Humanity's Experiment With Free Institutions


By JAMES B. CONANT, President of Harvard University

Given at the University Chapel Service in the Harvard Memorial Church, September 26, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 26-27.

FOR the last twenty years we have been told that the outbreak of another major European war would mean the end of civilization. This college year opens with such a war in progress. There has been no break in the accustomed routine of these first few days of the academic year; no diminution of our student body, little dislocation of our teaching staff. Yet the repercussions of the distant conflict are far from negligible. No one of us can be unaware of the tragic events across the seas. No one of us can help feeling that to some degree the course of his own life will be modified by the struggle now in progress. The reverberations will be louder before the guns are silent; the tension in this country will grow more acute as one appalling event follows another. How shall we, students and faculty, in this University face the uncertain future as we take up our academic tasks? This is the question I venture to propound and try to answer in the few minutes which are allotted to me, according to custom, at the morning services on the first Tuesday of the college year.

I believe that most scientists and philosophers would agree that nothing is certain about the future, not even that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. We must act on the basis of assumptions which differ only in degree of probability. I shall make certain assumptions about the next ten years, which seem to me sufficiently probable to be the basis of intelligent action. First, I assume that contrary to the dire prophecies of recent years, we are not facing the end of civilization; second, that the war will end while the present students in this University are still young men; third, that the country in which these young men must live and earn a living will not be radically different from the United States as we now know it; fourth, that the devastation of the European war will place a unique burden upon the citizens of this nation to carry forward the culture of our time. If you agree with me in accepting these hypotheses about the unknown future, then the course of action for all of us seems fairly clear. If you reject these assumptions the burden of proof is on you to present another set. I should warn you, however, that it is not only a question of degree of probability. It is also a question of the benefit or harm that may result if the assumptions are proved false. This is a subtle point and it would take too long to argue it further. But to those who feel I am too optimistic, I should like to point out the follies of those mistaken Christians who in the last decade of the tenth century assumed the world would end in 1000 A.D.

In short, the conclusion of my argument is education as usual. If this seems too tame a slogan for these exciting days, let me remind you of my fourth premise. With England, France and Germany engaged in a totalitarian war which promises to be long, with the economic and cultural life of other smaller countries suffering increasing dislocation, this nation now emerges from chaos as the significant home of the arts, of literature, of scholarship, of science. Great is the responsibility of the American universities, great, indeed, is the challenge to American youth and to all who value the freedom of the human mind. Here is work enough to satisfy a Hercules.

Few of us who are familiar with the havoc raised in the learned world in times of peace by the present rulers of Germany can pretend to be neutral in this war. Every ounce of our sympathies is with those who are fighting on the French and British side. We may feel that a triumphant victory of the Nazi regime in a militant Germany would be so inimical to this country that from motives of self-interest alone this nation must be ready to supply arms and implements of war to those who face the totalitarian power. A few may go further still. They may long for an opportunity to express their emotions by some signal deed. But the President's proclamation of neutrality and above all allegiance to their own country will quickly recall their minds to the task at home. The gigantic steps in preparedness which will be necessary to enable the United States to breathe in peace in a world of war, remind us of the imperious demands of our own native land. Even transcending these are the international demands of sanity and reason. The western world is in a quandary; the forces of violence must be beaten by superior violence and yet without engendering bitterness or hate. Reason must triumph over unreason without being converted in its hour of victory to the very thing it would destroy. This country may well be the last citadel to guard against such a final disaster. With either fear or hate as our counsellors, we shall certainly fail. With clear heads and stout hearts we may succeed. And on our success or failure may depend not only the fate of humanity's experiment with free institutions, but the potency of man's belief in a life of reason,—in short what we now venture to designate as modern civilization.