William Trufant Foster

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William Trufant Foster

William Trufant Foster (January 18, 1879 – October 8, 1950), was an American educator and economist, whose theories were especially influential in the 1920s. He was the first president of Reed College.


  • At home, as well as abroad, there is paralyzing uncertainty among business men as to whether the Reserve Board will allow that expansion of bank credit without which such prosperity as we have had in recent years simply cannot last. In short, the Board has created a state of mind which breeds business depression.
    • Foster and Catchings, in: The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 144, (1929), p. 102; cited in: William J. Barber. From New Era to New Deal. 1988, p. 77.

Argumentation and debating, 1908[edit]

William T. Foster (1908), Argumentation and debating, 1908.

  • Let us not be surprised, however, if the study of the principles of argumentation — or even Burke's much mis-taught Speech — seems dry without the prospect of actual debate. We should hardly expect a half-back to feel much enthusiasm over reading the rules of the game and tackling a dummy if he could not look forward to tackling a man. When elocution and argumentative writing have failed to stimulate interest, formal debate may succeed, for it is a kind of game. In the time limit, the order of speakers, the alternation of rides, the actual struggle of opposing forces, the give and take of rebuttal, the fixed rules and the ethics of conduct, the qualifications for success, and the final awarding of victory, debate has much in common with tennis and football.
    • p. viii
  • The great superiority of debating, as the schools should look upon it, lies in the fact that it adds to many of the elements of the present absorbing interest in athletics those educational values which contribute directly to the highest type of citizenship.
    • p. viii
  • It is not easy to phrase the proposition so that it shall mean precisely what we wish to argue; so that it shall include the whole matter at issue, nothing more and nothing less ; so that there shall be no possible ambiguity. Yet, unless the proposition is so phrased, a debate may degenerate into a lifeless quibble concerning the meaning of the terms, under which the living heart of the question is buried.
    • p. 2; as cited in: Robert James Branham (2013). Debate and Critical Analysis: The Harmony of Conflict. p. 31
  • One of the early presidents of Harvard College wrote a dissertation on the question, "Whether angels speak any language; if so, whether it is Hebrew." Much futile discussion on such questions has at various times brought debating into ill repute. A question should offer something more than an ingenious exercise; it should offer the chance of arriving at some conclusion regarded by the particular audience or disputants as of some practical importance. It should be discarded if, like the proposition, "The pen is mightier than the sword/' it offers no possibility of arriving at reasonably sound conclusions through the process of argument.
    • p. 4-5; as cited in: Branham (2013, p. 32-33)
  • Unless disputants understand the meaning attached by each other to the terms of a controversy, they may worry along indefinitely without making an inch of progress. The contending parties may think they agree on the proposition, when, as a matter of fact, their apparent agreement is due to ambiguity in the use of the terms. On the other hand, the contending parties may work themselves into a quarrel over imaginary disagreements concerning ideas, when in fact they are merely confused as to the meaning of words. Disputes which seem interminable are sometimes ended abruptly and happily upon the accidental discovery that the parties in dispute agreed all the time as to the real questions at issue, while neither side understood what the other side meant.
    • p. 24 ; as cited in: Branham (2013, p. 38)
  • The " general" definition may give you no hint as to the way in which a particular assertion is meant to be interpreted. When, therefore, as in formal debate, a proposition is advanced by persons other than those who discuss it, clearness in defining is not sufficient. In such cases a definition must have two qualities: it must be clear, and it must be satisfactory to the persons addressed. They must know what the speaker means, and they must be convinced that his meaning is the correct one, — correct for that particular proposition at the time and place and under the conditions of that particular debate. Otherwise, they may object in the end that he has proved, not the given proposition, but another which he has substituted for it by means of arbitrary definitions.
    • p. 27; partly cited in: Branham (2013, p. 39)
  • Most grown-up people get rid of the childish notion that whatever appears in print is true, but many cling to the equally absurd notion that the printing of a statement does give it some claim to dignity and credence. For the purposes of argumentation, let us here make this point emphatic: The mere fact that a statement appears in print lends not one atom to its value. Every assertion that is brought forward — though it may have been printed a thousand times and repeated a million times — must be challenged and tested before it can be regarded as trustworthy testimony of authority, — before it can be of any value as evidence.
    • p. 59; as cited in: Branham (2013, p. 77)
  • The reference to the source of authority should be definite. Such vague phrases as the following, common though they are, are worthless as proof : —
Statistics gathered with great care show —
It may be said on substantial authority —
Many prominent men agree —
Competent authorities say —
We could give hundreds of cases to show —
Recent writers on this subject declare —
One had better not pretend to prove anything than to seek to cover bare assertions with such flimsy material.
  • p. 59; as cited in: Branham (2013, p. 77)
  • Formal debate is a kind of game. In the time limit, the order of speakers, the alternation of sides, the give and take of rebuttal, the fixed rules of conduct, the ethics of the contest, the qualifications for success, and the final awarding of victory, debate has much in common with tennis.
    • p. 281

