Education for World Unity


By HANS KOHN, Professor of History at Smith College

Delivered before the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the American Association for Adult Education, May 21, 1940

(Copyright by the Journal of Adult Education, New York)

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 702-704

TWO thousand years and more ago, in a situation strikingly similar to the one in which we find ourselves today, a man of Greece, who saw more clearly and spoke more courageously than most of his contemporaries, uttered warnings against a military autocracy that threatened his country from without. His warnings were unheeded because they were unwelcome.

That man was Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, who lived in a period when the citizens of Athens—leading democracy of the Greek city-states—seemingly secure in their prosperity and isolation, were oblivious to impending dangers. Perhaps they thought that the day of world empires was gone forever, whereas in reality the greatest of those empires were still to come. Athens was full of false prophets who circulated among the people, offering advice that rings familiarly in our ears today: "Athenians, mind your own business. Preserve your own peace. Let other peoples take care of themselves, work out their own problems, fight their own battles."

I wish to set before you here for your consideration half a dozen passages from various speeches of Demosthenes, delivered in the fourth century before our era. Change the names of places and of persons, and these same words might have been said in England or in France two years ago. With equal force they could, and should, have been said in the United States at least twelve months ago.

Read this: "Men of Athens, I want you to know and realize two things: first, what an expensive game it is to squander your interests one by one: and secondly, the restless activity which is ingrained in Philip's nature, and which makes it impossible for him ever to rest on his laurels."

And this: "Seriously, is anyone here so foolish as not to see that our negligence will transfer the war from Chalcidice to Attica? Yet if that comes to pass, I am afraid, men of Athens, that just as men who borrow money recklessly at high interest enjoy a temporary accommodation only to forfeit their estates in the end, so we may find that we have paid a heavy price for our indolence, and because we consult our own pleasure in everything, may hereafter come to be forced to do many of the difficult things for which we hadno liking, and may finally endanger our possessions here in Attica itself."

And then this: "The chief object, however, of his arms and his diplomacy is our free constitution: on nothing in the world is he more bent than on its destruction. And it is in a way natural that he should act thus. For he knows for certain that even if he masters all else, his power will be precarious as long as you remain a democracy; but if ever he meets with one of the many mischances to which mankind is liable, all the forces that are now under restraint will be attracted to your side."

And this: "But if anyone mistakes for peace an arrangement which will enable Philip, when he has seized everything else, to march upon us, he has taken leave of his senses, and the peace that he talks of is one that you observe towards Philip, but not Philip towards you."

And this: "Men of Athens, you have deserted the post in which your ancestors left you; you have been persuaded by politicians . . . that to be paramount in Greece, to possess a standing force, and to help all the oppressed, is a superfluous task and an idle expense; while you fondly imagined that to live in peace, to neglect all your duties, to abandon all your possessions and let others seize them one by one, ensured wonderful prosperity and complete security."

Finally, consider this passage from the speech "For the Liberty of the Rhodians," in which Demosthenes pleads with the Athenians to come to the aid of the Rhodian democrats and help them to resist the aggression of Philip and his fellow oligarchs:

"Seeing that Chios and Mytilene are ruled by oligarchs, and that Rhodes and, I might almost say, all the world are now being seduced into this form of slavery, I am surprised that none of you conceives that our constitution too is in danger, nor draws the conclusion that if all other states are organized on oligarchical principles, it is impossible that they should leave your democracy alone. For they know that none but you will bring freedom back again, and of course they want to destroy the source from which they are expecting ruin to themselves."

What was the situation in Greece when Demosthenes wasthus exhorting the Athenians to rouse themselves to the truth of their position and resist the impending peril to their democracy? At that time, the country was divided into small city-states, each isolationist in its political philosophy, each supposedly secure in its own strength against all the world. To the suggestion that these separate city-states might perish before the new techniques of aggression which were being developed by the great powers that moved beyond their borders, the Greeks willfully shut their minds. Fighting planes and dive bombers were still things of the distant future; nevertheless, the Macedonians were then perfecting methods of attack hitherto untried, and the question that the Greeks were forced to face was whether they should cling to the individual sovereignty and isolation of their cities or unify themselves for mutual assistance and protection.

