The Objective of a Liberal Education


By DR. HAROLD W. DODDS, President of Princeton University

Delivered in the Princeton University Chapel on September 22, 1940, at the exercises opening the 194th year of Princeton University

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 26-28.

WITH these exercises Princeton begins the 194th year of her life devoted to the advancement of learning and the education of young men. A year ago on this occasion I urged that the time had come for a rigorous self-examination of our liberal arts institutions to see why they are not accomplishing all that is commonly claimed for them in the inaugural addresses of college presidents and the press releases of university news agencies. I pointed out, what has since become familiar through numerous public utterances of leaders of all persuasions viz., that while the processes of politics in a democracy, organized as they are on a basis of party warfare and endless debate, tend to divide a people, the most alarming ill that threatens our free society is not the surface inefficiency of political democracy, but the weakening of our organic unity as a people, the loss of a common faith buttressed by a cohesive belief in the genius and tradition of America. I asserted a year ago that the doubts regarding democracy demanded that the leaders in liberal education devise a more effective program for weaving the materials of the college curriculum into the fabric of the students' later life. I placed much of the blame for our failure to throw an enduring bridge across the gap between college and life upon the fact that the objective of a liberal education had throughout the years become too vague and general, and I urged the need for a more clearly defined, less nebulous and therefore more attainable- target to shoot at. To this end I proposed that Princeton adopt for itself as its function the concrete task of educating young men for participation in the ceaseless effort to make democracy work in America. What. I had in mind was far beyond politics in the usual sense of the term, and I concluded that there was no subject in the Princeton curriculum which could not be utilized to contribute to this end, directly or indirectly, to the great invigoration of the curriculum.

The developments of the intervening year have strengthened the validity of the foregoing analysis until the fundamental issue is no longer in dispute. If you will bear with me for a few moments I should like this afternoon to continue further along the same line of reasoning.

The question which all of us, faculty and students alike, should be asking ourselves today is this: To what extent has intellectual leadership of the last generation been responsible for our present plight and what can we as a community of scholars do about it?

It is a commonplace that our attitudes towards society have for the last fifty years been dominated by the scientific outlook. Living in a land blessed with freedom of speech and opinion, it has been possible for us to place the weight of the emphasis on self-analysis and self-criticism. Unhampered by fear of dictators and happy in the illusion that democracy would never be successfully challenged again in world history, we have felt free, in the name of science, theology or art, to stress our social ills, to dissect our body politic, to spotlight every unfavorable symptom.

Is it to be wondered at that bur students, although we did not intend it so, have sometimes reached the conclusion that the preservation of democracy is not worth the effort. They have seen the habit of destructive criticism spread to the arts. They have watched novelists, dramatists and painters turn themselves into economists and sociologists, with larger popular followings and richer royalty accounts than scholars faithful to scientific objectivity. And they have seen both scholars and artists so busily occupied with social pathology as to forget the existence and significance of healthy tissues.

Now of course no nation which is unwilling or unable to face and treat its pathological symptoms can remain healthy. Therein lurks the basic weakness of dictatorships. But the consequences of a too exclusive occupation with such aspects of society have been an accentuation of group rivalries and conflicting interests and the belittling of the basic common bonds which hold us together. Thus for many intellectuals engrossed in pathology, class warfare became the point of departure for all their thinking. Furthermore this skeptical self -examination, necessary and healthy to a degree, has been attended by so much talk about "my" rights and "your" duties that correlative duties and rights have been left to shift for themselves.

The trouble has not been our effort to make the study of society as scientific as possible. The trouble has been a too constant focus on one sector of social truth, and this has made for disunion. We have listened too attentively to those who would tear down, forgetful of how difficult is the more difficult and less dramatic work of building up.

While we have been picking ourselves to pieces, world conditions have suddenly arisen which require that we put the pieces together again in an old fashioned pattern, and unite to restore faith in those institutions which alone make self-criticism and freedom possible. We must prove that our habit of concentrating upon imperfection has not produced a dry rot of the will, an unwillingness to close ranks and act in unison for the self-preservation of a free society. Hitler's confidence in his ambitions springs from a belief that the regimes opposed to him have lost their will to survive through a paralysis of their power to make the sacrifices necessary for survival, and who will deny that he has had evidence to support this assumption.

Here is to be found the opportunity for the American intellectual, the American professor, the American college student, and indeed all Americans. Let us turn the forces of scholarship and education to a study of the healthy tissues and organs of our society, more truly a democracy than any that has crumbled under Hitler's power. The conclusion will be a new evaluation of our national tradition as something worthy to be reclaimed and will lead to a new understanding of our national genius as something to be preserved and if need be fought for. Our forefathers believed that America had a mission. They may have boasted about it excessively at times but they believed in that mission and there were no worries about the atrophy of the national will. If it is no longer good form to express a hope and faith in America's unique destiny, is it because we have lost the vision which was so real and commanding to earlier generations, preferring to import our political thinking as we did our styles in dress? Indeed the extent to which our native critics have followed European ideas without analyzing their application to American conditions is one evidence of the weakening of our constructive instincts. Once American thought and action shook the world. Is it possible that we as self-acknowledged thinkers and scholars are today satisfied merely with interpreting the thoughts of others for American guidance?

