Chrystal's Promoter address 2

When Professor George Chrystal took charge of the Chair of Mathematics in University of Edinburgh, every professor in the Faculty of Arts was required to deliver a Promoter's Address to the new graduates of the University. In the beginning of his professoriate, since there were only seven professors in the Faculty, his first and second promoter's addresses were delivered in 1885, 1892, but then the number of professors in the Faculty increased and so his third and last promoter's address was delivered sixteen years after the second in 1908.

Links to the other addresses are here: First address   third address

These addresses are full of valuable suggestions and cover many aspects of education at that time. George Chrystal made his second Promoter's Address to graduates of Edinburgh University on 15 April 1892.

George Chrystal's Second Promoter's Address: 15 April 1892.

Gentlemen - It is difficult for me to realise that seven years have passed away, and it has again become my duty to address the newly-promoted graduates in Arts and Science in the University of Edinburgh. The last occasion on which I had this task seems like yesterday. Probably the flight of time has been so little noticed because so much has happened in the interval. Seven years ago the university had just held its tercentenary, and was lamenting the untimely death of Sir Alexander Grant, under whose reign as principal we had reached a hitherto unsurpassed degree of prosperity, if prosperity is to be measured by increase of wealth and number of students, we were then entering, or supposed we were entering, on the ordeal of a university commission which was to amend all our defects and to bring all our merits into greater perfection. I find, on looking at my old address, that, while I pointed out many of the difficulties that beset the way of reform, I drew a growing and hopeful picture of the future of the University of Edinburgh as I imagined it, and I gloried, with all the delightful confidence of a young man, in the prospect of taking part in the great development which seemed in store for the university. Seven years added to my age, seven years' hard work against adverse circumstances, and one years' experience of outcome of all the talk about university improvement, have done more to damp my youthful enthusiasm that I could have imagined seven years ago whether it be the additional years, the hard work, or the disillusion that depresses me I cannot say; but I feel today more inclined, like an old man, to dwell on the past than to look hopefully, like a young man, to the future. As this is probably the last occasion on which one of the Sacred Seven Professors - (laughter) - will address the graduates as Promoter, it would have been fitting that I should have given you a brief retrospect of the working of the Old Arts Curriculum, and have pointed out what excellent service it has done for Scotland. But the time left me by imperative university duties for preparing such a retrospect has been so diminished by unforeseen circumstances that I have been obliged to give up the attempt.

Change in Professoriate

I shall therefore confine myself to a few desulatory remarks on subjects of interest suggested by the present position of the university, more particularly that department of it with which I am immediately connected. In the first place, I have to remind you of the losses we have sustained in the year that is past. My amiable and respected colleague Professor Campbell Fraser no longer holds the chair of Logic and Metaphysics, and no longer presides the Faculty of Arts as Dean. He served the university so ably and so long in both these capacities, besides giving part of his time to the business of the University Court, that he seemed to us to have become an essential part of our structure. Happily, his parting from us was not the final parting which severs all relations, but merely retirement to well-earned rest. Now and again we still have the pleasure of seeing his familiar figure in the old quadrangle, and always when that happens I feel the impulse to go up and consult him on some matter of Faculty administration, forgetting that with his Professorship he laid aside the cares and troubles of the Deanery of the Faculty of Arts. By the death of Professor Fraser Tytler we lost another colleague, of whom I cannot speak from such intimate knowledge. The little I saw of him gave me a high impression of genial courtesy combined with great practical good sense; and I am told by the Professors of Law that in him they have lost a valuable colleague. In reckoning our losses it is well that we should not forget to count our gains. In the Faculty of Arts we have welcomed the appointment of two able Professors. Professor Seth is, I believe, the man whom, of all others, Professor Campbell Fraser would have welcomed as his successor, and I have heard his appointment commended, so far from home as the Pacific Coast of America, as one bringing honour to the University. Professor Goodhart has already gained the respect and confidence of his students, and gives us good reason to hope that under him the recent reputation of this University for Classical Scholarship will suffer no diminution. It is well that the Faculty of Arts should have thus secured the assistance of two young and able officers, for in the period of storm and stress which seems in store for it, it will need all the efforts of the crew to keep the ship afloat. A word of nonsense has been talked about the decline of the Universities. In the first place, the measure applied to their prosperity - viz., mere numbers is utterly deceptive.