History tells us what their answer was. They refused to join together, and ultimately they succumbed, all of them one by one, to Philip. Greek liberty was gone. Greek democracy had perished. Athens was no longer a city of free men; it had ceased to be the light for all mankind.


I have said that the situation of the Greeks in the days when Philip threatened and Demosthenes warned was similar to our own today. I wish now to point out two important differences that we should never overlook.

The first difference is that Greece was only a small part of the world. Beyond its limits lay whole continents, still unknown. In these lands there might be born—as there has been—a sort of liberty then undreamed of. Today, there are no undiscovered continents, no frontiers still waiting to be opened up. The whole world has become one, and its destiny is one. In the place of Greece, as it was then, stand today all the democracies and all hope for future freedom.

The second and more important difference between the fate that overtook the Greeks and the possibility that confronts us now lies in the nature of the threatening force.

Alexander the Great, who realized, or tried to realize, the ambitions of his father, Philip, was not antagonistic to Athenian civilization. On the contrary, being a disciple of Aristotle, Alexander had come to venerate the culture of the Greeks; he felt himself to be a Hellene. More than that, he considered himself the instrument by which that culture was to be disseminated far beyond the country of its origin. In reality, as all students of history know, it was Alexander who pointed the way to the birth of Stoic philosophy, with its recognition of the universal brotherhood of men in a rational world, and so made possible the greatest flowering of ancient civilization.

The forces that threaten the democracies today are openly hostile to the democratic spirit; they do not look upon themselves as heirs or carriers of the traditions of western civilization. They are doing what Alexander never did; they are leading a revolution against our civilization; a determined and conscious attack upon all that is basic to it. If they are victorious, the form and spirit of our life—our social life, our personal life—will be changed. Everything that we call good will be called evil, and everything that we call evil will be called good.

If, now, we ask ourselves what is the real root of the present trouble that afflicts our world, we have to go back twenty years and re-examine the Treaty of Versailles. Without rehearsing the details, we can say that we had an opportunity, by means of the great promises contained in this peace treaty, to do the three things that would have given us a firm basis for building a new world. If the ideals of WoodrowWilson had been realized and if the spirit of enlightened liberalism had prevailed, these three things for which the foundations were well laid in the Treaty of Versailles might have been accomplished.

The first was to break Prussian militarism, that incubus upon the German people, which was a menace to all of Europe; the second was to liberate oppressed peoples and to give them a new sense of dignity and happiness; and the third was to form an association of the free peoples throughout the world for common protection — the League of Nations.

The tragedy is that none of these three goals of the Treaty of Versailles was attained. None of them was fulfilled, not because of the "wickedness" of the governments, but because of the unwillingness of the peoples of the world to shoulder the burden of the peace treaties. In their shortsightedness they believed that they were still living in the nineteenth century. They did not realize that in 1919 a period of history had come to an end and a new era had begun. When the war was over, they relapsed into their old habits of thought, shrank back into isolation, and allowed themselves once more to be dominated by intense feelings of alleged self-interest and of nationalism.

In the United States, the decade of the nineteen-twenties was one of disillusionment, of "debunking," as it was called. It was also a period of wishful thinking, during which the American people persuaded themselves that they had at last achieved complete security, and that no new forces would ever again upset the established scheme of things. They refused to see that, as the Greek city-state had outlived its effectiveness in the fourth century B.C., just so the isolated and sovereign state of modern times, which developed from the Renaissance to the years of the first world war, had lost the basis for its existence in a new world of rapid communication. Instead of recognizing this change and addressing themselves to the task of creating a new world for a new mankind, they persistently turned aside from any deeper understanding of the new forces, from any firm moral choice that would have involved the assuming of personal responsibility.


In this hour of crisis, we are face to face with the question that confronted the Greeks in the time of Philip—the question of choosing between isolation and unity. If, like the Greeks, we allow the decision on this vital issue to go by default, we risk not only the loss of our liberties, as they did, but the far greater disaster of the destruction of the spiritual, moral, and intellectual values, which we and our forebears have cherished, and for which our fathers fought.

