Thursday, June 28, 2012

Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois

By Madame Blanc (Th. Bentzon)

Knox College from the baseball field
We have yet to become acquainted with co-educational colleges, stranger to our eyes than all the others. It is almost exclusively to the West that one must go to find them. A man of high position in the Bureau of Education spoke to me en­thusiastically of the results, from the beginning to the end, of studies pursued under this plan, which in France has recently been the sub­ject of so many earnest discus­sions, where, however, it could not pos­sibly be estab­lished without a complete change in cus­toms and man­ners.

Perhaps the story of a week or two spent at a prairie col­lege that of Galesburg, will give my readers the best idea of what co-educa­tion, in its most interesting phases, may be. The picture of the college is inseparable in my memory from that of the little town and its inhab­itants. I will therefore copy a few frag­ments from the journal in which I wrote each evening.

A journey of about five hours takes us from Chicago to Galesburg, where I am received into the home of one of the col­lege professors, who, like all Americans, is faithful to the principle, "The friends of our friends are our friends." Rich or poor, they offer you, under this maxim, a share in their family life as easily as we invite to dinner. It is a simple wooden house placed almost at the edge of the town. Before it, leading to the college, lies a street planted with maples, and with board walks upon its two sides. There are three or four rooms upon the first floor; upon the second as many more, with sloping ceilings. That is all. But this modest interior suggests at first sight ideas of order, scrupu­lous neatness, and studious re­tirement. The study is full of books, and they are all over the house. In the little parlor there are no mirrors, only very simple furniture, family photographs, good engrav­ings, and flow­ers; a singular dignity per­vades the whole.

Alumni Hall - Knox College, Galesburg, IL
This is the frame for one of the most ener­getic and noble faces I have seen, that of an old man, robust as a young man, a disinterested scholar, whose labor-filled ca­reer has been consecrated from beginning to end to the same college, in spite of what ambition may have coun­seled him. He is, so to speak, one of its pillars.

The founding of Knox College, as it is described to me, presents unique features. A band of patriotic and Christian pioneers laid its foundation. Their declared aim was to establish a college which might fur­nish well prepared recruits for the evan­gelical ministry, and which should make women worthy educators of the future generation. On January 7, 1836, a meeting was held at Whitesboro, New York, at which a sum of twenty thousand dollars was voted to pay for fifteen thousand acres of land, the sale of which represented the first gift to the college; and in the spring of that same year the colonists, led by the Rev. George Gale, promoter of the project and head of the colony to which he gave his name, turned toward the prairie. By autumn thirty families, composing a homo­geneous nucleus, descended from the Pil­grim Fathers of the past, had already built rude cabins upon the place where after­wards was to rise the town. 

Knox College from City Park
Alumni Hall, a building of brick and red sandstone, in modified Roman style, has a fine appearance. Its auditorium, which will hold nearly one thousand people, serves each morning as a chapel, where a service of prayer unites the whole college, and where in turn the professors read the Bible and give a brief instruction. I hear the professor of English literature speak upon "Comparisons" apropos of the mote and beam of the Gospel. This custom does not exist in the universities of the East; it seems to me that it contributes largely to the moral atmosphere of Galesburg.

We visit the town, very charming with its shady avenues and green boulevards. It covers a large area, trees and gardens occupying much space. Trees surround the principal buildings. There are a few business streets, but they have a tranquil activity, as is fitting in a town in which traffic is a secondary matter, and which has always been especially interested in religion and science. The residence quarter is full of very pretty houses, the most of them built of wood and painted, and affecting all styles of architecture. Grassy borders sur­round them. They might be described as scattered over a lawn. The whole town is scrupulously neat, with the sidewalks, very ugly by the way, which everywhere in America, along the roads, in the public parks, and about the houses, permit one to avoid the dust or mud, according to the season. A few streets are paved with an improved brick. One feels a pleasant intimacy with the interior of the houses seen through the flower-decked bay windows. We come to a suburb formed of little houses painted in light colors, well varnished, like new toys; it is the Swedish quarter. They are an honest people, forming quite an important part of the population, and quickly obtain­ing a competency through their industry. Passing the college we see a vast drill ground for the three companies com­manded by an officer of the United States army, delegated as professor of science and military tactics. The service is obli­gatory, each student being required to procure a uniform.

John H. Finley
President of Knox College
There are numerous churches, represent­ing all Protestant sects, and also - a small fraction - the Catholic religion. It was the efforts and sacrifices of the two Congrega­tional and the Presbyterian churches which founded the college. Their influence, there­fore, dominates in the council of administration, but without any narrowness. A true Christian spirit alone is required as a fundamental and indispensable foundation to an education at Knox. The students are expected to frequent their respective churches on the Sabbath.

