“When I find learning and wisdom united in one person, I do not wait to consider the sex; I bend in admiration.”–LA BRUYERE.
We shall never know, though we shall always wonder, why certain phrases, carelessly flung to us by poet or by orator, should be endowed with regrettable vitality. When Tennnyson wrote that mocking line about “sweet girl graduates in their golden hair,” he could hardly have surmised that it would be quoted exuberantly year after weary year, or that with each successive June it would reappear as the inspiration of flowery editorials, and of pictures, monotonously amorous, in our illustrated journals. Perhaps in view of the serious statistics which have for some time past girdled the woman student, statistics dealing exhaustively with her honours, her illnesses, her somewhat nebulous achievements, and the size of her infant families, it is as well to realize that the big, unlettered, easy-going world regards her still from the standpoint of golden hair, and of the undying charm of immaturity.
In justice to the girl graduate, it must be said that she takes herself simply and sanely. It is not her fault that statisticians note down every breath she draws; and many of their most heartrending allegations have passed into college jokes, traditional jokes, fated to descend from senior to freshman for happy years to come. The student learns in the give-and-take of communal life to laugh at many things, partly from sheer high spirits, partly from youthful cynicism, and the habit of sharpening her wit against her neighbour’s. It is commonly believed that she is an unduly serious young person with an insatiable craving for knowledge; in reality she is often as healthily unresponsive as is her Yale or Harvard brother. If she cannot yet weave her modest acquirements into the tissue of her life as unconcernedly as her brother does, it is not because she has been educated beyond her mental capacity: it is because social conditions are not for her as inevitable as they are for him.
Things were simpler in the old days, when college meant for a woman the special training needed for a career; when, battling often with poverty, she made every sacrifice for the education which would give her work a market value; and when all she asked in return was the dignity of self-support. Now many girls, unspurred by necessity or by ambition, enter college because they are keen for personal and intellectual freedom, because they desire the activities and the pleasures which college generously gives. They bring with them some traditions of scholarship, and some knowledge of the world, with a corresponding elasticity of judgment. They may or may not be good students, but their influence makes for serenity and balance. Their four years’ course lacks, however, a definite goal. It is a training for life, as is the four years’ course of their Yale or Harvard brothers, but with this difference,–the college woman’s life is still open to adjustment.
Often it adjusts itself along time-honoured lines, and with time-honoured results. In this happy event, some mystic figures are recalculated in scientific journals, the graduate’s babies are added to the fractional birth-rate accredited to the college woman, her family and friends consider that, individually, she has settled the whole vexed question of education and domesticity, and the world, enamoured always of the traditional type of femininity, goes on its way rejoicing. If, however, the graduate evinces no inclination for social and domestic delights, if she longs to do some definite work, to breathe the breath of man’s activities, and to guide herself, as a man must do, through the intricate mazes of life, it is the part of justice and of wisdom to let her try. Nothing steadies the restless soul like work,–real work which has an economic value, and is measured by the standards of the world. The college woman has been trained to independence of thought, and to a wide reasonableness of outlook. She has also received some equipment in the way of knowledge; not more, perhaps, than could be easily absorbed in the ordinary routine of life, but enough to give her a fair start in whatever field of industry she enters. If she develops into efficiency, if she makes good her hold upon work, she silences her critics. If she fails, and can, in Stevenson’s noble words, “take honourable defeat to be a form of victory,” she has not wasted her endeavours.