Liquor, Scantily Clothed Females, and the Word “Damn”

Girls in a car 1924 EN
Howard College girls in car, 1924 Entre Nous

Additional Thoughts on College Morals from L.O. Dawson

A professor of bible and church history at Howard College during the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. L. O. Dawson was known as a purveyor of deep wisdom and home-spun advice.  “Common horse sense,” he often quipped, “will get a boy through college safely, if applied in the right way.”  Lemuel Orah Dawson was born in 1865 in Chambers County, Alabama and attended Howard College (Marion), Southern Seminary (Kentucky), and the University of Berlin (Germany).

As a student at Howard, Dawson attended Siloam Baptist Church under the watchful eye of Rev. A. C. Davidson.  The pastor played a key role in Dawson’s spiritual formation.  “To me he was a man sent from God to touch my life at its most important period,” Dawson later wrote. “In everything he was my ideal. As a pastor and as a man, I have never seen any greater than he. He loved the boys with a genuine shepherd heart, and in return they lavished on him their extravagant affection and youthful enthusiasms. In all those years his influence has been felt in my life, and whatever good I have done, his hand was in it all.”  Davidson’s influence inspired Dawson’s passion for mentoring young men at Howard College in the 1920s and 1930s.  (Please see our September 20, 2013 post on Dawson’s Horse Sense for College Men.)

In a November 1925 column printed in the Birmingham News as well as the Howard Crimson, Dawson tries to dispel the popular misconception that sending your children to college will inevitably lead to corruption of their morals:

We have nowadays much literature on the subject of the college morals.  And the pictures drawn of campus life are dark enough to make any parent hesitate long before sending a son or daughter into such environments.  To begin with, college students are the most interesting people in the world, and anything written about them is sure of readers.  There is sauce enough in the subject to flavor a whole lot of books.   And to add a little pep to spice, and ginger to pep, it is easy to fall into the unusual, the rougher side of the campus story.  The outcome is fearful.  There is little hope for any decent moral  boy or girl once they are in college classes.  So runs the best sellers.

The trouble is the college folks make their own reputations.  The stories you hear old graduates tell are always of their escapades and “scrapes.”  When the freshman goes home after his first year of campus experience he always wants to tell of the tough things that happened to him and to which he happened.  The book writers could not sell a book telling about how good Tommy is at school, but there is an enormous sale for one telling about how bad he is.  College humor, which is often about the freshest and best we have, too frequently centers on the immoral, lackadaisical side of the boys and the girls.  The collections of college humor are mostly made up on points about liquor, scantily clothed females and the word “damn.”  Pick up a college magazine from one of the common newsstands, so often common dirt stands.  What impressions does it make on you as to the solidarity, purpose and general worthwhileness of the college student?

The picture is that of irreverent, dissipated, reveling, sap-headed spendthrifts, idlers and gamblers and jazzers.  The college folks are responsible for this.  They want to be funny, and this is the idea of most of their humorists have of humor.  It would indeed be humorous to deem such humor humorous, but the tragedy is that these college writers present a picture of college life and the people that has well-nigh brought them into the contempt of good people everywhere.  They make their own reputation, and it is untrue to fact.

I have lived in close contact with college boys and girls all my life.  I think I know them better than they know themselves.  Quite sure we may be that there are no perfect folks among them.  I have never seen one with wings so much as sprouting.  I did tell one of them once upon a time that she was an angel, but that was a figure of speech and answered its purpose at the time.  They have faults.  Some of them go to the dogs.  Some were dogs before they came to college and merely went their way, appointed beforehand.

But the great majority of them are wholesome, purposeful, intelligent, sober, industrious and thoroughly worthwhile.  These do not lend themselves to colorful tales.  They are not rare enough to be news.  Books describing their ordinary lives would not sell.  It is hard to make jokes of them or about them.  They do not carry hip pocket flasks.  The description of their lives would not help repeal the prohibition amendment.  The word “damn” somehow does not fit into their scenery, so what is the writer to do but let them alone and use his paint pot on the more spectacular sort?

In the time of Julius Caesar his wife became famous just because she was virtuous.  Now virtuous women are so numerous as to be commonplace.  The good boy and girl are the rule as they are the rule so as they are ruled out of publicity and we form our opinions of college life upon what we hear of the other sort.  It is distressing to parents and hurtful to everybody concerned.

Nevertheless we must educate.  Education is so valuable that we must take the risks of ruin to secure its blessings for our children.  Now there are dangers in college.  I would not minimize one of them.  We must know of their presence to avoid their hurt, but I want to say this for the comfort of all who love our young people and especially to those whose children are in college.  I believe that out of a given number of young people fewer of them go wrong at college than would have gone wrong had the same group remained at home.  Out of a community with say 1,000 young people on its streets or in its homes, more of them will go wrong than would have done so had they had the inspiration of college friends and environments.  You may send your boy to college and from that he may go to hell, but it is not unlikely he would have gone to the same place had he remained at home.

–L. O. Dawson, in the Birmingham News

Adapted from Howard Crimson, November 11, 1925

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