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Cornell in the Twenties

In Their Own Voice... student thoughts from the era

Harry Case

Harry L. Case, Class of 1929

The following is an article Harry Case wrote for the book A half-century at Cornell, 1880-1930; a retrospect sponsored by the Cornell Daily Sun to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. He was editor-in-chief at the Sun in his senior year. From A Half-Century at Cornell, Cornell Daily Sun, Inc. 1930

Trite Notes on the Contemporary Cornellian

If someone should ask—and some professional fact-finder no doubt will ask if he has not already—, What is the most important word in the 1930 collegian’s vocabulary, I should not answer “hell;” I should not even answer “damn.” I should say without hesitancy “do.”

For to the modern collegian doing is the essence of his being. Although he probably did not realize it, the author of the lately popular song, “Do Something,” put into words the primal urge which motivates the mental and physical activities of most of the young fellows at large on the Cornell Campus today. His soul is most at rest when he is mapping out something to do; it is in utter turmoil when he can find nothing. He would lose his mind before he would have time to starve to death on Robinson Crusoe’s proverbial insular retreat.

I hear a few sages remind me: “Perfectly natural. Youth has always been nervously energetic, seeking new worlds to conquer, new trails to blaze.” Ah yes, but you of the older school do not understand. You were brought up in an age before doing was reduced to a science. Little do you reck the poverty of your boyhood as contrasted with the richness of our own. In a day of limited means your wants were limited, your cravings easily satisfied, and in your own naive way you were frequently duped into thinking that you were doing something when obviously you were not. Is it doing anything to wander aimlessly about the gorges and muse sentimentally about the “joys of nature,” or to finger idly the pages of a mossy philosopher? O rank puerility, O scornful nothingness!

But I should not be too hard on the older generation. You would not have wasted so much time if you had had more to do. Rather, I should be grateful to you for passing on a richer heritage than was your own lot. If we have our automobiles, our moving picture houses, our plenteous supply of weekly literature, it is you, inventive predecessors, that we have to thank. We do thank you with all our hearts; we thank you for a fuller—may I go so far as to say full—life.

Ours is a happy existence, for despite the remoteness and seeming uncivilized nature of the spot there is yet a plenty to do. First and foremost, of course, we have the theater. The new State and the renovated Strand both change their bills twice weekly these days, and the Crescent thrice. All three present 100% all-talking programs for the most part, and the seven performances can be witnessed for only three dollars and twenty cents, which is not bad for a week’s entertainment. Then of course in unusually dull periods there is the Temple, and perhaps, if boredom is unbearable, the University Dramatic Club in Willard Straight Hall. So complete are the provisions of the local magnates, in fact, that we scarcely have to go beyond the movie houses for our everyday diversion. The rest of our leisure we can spend very nicely in our fraternity houses, or, if we are non-fraternity men, in Willard Straight. Here we have our Colliers, our Post and our Judge, or if we are more sophisticated, our Vanity Fair and Mercury—good for several hours of reading a week. The modern artists being no less prolific in music than in literature, we have also a constantly renewing supply of entertainment in that sphere, through the medium of the Victrola, reproducing the genius of such immortals as Duke Ellington and the like. And finally we have our bridge, a nice pastime for filling in odd moments when there is absolutely nothing else to do.

These interests serve well enough to see the logy clock around, but they would become monotonous except for the spasmodic introduction of events of larger dimension. In the fall we have football games and house parties. If it promises to be a good team, we buy a major sports ticket and see all of the games; if not, we go only to the more important spectacles. We like to see a Cornell team win, but we do not complain when it loses. We cheer when it wins; we are silent when it goes down to defeat. We have more house parties again in the spring.

The big social extravaganza, Junior Week, comes between terms, and although this festival does not enjoy today its onetime prestige, it is yet distinguished from the term house parties by the Musical Clubs concert in Bailey Hall and the Junior Promenade in the Drill Hall. An interesting survival of an earlier day in the last named is the program, which our guests sport for the evening and carry home without a mark on it. The complete hold which “cutting-in” has on the modern dance makes of it a fancy hare-and-hound game in which determined looking males may be seen everywhere pursuing the trail of a kind-of blonde girl in red (probably cerise). The Prom breaks up at four, and you don’t hear anyone complaining.

But our 1930 mind does not confine itself to these and other lighter diversions. We have more serious things to do, and the Cornellian who hopes to amount to anything is in no sense a social butterfly. He is essentially serious-minded, industrious, efficient. To provide means for the expression of these qualities we have constructed an elaborate system of competitions, organizations, and committees. These functions are now, as they were originally, utilitarian, but I suspect that today it is a different utility that they serve. Our concern is not so much with the practical things that of necessity must be effected in complex university life; it is rather with them as means for exercising and developing our practical faculties—our “personalities,” as we call them.

What we want to know first of a man we may chance to meet is, What has he done (on the Hill)? We are willing to judge him solely on that basis, so confident are we of the infallibility of our system. Starting about the junior year, we begin to reward our fellows for their doings by bestowing honors. Honors once turned in a man’s direction flow upon him thick and fast, so that by his senior year he is lavishly bedecked with the wreaths of extra-curricular accomplishment, wreaths metal not myrtle, jingling joyfully from sagging watch-chains.

We live in a practical world, in which savoir-faire, poise, self-confidence, are the criteria of success. University is represented to us as the land of self-made opportunity. Can we be blamed then for placing emphasis there upon those things which insure success, which make us men of this world, not another, which satiate our nervous mania to do something? Unfortunately the University is not capable of raising us above this point of view.