I was present at a Latin class conducted by a young woman with an expressive and resolute face, who seemed to exercise great power over her pupils. There were grouped about her almost as many boys as girls. Although no rule requires it, the two sexes are separate, and occupy different sides of the room. In general the girls are more advanced in their knowledge. They smile a little maliciously at each blunder of the boys, who, on the other hand, do not appear sorry to find them in fault. There is no coquetry on the one side or gallantry on the other. I notice the sunburned complexions, the rustic appearance of sev­eral of the students, grown men; their good faces express at once energy and purity. They tell me that they come from distant parts of the West, and that before entering college they earned the necessary money by the labor of their hands. The editor of an important magazine said to me one day, while travelling with me:" I used to pass over all this country on foot during vacations, year after year, a pack of goods on my back, to pay my college expenses. They called me the honest little peddler." And I saw that this epithet would always remain among those that had pleased him most, although he has since attained great success. A good many of the students at Knox College are made of the same solid stuff. It is found that these students who are late in begin­ning, are likely to show superior talents. Several are pointed out to me who, during the exposition at Chicago, without any foolish shame, used their vacation of two months and a half serving in the restau­rants of the Fair, and in pushing the wheel­chairs. Now behold them buried in the "Aeneid."

Newton Bateman
President of Knox College
The kind and bright influence of the young girls upon these country boys is most happy. The whip of emulation in­spires them; they are ashamed to allow themselves to be distanced by their frail comrades; and, moreover, feminine kind­liness polishes them without their know­ing it.

If the professor who teaches the chemis­try lesson with remarkable animation and clearness had not, on my account, pur­posely questioned the girl-students that they might show a foreigner (very in­capable of judging in the matter) how much they knew, I should think that here, perhaps, the boys would have the advantage. But on this subject our preconceived opin­ions are apparently belied by the apti­tudes of American women.

Professor Albert Hurd
I was invited to several houses of the town, where I found the best so­ciety; women at the same time simple and educated, talk­ing of everything, questioning with in­telligence. Evident­ly contact with the college is a perpetu­al stimulus, and the society of the pro­fessors a precious resource. Some of them have travelled, but they are not possessed by that feverish desire for change which I have noticed elsewhere - a thing which is restful. The diversity of denominations in that little town, so religious as a whole, is curious. At a certain luncheon I met half a dozen ladies, all warm friends, although belonging to different churches. Opposite me sat a Baptist; at my side a pleasant Universalist, whose religion pleased me, since it permitted her to be as sure of my eternal salvation as she was of her own. Universalists damn no one.

Professor George Churchill
The French lessons attracted me. The pupils were reading, translating, and ex­plaining a play of Victor Hugo's, "Hernani," and nothing could be more droll than the accent given to those grand, im­petuous verses and to those Spanish names, which they spoke with hesitation and robbed of their beauty. But they under­stood, they understood quite well enough, I believe, to find the character of Hernani that of a fool. I gave them real satisfac­tion by telling them that even in France his sentiments ap­peared a little exaggerated. There were some among them who were evi­dently bewildered by the intricate scene: some of those fine, swarthy fellows, simple and solid, of whom I have already spo­ken, young giants from distant farms, who have left the plough for their books. One of them accosted me with hesitation, and asked in a tone of passionate curiosity if it was true that the admiration for such a great man as Napoleon was grow­ing less in France? Emboldened by my response, he ex­pressed his convic­tion, shared by many others, that an obscure soldier had been shot in the place of Marshal Ney, and that Ney had taken refuge in America. The questions of the young girls touched upon more personal subjects: they wanted to know if the education of women in France was making any progress; if we were always shut up in convents; if co-education really did not exist with us.

Professor Milton L. Comstock
We took supper at the seminary, where the young ladies from out of town live to­gether. Around the table were assembled professors, men and women, and a few women guests. The dining-room where we were, communicated with another, a larger one, in which the boarders had taken their places about small separate tables in groups of six or eight. The principal presided. A few of the young men students came in to take their meals with the young ladies. After supper, in the large, handsome drawing-room, all the pupils in the seminary were presented to me, one after another. It was a long line of very different types, often very pleasant to look upon. They came from all quar­ters of the United States - from Kansas, Colorado, California, Texas, from every­where. While telling me their names, they told me also their native States. Several were from Utah, from Salt Lake City. I shuddered, thinking myself before Mor­mons; and they, laughing, explained to me that their parents were "Gentiles."

I was invited to spend an afternoon upon a great farm in the suburbs. The name "farm" is given in America to all rural estates. With more than ordinary hospi­tality the proprietor of the farm came for me himself in his buggy. Carried along by two excellent horses, we rolled across the prairie, filling our lungs with the soft, velvety air, which, before the winter winds, accompanies that exquisite season so well named Indian summer. The landscape in its monotony was new to me, who had never seen the steppes. It was the immense, roll­ing prairie, its short little waves cut only by fences, barriers sometimes straight and sometimes zigzag, which all over America separate fields and confine cattle. Their silvery color like that of the aging fir, harmonizes well with the brown tone of the soil. The corn had been harvested; there only remained the stalks and long leaves stacked for the cattle. Strange long lines of stumps, which no one takes the trouble to remove, were rotting here and there where once stood groves. They are one of the general characteristics of the American landscape as they rise rudely from the newly-cleared plain. The farm­house, toward which we were going, was situated in the midst of three thousand acres, part cultivated and part in prairie. We stop before a wooden structure built on the usual plan, with a stoop leading to it, and the indispensable walks. The mistress of the house comes to meet us. There is not a shadow of provincial ceremony in her greeting. She takes us into a drawing-room furnished in black hair-cloth, and we are immediately engaged in conversation upon interesting subjects.