During the post-war period, and even in the midst of the preparations for a new and infinitely more decisive war, we have chosen isolation. By "we" I do not mean only the people of the United States, although they were the first to slip back into isolation in 1919 and have been the last to awaken from its comfort. I mean the peoples of all the democracies, and in each democracy I mean the people as a whole. Isolationism was not the fault of any one class, as, for instance, the British Tories. It has been characteristic of all classes during the last twenty fateful years; many socialists indeed out-chamberlained Chamberlain. The task of trying to unite the peoples of the world has been blindly left by the democracies to the dictators. And the dictators are attempting to achieve this task, not by reason, but by brute force and the degradation of man; they are not working in the interests of human freedom and dignity, but are seeking everywhere to overthrow them.

How effectively have we educators come to the defense of reason and freedom? How fully are we living in this new world? Are not most of us still dwelling in an imaginary prewar world, fascinated and paralyzed, unable to comprehend the forces that are changing reality far beyond any parallel with 1914? What have we done through education to concentrate the mind of the rising generation upon the one essential problem of the twentieth century, upon a true understanding of history and its forces? Have we not rather filled the minds of our people with so great a diversity of things that they have been distracted from the effort to concentrate upon the essential? Have we not increased their sentimentalism and their belief that wishful thinking, through the intensity of its sincerity alone, will blossom forth into reality? Have we not failed to show them that in the long run no democracy or decent life at home is possible, under twentieth century conditions, if it is not first and above all internationally secure? Have we in any way helped our people to realize that whatever happens anywhere on earth, happens to them?

The consequence of our attitude was that in the fateful months of the summer of 1939 we had no true understanding of the situation which we were facing. The success of fascism during the fourth decade of the twentieth century was due to its profound recognition of the fact that the struggle to come was hot to be about frontiers or about raw materials, about markets or about migrations, but was to decide the future of civilization everywhere. The world was to be united. The question remained whether the unification was to take place under the leadership of the liberal and democratic forces that had come to the fore as the result of the Anglo-Saxon and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or was to be imposed by the great counter-revolution represented by European fascism and Japanese militarism. The democratic peoples refused to shoulder the burden that the twentieth century put upon them; they are now. paying the price for this refusal.

We were in no way prepared for the inevitable conflict. In September, 1939, we and the smaller democracies in Europe believed that we could escape the struggle by simply ignoring its existence. We tried to hide ourselves behind a wall of cynicism, behind denial that moral values were atstake, behind the complacent hope that if we minded our own business, somehow the conflagration would not spread and reach our shores. Everywhere those who had criticized Chamberlain, now outdid him; and to justify their "neutrality," they found fault with the attacked and made excuses for the aggressors. Thus it happened that in the hour of supreme test, when the democracies were faced with the immense responsibility of deciding the future for themselves and for civilization, they were totally unprepared to meet the test.

The danger to democracy arose out of failure to comprehend the issues that were involved. The final realization of their danger shocked the democracies into action, sometimes when it was very late, always when it was later than they thought; but it did not in every case arouse them to a full awareness of the truth that a world revolution is now in progress.

It is imperative that without further delay we concentrate all our intellectual and moral resources upon the one task of freeing our people from the lack of understanding, from the illusions and fears that shackle them and make them undecided, hesitating, and panic-stricken, instead of resolute and farsighted. We must help them to see clearly what they wish to do and thus to gain the strength that springs from understanding knowledge and from devotion to a common and constructive purpose. We must equip them to live and function in the world of the twentieth century, which will be, whether we wish it or not, a unified world under a common leadership. Our responsibility is to see that in this new world the dignity and worth of the individual shall be respected, the equality of men and races shall be recognized, the freedom of all shall be safeguarded; in short, that it shall be a world in which democracy will grow and peace will be assured. Such a world can not come in any easy way, not by soft living nor by minding our business; it will come only through a hard struggle, through many sacrifices, and through unflinching courage and devotion. Only thus can the great heritage of western civilization that springs from Athens and Jerusalem be preserved and transmitted to future generations, enriched and purified by the thought and toil, by the suffering and striving, of our generation.