The Problems Facing Youth


By LEVERING TYSON, President, Muhlenberg College Delivered at Opening of 72nd Academic Year, September 18, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day , Vol. 5, pp. 765-767.

ONE of the pleasant features of my job is the chance it affords to assemble the College family occasionally, as is the case this morning, to take stock. To those who are attending these opening exercises for the first time I should say that, in meetings like this, it is always my wish to be utterly frank and to avoid any attempt at the speech making which is academic tradition as a new year begins. Returning students and veteran members of the faculty know this to be my desire—at least I hope they do.

It seems to me that a community such as ours in a period like this should not waste its time seeking a prescription that overnight might cure the ills of the world, or of the nation, nor should it allow itself to be deluded into either blindly supporting or opposing any of the conflicting passions that are at large all over the globe, including the UnitedStates of America. Not a single one of us knows what the coming months will bring, or what the years immediately ahead hold. This common uncertainty seems to be the only constant in the formula of our life today. It is my belief therefore that we should first of all show our intelligence by recognizing this uncertainty—and that we should recognize it by developing a correspondingly intelligent adaptability whereby we can meet whatever does come, with confidence and calm.

Today as we assemble here, we know that across the land young men and young women are doing what we are. I don't mean they are sitting down quietly contemplating an uncertain future,—but I mean they are embarking upon another year of study and training for whatever future is to come. If we allow our imaginations free play we canvisualize them in staid old New England, in all parts of the sunny South, on the plains and rolling prairies of the middle West, all through the magnificent foothills and crags of the Rocky Mountain region from Canada to Mexico, and along the slopes of the Pacific. Here in the East, where practically all of us hail from, the past weeks have marked the opening of literally thousands of schools and colleges and universities, so that one has the feeling of a huge industry resuming operations after a long lay off. And I wonder whether the first process in our stock taking should not be a quick mental comparison with what we can imagine, only too surely, is going on at this moment in other parts of the world. What you young men are looking forward to this year I don't know, as you sit here quietly before me. What you are planning to make of this year I can only hope for. What do you think young men in England are looking forward to right now? Or in Russia? Or in Germany? Or in France? Or in Italy? Or in Japan? Or in Poland? Or in China? Don't forget they are made of the same bone and sinew you are. They have the same zest for life, for love, for happiness, you have. They look at the same sun and stars, they breathe the same air, they sing songs and enjoy good food, just as you do. They, too, have active minds. What are they thinking about? Do you wonder that I wonder this morning, "What are you thinking about?" For as long as you are students in this College it is our responsibility to teach you to think, and to think straight. If when you graduate one, two, three or four years from now you cannot do that, we shall have failed you. No matter what concern the older generation of any nation shows for the adequate training of its youth, one of their big responsibilities, if in fact it is not their biggest responsibility it seems to me, is not to impose on young minds by misrepresentation for any cause, high or low.

Several weeks ago while on vacation at the seashore, where our family has gathered every summer since we have been a family and where we have always found quiet rest and relaxation, the war clouds began to gather. My thoughts naturally turned in deep concern to the College, to you students, and to you members of the faculty; and to the plight of young men and their teachers all over the world when such a crisis comes.

As I sat on the sandy dune within easy stones throw of the pounding waves, I wondered what the young man in Russia was thinking about, then. According to all we have learned of reports from Moscow he has nothing to fear,— that he will never be out of a job if he is willing to work, at least so he is told. Any unusual talent will be developed by the State which will educate him and later employ him. It is claimed that the State cares for him as an infant and as an old man. He has been told that he is helping to build a new world of justice and equality and every attempt is made to fire him with enthusiasm for a crusade that, he is told, will bring economic parity to all mankind. His job, no matter how humble, is considered important and he is rewarded for doing it well. He is made to feel that he is a necessary cog in the machine, and that every ounce of his strength and energy is required by the State to achieve the national goal. He senses the pride of accomplishment in every new factory built in the Soviet, in every tractor manufactured, in every rivet driven for the glory of Russia. What is he thinking about,—today? Or in your mind's eye, go with me to Munich, or Heidelberg, or Berlin, as I did on that beautiful sunny afternoon several weeks ago. What was young Fritz or Hans thinking about? Germany, according to report, every Nazi lad is assigned a task. Perhaps it is only peeling potatoes in a concentration camp,—but it is for the Reich,—or at leastso he is told. If he is ambitious and courageous he can test his mettle,—for past and present injustices to the nation are to be corrected and the glory of the Fatherland is to be won back. Once more she must enjoy her place in the sun, and to him is given a part in the Fuehrer's program. What red-blooded young man can resist such a challenge? Is it any wonder he shouts "Seig Heil"? He risks everything, even life itself, for a principle,—a big cause. Germany lifting herself out of the depths of national despair by her own bootstraps, is attempting the seemingly impossible and is challenging her youth to give even life if necessary, to accomplish a continuously heralded and much publicized national ideal.

