The Place of the University in 1940
EVERYTHING IT STANDS FOR IS THREATENED
By ROBERT S. LYND, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University
Delivered at the Opening Exercises of the 186th year of Columbia University, September 27, 1939
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 105-108.
A SPEAKER approaches an occasion like this with hesitation. World events overshadow the campus and appear to dwarf the meaning of education. Everything a university stands for is threatened with eclipse in a world harnessed to employing the crudest, least intelligent of man's institutions—war—to achieve the rival purposes of men. Presumably, the University Orator on an occasion like this speaks for the University. But a university is an endowment, a board of trustees, a group of administrative officers, a faculty, and bodies of alumni and of students. I shall not attempt, as one might in happier times, to speak for such a disparate array of elements in the University. What I say, therefore, must be simply my own responsibility, the effort of one person in the University community to measure the potential role of the University against the conditions we
Nobody knows as yet whether the United States willremain formally outside this war. It is not improbable that, slipping by stages and goaded by propaganda, the horror of civilian bombings, and the stark likelihood of harrowing reverses to the armed forces of Britain and France, we shall enter the war in 1940. Business Week reports that official Washington is gearing its ramifying activities to military participation in six months. Even if the United States succeeds in maintaining a precarious neutrality, America and American universities cannot remain untouched by the repercussions of events overseas.
Our prolonged depression, with its denial of private hopes and its frustration of men's futures, has whetted the edge of popular resentment and rendered public opinion unstable. We live in an atmosphere far more explosive than that of twenty-five years ago. Diverse ideologies involving directly the central system of capitalism are integral parts of the present conflict. The spread of the Nazi and Soviet systems overPoland has inflamed the religious issue, and we are already beginning to hear this war proclaimed from the pulpits of the world as "a holy war against atheism.." Both of these major issues, calculated to set man against his neighbor, were less important in the last war. Moreover, Western democracy is today more aware of internal weaknesses and more apprehensive of the direct challenge of rival systems than it was in 1914. In this country, lines of force have already tightened, and witch-hunting against dissident groups and individuals is well under way, with the hacking of the press and other influential agencies.
Whether we are neutral or at war, all signs point to the strong likelihood that the coming months and years will be more difficult in the United States than were the years 1914-18. It will almost certainly be harder than it was then for university faculties and students to do their work. In the last war, the chief divisive issue among intellectuals was pacifism, as against the use of force. In addition to this issue, we now confront, whether as professional teachers and researchers or as students, questions, sharpened by the war, that penetrate divisively to basic institutions by which we Americans live. We have to think and teach and study in a world in which some things that were confident intellectual exclamation points in the last war are now question marks. We have seen some of the plans and instruments by which we hoped to build a new world out of the wreckage of the last war to turn into changed shapes that mock our hopes. Many of the things we thought we knew, we now must begin to discover afresh in a more penetrating and inclusive context. Even basic things like "democracy," that we then viewed more simply, now require not merely affirmation, but discriminating—and hence, in wartime, vulnerable—redefinition.
It is the honorable tradition of universities that they are places where objective science and wisdom may live and grow unmolested. But modern war takes tradition by the throat. It is to the honor of Columbia University, but a grim reminder of the Indian summer of tolerance through which we may momentarily be living, that Professor Beard is to be back on our campus this fall. In the troubled world ahead of us, individual scholars may manage to live in comparative isolation from the pressures of the surrounding mass of opinion. But a university cannot. As insecurity and bitterness mount in the world about our universities, earnest, fearful people and pressure groups will displace their pent-up aggressiveness impartially onto the enemy abroad and onto places like universities that continue to encourage the still, small voices of reason. In one of the most progressive suburbs of New York, the school superintendent has already passed the word on to his teachers not to talk about the war and war issues in the schoolroom. That will not, of course, happen at Columbia University; but alumni are human beings, as are trustees, administrators and even one's academic colleagues. So let us not deceive ourselves that our campus will be an island of sweet reasonableness in the time ahead.
In the midst of our personal and collective perplexities, two convenient ways out present themselves to the academic fraternity: We can, as individuals, retire into the padded inner recesses of scholarship, while the storm rages without.
