George Chrystal's Third Promoter's Address

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   Second address

These addresses are full of valuable suggestions and cover many aspects of education at that time. George Chrystal made his third Promoter's Address to graduates of Edinburgh University on 11 April 1908.

George Chrystal's Third Promoter's Address: 11 April 1908.

At the beginning of this session, of the colleagues, forty or so in number, with whom I joined the senatus of this university twenty-eight years ago, there remained but six. The sudden death of our genial and distinguished colleague, Prof Annendale, has taken one of these, and now only five remain. Of my sixteen original colleagues in the Faculty of Arts, only one is still there. This is now the third time that I have given the Promoter's Address. The first time I was young, and, to judge by a dusty copy which I came across and read with some amusement the other day, I was filled then with a young man's serenity and confidence. The second time I was, to use the sonorous phrase of Dante, Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita (in the middle of life's way), and still not ill-pleased with the course of the journey. Now I am giving this address in all probability for the last time.

Student days

When I entered the university of Aberdeen, a little over forty years ago, the demands made on the "Bajans", or freshmen, were very small. There was no entrance examination, unless a voluntary participation in the bursary competition be so called. This was a very restricted test; the main thing was to string together snippets from a Latin phrase book, without any very obvious violation of the rules of syntax; so as to produce what was called a "version" of an easy piece of English prose. The work in all the ordinary classes of the university was very elementary. When I went to the university of Cambridge, four or five years later, I found that the course there for the ordinary degree in Arts was greatly inferior in educational quality to the Scottish one. On the other hand, the courses in honours were on a very much higher standard, although they suffered greatly from the chaotic organisation of the English universities which, about that time, were, to use a mathematical phrase, passing through a minimum turning-point in their history. I might liken the difference between the English and Scottish university courses at that time to the differences that then existed between their national styles of cookery. The Scottish cuisine was characterised by lightness and variety; the English cuisine was noted for plenty and excellence of material, but lacked variety, and the defective preparation of its dishes often left them heavy and indigestible. I have frequently been tempted to think that the three years I spent as an undergraduate at Cambridge were wasted years of my life; if they were to be valued merely by the amount of new knowledge acquired, no doubt they were largely wasted; but, on the other hand, they were of great advantage to me in other respects. I made the acquaintance of a large number of the ablest young men of my generation, and it was no small matter to come even within view of such men as Cayley, Adams, Stokes, and Maxwell; and to have lived for a time within the college walls which had sheltered Tait and Kelvin. Cambridge at that time presented strange contrasts. Although almost decadent as an educational institution, it numbered among its members, as the names I have just quoted proves, perhaps the greatest galaxy of intellectual stars that ever illustrated any period of the history of a university. It was doubtless these great men who sowed, it may be unconsciously, the seeds of that great resurrection which has again raised my second alma mater, in spite of many picturesque absurdities, to her present high position she now holds, not because of these stars in her intellectual firmament, although such are not wanting, but because she possesses a great body of devoted teachers and investigators, all inspired in their various ways by the high ideals of the work of a university.

Secondary Education

During my absence from Scotland Lord Young's Education Act of 1872 had revolutionised primary education, but, on my return to St Andrews in 1877, I found that secondary education had not only not kept pace with primary education, but had, on the whole, perhaps retrograded. Many of the secondary schools were in a dying condition and others, which are apparently prosperous, were in reality much under-staffed and far from efficient, and were engaged, moreover, in the pursuit of low educational ideals. The universities had been enjoying a period of wholesome prosperity; the number attending them had increased, but the standard of university work had fallen below the level of cultured nations of Europe. They were, in fact, to a considerable extent engaged in performing the work which the secondary schools of the country were for the most part unable to do. The Educational Endowment Act of 1882 brought a partial remedy for this state of affairs, which, however, can only be finally and radically cured by an extension of the policy of state aid to secondary schools.

The beginnings of this extension are to be seen at present, and the consequences will be far reaching. A small sum available for the purpose of secondary school inspection in Scotland had been wrung from the treasury, and it occurred to me that it might be utilised to institute a leaving certificate examination. I was examining twelve schools for the department in the year 1886, and proposed that I should demonstrate how such an examination, at least in single subject, could be carried out. When I came to write my report the idea of a general leaving certificate examination had developed in my mind, and I sketched a complete scheme, in most of its essentials the same as now exists. To my great surprise, and no small gratification, the proposal was immediately taken up by the Scotch Education Department. The labour of carrying out the scheme was taken by Sir Henry Craik, then beginning his successful administration of the new department. In an account of the subject that recently appeared in Scotsman it has been very justly said that the introduction of the leaving certificate examination was perhaps the most important event of Sir Henry Craik's tenure of office, and he certainly deserves the highest credit for the tact and energy with which he carried out what proved to be a great educational reform.

The universities commission reorganised the financial administration of the universities, and profoundly modified their curricula by breaking down to a large extent the monopoly of the old seven subjects, and admitting to more or less full academic enfranchisement the other twenty-two subjects of the present curriculum. At the same time a preliminary examination was instituted, which was to be managed by a joint board representing all the universities, in order to secure uniformity in the delimitation of the territories of school and university.

Here let me say that part of my original proposal to the Scotch Education Department regarding the leaving certificate examination was the creation of a National Board of Surveillance, on which the department, the schools, the universities, and certain other public bodies were to be represented. One of the many subjects I had in view was to forestall the necessity for the institution of a university preliminary examination. I foresaw that a generally accepted standard for entrance to the university was an inevitable element in university reform. But I held then, and after fifteen years' experience of the Joint Board I hold more firmly now, that the administration of a general leaving examination for schools is not the proper business of the universities. No doubt one of the functions of the leaving certificate should be to qualify for an academic course, but it has many other functions besides, now all that the universities should claim is a share in the surveillance of the leaving certificate in so far as it concerns them.

