The Challenge of Today


By DR. WILLIAM F. LINGLEBACH, Professor of Modern History, University of Pennsylvania

Delivered before the Commencement Class of the Pennsylvania College of Arts and Sciences,Philadelphia, June 12, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 732-735

IN these days of war and unspeakable tragedy the challenge to the graduates of American universities and colleges is imperative. Never before have such large issues, domestic and foreign, confronted civilization. But if the challenge and the responsibilities are great, so also are the opportunities. Opinion about military intervention abroad varies greatly, but there can be no difference of opinion on our duty to take up the torch of western culture from the hands of a devastated and war-torn Europe. Equally obvious is the fact that if we are to do so with success we need a clear understanding of the objectives of our own democracy. This is so important that they should be set up as a statement of faith—a sort of credo—for American democracy in a world that has somehow lost its bearings. First, would be the truth that right is still right despite any temporary victory of might; second, that government by law is the essence of democracy and must at all hazard be maintained; third, that the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness involves a greater degree of economic security and social justice than has been thought necessary heretofore; and fourth, that some day, somehow, a real federation of nations will arise, and law replace war in international relations.

To the historian who, on an occasion like the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of a great university, looks back over the past to see what light it may throw on the present, and perhaps on the horoscope of the future, these objectives stand out as the goal toward which western civilization has been striving ever since from the days of Plato and the academia. Loyalty to them and to the principles they imply, must be the ultimate test of policies and ideologies and the touchstone of true greatness in statesmanship.

If Benjamin Franklin were to return and preside over this Commencement, as he used to do over the deliberations of the Board of Trustees of the Academy from 1749 to 1756,

he would recognize them at once as of the things that are enduring,—fundamental in human relations for all time. This is the more remarkable because in nearly all other respects things have changed so since his day that he would find himself a bewildered stranger in the city of his adoption. He would find a world as different from the one he left one hundred and fifty years ago as was his own from that of Moses and the Pharaohs. The great revolution in the physical world, which has rushed civilization into an era of unparalleled revolutionary upheaval and transition, was in its early beginnings when he died an old man in 1790. In 1740, the revolution hadn't even begun. It was not until 1769, nineteen years later, that Watt invented the steam engine and so started the age of steam and machine. Since then, the age of electricity, the electric dynamo and the combustion engine have appeared, and physicists tell us that we are on the frontiers of an age in which power will be supplied by tiny electrons or the illusive cosmic-rays.

On all sides there are new frontiers of science and of human welfare, with alluring potentialities. Physics offers new sources of energy; the radio and the cinema are being enriched by television and three-dimensional sight and sound; there are new frontiers in bio-chemistry; in dry farming and soilless agriculture; in synthetic vitamins; in birth control and in selective breeding; in medicine and the cure of disease; and in many other fields.

The progress of science and invention during the 170 years since Watt put the steam engine to work, has been so rapid, and the current change in the physical and material world so swift and powerful, that economic and political institutions have fallen far behind, causing an appalling lack of adjustment. This "cultural lag," or delayed and inadequate adjustment of political, economic and social ideas and institutions to the new physical world, would strike theexperienced eye of Franklin as one of the gravest dangers to our civilization. He would be shocked at the plague of wars that have afflicted the peoples of the western world since his time—the twenty-five years of warfare of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, our own Civil War, the World War, and now the inferno of mechanized and scientific war of today. What, he would ask, has become of William Penn's plan for a Federation of Europe and the peaceful settlement of international and domestic difficulties? What of the appeal to reason and common sense of Eighteenth Century Enlightenment? What of the idealism and sacrifices of the World War, and the opportunities of 1919, the greatest in recorded history?

The world war left Europe anemic and sick. The destruction of life and property was so colossal that even the victors staggered under the losses and heavy burden of debts and reconstruction. After such a war a just peace could perhaps not be expected to be made and none was. But of all the mistakes of the peace conference, one of the most fatal was the failure to incorporate in the settlement the principle embodied in the second of President Wilson's Fourteen Points, namely, the "removal, so far as possible, of economic barriers."

Day by day the size of the earth has been shrinking, bringing peoples nearer together, and making them more interdependent. The prompt report of the news from all parts of the world has become so much a matter of fact in our daily life that we forget that in 1740 the events of the war of the Austrian Succession became known in America only after months had passed. Nor had conditions changed materially in this respect by 1840, the year in which the Germans, aroused by a threat from Tiers to tear up the treaties of 1815, wrote their three patriotic songs. By contrast the whole world today learns almost immediately of the tragic and breath-taking developments of the war in Europe. To this close relationship in the sharing of news and ideas has been added an equally intimate interdependence in the world's economic life. New industries and new processes of manufacture have developed which call for an unimaginable variety of materials from the most widely scattered parts of the earth. In turn, the products thus produced seek world markets. This calls for a unified world economic system which, if neglected, will invite a relapse into semi-barbarism. Yet this is precisely what has happened. Despite the obvious dangers, government after government in the post-war years sought the remedy for economic ills in policies of self-sufficiency and the unbearable straight-jackets of economic nationalism.