In briar bound comfort of his hole
The wary rover finds retreat;
From all invasions of the soul
His mind escapes on padded feet.
Or we can resolve our perplexities wholesale, after a fashion, by viewing the war in gross, over-all terms as a "fight for freedom," and by joining the shouting parade that would solve all issues by "hanging Hitler." Over against these two courses, there is a harder optional path for the university
teacher and researcher—not a way out, but a way straight into difficulty. I refer to the way that, far from muting or quit-claiming the responsibility of intelligence in time of war, insists that intelligence must work and fight to make itself heard above the noise of the marching bands.
Which of these three paths one takes will depend in part upon how one views or rationalizes this war. Many intellectual workers will find it possible to view the war as an external annoying interruption of the even tenor of their own work and of civilization and progress. Some, according to this view, can see the developments of the past twenty years as a matter of individual pathology or megalomania, and can regard the knocking of a personal devil off his perch and the resumption of the status quo ante as the supreme objective.
Others on our campus will find it difficult to reduce the situation to such simple terms. They will not regard this war as an isolated calamity or as a "different" kind of war. While recognizing the danger in immediate threats, such persons will view the war as a phase of the chronic problem of attempting to carry on human living under the kinds of national and international institutional arrangements that now operate. These persons differ among themselves in the character, range, and timing of the changes they envisage as necessary; but they agree in feeling that the war itself is not the fundamental problem that confronts intelligence in our world.
Whether the United States enters the war, or whether it continues to maintain its neutrality, it is the clash between these two views of the war that will harass us all here on the campus. And the world about us will not be slow in forcing upon us with unremitting insistency the problems of patriotism and of "radicalism in the universities." I believe that such emotionally loaded terms as "radical" and "conservative" are irrelevant to the business of the intellectual. Acute thinking goes where acute thinking is needed. It is a function of the problem presented, and must be so viewed, with the minimum of extraneous labels and tags. Our American universities should aim at all times to be places in which the full range of institutional alternatives confronting mankind are fully, honestly, and hospitably analyzed. Few candid observers will claim that this aim has been adequately achieved in the past. The United States has a tradition of satisfaction with itself and of liberal optimism as to its future. Developing in such an atmosphere, the distribution of influence—over our channels of information, our legal system, our churches, our schools—has become such that we can count in advance on the heavy preponderance of the presentation of customary or but mildly innovating arguments on a given issue. And this general tendency in the culture applies also to the research and teaching in our universities. Our American culture has massed its resources at many vital points to oppose the full consideration, let alone the introduction, of intelligent social change. But decades of dragging lag in institutional adjustment do not solve problems, but cumulate them into new difficulties. Pathologies too long neglected may yield finally only to surgery.
In climactic times like these, therefore, society needs its universities, and needs to free them to think with all possible penetration, wherever that thinking may lead. The university becomes the place to which a culture, darkened by passion and beset by the need to act, can look for the steady sifting of situations and the fearless application of intelligence to appraise the optional ways ahead. I have no illusions that such a course is easy. In fact, all signs and precedents point to its extreme difficulty. But if a university community is not content to be an ornament to Caesar, it must fight, in its individual and corporate capacities, for public recognition of its own interpretation of its role.
I have been stressing the need to work on issues that press close about us. Obviously, in the division of labor in the intellectual world, that cannot apply equally to all of us. If the American Exchange Lecturer before the British Association for the Advancement of Science spoke this month on "Science and Social Pioneering," that does not signify that pure research in the natural sciences should not continue undiminished. Nothing that I have said about the option we face of retiring into the padded inner recesses of scholarship should be interpreted as disparagement of the humanities. With the Old World locked in war, this country takes over a great, new role, as the center where literature, the arts, and scholarship, as well as science, can be preserved and carried forward for all humanity. If we cannot remain indifferent to the world about us, study and research that look far ahead for their consummation must, nevertheless, go on. And the study of the past, of traditionally valued things, takes on new importance at a time when we are sifting and seeking to reaffirm those values for which mankind fights. Only remember, as Jaures said when he was accused of neglecting tradition: "Take from the altar of the past the fire, not the ashes."