It is quite impossible that a University should be crowded to overflowing, and yet to be so far from prosperous as not even to deserve the name of a university at all. All kinds of explanations have been given of the decline in the number of students, most of them ignoring the fact that any explanation, so far as Arts is concerned, to be good must be general. I noticed, for instance, that the years in which the greatest drop occurred in the numbers of Arts students in Edinburgh a similar phenomenon occurred in University College, London; and the general decline is now beginning, I believe, to be felt even in the great English Universities, whose clientele depends so much on old tradition and caste prejudices that they are the last institutions in the country to be susceptible to general educational influences, so far at least their ordinary degrees are concerned.

The University and Schools

The truth of the matter is that the Universities and University Colleges of Great Britain have now come to the parting of the ways. For years back they have been, so far as their teaching of ordinary pass men is concerned, doing work that under happier auspices would have been better done at school. A wave of educational progress began to sweep over the schools so" twenty years ago,. and of late it has been rapidly rising. So long as the schools did nothing but teach a little classics, and that for the most part in a lame and heartless fashion, the universities were a natural resort for those who wanted something better than mere wooden learning. Classics and Mathematics for the many could be had there at least as good, and under an able professor better than at school, and there were some other things to be had, viz., a little amount of academic freedom, and some little contact with what was newest and best of the time. But now schools are gradually awakening, and some are in full pursuit of a higher ideal. Some, it is true, formed on the old fashioned English Models, still profess merely classics and athletics - chiefly the latter - (laughter) - but in the case of the best boys, at least, the classics are better done. And some schools of the modern sort have now a curriculum which, so far as the older studies are concerned, is not inferior, if in something it be not superior, to what was to be found in many University Colleges some twenty years ago. The effect of this has been ever clearly marked of late years by increase in the number of those that avail themselves of the privilege of the three years' curriculum, which used to be almost a dead letter (and this is one of the causes of the apparent decrease in our numbers). Another effect, of course, is that many boys now stay longer at school, and many finish their education there without seeking to enter the university at all, unless it be to take up the technical studies connected with some profession. I think this tendency to press young men at once into the business of life is being overdone. It lowers the standard of the professional classes, and aggravates the block in these lines of life, of which so much is heard, and which has irritated many of our educational diseases to the stage of acuteness. Moreover, it is a mistake from the point of view of the individual, for I have noticed with satisfaction that of the few Arts graduates that now enter Medicine, for instance, a very large proportion are to be found among those that ultimately distinguish themselves by success in their profession. Be the tendency right or wrong, it has undoubtedly made itself felt in diminishing the number of students in Arts. Again, the Arts Faculty has now many rivals which it had not formerly. At one time it drew to itself all students that were not formally engaged in studying Divinity, Law or Medicine.

This led to the formation within the Faculty of Arts of the rudiments of various technical and scientific departments. Now, however, special institutions for the higher technical and scientific instruction are springing up on all sides, with which the universities, owing to their imperfect equipment have hitherto, at least, been competing at a serious disadvantage. It is perfectly true that many of the young men that frequent these newer institutions are not better fitted to profit by university instruction of the right kind. They are simply nonchalant young fellows, with a healthy disinclination for immediate mental exertion of any kind, gathering rosebuds while they may, only they gather no longer in the old fields of the Faculty of Arts. (laughter and applause): Then the number of institutions giving or pretending to give courses in Arts has been greatly multiplied, so that the students are divided more than they used to be. This would be a great advantage had the increase of new colleges been accompanied by a rise in the standard of the work done, both Ale in the new and in the old. I greatly fear, however, that so far as past work is concerned, this cannot be said of either.