About one o'clock dinner was served, a strictly American dinner : soup of canned oysters, roast meats, stewed corn, raw celery, rhubarb pie, wild grapes that tasted like black currants, hickory nuts, tea or coffee, as you preferred. Two young girls waited on the table; they were presented to me as the children of the house. They are obliged to assist with the housework during one of these domestic crises so common in the West and nearly everywhere.

Rev. George Gale -
founder of Galesburg and Knox College
As we talk, I discover that the life of a farmer's wife is rather severe in America, where the farm-houses are at great dis­tances from each other, and are upon such an immense scale that the housewife's duties are by no means small. She has no distractions, no neighbors. But in winter my hostess finds compensation at Gales­burg, where she belongs to a literary club. The ladies who are members of it, can read much during the summer in connection with the proposed subjects of the coming meetings. I inquired about the subjects, and learned a number of them: the Trou­badours and the Trouveres (the Romance languages being held in great honor in the United States, and many people who do not speak French fluently going into ecs­tasies over our old Provencal literature); the influence of the salons of the fourteenth century; French women in politics; origin of Greek art, etc. Would one expect such interest in the affairs of the Old World in a prairie village? For a- town of eighteen thousand inhabitants is little more than a village in the United States.  But this village has certainly a mind superior in quality to that of many large towns.

In one of our drives a buggy crossed our path carrying a young man and a young girl. I asked the professor who drove me, if they were engaged. "They may become so," he replied, "but not necessarily." And I see that this austere man compre­hends, approves this state of things; and upon this point he is of the opinion of all fathers of families whom I have met, in New York and elsewhere, finding it quite natural for their daughters to ride horseback, to go and come, accom­panied by a friend. Still I do not know that his tolerance would be equal to that of many others, in case someone ven­tured to put the theory into prac­tice in his own family.

The longer I stayed in Gales­burg, the more I felt its resemblance to some little university town in Germany, as they were before the annexation of Prussia. There is the same simplicity, the same veneration for science and its representatives, the same patriarchal manners. The German spirit, shown by a general knowledge of the language, prevails here, too, as in many other American towns, the result of immigration, of a more or less pronounced stay made by the professors in Germany, and also of that prestige insepar­able from the victorious when seen from afar. The most of the inhabitants do not speak French, though a few recall with delight a hurried visit to Paris.

My questions were always about the system of co-education with its advan­tages and dangers. The pretty wife of the president replied to me: "We, my hus­band and I, can say no harm of it, since we met and loved at college." The elder daughter of my host married in the same way, after having received all the diplomas of the college.

"Yes, many marriages are decided at college; is there any harm in it? Would it be better to meet in society, in the midst of frivolity? Do they not become much better acquainted, and in a more interest­ing way, when they study together for years?"

"But these marriages are premature!"

"Not at all; they do not take place until the man's position is secure. The constancy of the two parties is often put to a long test."

"And does not love distract you from work?"

A residential street in Galesburg, Illinois
This very French reflection caused a smile. An American thinks of a wife only after having thought of his serious duties and first' of the means of supporting her. The brilliant and almost unique example of the very young president of Knox, who at thirty years of age has lately succeeded a universally esteemed man, forced by his age to a comparative leisure, proves that college engagements do not prevent great efforts and great success.

I was asked if I had seen anything either in the college or the town which suggested any of the disadvantages of which I spoke. Assuredly no. It was because they did not exist. The atmosphere of Knox is clear and healthful. Each respects the dignity of his neighbor without the intervention of strict rules.

My conclusion, after having heard all, is that the system would not succeed in a larger city where an incessant moral sur­veillance could not be exercised, or where religious influences would be less direct, or where there would be temptations, or even distractions. The still primitive manners of the West permit the realization of what would elsewhere be a Utopia! Many other colleges are founded upon the same basis as Knox, and this proves an uprightness of soul, fresh and robust virtues, to which it has seemed to me that the more European­ized America of the East does not give sufficient justice. Between the two sec­tions, in the West as in the East, there are prejudices, because they are not well enough acquainted.

The wild odors of the prairie do not pre­vent me from appreciating certain drawing-rooms in Boston or New York. But I have often been shocked at the willing ignorance which Americans who have crossed the ocean ten times, profess for the still new portions of their own country, as if the treasures of the future were not buried.

I left Galesburg with regret. I afterwards returned to it from a long dis­tance. I think of it yet with respect and with sympathy. It would be a great pleas­ure for me to take my "knitting" there, as I was invited to do in the frank par­lance of the West.

McClure’s Magazine.  1895.

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