Making Democracy Work


By DR. HAROLD W. DODDS, President of Princeton University

Delivered at the Exercises Opening the 193rd Year of the University, September 17, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 30-32.

WITH these exercises Princeton opens the 193rd year of her existence devoted to the advancement of learning and the education of young men. We open Under world circumstances in which it is not hard to formulate a plausible brief that organized, formal education has failed the world in its hour of need. Indeed some have been saying so for a good many years. Vocational education which aims no higher than to develop manual or technical skills has something to its credit, but what, ask the skeptics, does a liberal academic training accomplish behind its grand facade

of academic pretensions, except to spoil young people by encumbering them with attitudes which they must discard later? Any college president who reads his own mail is quite familiar with the various lines which the argument can take, according to the individual temperaments of the critics.

Neglect of practical preparation for business; over-emphasis upon athletics or extra-curricular activities; inflated campus social life; low scholastic standards which encourage habits of indolence; teachers who cant or won't teach; exaggerated stress upon pedestrian scholarship, are a few ofthe milder indictments of our universities. Other more negative and destructive critics do not hesitate to charge that the modern college has actively contributed to the undermining of our civilization. It is asserted by persons whose right to speak cannot be lightly dismissed that, through concentration upon mechanistic science and natural law, our colleges and universities have been destructive of religion on the one hand and faith in reason on the other. Having emancipated us from certain old forms of superstition, modern thought, we are told, has enslaved us to other servitudes as untrue and inhuman as those from which we were freed. It is charged that the doctrines we teach lead to a determinism which destroys personality, that they subject the free spirit of man to the domination of natural forces or his own irrational nature; that they lead to the subversive pessimism that ideas "are incapable of directing or changing the main course of events." Even the social sciences, it is said, have joined the anti-rationalists because they make society the victim of trends which work out their inevitable destinies to which mankind can only conform.

What disturbs me most is not the accusation that the influence of the universities has been positively bad. I know better than that. What does disturb me is the charge that, with all the resources at their command, the universities are failing to make the contribution which they might make. Our intentions, we are told, are ail right but we are not delivering the goods.

If we are realistic about liberal education as practised in this country, can we truthfully assert that it is accomplishing all that is claimed for it in the inaugural addresses of college presidents and the press releases of university news agencies? Does our teaching of science cultivate a scientific attitude towards the world of public or private affairs in which our students will participate? Does our teaching of

the humanities change our students in any fundamental way through a broader grasp of human values and deeper understanding of human history? Does our instruction in the social sciences, which are neighbors of both the natural sciences and the humanities, give the student a new attitude and methodology which really influence his conduct as a citizen? The answer is yes, but it is not as strong a yes as we can make it. I do not mean to suggest that we are selling the public a gold brick. Far from that. On the contrary we are in fact playing a manful part in the last line of defense against a return to an old paganism. Yet is it not true, as in other occupations and professions, that a gap is to be found between our promise and our performance and that it is possible by taking stock of ourselves to reduce that gap?

The re are various approaches to the cure of our present discontents in education. A reassuring sign is the fact that the discontents do exist and that our colleges are so actively experimenting in search of improved methods. For example, here at Princeton I consider that the development of our independent methods of instruction, (still in continuous evolution), our relatively severe scholastic requirements, our coordinated, cross-departmental programs of study, our increasing individualization of the student (in practice here, before the word became so bandied about as it is now), our linking of academic study with participation, as in the new creative arts program and in the reorganized School of Public and International Affairs, are all examples of progress and all evidences of life and vision. But it is something deeper that I have in mind, which I hope I can express sufficiently well to be understood.

Although methods are important, in my opinion the situation calls for more than changes in the technique of instruction. It is a sharpening of outlook and aim that is needed. If we ask ourselves why it is that four years of college study of the liberal arts, imposed upon eight years of school preparation, seem to play such a small role in the thinking and attitude of the student in after life, must we not answer that it is because life and education have not been brought together in college? We insist that a liberal education treats the fundamental as contrasted with the vocational aspects of living. But do we teach them in a way that they can be used; do we train our students how to use the fundamentals? Or do the fundamentals remain in a non-communicating compartment of the mind, valuable when and if contributing to one's subjective enjoyment of science, art, literature, philosophy and history, but not sufficiently drawn upon in the general business of living. And the heart of an education which gets no exercise soon ceases to throb.

My thesis is that it is not enough to teach the narrow content of the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences, as if the undergraduate years were for the training of academic specialists. How the student can use his education, how these subjects throw light upon one's own problems and decisions as an individual and as a citizen must also be taught. This I conceive to be education for use in the highest and non-material sense of the word.

I suggest that the root reason that the materials and viewpoint of a liberal education, which seem so significant and interesting to the student on the campus, commonly appear so remote in the daily grind of later years is that the objectives which the liberal arts college sets before itself has become too vague and general. We need a more clearly defined target, less nebulous, more visible, and therefore more attainable.