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing for an illiberal and provincial nationalism, nor am I forgetful of our ties with Europe and our great debt to it in all that enriches the mind and the heart. What I am arguing for is a self-respecting nationalism that is unashamed to be American and conscious of its American individuality. I want America to continue to be creative and not decline into a passive reception of a way of life from others.

What were some of the elements of traditionally American vision of a good society. There is time to mention only a few, but prominent in the catalog of values may be listed:

(1) Respect for human personality and the established belief that the welfare of the individual alone justifies any social institution, including the state.

(2) The belief that every mature individual should be free (indeed it is his moral duty) to participate in the operation of his government and that the government must always be responsible to the will of the people expressed by ballots freely cast on election day.

(3) The belief that changes should be made by peaceful means and that as a working principle the majority should rule, but that it is the duty of the majority to respect the opinions and integrity of the minority.

(4) The conviction that the government should be subordinate to the "Law of the Constitution" that it should, in the old phrase, be "a government of law and not of men;" that the principle of constitutionalism rather than executive caprice should define the powers of the government, and to cite a particular example (more significant today than even a short decade ago) that no man can be imprisoned or his goods confiscated except in accordance with the due process of specific law. How precious today would be the writ of habeas corpus to the oppressed people of Europe?

(5) Fidelity to freedom of opinion, of speech, and of the press and of religion. Everyone can perhaps name an exception but the notoriety of the exceptions proves the rule.

(6) And finally, allegiance to the principle of the open door to opportunity and a corresponding intolerance of a social stratification which through the accident of birth or race or religion would fix a man's place in life and the future to which he may aspire. Despite acknowledged class pride and class consciousness from which no people is free, despite a visible hardening of class lines which sets one of the great social and economic problems of the day, the doctrine of equality of opportunity for all has influenced and continues to influence America more profoundly and with greater possibilities for the future than any country of the Old World.

In years past, to many of us captivated by the critical mood of the era, the foregoing phrases have at times seemed hollow and insincere. But in the light of what we enjoy today in contrast with others, they take on a new and personal meaning, indeed they become a standard to which the wise and just may repair.

From what I have been saying you may have gained the impression that it is preparedness for war, our capacity to withstand trial by battle as the test of our national stamina,

that I have been thinking of. And so it has been in a measure, for I believe that the Nazi drive for power, because of its own inner compulsions, will not come to rest until it is confronted by the threat of greater military force. It is like a man on a runaway bicycle hurtling down a steep hill-his only hope is to keep going. For, mark you, the Nazi religion involves a new element absent from the militarism with which the world has been familiar in the past; namely, "the complete and final disappearance of the vanquished, (and of the democratic ideal) from the stage of history" at the hands of a greater predatory force. Only by becoming strong in arms, only by facing realistically the choice between oppression and war, and knowing that war is the lesser evil, can we remain free. "Let no man delude himself," writes Professor Ralph Barton Perry, "by the belief that the good things of life will endure through the sheer quality of their goodness." All values, what a man thinks or wills, he adds, are vulnerable to hostile physical force.

But my argument for the urgent need of a new understanding of our democracy does not rest upon the assumption that a war to preserve our territorial integrity is inevitable. Assuming that the present war does not reach our borders we must be prepared to face the probability that the final verdict in Europe will produce at least two grave economic consequences in the United States, each with wide social repercussions. Unless the outcome is the complete collapse of the Nazi idea, a remote possibility without American military help, we shall in the first place find that a large percentage of the national income must be continuously diverted to military defense. Such diversion can result only in lower standards of living unless it is accompanied by wise measures to stimulate enterprise and to eliminate all repressive elements in our economy. We are now operating far below our potential capacity as a nation, but unless we can draw on that unused capacity we may by enlarged military preparations aid unemployment for a while but the final end will be a poorer common life. In the second place, if totalitarian and autarchic economic philosophies continue to prevail in Europe and Asia at the end of the war our nationwill find that its traditional economy of free enterprise must be carried on in a world hostile to our creed. America need not, unless she wants to, submit her international trade to domination by totalitarian neighbors, but we should not be unmindful of the dangers and the forces which may tend to drive us to a nationally closed economy with severe impacts upon the public welfare. No one at this time is wise enough to state what new policies of public welfare may be required to meet the friction generated by these changes for which we should be prepared, but that the situation will call for a united people secure and harmonious in their democratic faith no one will deny. It may be that the most serious threat to our democratic institutions will not come via a war in which we shall participate as a belligerent, but by way of impact of wars and philosophies in which we have had no direct part.

What then, I repeat, is the responsibility of college faculties and students to America in the trying days ahead?

At the conclusion of the Commencement exercises last June I took occasion to refer to the history of Nassau Hall and I pledged the full resources of the University, physical and human, to the service of the Governments of the United States and of New Jersey. No one has questioned the propriety of this pledge. One, perhaps the most significant, service we can perform is to imbue this campus with a realization of the surpassing value of and a readiness to defend the democratic processes and attitudes which, despite their human imperfections, supply the true instruments of human betterment. There are various methods by which this can be done and to its accomplishment I intend to solicit the cooperation of faculty and students in specific undertakings. Whether we like it or not we are no longer bystanders, laboratory observers of an objective world movement, we are participants. In his inaugural address as President of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson declared, "We are not put into this world to sit still and know, we are put here to act." I submit that, if we accept the implications of this doctrine as it applies to our teaching and our studying, Princeton will fulfill its duty as an educational institution.