In any such statement of the role of a university at this critical moment, teachers and researchers in the social sciences occupy the exposed advanced positions, out in the shell holes between the lines in no-man's-land. For it is the stuff on which we work as scientists that is the cause of wars and of the other institutional tangles that coincidentally support men's lives and frustrate their hopes. Social scientists cannot walk out of the overheated world of the front pages of the New York Times into the cool and impersonal world of a professional life in a Pupin physics laboratory; we cannot bifurcate our lives into living as citizens, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, into spending our professional working energies on the universes of knowledge with which the biologist, the linguist, and the professor of literature deal. Social sciences exist because there are institutional problems; and in our era it so happens that the social sciences are thrust forward as the most conspicuous "trouble-shooters" for the culture. We must work at the white-hot core of current controversy, where passions are fiercest and reason most darkened. If a professor of chemistry expresses a deviant economic opinion, he is not apt to be labeled as a "dangerous" teacher—because he teaches chemistry. His colleagues and the administrators may think him "queer" and wonder why he needed to express such an opinion; but if he is a competent chemist there is little tendency to connect his economic opinions with his teaching. Would to God more of us could be chemists in these days!
So may I bespeak from you, students and colleagues of us social scientists, who are in other fields of work, a special effort to understand the occupational hazards in the midst of which social scientists must inescapably work. If some of our judgments and actions differ from yours in the aggravated days that lie before us, we are not trying to be "subversive"; we are simply trying to use intelligence where it happens to be our professional responsibility to use it.
The world is sick, deadly sick. Where war has come already, the orderly intellectual processes of peace-time rebuilding of human civilization are largely in suspense—"for the duration." There is no escaping the fact that, with the shrinkage of space and time in our modern world and the world-wide interlinking of economies, our destines are definitely influenced by events in Europe. As yet, however, the United States is the one place in the world where one can still think and act with relative freedom. Therefore, we in the United States carry perforce a heavy responsibility that is, I believe, even more important, for the rest of theworld as well as for ourselves, than whether or not we participate in the war. That responsibility is to harness our best energies to the analysis of the larger problem of the time after the war: What kind of world is going to be most viable then in terms of the needs of men and women and children? Thoughtful people have been calling for a peace conference before the war, to decide in advance the terms of the peace. It is now too late for that. We are already probably too late even here in the United States to frame long-range, carefully reasoned stipulations to control the kind of peace for which we ourselves would fight, should we decide to fight.
But some day, in the exhausted future, an armistice will come. It will not be an auspicious time or occasion for the application of intelligence to the problems which will then present themselves for decision. But decisions will be made, on some grounds, intelligent or vindictive; for there will be no avoiding them. The world will go on after the peace. What kind of a world? A world set to work in terms of what kinds of institutions and underlying assumptions? And with what kinds of changes in the internal operations of even the victor nations, as well as in their international forms of intercourse, that will render the tragic blunders since the Treaty of Versailles less likely to recur? Things will happen during the war that will temporarily jump social action ahead along trend lines that intelligence can already predict as inevitable in the future. I refer to such things as the coordination of national and international economies and the more liberal co-opting of experts to perform experts tasks in the public interest. How can we hold these temporary advances on into the peace time, instead of blindly reverting to earlier or less intelligent practices, as we so largely did after the last war? A member of the Cabinet remarked with regret in a recent private conversation that in the current high-pressure planning in Washington for the dual eventualities of neutrality or war, the Government has no time to canvass the subtleties of action in relation to their constructive bearing upon demobilization and the peace time to follow.
Surely such problems as I have just suggested are highly relevant to the work of trained specialists concentrated in our universities in this momentous year. They are staggering problems. But they are problems that should be squarely faced in terms of our respective capacities—problems that call for the best we have. They are not problems on which the judgment of the man on the street can help much; nor problems that can properly be left to the political atmosphere of Congress or to the guidance of the slogans of rival political parties in an election. There is not a strong tradition in the United States of utilizing trained intelligence in the public interest. If intelligence is to rise to meet its present opportunities and responsibilities, this can only happen through people like us professors out-thinking the field and having the courage to insist that they be heard. And in this the university as a corporate body must stand unequivocally behind the isolated, and perhaps dangerously exposed, individual scholar.
