Part A – Undergraduate College Period
Since I had hoped eventually to study engineering, my rough plan was to start work at the University of Chicago, despite the unavailability of engineering programs there, and transfer after two years to another school. Even if I were to stay for four years, majoring in mathematics or physics I still would not have to give up on engineering. Quite properly I was not concerned about my inability to fix on a particular goal and I recognized the value in keeping options open at this stage.
There were impending obstacles in my path. First, under our normal family economic conditions, I could not plan to live on the University of Chicago campus and would have to face a commuter’s life – nearly 4 hours of a round-trip travel each school day, via North Shore Line, Elevated, and about 1 ½ miles of walking [sic.]. What made matters worse, however, was the threat of Depression which might lessen even our very modest economic capabilities. It wasn’t very long before my father’s company folded, and he was out of work. With increasing deafness, his chances of securing employment were exceptionally low, especially because of his lack of any real skills and his prejudice against hearing aids.
Lee Alfred Wilcox (before hearing aid), ca 1929, Wilmette, Illinois
(Actually, during the entire decade that followed, he was able to secure only occasional odd jobs; otherwise he did volunteer work for the Wilmette Recreation Department, for the duration of the Depression.)
Luckily, my mother’s ingenuity came into play: she secured a permanent [?] job at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle office.
Pauline Miller Wilcox, ca 1930
Her income was low, but the cost of living was correspondingly so, and there were benefits in that she was able to take home foodstuffs. (The Tabernacle operated the cafeteria and was able to secure food at very low prices.) My Grandmother Gertrude’s pension ($30 monthly) allowed my scrimping transportation costs (about $.46 per day thanks to North Shore Line student tickets at $.18 between Wilmette and Chicago Loop) and lunch money ($.13-$.15 per day). There were of course household expenses for heat and light, taxes, mortgage payments (luckily interest only, since amortization of principal had not yet come into style) and some food (especially now that my mother had found a young German woman who would take care of Gertrude 24 hours a day for room and board only).
Gertrude Mueller Miller, ca 1930, Wilmette, Illinois
Somehow my mother managed, I don’t know how, especially since there were essentially no savings, and maintenance of the family’s religious lifestyle meant more expenditures, especially for tithing and transportation to Chicago. It was clear, though, since my scholarship paid for tuition only ($300 per year), that I would somehow have to meet other expenses, including those for clothing, books, writing materials, and incidentals. I would have to find a way to earn money, mostly during summers, when I would not be attending classes.
In high school I had done some tutoring; as it worked out, I was always able to find some work along this line during the summers and a bit during the academic years. My rate: $2 per hour. My high school mathematics teacher, Mr. Snyder, cooperated by referring students to me I also tutored some in German and later in French. And during my sophomore and junior years, Mr. Snyder called on me from time to time to do substitute teaching at New Trier and in the September before my senior year. The German teacher at NT (not Mrs. Walker who had left) missed her steamer to return to the United States from Europe, and so I was called to substitute for her for a two or three week period. My pay for these jobs was $8 per day at first then later $6 per day (the Depression was deep by this time). Except for the big NT German job which was over before my classes started, my assignments there never occupied more than one or two days; making up for those missed today’s was usually easy.
[At this point in the manuscript, there is a reference to include “Lane story on quiz.” This item was not included and it is supposed that it would have been added later, had circumstances not prevented it.]
My academic program for the first year was as follows:
Mathematics (Analytic geom.)
German (last of 5 courses, my high school background corresponding to the first 4)
English (the novel)
Selection of courses for the first quarter was pretty automatic: the mathematics was a good idea since I liked the subject, and might selected as a major; German was a natural to follow up on my high school work and to provide entry into the advanced courses should [it] be a possibility that I might major or minor in German. As to English, it turned out that, although I apparently could write well in German, my writing in English was not adjudged (by the English instructors who expected something other than good, precise, accurate expression) adequate to excuse me from the two composition courses required of all klutzes like me.
