Fire Always Makes Room For Itself


By W. H. COWLEY, President of Hamilton College

Delivered at the Fall Convocation at University of Rochester, October 23, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 87-90

I TAKE for the text of this convocation address an old Japanese proverb which reads: "Fire always makes room for itself." We are today witnessing a calamitous demonstration of the truth of that proverb. London is in danger of being destroyed, not because of the battering of demolition bombs but rather because of the fires caused by incendiary bombs. Since fire always makes room for itself, the London fire-fighters must control the huge blazes being lit every night by raiding airplanes or London is doomed.

I cite the danger of fire in London to illustrate the soundness of the Japanese proverb and to apply it to the relationship of education to the crisis we face in America and throughout the world. My thesis is that colleges and universities must rededicate themselves to nurture the fire of the spirit else we shall not be equal to the tremendous responsibilities which the world situation has catapulted upon us. Fire always makes room for itself be it a physical or an emotional fire. In democratic countries we are staring into catastrophe because our emotional fire has been but a flicker compared with the huge flame of sulphuric energy which has been bursting forth from the totalitarians. Unless we become aroused as they have been aroused, we shall most certainly be enslaved by them, and we shall see the Anglo-Saxon tradition of freedom chained if not slaughtered outright.

The problem of emotional fire in the crisis we face hasnumerous facets, and it is possible this evening to discuss but one of them. I devote myself, therefore, to the relationship of educational philosophy to our national welfare. I begin by making what may seem to many of you to be a brash statement. It is this: a large share of the spiritual and emotional poverty which has characterized American life in recent decades is the direct result of misconceived and destructive educational doctrines. In colleges and universities we have been following false gods, and because of our adherence to them we have almost smothered the fire that should give education its heat and power, its light and its leading.

One doctrine has in particular been crippling us: the doctrine of intellectualism. In my judgment we must cut our colleges and universities free of this fake educational concept or as a nation we shall sink into significance if not into slavery.

Intellectualism is the concept which asserts that education is concerned only with the intellectual development of students, and that social, physical, emotional, and spiritual education should be left to other institutions—to the boy scouts, the Sunday School, the church, and the junior league. This doctrine is widely held by college professors, and the president of one of our great universities has achieved national prominence in recent years by espousing it with all the power of his potent pen and with all the force of his platform skill.

May I begin an analysis if intellectualism with some history? Until the time of the Civil War American colleges followed the British educational tradition and sought to educate the whole student. Educators were interested in the student's mind, of course, but also in his morals, in his manners, in his religion, and in his sense of values—indeed in everything that contributed to a complete or a whole education. During the middle of the last century this concept of education began to be abandoned. America had been changing from an agricultural and maritime to an industrial society. It needed trained engineers, agriculturalists, architects, chemists and dozens of other varieties of professional and business men for whom the old-time college provided no training. Obviously, a new type of higher education had to be provided; and since England offered no models, educators turned to Germany which had developed broader curriculums and a new variety of university, a university devoted to intensive specialization in all the modern arts and sciences.

The adoption of German methods by such leading educators as President Eliot of Harvard, President White of Cornell, and President Gilman of Johns Hopkins, produced a growth and development in higher education of tremendous importance. The reorganized universities and the newly-established technical and professional schools, which these leaders of 19th century education and their associates headed, trained the men and women to build the nation's railroads, exploit its mines, ferret out the basic physical and chemical facts upon which modern industry is built. They also trained more and better trained lawyers, physicians, engineers, and professional and business men of all kinds. Because they looked to Germany and followed its educational example, America met the opportunities of the 19th century and grew in wealth and strength beyond the wildest dreams of former generations.

But this material development is not the whole story. The ten thousand Americans who between 1850 and 1940 returned from Europe with German Ph.D.'s brought back with them something else besides preeminent skill as specialists. They brought intellectualism, and they saddled it upon the American college. German universities, after thecrushing defeat that Napoleon administered to their fatherland early in the century, threw overboard all interest in students as individuals. They sought to raise a race of intellectual supermen, and they consciously concentrated all their energies upon the minds of students. What a student did between the time he matriculated and the time he took his examinations, no one in German universities knew or cared. Where he lived, the condition of his health, his social life, his physical and spiritual growth—these were of no interest to the German academic authorities. They considered their job to be the training of superior minds, and they conducted their universities as if nothing else counted.