Even the democracies, our own included, returning to prewar imperialism, found themselves carried along by the rising tide of nationalism and the drift toward totalitarianism. Magnanimously we renounced all claims to the spoils of victory, washed our hands of the League of Nations, and in spite of having emerged from the war as a creditor nation stressed our attitude of detachment by a protective, almost prohibitive tariff. All during the "fatuous twenties, we deluded ourselves with visions of an idyllic economy in which cake was had and eaten too. Then came the great crash of 1929, the end of our loans, and also the end of a decade of the courtship of Cinderella without thought of the inevitable stroke of midnight. The disillusionment following the crash was well-nigh universal. Alarm and fear gripped governments as they saw institutions tremble or collapse under its impact. Panic reigned, and in the feverish excitement of readjustment, country after country sought security in measures of economic exclusiveness and self sufficiency. A veritable stampede of nationalistic tariffs, including our own Hawley-Smoot measure, appeared, followed by quota and barter systems, exchange control and the depreciation of national currencies.

International trade and intercourse of all kinds were driven into new and dubious channels. Even money and capital, which had been the most international of all our commodities in pre-war days, was brought under nationalistic direction, its export and import subjected to government regulation, and its free flow restricted. Country after country went off the gold standard. Even Great Britain was swept into the current, Mr. Chamberlain announcing the departure from the sacred tradition of British finance in the simple but significant words: "England has gone off gold." The abandonment of free trade for protection and trade control quickly followed, and England, too, was forced to move toward a semi-totalitarianism in commerce, industry, public utilities and even agriculture. We depreciated the dollar to stimulate exports, and today we continue to pay thirty-five dollars an ounce instead of the world price of twenty-three, for foreign gold, and then bury it somewhere in Kentucky.

This interference with the free flow of capital and goods was gradually extended to other things. Previous to 1914, emigration from European countries had been relatively free. Soon after the World War, however, barriers against the immigration arose on all sides, creating new and dangerous problems of population pressure. Realizing that the free lands had all been occupied, that the so-called last frontier had gone and the melting-pot had not been functioning adequately, even we felt it necessary to partially close our doors to immigrants and reduced the number of possible arrivals from over a million a year to a little over 150,000. Other countries with large open spaces and rich natural resources, like Canada, followed our example.

At the same time, certain European governments began to restrict the flow of population outward. Although greatly over-populated, Italy and Germany adopted the paradoxical policy of preventing emigration. A whole series of restrictive controls was developed through passport regulations, laws against taking money out of the country, heavy taxes on property left behind by the emigrant—and in the case of Russia, military guards on the frontiers.

Into these curiously contradictory policies still another, equally paradoxical, was interjected. While the non-European nations were closing their frontiers to immigration and European countries restricting emigration of their nationals, intolerance and persecution of racial and political minorities drove hundreds of thousands from the homelands into exile. Forced migrations and the pitiful flight of despairing, homeless refugees replaced the hopeful migrations of the nineteenth century.

It is all most perplexing and paradoxical. "One set of men," says Staley, "build tunnels through mountains, span oceans with steamships and planes, develop better engines of transport, erect industrial enterprises designed to use the products of far places. Another set of men erect barriers to increase the cost of transporting goods from one place to another, devise new means of keeping capital within national boundaries, restrict the movements of persons and even slow down the interchange of ideas."

"For the first time in the history of the West," says Dr. MacLeish, "frontiers are armed not only along the rivers and the mountains and the boundaries of nations, but across the common earth of culture, the free land that was never fenced before."

In the meantime, overpopulation in western Europe, therise of the masses, and unemployment under the lash of machine production, have become more and more pressing. Labor displacement and unemployment on a scale unknown to history intensified the conflict between capital and labor. Hence, while jobs are still waiting for most college and university graduates, general unemployment becomes steadily more alarming. Particularly distressing is the fact that the younger generation can't get work. Among our own ten million unemployed, there are over three million young people between the ages of 18 and 21, recent graduates of our high schools, who have never had the thrill and the satisfaction that comes with a real job. Instead, if the records are correct, they are subjected to the worries and temptations of involuntary idleness, for an average of more than two years. How can we expect them to live up to the ideals of good citizenship? How can they be persuaded that the promised economic security, a job after graduation, is not a gold brick, accompanied by an "April Fool, young man?" Your generation will have to find the answer. Possibly a shorter working day and week with education for leisure may help. But to those who walk the streets Fascism offers at least the dignity of discipline.