What is the young German thinking about—to-day?

And in sunny Italy, the country of song and romance and artistic splendor—what was Tony or Pietro or Julio thinking about as my eyes and thoughts turned eastward across the Atlantic? The ancient glory of the Roman empire is the goal Italian youth is summoned to regain. On every hand the might and power of imperial Rome is being unearthed and displayed. Ancient ruins are made to live again and serve as inspiration to spur on their minds. Constantly they are told that the recreation of the Empire depends upon them. They are not called the Italian Army; they are the Roman Legions, if you please. They do not use an ordinary marching step; they have adopted once more the passo romano. Death is a small price to pay for bringing back the Rome of the Caesars.

What are they thinking about today?

Perhaps you have heard of the beautiful English countryside and young John Bull's love and affection for it. Anyone who has the chance to travel the tempting country roads in England or Wales or Scotland cannot fail to get a touch of this feeling, which is part of the make-up of every British lad. Let me state here emphatically, that this English countryside is no more beautiful than what we find in a radius of thirty miles from this campus. But England is older as a nation than we are, and though her hills and valleys and downs are no more wonderful than eastern Pennsylvania, one feels that they are more finished. You get that impression I suppose when land has been lived on for a thousand or more years, and it is easy to understand why a British lad, reserved as he always is, grits his teeth in the midst of a physical threat to England and the far-flung Empire which those who preceded him on the land and the waters lapping its shores, founded. What was he thinking about as I imagined him striding over wind-swept Devon watching the spindrift roll up from the crashing surf? What is he thinking about today?

For centuries the tides of battle have ebbed and flowed across French mountain and plain, her people subjected to more political upheavals and more catastrophic social change perhaps than any other first-rank nation of the modern world as we know it. For centuries fertile valley and rugged hillside have been overrun with marching men as France, a veritable historical crucible, seethed and boiled. Now, with characteristic shrug of the shoulders and gesticulating hands, —what thoughts are rushing through young Frenchmen's minds?

I don't know, and you don't know, but I think you believe, as I do, that these young men and the young women by their side don't want to kill off each other, unless they have been deluded by fanatically selfish governments into a state of mind that is false to every ideal of truth propounded since the dawn of human intelligence. And no matter what else you are thinking this morning, I hope you will highly resolve that whatever you do, you will do your little bit topreserve in this country the opportunity youth and everyone else has to learn and abide by the truth and to lead decent free lives. A friend of mine who is now a member of Congress wrote recently, "While Germany thumbs her nose at the world, chewing to pieces her own tongue in a fit of epileptic frenzy; while Italy bedecks bravado with the smelly trappings of an empire long decayed; while Russia trades tarnished tyranny for a tyranny which is tarnishing before our very eyes, let us in America pursue and defend our democratic ways, comprising conflict, and transforming factual realism into an idealism of hope through the friendly discipline of humility and humor,—and may I add simple truth. That's the American way of life under law, both human and divine, and of law for the sake of a larger life, both here and in the hereafter."

The winner of the Junior Oratorical Contest last Commencement time chose as his subject "Youth on the March." His speech contrasted the attitude toward life of young people in the totalitarian states with the blase and light-hearted traditional behavior of the American College man and woman. His interpretation, presumably of what you were thinking about then, was not very complimentary. I have already drawn upon some of his expressions this morning, but I do not wish to take at face value his criticisms for fear they might be interpreted to be what you are thinking about now. For I know that only too often lurid and spectacular instances of light heartedness on the part of a fun-loving minority are used by the short-sighted to judge the entire college and university population in America. The youth in totalitarian states do have one advantage over you, for which, however, they are paying very dearly. Whether they are seizing this advantage, or whether they are being wholly consumed by subversive propaganda, you can judge as well as I. But they are in the thick of life—already are at work doing something toward the establishment of what they are led to believe is ideal. Whether it will turn out to be so remains to be seen. On the other hand America itself is an ideal of individual freedom and human liberty. Whereas totalitarian youth are led toward grossly inflated ideals, we think, in this country we are more likely to belittle our own. One enormous danger you face, as representative American youth, is that you place too much emphasis and false value on inaccurate reproductions of real life from some so-called best-sellers, the radio, the sensational newspaper, and the motion picture. Our very freedom has resulted in your not experiencing enough of life itself to appreciate the American ideal. What you see tends to overemphasize the fantastic, the sensational and lurid, the crassly commercial and the shoddy, regrettably to the exclusion of the much abused homely virtues which were the bases upon which the country was founded, and which despite some surface indications, still are controlling factors in the United States of America.

Mr. William S. Knudsen, President of General Motors,