What do we think? My dear, we don’t think. The University rarely asks it of us, and we could scarcely be expected to do things like that if they are not required. We have too much to do-we don’t have to think. Thinking, old age, rheumatism, whiskers—these are of one family, but youth, personality, doing—these are of another. And thought is apt to be destructive of the ungodly manliness which we strive so hard to attain. Thought shakes assurance where we want to bolster it.

Persons are classified as “wet,” at one extreme, and “smooth” at the other. You never hear of a man being “rough” or “dry”—he must be either smooth or wet. Generally speaking, an individual is wet who is loud, unrefined, over-conceited, or non-conformist in dress or thought. A gentleman who is smooth—that is, a “good bird”—is refined, quiet but enthusiastic, generous in his patronage of other good birds, conformist in dress and thought. Especially he must be socially minded; that is, he must realize that his own ideas and desires are subordinate to the general sense of the group.

This social mindedness is perhaps our outstanding characteristic. It is one which grows inevitably out: of fraternity life, in which we must eat, sleep, study, work, and recreate together. One comes not to think by himself, but only in conjunction with another or others. What courses to take, how to prepare for them, what entertainment to provide—these and a hundred other of life’s concerns we would not think of settling by ourselves. Such existence may be frightfully damaging to decision, but it is a boon to socialization. We fail to acquire one faculty, the faculty of living with and knowing ourselves, but we do acquire another and perhaps more important in contemporary life—the faculty of living with and to a certain extent understanding others. The psychologist would say that as a group we become completely socialized.

The energy which our fathers and grandfathers accumulated in the course of aeons in the Do-less Age and dissipated through such media as Hallowe’en frolics, cane and mud rushes and similar spirited class internecion and the like we moderns do not bosom. Our energy never becomes concentrated to that extent, for we squander it as we have it. Hence the decease of most of the old “institutions” and “traditions.” The so-called traditions which survive are vestigial and anachronistic: witness the stiff, formal freshman banquet with a dozen or so semi-clad yearlings, victims of the attacks of a few sophomores who have not “been their age,” scattered about here and there in an other-wise dignified assemblage. Or witness the soporific sophomore smoker, at which a hundred or so loyal members of the class of 19— pay three dollars for a trinket and a pack of Lucky Strikes and a couple of indifferent speeches.

One tradition especially has suffered sadly in the span of a single undergraduate life: the coed tradition. I can remember being impressed as a freshman with the social ostracism inevitable from association with Cornell women students; but the fraternities no longer teach that dogma. Why? Well, for one thing, we have formally renounced the age-old conceit that Cornell is an institution of scholastic slavery, where engineers operate water-cooled slide-rules and Arts students read history in the barber’s chair. Cornellians have known for a long time how untrue that conceit is, but they have kept up the bluff with commendable success. We are more frank—it is our chief virtue—, and we openly admit that we do have time, and we take it. The dissolution of the tradition has meant, as I suspect some of our predecessors were afraid it would mean, a very considerable threat to what vestiges of scholarship have lingered on into this age. Weekly house parties in the fall and spring, difficult if not impossible under the old prejudices, are now easily maneuvered. An unbroken string of such ennervating blow-outs in the fall leaves the socially minded undergraduate far in the lurch as the academic year begins, and another string in April and May finds him yet farther astern as it ends. But we are fairly capable fellows, and we can pass the faculty’s indifferent examinations with a few hours of concentration in February and June.

Now even though we enjoy such an abundant supply of things to do, we are very frankly bored. Capable, perhaps, of appreciating fine things, we have not been sufficiently educated to them, and yet we cannot be satisfied with the petty time-passing that we try to enjoy here. Hence an urgent need for release from the routine, a need for some kind of “kick.” Such kick is quickly and conveniently, however uncomfortably, to be had from contemporary alcoholic beverages, and drinking is a very necessary attribute to our existence. If we could not obtain liquor, thanks to government or faculty intervention? Worse: our boredom might cause us to break out in the puerile collegiatism of some other institutions that we know.

We might worry about this and certain other aspects of our undergraduate civilization if we had nothing else to do, but as I have said before, we have. The only worrying that is done about the times and the customs is done in a professional capacity, and that of course is by the Sun editors; they are the paid mourners. For the most part they grieve when they ought to grieve and they rejoice when they ought to rejoice, but they are skeptical about most of the nonsense which they strive valiantly to take seriously. Thus it cannot be said justly that The Sun represents undergraduate opinion; it represents the ideal of undergraduate opinion—what it ought to be, in the minds of the editors, and not what it is. Quite frequently Sun editorials represent the honest opinions of the editors about as inaccurately as those of the forty-nine hundred and some others who read them. The Sun considers itself above the foibles of the “student body,” and it is conscious that most of its readers are not critical readers. Hence there is an aloofness about the sheet that is definitely detrimental to its being held in any great respect, for respect is a feeling necessarily at least partly mutual. No-one would be so bold as to say that The Sun enjoys much influence on the Cornell Campus; nor would anyone venture that Sun editors care a damn whether it does or not.

The picture that I am attempting to draw is not an ideal one. On the other hand I should not want it to be inferred that Cornell University per se can be judged by any such sketch as this. Cornell is too varied, too heterogeneous, to be regarded as a whole. There are students here who exist in ill-equipped basement rooms and work their way to an education under the severest hardship as well as those who live in fraternal mansions and enjoy a life of ease. There are those who study six hours a day as well as those who study six hours a week. But the ones that we see are the ones with the time to be seen; the others are too busy.

I still think that Cornell is a good place to get an education. Any person can find instruction in any study here, but he has got to look for it, and any person can make himself here if he will but open his eyes to the opportunities. On the brow of this hill the sky is the limit. If the place does not insist that we look upward, at least it is some consolation that there is a deeper satisfaction in learning to look up for ourselves.