University Extension

There has been a great deal of university extensions; but very little university intention in this country of late. It is an excellent thing to interest the population of London, for example, by giving popular lectures on various branches of university culture, and by organising excursions to Oxford and Cambridge to hear a young university Don or two give dozen lectures on some tolerably digestible university subject; to take a walk along the banks of Isis or Cam, to see where Erasmus lived and Newton worked, and where their degenerate successors live and dine - (laughter and applause) - but, as the advocates of a teaching university for London very pertinently insisted lately, all this does nothing for the higher learning in London or elsewhere. Possibly one or two may be led to take a real university course in this way, but nothing is done to send up to the universities a supply of young men really fitted to receive the higher culture. All the fuss and restless activity of these movements is to my mind a morbid symptom Much of the energy that is turned loose in these schemes aught to be concentrated upon higher objects. It would be amusing, if it were not so sad, to hear the magniloquent title of " University Extension Course" applied to six lectures, followed by indispensable examination to give an air of seriousness to the little plaything. I have no quarrel, however with university extension, although I cannot regard it with gravity of some of its promoters. It can do no harm, I merely mention it to emphasise by contrast the idea of the functions of a university as it presents itself to those who aim at doing something more than playing with the higher education of the country.

At the Parting of the Ways

As I have said, the universities of this country have now come to the parting of the ways. Either they are to go on competing with the secondary schools for the work which the latter can do well or better than they can, or else they are to specialise their functions, and aim at beginning where the secondary schools may be supposed to end. In my opinion, the latter is now the course to follow. It is opinion of so many others that I should scarcely have thought it worth while to insist upon it again, if it were not that it is clear that this opinion has not yet entirely entered the field of practice. The reason for this hesitation to put fully into action a widely accepted educational view are not far to seek, although they are not sufficient. The carrying out of the reform involved will of necessity largely diminish the number of students attending the universities. It would clear the poll men almost entirely out of the English Universities, and in the various provincial colleges of England that have been established on this model. I trust that those who have the direction of this matter will cherish no illusion on this head. Any considerable rise in standard sufficient to differentiate the functions of school and university must of necessity have the effect indicated. Any attempt to tinker the educational pan by taking a middle course will only make the whole larger, and may end in the ruin of the university reconstruction in a financial ordinance. All questions regarding degrees and courses, however important, are of secondary consequence. Institutions for the higher learning can no longer be conducted with profit to the state as quasi-private commercial enterprise; they can no longer be expected to pay their way by attracting large number of students. If it were necessary to argue this matter, a reference to the position of my own chair would, I think, be conclusive. The position of the Professor of Mathematics is this - he draws the main part of his income from the fees, the larger part of this comes from the Junior Class; for his higher work he receives practically nothing. Every step that he takes in improving the teaching of his subject every schoolmaster that he helps to train to teach mathematics better in Scotland, aids in diminishing the number of students attending the junior class, the effect of which is to diminish the Professor's income, and to bring down upon him abuse in the newspapers regarding the fall of numbers in his department, and unpopularity with parents because the standard for the pass degree shows a tendency to rise in sympathy with improvement in the learning both in and outside the university. The unfortunate Professor may be accused in one and the same day of teaching too low in order to secure fees, and of examining too high for the same base purpose. (laughter and applause). As a matter of fact, the ordinances already issued, and in all probability about to become law, have gone so far that financial reconstruction cannot be further delayed without grave injury to the university. My own department will have to be wholly reorganised by separating honours from the pass teaching; and this cannot be done even temporarily without new financial arrangements. I ain at present unable to tell those of my students who intend to specialise under the new ordinance what additional honours courses are to be provided for next session, because we cannot say what work can be done until we know how many workers we are to have, and how they are to be paid.