At the end of the fall quarter I had decided that I would major in mathematics, on the basis of inspiration I received from my excellent instructor (L. M. Graves, who figured in my life for many years).* Furthermore, I learned that the advanced German offerings contained no linguistics – only literature with occasional courses in other Germanic languages so that more literature could be studied. This had no appeal to me, and so I dropped any intention of further German study, much to the disappointment of the German faculty who expected that a German scholar would naturally want to specialize in that subject. (I did agree to be president of the German club through the years, however.) The choice of French was naturally mine: if French served as a kind of universal language for mathematics (along with English, of course), my selection of calculus in the winter and spring was consonant with my majoring in mathematics.
In the spring, astronomy was offered also by a fine instructor (with whom I had many interactions later); this subject would be, natural minor for me. Having received an A in French 101 I was permitted to skip 102 and receive credit for it if I got an A in 103. This did indeed happen.
Now for some bad news. English (my high school semi-nemesis) turned out the same way here: B’s in both fall and winter. I erred in choosing English in the winter but saw nothing better. I had developed some interest in novels – especially those of Dickens – [illegible] and thought I could stretch myself. We read a novel week and wrote a commentary on it each week; the choices were good ones, but again my style of writing apparently stood in my way. So the year ended with seven A’s and two B’s. The result: my scholarship would be renewed but only to the extent of two-thirds of what it was the first year. My consternation is easy to understand: I had no more funds to provide the missing $100. But I was able to borrow that amount from the University at 3% interest, to be paid back within a reasonable time. Since the sophomore year marked the start of my substitute teaching I was able to meet the obligation.
A comment on foreign language instruction at the U of C is in order here. It was (properly) done (in my judgment) by primary emphasis on grammar, vocabulary, reading, and to an extent, writing, with little stress on oral communication. (However, beyond the 101 courses, all were conducted in the language being taught.) In each course, even the 101, there was required reading of 100 pages per week with a book report (in English if desired) to be handed in. The first week, one could read a simple book; thereafter, one should read books written for adults. This method, in contrast to the “commercial method” enables one to draw on one’s extensive knowledge of one’s native language to help in learning the new one – rather than to learn it, necessarily inefficiently, by trial and error.
All courses, in fact, were quite demanding. But of the U of C regarded its instruction as so competitive that a five hour per week course could be taught in four hours weekly. So after my first quarter (when gym and an “orientation” thing that were held on Monday), my Mondays were free and were always spent at home. Mondays (nice at first, but then necessities) plus my riding time on the “L” and North Shore gave me the time needed to keep on top of everything.
Not only did I get credit for the one French course but I learned during the year that two of my high school courses were regarded as [?] college preparatory work; and so I got credit for college algebra and fourth-year high school German. As might be inferred from my account so far, the normal course load was three per quarter, so that in four years one would have taken 36 courses. Each was regarded as worth 3 1/3 semester hours, for a total of 120 hours for graduation.
Roy, U of C student
I had arrived at the end of one year with one extra quarter’s credit which meant that I might graduate one quarter early (these courses carried no grades). Why not, I thought, try for a second quarter’s credit and graduate still earlier. Now the U of C offered correspondence courses, those applicable to one’s program, taken in this way, would then carry regular credit and the grades carried. Why not, I thought, take one such course each summer – 1930, 1931, 1932? These would lead to a graduation two quarters early, in December 1932. Moreover, these correspondence courses would require only $25 each for tuition – some extra tutoring or whatever on my part. As it worked out, I took in 1930 one in differential equations – a good one for home study, since this subject was taught mechanically with many problems, little theory. And I did take one course in each of 1931, 1932, both being in educational methods. I thought that I might have to end up teaching in high school, in which case I would need education courses for certification. I later took practice teaching and a psychology course to round out these requirements. Of course I never needed to draw on those qualifications.
My “B” days weren’t quite over. I took the second required English comp. course as a sophomore and so ended up with eight A’s and one B. But now, having completed two years, I was to enter my period of concentration in the major, so that my scholarship decision would be in the hands of the mathematics department members, several of whom, fortunately, were impressed with my work and potential. I was thus awarded the junior year mathematics (full) scholarship. I felt pretty good about beating out the winner of the competitive freshman scholarship in mathematics at the time that I got the one in German.