Anyone who reads the current definitions of a liberal education must find them uniformly unsatisfactory; they are so high in the clouds. The purpose we are told is to free the

mind and spirit of man from earthbound ties. A liberal education is an education for free men; it is an education for leadership which can view all the circumstances of our human problems. Some educators imply that because it is not bogged down by considerations of cash value, a liberal education must ipso facto be wholesome, an obvious non sequitur. Not that the broad purposes which I have quoted are undesirable or impossible. On the contrary, they set the tone of our work and should be present in all we do. But they are not a sufficiently practical formula when it comes to devising a course of study or methods of instruction that will make the liberal arts dominant in the lives of those who have been exposed to them. We need, I repeat, a more concrete, less amorphous target. If we clarify our objective and relate it more closely to the lives our students will live, we shall accomplish more.

To this end I suggest that Princeton rededicate itself to its historic mission of educating young men for participation in the ceaseless task of making democracy work. By this I do not mean greater emphasis upon public affairs in the usual sense of the term. What I have in mind is far beyond politics or forms of government. Even as a form of government democracy is not an end as our forefathers supposed, but a means to an end, the good life; and our failure to remember this is the cause of most of our present trouble. A free society is an opportunity, not a guarantee of happiness. It exists to be used; if it is taken for granted, if its people are passive, uncultivated or confused, it will be abandoned for some other instrumentality promising a more automatic human perfectibility. A healthy democracy is not a static thing. When functioning properly it is moving towards something. We hear often these days that capitalism has reached its maturity and that a new, fresh order must be substituted for it. This, however, misses the point. What we should worry about is whether we are not assuming that democracy is mature and therefore does not need our attention. If we assume that it is mature, its power of survival is gone and the usual step from maturity to death will follow quickly. The basic truth here is that democracy must expand or perish. This is so obvious that I would apologize for mentioning it, were it not forgotten so often in practice. The liberal arts college is the one most available agency to prepare young people to meet the human problems of an expanding democracy. There is no subject in the Princeton curriculum that can not be employed to contribute to this end.

May I make my point more intelligible by a brief digression.

The most alarming ills that threaten our free society are not the cumbersome methods or surface inefficiency of political democracy. The basic cause for concern is the weakening of our organic unity as a people, of a cohesive ideal cementing our society in a common purpose and will. If no strong national genius inspires us today, as it did one hundred and fifty years ago, the self-indulgent belief that the common good is automatically expressed by the ballots cast on election day is largely to blame.

Beneath the mechanics of popular government must lie the sustaining structure of a spiritual objective and a unified program by which to attain that objective.

Freedom cannot subsist on confused values and divided loyalties. The very operations of responsible government

depending as they do upon political parties magnify, indeed often create, issues that divide. The mere business of winning elections incites to conflict. If the differences which party government encourages are fought out in an atmosphere of a fundamental harmony of values and faith in a common future, the outcome will not spell confusion. But unless we are one at heart it may well do so.

I submit that education frankly aimed at maintaining balance between individual diversity on the one hand and the cohesive national genius of an expanding democracy on the other will give direction to our people out of all proportion to the relatively numerically few who partake of it.

Two arguments may be made against the position which I have set forth. One is that it is indoctrination, a horrible word these days to most educators and properly so, although there are some who are so fearful of indoctrination that they seem willing to turn out young men and women destined to become the potential dupes of every adventurer in politics, morals, business or religion. Frankly I am proposing a certain amount of indoctrination, viz., the inculcation of a preference for a free society and the necessity of preserving certain values to maintain it. But surely this is not undesirable. At least I gather from the pronouncements of learned academic associations that the alternative, a totalitarian society, is the enemy of science and learning, and I so believe it to be. Where I may differ with some is in the expectation that the alternative can be avoided merely by preaching or by signing engrossed declarations.

Another argument which can be levelled against me is that the objective which I would set up for the liberal arts education is as vague and unmanageable as those I have criticized. This, of course, I deny. I am confident that anyone who examines the possibilities in the curriculum with a view to the purpose I have in mind will find it sufficiently concrete and workable for some basic and galvanizing changes.

Such a program will not adjudge what we are now doing as unworthy or decree that our subject matter is irrelevant. But it will assert that we have not finished our job until we see to it that the education we administer is going to be used, not merely dispensed.

If we who teach will so resolve, we shall benefit by being driven to a restudy of our familiar subjects in the light of their application to the life about us. The prevailing spirit of the Middle Ages, it is commonly said, was scholasticism, devotion to a higher knowledge set apart from the daily interests of life, given to disputation, cherishing subtleties of argument and refined abstractions which were never checked by observation of the work-a-day world. If the world of intellectual leadership fell into scholasticism once, is there any guarantee that it will not do so again. It will if we drift into divorce between the world of learning and the world of human affairs. The work-a-day world will not be denied—in the last analysis it always wins over lofty attempts to ignore it.

All this, of course, is not to deny that one unique function of the university is to uphold the value of learning for the sake of learning. No well informed person will dispute this, and it is in the belief that by defining more specifically the goal we wish to reach we shall open up new fields and new stimuli for the advancement of learning, as well as further the education of young men, that I have spoken as I have this afternoon.