Mathematics and the New Arts Ordinance

This leads me to make a remark or two on the new Arts ordinance now before parliament. Regarding the general principle of that ordinance it would hardly be profitable to speak at length, as it has been tacitly agreed on all hands to give it a trial. I cannot, however, refrain from saying that after mature consideration I have come to think that it is of doubtful educational soundness, in so far it sets up a kind of competition by Dutch auction between the kindred subjects to the old departments. There will, I fear, be a tendency in the future for pass men to crowd, not to the better and more thorough teacher, but to the more popular subject and the easier going Professor. This will be seen in all compulsory departments, and to the optional subjects to some extent also. The evil was so obvious and so likely to be mischievous both inside and outside the university, in the departments of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, that it called forth general condemnation. The commissioners are treating the representations made to them in a conciliatory spirit, and I hope a remedy will be provided which, if it do not effect all that some of us would desire, will yet prevent immediate disaster, and give us time to devise better plan after some years' experience of the new conditions. As I have taken some part in the discussion on this matter, I may be allowed to take this public opportunity of briefly stating my whole position. The university of Edinburgh has been famous as a school of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy ever since Gregorys, in the latter part of seventeenth century brought into its teaching the spirit and the methods of Newton. David Gregory, afterwards Savilian Professor in Oxford, was indeed a favourite follower, distinguished by Newton himself; and it was in his lecture room in the university of Edinburgh that the doctrines of "Principia" were first publicly taught in Great Britain. Ever since then the position of Natural Philosophy as an advanced subject, to which Pure Mathematics is in part ancillary, has been fixed in the Scottish Universities: It was taught when I was a student in Aberdeen, it was taught by my colleague, Professor Swan, in St. Andrews; it is so taught now in the University of Edinburgh. In the draft ordinance for Arts degrees, while higher standards had been imposed on Latin and Greek as graduation subjects, nothing of the kind had been done for the Mathematical Departments. Several oversights had been made in the Arts and in the Science ordinance regarding this department of university study, and it was assumed by some of us that omission was merely accidental. It occasioned , therefore, considerable surprise when it was found that in the final ordinance Mathematics and Natural Philosophy were placed as compulsory alternatives, with the higher standard of entrance for the former and lower for the latter.

It became evident that Natural Philosophy would be used as the outlet for those who were unable to reach the higher standard in Mathematics on entering the university. I need not point out again what would have been inevitable consequences. I wish, however, to point out what, as it appears to me, would have been the proper remedy for I believe has been difficulty of the commissioners. Ever since I became convinced that a majority of educated Scotsmen desired to break down the old curriculum of the seven subjects, my watchword has been "Greater freedom and higher standards". It is obvious that in any subject which is generally compulsory the standards cannot be high. I never was very anxious that all Arts students, should take either Mathematics or Natural Philosophy; but I have all along striven to secure, so far as possible, that those who do take these subjects should be well prepared to receive them. To meet the difficulty of those who desired to have no Mathematics, I proposed that an alternative should be given of a physical or natural science with practical or laboratory work; that Mathematics should be entered on the higher standard, and the Natural Philosophy should remain as Newton made it and Gregory expounded it.
The commissioners adopted the part of my proposal relating to entrance on Mathematics; but made their action nugatory by ignoring the rest of it, although they had fully carried out the principle in the science ordinance. I have reason to hope that they are now convinced that their action was against the opinion of the majority of those best qualified to judge. If they were in any doubt on the subject, evidence of public opinion would easily have been obtained by calling the proper representative men before them. This, I believe, was never done. Neither Professor Tait nor myself, nor, so far as I know, any of the Mathematical Professors or leading Schoolmasters were ever consulted on this point. What the evidence was on which commissioners did proceed we shall not know until their final report is published. Doubtless they have had difficulties over the matter, of which we know nothing; and, in any case, I consider it my duty to thank them publicly for their willingness to reconsider the matter at this last stage under no small inconvenience to themselves. Our department has been peculiarly unfortunate in the evolution of these ordinances. Besides the point just referred to, we were in the first instance dropped out of the science degree altogether, or practically altogether, and even now our honours men do d d not get full justice as compared with their classical brethren. No classical honours man need d now take a mathematical subject as part of his degree course; why should a mathematical honours man be obliged to take classics? However, if only the mathematical men will cry d out as loudly as the classical and the natural science people, no doubt that will be remedied hereafter. In any case, this is not a matter for which it is worth while delaying the course of public business. It is pleasant to turn from these vexed questions to a reform concerning which all men appear to be agreed. The admission of women to the universities was at one time the hottest of debated questions. It is surprising to see how quietly it has been settled at last. The commissioners have issued an ordinance, which has provoked little or no discussion, and which probably pass into law without any opposition worth mentioning.