The balance of my undergraduate work involved each quarter two mathematics courses and one course in my minor, astronomy (physics). By this time some of these courses were at the graduate level, since I had had a good head start and had taken most of the undergraduate courses in both subjects. (Astronomy at the U of C was split: experimental astronomy was taught at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin; and the theoretical part (actually applied mechanics) was taught at the Chicago campus. The three faculty members involved being housed in the mathematics department. In my junior year I took the sequence of three mechanics courses given by astronomer William MacMillan (not my favorite). His grading system was to give everyone a B, except for A’s for those who spoke out a lot (making [?] or nonsense). In the first quarter the stupidest student got the only A. (It wasn’t Wilcox, who quietly did all the work correctly.) Later I learned that MacMillan received a terrible bawling out for giving a B to the one junior math scholar. Thereafter I scored A’s for Macmillan, as I did in the mathematics courses. I was awarded the senior math scholarship for the coming year.
By fall I had under my belt 33 of the 36 courses required for graduation. During the fall quarter I took a couple of math courses and a physics course (theory of heat), which I thought would be a great experience, since the instructor was Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize winner for discovery of cosmic rays. But he was an experimental, not theoretical physicist, and the course was a washout.
Apparently my grades there the junior year were adequate to qualify me for election to Phi Beta Kappa.
At the fall 1932 induction ceremony I got my first impression of the speaker Mortimer Adler. He said in his speech that science had reached its intellectual peak with the early Greeks and had been in decline ever since. He was so effective as a speaker that he made this sound plausible. But on my way home afterwards I gave the matter some thought and realized that all of what he had said was garbage in view of the tremendous explosion in science and mathematics beginning with the middle ages and still in high gear. My impression of Adler as a nut has stuck with me to this date. His “Great Books” program predicated on his ridiculous theme is garbage. What I’ve heard him say over the years hasn’t caused me to alter my opinion. Pres. Robert Hutchins, who started his presidency at the U of C when I entered, did a fair amount of good for the University, but he also made some serious mistakes, one of which was to appoint Adler. (He first tried to put him in the Law School, whereupon the Law faculty resigned as a body; so Adler ended up as a professor of Philosophy, perhaps because that department’s members weren’t as perceptive as the Law’s ones).
I graduated on schedule, in December 1932 (grade-point average was a 3.8).
Having already taken some graduate work I decided to continue towards the Master’s degree in mathematics. On the basis of this and a special oral examination I received the S. B. With honors – no “. . . Cum laude” at the U of C. It is an odd fact that there only [are] three Bachelor’s degrees available: Bachelor of Science (S. B.), Bachelor of Philosophy (Ph. B.), and Bachelor of Arts (A. B.). The first was given only to science majors, the last only to (non-science) students who included a certain amount of Greek in their programs, the Ph. B. to all others. (The U of C was a stickler for European form.)
During my undergraduate years, my social activities (except for Sunday family/religious stuff) were pretty meager. While I had been rushed by two fraternities I couldn’t afford to join, of course. I participated in no extracurricular activities. (One exception: in 1929 before Pres. Hutchins abdicated football, I attended one game – at Urbana, with expenses covered by one of the frats. I stayed with my high school friend Duncan-Clark who was attending the U of I.) The few dates I had were “campus dates.” A man could visit a girl at her dormitory, but they had to stay in plain view in the first floor parlor. How times have changed!
My friends were even fewer here than at New Trier. Only two stand out: Ed Cooper[?], who was severely handicapped by a bone disorder [and] had to use crutches and needed help to get up even one step. I made a point of helping him whenever I could and in return he would drive me to the Belmont “L” stop in his specially outfitted car. This friendship lasted well beyond my undergraduate period.
A second friend was Ned Hohman, a pre-dental student. We met in the gym during my second quarter at the U of C. My earlier interest in gymnastics led me to use the gym voluntarily after my first (required) course. Ned and I had the same interests – work on the mats, parallel bars, and horse; our skills developed at about the same pace. On occasion I would be invited to his home on the far South Side and he visited my home on a few occasions. His father was a practicing dentist who gave me dental care and his two older brothers were already MDs. Ned ultimately became my dentist and his brother Ray my doctor; after my marriage, both briefly served our family.
