The College Woman and Christianity, August 8, 1901

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The College Woman and Christianity
By Jane Addams

An American scholar who has been a Christian student of social matters for more than thirty years has lately said that the test which this generation, rightly or wrongly, is applying to Christianity is the power of its adaptability to social problems. If Christianity be able to face the social situation with moral power and creative energy, then, rightly or wrongly, the verdict will be in its favor; if it fails to meet this test it will suffer, rightly or wrongly, an eclipse in favor of a theory, a doctrine, or a social life which shall exhibit sufficient energy to deal adequately with the social situation, and to ease "the social compunctions" which stir in the hearts of all our contemporaries.

Let us assume the correctness of this statement, and ask ourselves what prospect there is that the college woman, avowedly Christian, may be of service in the process of making the finer adjustments of Christianity to social needs.  What can we reasonably expect her to contribute to the task of modifying its settled customs and habits, of adapting it to the changed demands of the moment, and of bringing it to bear as an actual force upon human conduct.

One thing is clearly in favor of the college woman, she has presumably been taught to observe accurately and to state clearly what she sees, to reflect upon the data accumulated and to follow out the results of her observations and thinking to their full conclusion, and we hope that she can do this without fear as to what the conclusion may be. Certainly we have a right to demand more mental integrity from the college woman, be she Christian or non-Christian. She, with her brother students, has doubtless been taught that society is susceptible of modifications, and she may even believe John Morley's statement that "contented acquiescence in the ordering that has come down to us from the past is selfish and anti-social, and that all institutions demand progressive readaptation." If she has firmly grasped these principles, and if in addition she has convictions as to the truth of her Christian teaching and sufficient training and character to act upon the teaching in every crisis, we ought to be able to derive much solace from the thought that hundreds of Christian young women in all our colleges are coming to this great task. We are not willing to admit that Christianity shows a loss of power of adaptation, which is the unfailing symptom of decadence, and we would be glad to trust this task of adaptation to the generosity of youth when we have been able to add to youth the restraint of a mental training and a sense of historic continuity. Many older men and women at this very moment are hopefully looking toward the Christian young people in the colleges; they long to see them begin, and they would wish them Godspeed in their delicate and glorious task. Unfortunately, we cannot yet do this, and in spite of ourselves we see great difficulties arising from the very condition of college life. For many years these young people have been in the preparatory school, in the college and the university, surrounded by conditions which make dead against their power of adaptability. The first of these, as I have seen and experienced them, is that the college woman gets into habits of self-preparation. She habitually thinks that life is not here and now on the college campus, but somewhere outside -- that after a while she is going to live a Christian and earnest life and cope with difficult situations, but at present it is her duty to get ready for them. She has fallen into "the snare of self-preparation," to borrow a phrase from Tolstoy. I recently called on a woman who was ninety-two years old, and who apologized to me because she was not neighborly -– she said she had always meant to be neighborly, but had put it off from time to time, [although] she hoped that with the coming of warm weather this summer she might begin. She certainly had [page 2] never been to a woman's college, but for some reason she had got into the habit of postponing what she meant to do until she was better prepared, and at the age of ninety-two she was still postponing her action and comforting herself with the promise of future achievement.

Another temptation to which the college woman is constantly subjected is to a tendency to make an exception of herself –- to think that the college woman is different from other women, especially from those that work with their hands in the ordinary places of life. I once heard Father Huntington say that the essence of immorality is to make an exception of one's self, and I would like to add that to consider one's self as in any wise unlike the rank and file of human life is to walk straight toward the pit of self-righteousness. Both of these temptations, making against adaptability and against the perception of the situation, are peculiar temptations to the college student. Certainly twenty years ago, when I was a college student myself, these two -– a sense of getting ready and a sense of special privilege -– loomed big in our minds. The consciousness of being set apart leads first of all to the ridiculous motive of doing things for the "sake of the example," which, to my mind, is a canker worm at the heart of many of the societies organized for Christian young people. A church full of people who have gone to the church for the sake of the example they thus set to their neighbor is a church full of bored self-righteousness. A society of young people held together, or even partially held together, by such a notion, is a society of moral prigs, and every genuine person detects them as such. Young people with such a phrase on their lips, with such a concept in their minds, can do nothing toward adapting Christianity to social needs, and it is on the whole better that they do not try. If this adaptation is useful it must be made with vigor and power, and it can never be done by a self-conscious person. An educated man, [although] he be a self-conscious one, may perform certain services for the community, but he cannot perform this particular service of adaptation.

A third danger, inherent in college life, is that study too long continued without independent and virile action tends to produce irresolute and timid people. The modern world has come to believe that progress comes through variation, taking place now and again in individuals differing from the type, until finally a variation persists and makes a distinct modification. It is difficult to see how this process can be carried on in society unless each individual who exhibits the variation clearly states his difference and is ready to act upon it, to be thrown out of his difference if not valuable, to find himself surrounded by an unconscious following if his difference is genuine. But this variation can never be made valuable through an irresolute or timid person. The individual who differs from the type is always a subject of hostility to those who have held to this type. If you urge that something else be substituted for the Wednesday evening prayer meeting, for the simple reason that people don't want to come to it and that it answers no genuine need, you will be surprised by the amount of hostility you invoke. You will be amazed at the opposition from people who have not been attending these meetings themselves, but who think that "the meeting should be kept up." It lies with you to make them see that a meeting filled with vigor and power might be held on every evening of the week -- that its character might be changed as imperceptibly as the new sap within the plant shoves off the old sheath.

