serving as inspector of engineering material, our staff checked everything that went into the ships from turnbuckles to altimeters. Each of us had a turn at checking guy wires, metal fittings, wing beams, longerons, aerofoil panels, instruments, and engines. One of us usually flew with each ship on its test hop and signed it out before it was turned over to an air station pilot for delivery.
By the time our commissions came along in the spring, we had a fair idea of what went into a primary training ship and why it flew, or failed to fly. It was at this point that two of us learned another lesson in teamwork at the hands of the Navy. Walking down to the plant one morning my roommate and I passed the town draft office. Lined up in front of it were three or four squads of men waiting to leave for an Army training camp. Grouped about them were mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. Many of the women looked at us and nudged each other. We overheard remarks about political pull being used to keep us in soft jobs in factories at home while these draft men were being snatched from their families to prepare for active service. We felt our faces getting hot and our tempers taking on super heat. Once out of hearing of that group we broke out.
We wanted active duty pretty much the way a football sub wants to get into a particularly tough game. So far we had taken orders and done our level best at it. Now we knew enough about aircraft to qualify, we felt, as junior officers at air stations. There were some lively stations abroad. We knew because we had heard from friends who were there. What to do about it? We brooded over it for two days, and then on Sunday morning we decided to go down to the plant and check up on some special jobs that were going through. We worked in the plant for an hour or so and looked in on the skipper to say good morning. He was in his office, behind a neatly ordered desk, talking with two or three other junior officers on the staff.
“Come in!” he welcomed. He pushed toward us a humidor of very excellent pipe tobacco. “This looks like a wardroom at sea on Sunday morning.”
This seemed to be our cue. We told him that the flying equivalent of sea duty was what we particularly wanted, right then. We told him about the draft office incident and asked permission to request war zone service. The skipper looked out of his window at Raritan Bay and at the wake of a white side wheeler churning her way toward Sandy Hook. Then he said:
Perhaps I know how you feel. The service is a life-time career with me. You men are in it for duration. Then you will go back to civil life; but I will, I trust, have no greater interest for the rest of my life. Which do you think I prefer: this job ashore or active service at sea?
That was all. He didn’t say it would be useless for us to ask for air station duty abroad, but he made us realize that what the individual wanted or did not want was just a shade insignificant when compared with the job of winning a war. The Navy, through our skipper, had offered another lesson in applied sportsmanship. Soon afterward we were ordered out to various plants in the skipper’s district to take charge of inspection work and to help production along.
My own job, like the jobs of my various classmates scattered around the district, offered plenty of opportunity for the development of balanced judgment. Our primary objective was to win a war. We needed certain aeronautical material, not next year or next month, but now. We needed every item of every order up to specification, and we needed to buy it at the lowest price consistent with quality and speed of production. A bad glue joint or a sap pocket in a wooden propeller might kill two pilots. A cramped connection to an air-speed meter might cause a stall that would wash out a student and a $20,000 ship. The wrong jet in a carburetor could prevent a bomber from taking off. Speed, accuracy, economy, and lots of common sense. All of us put in long hours trying to supply that mixture with the ingredients in proper proportion.
Meanwhile, the Navy continued to offer us practical education in teamwork. We had many demonstrations of how the individual can serve the organization; and occasionally we saw the law operate in the reverse direction. The organization functioned, in reciprocity, to serve the individual. An instance of each will serve to illustrate the point.
First, an example of the opportunities offered the individual to serve his team. During the fall of 1918, I was concerned with the production, inspection, and shipping of wooden propellers. One evening about ten I was putting in some quiet moments in my little office in the corner of a propeller plant, out on the North Shore of Long Island. My telephone rang. It was the exec in the skipper’s office.
“I had a hunch you might still be there,” he said. “Look here, do you remember Sparks Johnson in our flight at Ground School?”
I did, and for good reason. Sparks had a home near Cambridge and a sister who could and did make chocolate cake. Frequently, she had sent me generous samples of her art when Sparks returned from Sunday liberty.
“Washington just called us here,” the exec went on. “Sparks is at an air station on the New England coast. He needs a four-blader Liberty prop tomorrow morning. Washington asks if we can fix him up. What do you say?”