My gymnastics had to be given up as a result of a shoulder injury which occurred during my junior year. One of my old Winnetka friends was attending the U of C, commuting as I did except that he had a car. On one occasion he took me home, but on the way he had car trouble and stopped at a service station. While waiting there I strolled around the station, stupidly overlooking that it was pitch dark. Suddenly I stepped into a greased pit. My left arm went out automatically and was caught on the concave side of the pit. My shoulder slipped out of its socket and I instantly grabbed the arm to push it back. Since I couldn’t afford medical care or the time out to get patched up (surgery being necessary to rejoin a “ruptured ligament,” as I learned much later), I decided to try to live with the situation. The shoulder misbehaved a few times thereafter until I learned how to favor it. In due time, I had no more trouble since regeneration evidently took place. Only very recently have I noticed a slight weakness in the shoulder, possibly due to that early mishap.
During my undergraduate period when I took non-mathematical courses I frequently had to write papers. My high school graduation present had been a (new) portable (mechanical) Underwood typewriter (which I still have – in excellent working order). That machine served me very well indeed. To do reference work in preparation for these papers, which were usually on scientific subjects by my choice, I often stopped downtown on the way home to use the Crerar Library. (At the U of C libraries the best books were often out; the Crerar books had to be used on the premises.) One of my long papers was on hypnosis in which I had become interested through the one psychology course I took. I recall reading books on the subject until I reached the point where any additional book provided nothing that I did not know already. (Crerar later moved to IIT and then to the U of C.)
As I look back over this. I marvel at my good fortune: never did I miss a day at school for health reasons – only for NT substituting; I was able to earn enough to handle all my expenses except for those covered by family help. The best clothing buy that I got occurred early: a big “alpaca pile” overcoat (artificial fur) with a stout lining and a large collar to raise for ear and face protection. The cost: $25. It made bearable my long walks on and to and from the campus with the cold and windy weather. It served me well, later during subzero spells in Wisconsin and Chicago. It’s still about as good as new – even the lining.
In general, I would rate the undergraduate education I received at the University of Chicago as excellent. I had sole freedom in choosing the courses I would take; graduation requirements were far from oppressive. There were no “general education” requirements such as are common today! The student was credited with good judgment; only once (early in the game) did the Dean say, “I’ll approve your program because I am required to, but I do so against my better judgment.” (He thought I should take history or some such “non-scientific – not yet in effect” course.) William Hutchins’s new program [?], on which I comment in section B, was based upon an entirely different educational philosophy!
But I cannot leave this part without a few remarks about the courses in Education. These were an eye-opener as to coming trends. The courses were generally known, even then, to be “snap courses,” designed to lead into elementary and secondary teaching the [to] weakest students. Of course there was a pretense to the contrary. I took education 101 as a regular (not correspondence) course. The first day the instructor passed out a bibliography listing some 30 books, all of which were “required reading.” I knew this was a fakery, also, that I couldn’t afford to buy the books or hope to find them in the library so I ignored the list completely, took copious notes on the trivia (or falsehoods) peddled in the lectures, and received an A grade (by that time I had learned how to get high grades out of weak instructors cold).
In “special methods – mathematics,” taken by correspondence, I learned how much meat has been removed from high school subjects. For example, it was recommended that, instead of providing that the volume of a cone is one third that of a corresponding cylinder, as we did in solid geometry at New Trier, one make a cone out of paper, fill it with sand, then pour the sand into an appropriate cylinder (same base, same height), and “find out” that it takes three conefuls to fill the cylinder. I couldn’t believe this when I read it.
About this time I learned with sadness that even New Trier was being negatively affected. A new superintendent that came in, Mr. Snyder (my mathematics mentor) told me, that (a) I would no longer be regarded as qualified to do substitute teaching and (b) his job of manning the department and indeed the jobs of the teachers had degenerated into the branding of the ad nauseum. I learned that my carefully adhered to education evidently to be already out of date – insufficient for certification. It was clear that there was a gigantic conspiracy effort on the part of such outfits as The Columbia Teachers College to water down primary and secondary education generally, and to emasculate teacher “training” and in order to provide backup, to turn out administrators and teachers of character in comparable mold[?] to run schools, pressure [the] legislations to keep teacher certification at a low level, and to ensure giving this damned movement the strength to persist long into the future.
The results of all this are clear as a bell today now that we are in the third and fourth generation of stagnation. The damage cannot be overcome without an attack on its root causes. As I write, much consternation exists in the public and political arenas about what has happened, and futile movements to “correct” the situation are underway with money regarded as somehow central. I am sure that no improvement will happen in my time, if ever.