I believe that the primary role of the university is not to send professors in uniform to Washington to "help win the war"; but to focus its best energies upon the sustained analysis of the problems our world must face "in the time after." Here, in the analysis of these long-term issues, is the continuing urgent responsibility for which society presumably supports intellectuals and their research. If this is not our role, what is? Who else can do it?
For such forthright action as I have suggested, our universities are not entirely prepared. It is disturbing to read thefollowing in Professor Laski's "America Revisited," basedon his long stay in this country last year:
The degree to which the institutional apparatus of America is outworn is still, I suspect, concealed from the public view. There is too little general discussion of what is ugly and mean on the social landscape. . . . Even the universities—which have the duty of seeing the problems of the new America from an eminence— have in these momentous years largely abdicated from their function. For they have been timid where the times called for boldness, and devoted their energies rather to description than to the postulation of those values which enable the choice to be firmly faced because it is courageously defined.
If this is true, as it certainly is in no small degree, it but emphasizes our need for direction and courage.
All that I have been saying was addressed both to students and faculty. Now, may I speak directly to you students?
Don't be overborne and discouraged by people who want you swiftly to forsake the University and to get into the "practical" work of this eddying world. These people will taunt you with the question, "Are you going to be a student all your life?" If research, intelligence, long-term thinking were ever needed, they are needed now.
You constitute in your vigor and hopes the fresh vitality entering our studies and classrooms in this autumn of dismay. Most of you were born too late to remember the last war; you have been maturing under the pressures of ten battering years of depression; and you come to us with the unstudied but realistic demands of a generation that must prepare itself to carry on after us. We faculty people need you badly as constant, interrupting corrections of our settled ways of living and thinking. We professors have heavy commitments to our past—our training in an earlier generation, the ideas derived from this earlier thinking, and the long, unconscious smoothing process of working up through the academic ranks. The rebel grain of a Thorstein Veblen tends to get lost in the academic planing mill. We tend to find it easier to work along on old, familiar things, in a generation in which the world is undergoing the most rapid and unprecedented change in our whole national history.
I stood again this summer before the Orozco frescoes in the Dartmouth library. One of them is aimed straight at us academic people. It depicts a wizened baby in an academic
cap being delivered by a bent old man in cap and gown from a skeleton lying on a pile of books. Close at hand are other babies carefully bottled and labeled. In the background stands a forbidding row of elderly academic dignitaries. It is a savage picture, and yet one which academic people may not entirely disregard. At this moment, when the world in which you students are to live and to try to do your work with the training we give you is being hammered out in the bitterness of the greatest world war in history, we should all search our consciences. It will be a different world after this war, and what you and we are doing here at the University should make a difference.
Don't be overawed by our titles, our books, our authority over you. This new world is not all in the books or in our heads. Did you see the recent cartoon in Punch of the cockney father looking disgustedly at his son bent over a book, and saying, "Readin' again—always readin'! Ain't you got a mind of yer own?" Tell us when you think we overreach ourselves and our knowledge. All of us do at times. Or when what we say is meaningless to you. I like the anecdote Viscount Morley tells of Professor Sidgwick. During an examination at Cambridge, Sidgwick found in the candidate's paper some mysterious philosophical passages; turning to a fellow examiner, he said, "I can see that this is nonsense; but is it the right kind of nonsense?"
Bring us your fresh strength and insights; help us to bend ourselves and our ideas—if need be, despite ourselves—to the clamorous demands of these new times.
And now we begin the new year. We face the new year shrunken in stature in a world that threatens to brush aside all that a university stands for. It will be a grim march ahead, try as we may to lighten it by mutual understanding and consideration. Nobody knows what we face. Tracing back the span since 1914, there seems little reason to expect that badly needed progress will happen automatically, of its own accord. If the world becomes a better place in which to live and to seek to satisfy man's desires, that can only happen over the fragile causeway of the steady, courageous application of intelligence against the things that now thwart man's hopes. There is literally no other way out. We faculty people, amidst our private dismay, are groping to keep intelligence free and to hold its focus on the spots on which it is direly needed. We must stand together, faculty and students, as we work to build a better world for the time after this war.