The circuit flow of money, 1922[edit]

William T. Foster, "The circuit flow of money." The American Economic Review (1922): 460-473.

  • The daily expenditures by consumers for new consumers' goods, upon which business stability largely depends, are determined in part by the total volume of money in circulation, in part by other factors including the frequency with which that money is returned to consumers. The flow of money, therefore, from use in consumption to another use in consumption should not be overlooked in studies of the causes and conditions of business fluctuations. It is the purpose of this paper to describe certain aspects of this circuit flow of money, to raise the question whether it does not deserve more attention that it has yet received in our analyses of business cycles, and to suggest pertinent lines of investigation. Unfortunately, the statistics upon which the most important conclusions concerning this subject must be based are not at hand and are not likely to be for a long time to come. The following discussion will have served its purpose if it stimulates further inquiry in profitable directions and helps to hasten the day when the necessary statistics are available.
Circuit flow of money by Foster, 1922
  • The diagram on the opposite page, similar in plan and purpose to one devised by Mr. M. C. Rorty, represents, in a general way, the circuit flow of money. To find fault with this diagram from an engineering standpoint would not be difficult; neither would it be sensible. All we should ask of these reservoirs and pipes is that they serve the purpose at hand. In the main, subject to certain qualifica qualifications to be made presently, this diagram does serve our purpose. It pictures the flow of money when business is relatively stable.
    • p. 262
  • The double reservoir at the top shows the amount of money in the hands of individuals and available for expenditure in consumption. This is what we have previously called the consumers' fund. The reservoir is divided into two parts in order graphically to represent the fact that a large part of the money received by individuals is income, most of which is spent in consumption; while a smaller part is money received from the sale of real estate, bonds and stocks, most of which is reinvested. The two parts of the reservoir, however, are connected with pipes, in order to take account of the fact that some income is invested and some money received from the sale of securities is spent in consumption. These connecting pipes are important. We must bear in mind that they are always partly, and never wholly, clogged. By their aid, we may visualize the fact that we have no means of knowing how much of the consumers' fund actually will be spent in consumption in any given period of time.
    • p. 264

Quotes about Foster[edit]

  • Foster's great success as a teacher, reflected in his textbooks Argumentation and Debating (1908) and Essentials of Exposition and Argument (1911), led to his remarkably early promotion to full professor at Bowdoin in 1905. The vision of an "ideal college" discussed in Administration of the College Curriculum (1911), based on his Ph.D. dissertation at Teachers College of Columbia University, led to his selection in 1910 as first president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. At Reed, Foster promoted a democratic spirit and serious intellectual pursuits, instituting seminars, theses, and comprehensive examinations, while excluding fraternities, sororities, and competitive intercollegiate sports. His educational experiment at Reed attracted national attention. He later returned to his early interest in rhetoric, publishing books on Basic Principles of Speech (with Lew Sarett, 1936) and Speech (1942).
    • Robert W. Dimand. "Foster, William Trufant," American National Biography, Online Feb. 2000.
  • Foster gained widespread attention when he announced that Reed, from the start, would reject competitive intercollegiate sports and fraternal organizations in favor of a democratic and intellectual environment, with emphasis on a quality of teaching compatible with his idea of a “Johns Hopkins for undergraduates.” He also eschewed grading in an effort to underscore Reed’s commitment to knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and set the senior thesis and oral exam as mandatory goalposts for graduation.

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