“How early tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll see what we can do. I’ll call you back at your quarters.”
I went out in the echoing shipping room, snapping on lights. Yes, there was a Liberty four-blader, complete with inspection stamp. And there was a pine packing case all ready to take it. And there was a night express train out of Grand Central around midnight, I remembered. A buzzer called the night watchman and he was dispatched to the garage to fill the light truck with gas and oil. I telephoned a chief machinist’s mate who was quartered near by. He dressed and rushed over. We rounded up two other enlisted men on the staff. Three quarters of an hour later we were rolling toward New York with the propeller for Sparks Johnson neatly cased. At Grand Central we commandeered an electric baggage truck and got our consignment to the train without event, with one exception.
This was the period of the flu epidemic. As we went through a corner of the main station, we were four men in uniform chaperoning a long pine box. A white-haired woman touched me on the arm, she dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. Could I wait long enough for her to buy a wreath of flowers to put on top of the case, she asked. She also wanted to know if the victim was young and what color hair he had.
We made the train, wired to Sparks, and reported by telephone to the executive officer. The next morning at ten I had a wire from Johnson acknowledging receipt, on time. Job OK, all papers to file!
Now for the other side of this teamwork business—an example of how the organization backs up the individual. One hazy summer afternoon two of us picked up a ship from a factory and started to fly it to an air station for delivery. The pilot was a member of the station staff. I was aboard to find out certain things about engineering behavior.
Things went very smoothly as we flew north toward New York. We passed over Governor’s Island and headed for the south shore of Long Island. Very suddenly we were in fog. It just happened that our particular ship had a new air intake on the carburetor, made of flexible metal tubing and designed to pick up warm air through a suitable filter. The moment we entered the fog this ingenious gadget reached out and caught several cubic feet of fog, which it promptly condensed into many cubic inches of water and passed on to the carburetor.
The pilot did a very neat dead-stick landing in the surf, just off Coney Island. We went ashore, beached the ship as well as we could, and suddenly discovered we were not alone. Thousands of bathers were there and they were all intent on taking our ship apart in order to acquire souvenirs. We did what we could to keep them clear, meanwhile having our own troubles with the surf that threatened to beat the bottoms off our pontoons.
Just then a very neat C.P.O. appeared from nowhere, saluted, and said he would like to be of service. He ran a little radio shack down the beach, he said, and he could snap out any messages that might be useful. He told us we were near a base for subchasers. Three messages went out. One to the base, one to the pilot’s commanding officer, and one to mine. In a matter of minutes we were making a line fast and being towed to the base. Upon reporting, we were given accommodations for the night and the promise of a tow back to the plant for repairs the next morning. Thus the organization extends a hand to the individual.
One afternoon during the last few weeks of the war, several of us were summoned to a conference in the skipper’s office. A new contract was being discussed with a civilian contractor. At the conclusion of business, the contractor expressed surprise that the members of the skipper’s staff should be so young.
“It has been my experience,” he replied, “that when you offer responsibility to young men they tend to accept it.”
There you have the type of leader we worked under for the duration. If we were moderately successful in our work, it was largely because of the leadership we enjoyed. How many civilian bosses are there who assume that every employee is going to find a way to do well each task assigned to him? Many, of course; but they are not the general rule. From numerous conversations with fellow reserve officers, I conclude that commanders of the sort described above are the rule in the Navy, never the exception.
When I received my inactive duty orders in April, 1919, I also received a certificate of appreciation, thanking me for my service. I read this document very carefully and filed it away; but I felt then, and I feel today, that the certificate was written in reverse. The thanks properly should proceed from me to the Navy, because it carried on for us the work of our colleges in better fitting us for the jobs of living. I salute the Navy as our second Alma Mater.
Codrington—a thorough Nelsonian, to use his own somewhat factious expression—used to say in after years, “Lord Nelson was no seaman; even in the earliest stages of the profession his genius had soared higher, and all his energies were turned towards becoming a great Commander." —Mahan, Life of Nelson.
 This article was submitted in the Prize Essay Contest, 1936.