University Education of Women

Meanwhile the Faculty of Arts have unanimously recommended that the Arts classes shall be thrown open to women as soon as the ordinance has passed. The Senatus and the Court have approved, and the Heriot Trust are to offer entrance bursaries. Women will, therefore, enter upon Arts studies next session with full academic privileges. I am sure that I speak your mind as well as my own when I say that we give them a hearty welcome. I do not think that the university education of women is likely to be a large question for some time to come; but I never could see why any women who desired it should not be allowed to take up any Arts study that was likely to be either interesting or useful to her. It was due, I fancy, more to the monastic character of the early universities than to the exclusive spirit of learning that women were debarred so long from university privileges, for they have occasionally distinguished themselves in most branches of the old Arts curriculum. Several women were distinguished for humanistic culture during the early days of the revival of classical learnings and from Hypatia to Madame Sophie Kovalevsky, who died only the other day, women have from time to time distinguished themselves as mathematicians. It cannot be doubted, I think, that the exclusion of women from the universities was partly accountable for the disgraceful state in which the school education of women remained until very recently. I do not expect that any large number of women will enter my department, but if they work as enthusiastically as did pupils I used to have at Shandwick Place some years ago, they will be decided addition to the elite of the university.


And now, gentlemen, I have to say a word of farewell to you - the promoted graduates of our university. The occasion is a peculiarly interesting one to me, because this is the last time that a Professor of Mathematics will be able to address the whole of the graduates in Arts and Science as men with whom he has been in personal contact. In the future, students will be more divided, and although it may be hoped that intimacy between student and Professor may be closer, it can no longer be so general. You are now at the close of what I am sure many of you will afterwards regard as the happiest period of your life. If you were asked what you have gained at the university, many of you would be puzzled to say exactly, but few, I am certain, would say that it had been little; and probably none would be willing to part with that portion of your life's experience which has been gathered there. The influences of university life are many and complicated and difficult to explain; but the effect that they produce for good on the better kind of character is a thing that even the extremes of good and bad fortune never afterwards efface. Someone once asked why he should send his sons to the university - would he learn there how to make money? The answer was, no; but ff he be a lad of the right sort he may learn there how to spend money wisely if he gets it, and how to be contented if he never gets any. In the university you are in the world, but not of it. You have there the world's bustle and rivalry without the world's bitterness. It is a world whose inhabitants are all of your own age, and comparatively unrestrained by the barriers of caste and convention. Students can sympathise with each other, and fraternise in a way that is impossible beyond the pale of academic freedom. There you find the only true democracy. You will never again see so deep into the hearts of other men as you did if you used opportunities well at the university. Thus it is that the friendship there formed usually proves so lasting. The amount of positive learning that you have acquired during your student years will vary greatly from individual to individual. We do not flatter ourselves that we have made among you many classical scholars, expert mathematicians, profound philosophers, or men of science. The production of specialists is only one of the functions of a university for the majority of its graduates it has another office to fulfil. It is quite possible for a student to have acquired a head full of special learning at college and yet have missed the main object of a university training. The young scholar who can readily construct a piece of Crabbed Greek but who cannot write a sentence of decent English, who prides himself of his ignorance of the first principles of mathematics, and who knows nothing of the history of human thought, has not caught the " Spirit of the Place", as little has the solver of multitudinous problems whose interest never wanders beyond the boards of a mathematical text book. The object of a university training is to familiarise a man with the