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Use Thy Gumption

By Rebecca Chopp


Swarthmore College has always been committed to understanding and affirming its traditions, and this year a sesquicentennial celebration presents a fresh opportunity to reflect on how the College has changed throughout its 150 years and how it has stayed the same.

From the beginning, a Swarthmore education was open to both men and women. As funds permitted, it was open to all students regardless of family wealth or status. After studying the history of financial aid at Swarthmore, Laura Talbot, director of financial aid, noted that “diversity, inclusion, access, and affordability have been guiding principles at Swarthmore since our founding.”

In 1869, the year doors opened to students, it cost just $5,000 to endow a full scholarship. Students paid $350 per year. There were no elaborate admissions processes or college tours. One of our first students, Helen McGill, Class of 1873, would go on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in the country, thus launching the College’s long tradition of sending graduates on to earn advanced degrees.

Edward Parrish, Swarthmore’s first president, taught ethics, chemistry, and the physical sciences. Edward McGill, our second president, oversaw the secondary program and taught languages. Helen Longstreeth served as surrogate mother and was the chief administrator of the staff. The required courses were English, Latin, mathematics, natural science, chemistry, and ethics. Students could then pick two of the following four: Greek, German, French, and practical chemistry.

The College’s dual commitments to the liberal arts and academic excellence were firm from the beginning. Indeed, the following words spoken by McGill to the Friends Social Lyceum of Philadelphia in June 1869 sound remarkably similar to how we would counter today’s public skepticism of liberal education:

“One-half of the controversy that exists in the educational world today, as to methods of instruction, and the relative importance of the various departments of human knowledge, arises from an unfortunate tendency to prepare exclusively for the special work to which the life is to be devoted, thus narrowing and cramping the mind for the sake of an abnormal development in a single direction. …”

McGill affirmed the value of  “special training” and its ability to “ensure the highest degree of success.” But he also contended that, “unless we wish to become mere machines of very perfect construction, adapted only to a single end, let this special training be preceded by a generous and liberal culture, conducive to a harmonious and symmetrical development of the various faculties of the mind.”

From the beginning, there was tension between academic excellence and the social life of students. Parrish lost his job for being too liberal on the latter. McGill, his replacement, quickly put in place his famous “100 Rules” ( Sometime in the 1880s, the Board abandoned these rules, fearing they were suppressing admissions numbers. No doubt, later presidents have on occasion wished for at least some of McGill’s rules to be reinstated.

Frank Aydelotte, best known for introducing the College’s Honors Program, faced this balancing act as he petitioned the Board to “assert that Swarthmore should be more ‘a college and not a social club,’” as recorded in Richard Walton’s Swarthmore College: An Informal History. Regarding Aydelotte’s quest, Burton Clarke, in The Distinctive College, noted, “The life of study had to be supported; the life of play had to be brought under control.”

Of course learning to live in association and learning at least some of the skills of democratic associative living are part and parcel of college life. Alumni love to talk of the Hamburg Show, folk festivals, and lots of parties—and, more recently, the McCabe Mile, the Crum Regatta, and the Pterodactyl Hunt.

Changes through the years have included abandoning the requirement that the Board consist only of Quakers. Departments have been dropped and added, and within disciplines, knowledge expanded and changed. We added music, studio art, theater, and dance majors, supported by facilities made possible by Gene Lang ’38. The addition of the Black Cultural Center and, later, the Intercultural Center expanded support for students and contributed to diversity on campus. The first study-abroad program was launched in 1972 in Grenoble, France. The Philip Evans Scholars Program, founded by Jerry Kohlberg ’46, brought students to campus, where they could develop as critical thinkers, compassionate citizens, and engaged participants in local and world affairs.

Collection at first was daily, then weekly; by 1970, it was held three times a semester and had evolved into talks by the faculty and the president. Now we have Collections at the beginning and end of a student’s career, though in recent years, we’ve held some on an ad hoc basis.

Swarthmore has at times soared, and, at other times, fallen short of its highest aspirations. Certainly one of our greatest faults was our slowness to enroll African-Americans. After all, the College was founded by abolitionists. As resident historian Christopher Densmore has noted, by the time we were founded, “probably no one could remember a time when Quakers weren’t 100 percent opposed to slavery.” Yet we did not enroll African-American students until 1943. And barely then. The 1969 crisis during which students demanded increased enrollment of black students helped move the College forward, and perhaps it ought to remind us that even in the excellence of our striving for good, we falter. It ought also to remind us of the importance of continuing to strive.

Of course, much has stayed the same. Reading through Swarthmore’s historical documents reveals a strong sense of academic restlessness and drive; an interest in Quaker values, especially simplicity; and a concern for access and support for students. From the beginning, alumni have expressed incredible gratitude for the College—gratitude matched by the generous support afforded generations of faculty and students. Ours is a history of transforming lives time and time again.

Clearly, the center of our distinctiveness has been the commitment to, as alumni call it, “academic rigor.” Some of us prefer the term “academic vigor.” After all, it’s a vigorous quest for knowledge—the willingness to question everything and to pursue truth at all costs—that makes Swarthmore what it is.

This focus on the life of the mind carries with it the need to use knowledge to improve the world. Our sesquicentennial book, Swarthmore College: A Community of Purpose, notes that “the privilege of a Swarthmore education is wedded to the obligation to build the common good in all sectors of society: the arts, the sciences, education, the business world, politics, and more.”

Throughout its history, the College’s values were at times captured by short, memorable phrases. One of my favorites, “Use Thy Gumption,” came from the famous Dean Elizabeth Powell Bond, a tweeter before her time. The current generation is the first to convey messages via tweeting. But bereft of electronic devices, for many years students “tweeted” their class mottos in stone. I conclude with some examples:

1892: Being Rather than Appearing to Be

1893: All Things by Means of Effort

1894: Forward

1895: By Means of Deliberation and Spirit

1902: Let Us Be Seen Through Our Actions

1918: Not for Us, but for All

1928: Stand for Truth

2005: Goodwill
And my favorite,
1927: Use Well Thy Freedom.

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