Unemployment is, however, only one of the questions confronting you. Even the ominous rumblings of war and the ruthless destruction of European democracies casting heavy shadows over our national life, cannot eliminate the seriousness of other problems, such as farm relief, industrial depression, the disputes between labor and capital, and the alarming increase in expenditures and taxes.

Ordinarily, these matters would receive our undivided attention in a Presidential election year. But war has intervened and the issues have become obscured and confused by what is happening in Europe; once again domestic questions are being neglected because foreign wars have suddenly become of such tragic importance. Day by day we follow with breathless anxiety the progress of events abroad, in which science and inventive genius, utilized with diabolical ruthlessness for the destruction of human life and happiness, threaten to destroy civilization altogether. When Hitler seized Prague, in March of 1939, thereby repudiating all basis for confidence and cooperation, we realized that war and aggression would be the logical sequel to Nazi intolerance and persecutions. The peremptory demand for Danzig and the Corridor, the Blitzkrieg in Poland, the war with England and France, the trampling of the German war machine over Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France followed in rapid succession. A totalitarian, mechanized war, with an orgy of violence and bloodshed that leaves us speechless, has brought to an end the era of Versailles and leaves Europe we know not where.

The devastating effect on learning and culture are appalling. Several years ago I visited the University of Cracow with its beautiful quadrangle in which stands the monument of Copernicus. I was impressed by the eager body of students and the devotion of the faculty, some of whom I knew well. In December last, I was shocked by a letter, addressed to American scholars, from several of the older members of that group, telling how immediately after the conquest of Poland the entire faculty was sent to a German concentration camp near Berlin. Referring to the fate of higher education in his report to the Rockefeller Foundation, President Fosdick says, "The University of Warsaw has ceased to exist—the entire Polish faculty of the University of Cracow is in a concentration camp. The Polish members of the faculty of the University of Vilna have been dismissed. Scarcely a year ago, the Moors, fighting for Franco in Spain,entrenched in the ruined University of Madrid, used the books from the University Library as defenses in their rifle pits." Since then the great Library of Louvain, rebuilt by American money after the World War, has again been burned. One hesitates to think of the fate of the Universities of Leyden, Amsterdam and Utrecht, or the great institutions of learning in Belgium. "The University of Prague has been shut up by the German government. * * * The institutions comprising the University of London have been uprooted and scattered over a wide area in Southern England. The 20,000 student population of the University of Paris has shrunk to 5,000. In all countries, whether combatant or non-combatant, the undiscriminating necessities of military mobilization have decimated faculties and student bodies alike." What new tragedies will the Report for 1940 reveal?

To many this "intellectual blackout" is one of the most alarming aspects of modern war. Science and learning, like cultural life in the Thirty Years War, is being destroyed. After the present war has come to an end, darkness will continue over Europe for years. Poverty, fear, despair and hate will long perpetuate the intellectual night. An entire generation of young men, the best, will not be there to carry on. That is something even the best of peace treaties, should we be so fortunate as to get them, will not remedy.

Fortunately, we are as a nation becoming more and more conscious of our responsibilities. Now that we have been thoroughly aroused by events of the war in Europe we are reacting in a typically emotional manner. In less than a month we have voted over five and a half billion dollars for military training and equipment in our defense program. But in all the discussions only a few voices have been raised on how to spend it wisely. If there ever was a time for clear thinking and plain speaking, it is now when we are about to launch the greatest military program of history. At a time when the discoveries of science and invention interject themselves so unexpectedly and with such revolutionary potentiality into war, it should be a matter of first concern to stimulate science and learning, lest our great defense program become outmoded before it is completed.

Another and in the long run, an even more important aspect of the program, lies in the danger lest the heavy increase in taxes for armaments lead to the short-changing of our schools. Retrenchment in that direction is fraught with serious danger, calculated to undermine democracy by neglect. Autocracies may find this feasible, but democracies cannot afford it. The basis of democracy must always be an intelligent citizenship, and that in turn is dependent on education of the right sort. And when I speak of education of the right sort, I do not mean that all is well with our present program, nor that many of the thousands educated to white collar jobs would not today be happier if they had had vocational training. Admirable as our great public and private schools are, there is admittedly a great waste of time and money in the indiscriminate standardization of the output, and the acceptance of the idea that society owes the same kind of education to all alike. What I mean by "education of the right sort" is something very different, something very simple—nothing less than the inculcation of those homely virtues of hard work, self-discipline, honesty and fair play, which Benjamin Franklin stressed in his Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.

At a dinner in honor of Einstein, Lord Haldane congratulated the great scientist on the achievement of having eliminated the straight line from physics, and then added, "There is, however, one straight line even science can't remove. It is the straight line of truth and honesty." This simple truthshould in some way become axiomatic with our young people. Then things going on in international, national, and often in the private life of today, would be summarily relegated to the class of things that just aren't done. History is replete with illustrations of great causes, institutions and nations going down because of the absence of moral fiber, the thing called character, something which cannot be acquired suddenly, but only with long training and sound habits of thought and action.