In reviewing let us say that the adaptation of Christianity cannot be made (1) by self-conscious people, because they from the very nature of the case can have no adaptability and because self-absorption precludes the power of perception -– the egoist of every type becomes surrounded as in a shell by his own thoughts and ambitions and cannot break through; (2) it cannot be done by people careful of their reputation and influence, because the very situation demands those who must differ, who must expose themselves to criticism and misunderstanding, who must, moreover, receive this criticism from people high in Christian places, because those in high places too often lose touch with the real world; (3) it cannot be made by people who are habituated to an atmosphere of preparation, because the process of adaptation must be carried on, not only by [page 3] quick perception, but by power of prompt action; to see an opportunity for furthering this delicate adjustment, and to decide "to stay a little" is altogether to lose that opportunity; (4) last of all, it cannot be done by self-righteous people, because they have from the very beginning been a stumbling block to Christianity -– the only people toward whom the gentle Founder allowed himself to be severe.

For the last twelve years I have had the opportunity to see many young college people in their first year "out of college," and I have also known hundreds of young people who have never been to college, but who sturdily began to earn their own livings when college young people were trying to find out how Caesar built his bridge across the Rhine. These young people exhibit the reverse of these qualities which I have mentioned (1) They are not self-conscious -– to be one of a large family in a tenement full of large families is not conductive to thoughts of one's self, or to a life of inner absorption. And unless they have had ability enough to go to a business college, to a normal school or to work their way to the university, no one has ever told them that they were remarkable. (2) They are not doing things for the sake of example, simply because it has not occurred to them that they are of sufficient importance to be observed. (3) They carry with them no marks of having stumbled in the snare of self-preparation, and most of them are pitifully unprepared for the tasks of life. (4) They are not self-righteous, but act most too often from impulse and irrational motives. Knowing as I do something of each of these streams of young people, which are found in Chicago and every large city, I sometimes stand blankly between the two, filled with a sort of despair; the units in one stream are Hamletized and pauperized, by constantly getting much and giving little -– the units in the other are enervated and overworked, because they are put to the hard grind of life before they are ready for it. Personally I believe that the adaptation of Christianity, if it is made at all by its generation, must be made from contributions from both sets of the people. Christianity of the twentieth century must gather to itself -– as did Christianity of the early centuries –-  both the learning of the wise and the virtues of the simple.  Let us have clear thinking by all means, but let us never separate it from action, or we have thrown away the one [clue] which Jesus gave his followers, the interdependence of the spirit and the world, the doctrine and the will.

Long ago a brilliant woman came to call at Hull House and flatly announced that she did not believe in settlements. She said that they were all nonsense, and that this conviction had come to her at the tender age of four. She related an experience as follows: She was one day playing in her mother's garden when she discovered a large and disagreeable toad, which frightened her so badly that she hastily ran to the other end of the garden. Before she had recovered from her first fright she there discovered a very small toad which gradually appealed to her pity, it seemed so lonesome and forlorn by itself. With much fear and trembling, borne up only by the desire to be good to it, she finally poked the little toad into the neighborhood of the big toad, when to her horror and surprise the big toad opened his mouth and swallowed the little toad. She said that never after that had she believed in displacing people and putting them into the company which they did not seek, and into which they did not naturally go. It was in vain that I expounded, that the little toad might easily represent the settlement -– a group of insignificant young people, only too anxious to be swallowed by the larger toad, representing a large group of working people -– that if we could be swallowed and digested and contribute anything to the strength or comeliness of the larger group, then, indeed, the settlement would be a success. She was skeptical of my interpretation, and said so quite clearly. But it is a good story and perhaps I may be permitted to give it another interpretation, which, however, may be no more successful. Let us say that the little toad represents numbers of college women, then Intercollegiate Alumnae Association, if you please. The association has been hopping about in its own end of the garden with a certain sense of aimlessness and without being very clear as to why it was put there. The story may show that the usefulness and [page 4] meaning of the association can be realized only as its activities are lost in those of the rest of the community.

To give up the consciousness of one's own identity and achievements is perhaps the hardest demand which life can make upon us, but certainly those who call themselves Christian, who are striving to be of use in this adaption of Christianity to social needs, should be ready to meet this demand.

In all crises the college woman who undertakes this task must cling to the Christian training as over against the college training. In this new task of Christian adjustment she must observe accurately without laboratory aids, must reflect without the guidance of a professor, and at last act coherently upon her observation and conclusion. In college she has grown accustomed to working upon a motive power which had been predetermined when she resolved in the beginning to take the course, but in this new task she must be able to constantly extract from the situation itself a motive power to feed her energy and to give her zeal. Jesus alone of all great teachers made a masterly combination of method, aim and source of motive power. He alone taught that out of broken human nature continually springs the great moral power which perpetually recreates the world. The mystic life of the common people may at last touch the learning of the college woman and fuse into one her method and her aim. She will then for the first time be equipped to devote her powers to the adaptation of Christianity to social needs and to fulfil her obligations.