[After quoting from the report of the universities commission Professor Chrystal went on to say that the advance of secondary education, in all over Scotland, is rapidly preparing the way, if it has not already prepared it, for carrying out the ideal of the commissioners].

I turn therefore, with renewed hope and renewed insistence to the men of wisdom and influence, who hold in their hands our educational destiny, and ask them to consider once more my old proposal for a National Board, which shall regulate the school leaving certificate, so that it shall become the normal portal of admission to the universities, and render the present preliminary examination and the present joint board and all its works unnecessary. This reform must, of course, be taken up as a national affair. It is no matter of the autonomy of the universities. It concerns the welfare and good government of all the secondary schools of the country; also, I may say, the relation of our standards of secondary education to similar standards all over British Empire. For this reason it was wise in the recently promoted Arts ordinance to avoid touching the preliminary examination.

Over Pressure

The effect of the leaving certificate, combined with the pressure caused by the composition of younger rival institutions elsewhere, was to raise gradually but surely the standard in various subjects that were common to school and university, most of which were made, at least alternatively, compulsory in the reformed curriculum. A great variety of new subjects were opened out for the graduand, many of them making special demands on his time, either for practical work or for special preparation beyond a school training. Also, a demand has risen for teachers able to teach subjects of the school curriculum beyond former standards - a demand which for the moment exceeds the supply. Then, again the increased variety of university culture among classes of the community for whom the old exclusive had no interest and certainly no utility. As the universities of Scotland are the State institutions, and not merely resorts for the young people of the wealthy or leisured classes of society, it is a necessary condition of their existence that they should meet the general demands of the nation, and admit and provide for all who can advance reasonable claims for higher culture. If three sessions, each crushed into twenty- and- twenty practically consecutive weeks, were not more than enough for the old superficial curriculum of seven subjects, it will be clear that the same arrangement is no longer sufficient for a curriculum of seven subjects on the modern standard. The result of the attempt to put new wine into the old bottles has been over-pressure both for teachers and for the taught, more specially for the latter. This over-pressure shows itself in the frequent breakdown of our students, more particularly of the women students, and in the considerable percentage of those who, notwithstanding the selection by a somewhat stringent entrance test, are unable to complete their academic course in the three specified years. It is recognised that this over-pressure arises in three ways:-
(1) By compulsion to take too many subjects;

(2) By compulsion to take unnecessary or uncongenial subjects;

(3) By compression of the students' work into too short a period of the year.
When, therefore, movements arose within the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh five years ago in favour of an extension of university study over a longer portion of the year, and for a more concentrated curriculum of five degree subjects, free from more of the irksome compulsions of the curriculum with which you are familiar, it was speedily recognised by the more thoughtful in the academic world that these things were inevitable, because these are the natural consequences of what has gone before. The five years' deliberation and consultation with the other universities has resulted in this, that the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have recently presented to the Privy Council new Arts Ordinances, practically identical, which render it possible for each university to carry out, in the way that best suits its own circumstances, one or all of the reforms that are now recognised as necessary.

The University of Aberdeen has rapidly followed suit, and that these ordinances will become law very speedily, I cannot doubt. The realisation of their consequences will be a matter of time and no little labour for the university staff, and will ultimately make heavy demands on university resources. I am keenly interested in the developments that lie before us, but I must confess that I shrink from the labour that they will involve. Yet the whole of my career has been a turmoil of university reform, beginning in Cambridge, and it may as well end as it began, if it be decreed that it is to continue any longer.

Advice to the Graduates

But now some of the audience might say, what interest lies for us in this retrospect and prospect of university politics? We have come through the existing ordeal, satisfied the last examiner, paid the last fee, and graduated; the matter concerns us no more. Yet surely this is not so. You are the newly admitted citizens of an ancient state, and it must, I think, interest you to hear something of its history from an old citizen, and to get some knowledge of its politics, especially at a time when that ancient state is on the eve of a revolution - a revolution in which many of you must participate hereafter, no longer as mere pieces on the board, but as players in the game. Every graduate in Arts here present can help in the right guiding of public opinion in matters concerning the higher education. If not, to what purpose was the course of university study? If your study here has not made you better citizens, able to advise and help in the higher education of our people, then the state has been a loser in the bargain by which it contributed part of the cost of your university education. Moreover, many of you are to be teachers, whose business it will be to train boys more thoroughly than before for the more varied and more concentrated curriculum which university is to offer in the future. From a purely personal and selfish point of view, be pleased to note that, although there is a great demand for your services at the present moment, in the future you will have competitors who have been trained under more favourable circumstances than you have been. It rests with you to see that you make good use of the start that time has given you. Take care, in short, that your education does not cease, as it ought not to cease, when you leave the university.

Academic Failures

There are three kinds of academic failures which always strike me as pitiably amusing. There is the academic person who treats his knowledge as a miser does his hoard, never spending, always carefully increasing it, concealing it from public view for the most part, and only exhibiting it now and then, when he wishes to rub into some less fortunate individual the fact that he is poor. Then there is the pragmatic university graduate who thinks that the scraps of knowledge gathered in a few university classes is sufficient stock-in-trade wherewithal to reconstruct the practice, laws, and customs of the nation. Also there is the offensively ostentatious academical who, whether rich or poor in knowledge, goes about in the world with his nose in the air, concerned mainly to impress upon his fellows that he has had the social advantage of spending, well or ill, a few years of his life at a university. Few of you, I trust, will fall into any of these blunders of tact or judgment. Once in the world you will soon find that the main lesson of a university training - I mean the ethical lesson - can, if less easily, be also learned elsewhere.

Last Updated March 2005