Antecedent to the present war now raging in Europe was a system of education of the youth in all the dictator states inoculating them with the ideals of Communism, Fascism, or Socialism, coupled with bigotry, intolerance and the worship of force. By contrast, we of the democracies, clung to scholarly objectivity or intellectual apathy in times that called for righteous indignation and the rods of the Master on the backs of the money changers in the Temple. According to Dr. MacLeish, we are "The Irresponsibles." The leadership exercised by scholars when Erasmus, Milton and Voltaire attacked the evils of their day, was lost. Universities and colleges, scholars, writers and educators failed to rise to their calling. Right attitudes—what the Greeks call the ethos of state of mind—so sorely needed today in the defense against the attacks upon the decencies of western culture by men "who consider moral justification unnecessary," were not formed.

Although late in the day, it is high time for scholars to quit their "ivory towers" for the market place, and join men and women of every rank to take up the torch of civilization from a Europe weakened from the terrible bloodletting of another war. If we fail, western culture is doomed and the Decline of the West will become a reality. Another race of men will rise to take our place, and the fatalism of Spengler and the pessimism of Schopenhauer will be vindicated.

Despite this and the catastrophic events in Europe, however, there is a more hopeful outlook, one suggested by President Gates this morning. The great possibilities of the wise use of the means science and invention have put at our disposal for better and more comfortable living should arouse your enthusiasm and fire your imagination. If man can conquer nature as he is doing, he should also be able to prevent senility in our culture and so give the lie to the thesis of the rise and fall of civilizations. In that case even the war, with its suffering and losses and its colossal stupidity, may be only the birth pains of a new age, a new civilization whose form and content will far transcend anything we have dreamed of in our wildest Utopian imaginings.

Addressing myself more directly to you who are about to graduate, I have to remind you that yours will not be an easy road. You are entering a world beset with difficulties and problems the like of which have never confronted any previous generation. After the war, the peace treaties and reconstruction will confront you, and following in their train the ghosts of the sins and mistakes of yesterday—gaunt poverty, fear, despair and hatred—with new imperialisms and the lust for power; nationalism versus internationalism; the problem of labor and capital, and the pull and tug of conflicting ideologies. The challenge is great. It is the kind red-blooded men and women prefer.

More than any other American, living or dead, Franklin would be eager to "share his destiny with a world that enabled him to fly through the clouds at sunrise." What is more, he would do something about unemployment, poverty, slums, social evils, intolerance and war. You recall how in the darkest days of the Constitutional Convention he suggested that they open the deliberations with prayer. When the deliberations were over and the Constitution was adopted, he was sure the sun on the back of the President's chair was a rising, not a setting, sun. But even then his deep insight into human nature led him to warn his friends that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To an anxious admirer who asked as he emerged from Convention Hall, "Dr. Franklin, do we have a republic or a monarchy," he replied, "A republic, madam, if we can keep it." The republic and the freedom for which it stands are still ours, but it can only be maintained if we assume a personal responsibility for them. Neither the Constitution nor the government can save us. "A good government," said William Penn, "may be a very bad government if the men conducting it are bad, and a bad government may be a very good government if the men conducting it are good."

The new era and an interdependent world is the challenge to your generation. There is need for leadership in the larger affairs of national, state, and local government, in science and learning, but these can be successful only if grounded on a devotion to duty in the multitudinous affairs of every day life, wherever you may be.

Finally, and most important of all, is a proper respect for your obligations to yourselves by keeping alive your ideals and your faith, that sense for, the permanent values in life, the things of the spirit which come through a knowledge of history, philosophy, religion and literature, creating an inner response to what is best in our civilization. Keep alive your interest in these subjects. Transfer them into the life and history of your own community. Listen to good music and interest yourself in art. These things will make life not only richer, but infinitely more effective even from the material standpoint. They are the things even the worst of tyrannies cannot take away.

If you do this the heights of Parnassus will become accessible to you, and the spiritual life of the nation be secured. It is said of Lycurgas that "He did not fence the city with walls but fortified the inhabitants with virtues and so preserved the city forever." Approach the world in this spirit as you go to your respective tasks, then you will learn the depth of meaning in Alfred Noyes' forceful lines:

"Yours now are the ancient hills and the wide horizon,
O youth immortal, yours the undying fire;
The faith that life has an aim; that a spark from heaven
Still falls on earth to kindle your own desire;
That the long blind struggle of man from the primal darkness
Up to his glimpse of God, was not wholly vain;
Hold fast that faith; for a world that has well nigh lost it
Here now in the dark, cries: "Give us that glimpse again!"