February 13, 2008: From the Editor
In his essay about the literary critic and journalist Edmund Wilson ’16 (see page 20), Christopher Beha ’02 writes about Wilson’s long friendship with his teacher and mentor, Christian Gauss, who arrived at Princeton as one of Woodrow Wilson 1879’s first “preceptor guys” and had enormous influence on literary-minded students of the era. But some alumni will recall Gauss as a faculty adviser to student organizations and as Princeton’s third dean of the college, a job he assumed in 1925, during Prohibition, and held for 21 years.
After Gauss’ death in 1951, PAW ran tributes from eight alumni. Richard K. Stevens ’22, president of the Press Club, recalled how the professor had “made us understand that our job was not only to report the routine events, but more particularly to interpret the University and what it was trying to do.” Former Prince chairman John N. Brooks Jr. ’42 remembered how seriously Gauss considered the students’ points of view — even though, looking back, Brooks could see how “the positions we upheld so earnestly ... were indefensible.” There was even a tribute from Joseph Bryan III ’27, a chairman of Tiger magazine, who contrasted the experiences of being suspended by Dean Gauss and by the “hanging judge,” Dean Howard McClenahan. He wrote: “Ah, Gauss! A ministering angel, his cool fingers stroked your feverish, foolish brow. So his dear young friend has broken a silly old regulation? And those nasty, busybody proctors have caught him? ... Presently you felt as if you were being forgiven ... and it was not until you were packing your bags that the rosy mist began to fade, and you realized that Gauss, too — sweet, soft-voiced, sympathetic Gauss! — had hurled you into two weeks’ limbo.”
Gauss had an intense interest in national and world affairs. He was a member of the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and spoke out against the House Committee on Un-American Activities, racial discrimination, and anti-Semitism. Writing in the Journal of Higher Education in 1947, Gauss, recently retired, portrayed college campuses as potential training grounds for democracy — not just in the classroom, but as communities for students of all backgrounds and economic levels. A first-rate scholar, he believed that “the over-intellectualizing of our modern world ... has not been a profitable adventure in man’s history.” Instead, he wrote, the scholar must discover the truth, publish it, “and put it into practice and ... live up to it.” (For a link to that essay, “The Dean of Men,” click here.)
Gauss’ papers remain at Firestone Library — including documents relating to his role as dean and essays and talks on topics such as the humanities, education, democracy, and the role of individualism. A Princeton seminar series begun in 1949 in his honor continues today, and the Phi Beta Kappa Society pays tribute with an award in his name. Perhaps his presence is felt most strongly in the legacy of the many men who studied or worked with him, or waited, after violating some University rule, for him to pronounce their fate — always with compassion.