thought of the past, and to bring in contact with the highest mental activity of the present in as many of its varied forms as possible. It aims at combining in a man that love and reverence for the past which is the characteristic of the true scholar, with the tolerance of what is new and strange if only true, the want of which is the ear-mark of the Philistine, and that willingness to put both new and old to the test of reason, which is the highest attribute of the man of science. In short, the business of the university is to help to make you men in the noble sense of Shakespeare's definition - creatures " looking before and after". If you have fully taken the advantage of all your opportunities; if you have marshalled out of the past with Professor Masson the noble company of English authors; appreciated with Professors Goodhart and Butcher the graceful humour of Horace and the stately rhythm and lofty wisdom of the Greek tragedians; in my own department followed for an hour the steps of Archimedes, and pondered, however superficially, the problems that engaged the mind of Newton, and finally, with Professors Seth and Calderwood, examined the manifold of its own experience - if any of you have done all this, and made no progress towards Shakespeare's manliness, then I fear that you must be classed in the category so pithily described by Burns as those that "gang in strike and come out asses"? I am tempted before concluding to say a word or two of a personal character. The life of a Arts Professor has more disadvantages than meets the public eye. His teaching is all crowded into one-half of the year, during which, if he does his duty, he is overwhelmed with work of all kinds - much of it mere drudgery - to such an extent that he must suspend all independent work and gets no time even for bodily exercise. The sessions hurrying on and hurrying through mark time with dismal monotony that is at times saddening, but the Professor has one perennial pleasure - his students never grow old. He is met with a constant stream of young fresh faces, which lighten-up his classroom and greet him pleasantly in the streets and in the college quadrangle. This constant association with the young and enthusiastic is the best antidote against old age. If a university professor grows old in body, he must be singularly unfortunate if he grows old in mind; for he has constantly around him the best minds of the rising generation, and the faintest attempt to do his duty must draw him more or less into the current of intellectual progress. In the course of my work in Edinburgh I have had uphill stretches; but the companionship of sympathetic students has never failed me.

Although I am popularly supposed to represent the least attractive of the old seven subjects, I have never had much reason to complain of want of attention in my pupils, and never any to complain of their courtesy, wherever it may be my lot to teach in the future, I can wish nothing better than the audience of Edinburgh students. Every man who does his duty will meet with difficulties; but I am bound to say that most of mine have been with the old and not with the young. This leads me to the last words I have to say to you.

You are young; make the best of your youth; it is the season of enjoyment and pleasurable sensation; and the best of enjoyment is hard work done in the right spirit. Work while you are young, and be not too particular about taking up what comes to your hands to do; for men are often poor judges of the importance or value of what they are doing. The main thing is to see that the work you do is honest in its aim, and that you do it well. Do not waste the priceless years of youth in quarrelling with your tools and your environment, and in futile schemes for world generation on the grand scale as the manner now is. The progress of humanity is neither faster nor slower than the progress of its human atoms. It is perfectly true that some are called to play what to the vulgar eye seems a large part in the world's affairs; but the call is accepted for the most part unconsciously, and the part is rarely premeditated. A king may be a fool or a madman; and when a great movement for the regeneration of mankind is ready, a leader, as history tens us, may be found in the stable and not in the palace. Rejoice in your youth, and do not envy the position or dignity that comes with old age. To drift into an eddy, and to swirl round and round, and never be able to enter again the great stream of human life and action, is a poor end for any man's ambition; and that is too often the lot of old age. The real pleasure of life is the struggle. The victor's palm is nothing but a withered branch, which reminds him of the glorious efforts by which the fight was won.

(loud applause)