This is the doctrine that German-trained professors brought back to the United States, that they foisted upon the American college, that they promoted until we tossed into the discard the tradition of wholeness and completeness that Anglo-Saxon educators had cherished for centuries. Germany has made a huge contribution to the intellectual education of America, but for this help we have paid a staggering price. Impelled by German examples we have stressed the training of the minds of students, and we have fallen into the calamitous error of assuming that the intellect dominates life, that the intellect is our chief personal and social instrument, that the intellect is the only concern of education.

Merely to state the doctrine of intellectualism constitutes a refutation of it, but I should like to discuss three of the major arguments against it. So strong is the hold which intellectualism has upon us that its fallacies cannot too often be exposed nor too frequently ridiculed.

The first argument comes from biology. After a century of amazingly illuminating research biologists have arrived at a new and far-reaching generalization, a new orientation. Historically biologists concentrated their attention upon discernible differences in the parts of organisms and the functioning of these parts. Recently, however, a growing number of biologists have asserted that parts must be seen in relationship to the whole organism. Thus they hold that it is impossible to understand the functioning of, say the lungs, except in relationship to the sympathetic nervous system, and indeed, to every other part of the organism. This point of view is called organismic or holistic biology. John Scott Holdame, eminent British biologist, describes it in these words:

The organism maintains itself as a whole. It is not a mere federation of individual cells acting mechanically like a machine, but is, on the contrary, a closely unified organization whose nature is such that each part or even each cell partakes of and contributes to the life of the whole. The behaviour of on individual cell is unintelligible apart from its being also an expression of the life of the higher organism as a whole. The individual cells as such express in their genesis, behaviour, and deaths, the life of the whole organism.

The bearing of this observation upon intellectualism is obvious: the mind cannot—except in the laboratory—be abstracted from the rest of an organism. Educators cannot wisely, therefore, devote all their energies to the minds of students and neglect their bodies, their social development, their systems of values, their spirits. Such a concept of education is biologically ridiculous. American higher education, largely controlled during the past seventy years by intellectualists, has remarkably multiplied our intellectual and our material resources; but because it has frowned upon and neglected all objectives except the development of the intellect, we have become impoverished in all other directions particularly in emotion and spirit.

This statement sets up the second count against intellectualism: the time-honored philosophical and psychological postulate that the intellect is never the master of the spirit but always its servant—in brief that the mind takes its direction and its energy not from within itself, but from the purposes and systems of values of the entity which we call the Self. Thirty years ago in a powerful address Woodrow Wilson dramatically expressed this judgment in these words: We speak of this as an age in which mind is monarch, but I take it for granted that, if that is true, mind is one of those modern monarchs who reigns but do not govern. As a matter of fact, the world is governed in every generation by a great House of Commons made up of the passions; and we can only be careful to see that the handsome passions are in the majority.

Woodrow Wilson's epigram that "the world is governed by the passions" checks with everyone's common-sense interpretation of his own experience. Attitudes, sentiments, values, purposes—these are the controlling factors in the behaviour of us all. The fact is admitted by everyone except the professors and administrators who have been blinded by intellectualism. We shall equate education with reality only when we take President Wilson's advice and rededicate education to the task of seeing that "the handsome passions are in the majority." That is the supreme task of education, not the training of students' minds.

May I make it entirely clear that I am not being critical of intellectual development. Indeed, colleges and universities must be the place par excellence in our society for the highest intellectual achievement. I give way to no one in my insistence that the college has failed if it does not effectively train the minds of the students. I insist, however, that we must go a great deal further, that we must recognize that intelligence is not enough, that men are not mere thinking machines, and that to train the minds of students and to neglect their spirit is to give them stones for the bread they seek.

The distinction which the intellectualists make between the intellect and the emotions throws into relief the third of the three arguments against their doctrine of which I would speak. The first argument stems from biology, the second from philosophy and psychology, and this third comes from logic. The intellectualists have fallen into error which logicians call the disjunctive fallacy and which laymen call the either-or fallacy. Thus intellectualists assert that education must be one thing or the other—intellectual or anti-intellectual. This is a splendid example of the crooked thinking produced by the disjunctive fallacy. It's like asserting that all men are either tall or short, fat or thin, black or white, good or bad, brilliant or stupid, charming or gauche, egotistic or modest, etc., etc.

It would seem to be impossible for any intelligent individual to fall into the clutches of this fallacy, but the fact is that the intellectualists have done exactly that. They say in effect that colleges must devote their energies entirely to the intellectual development of students and that it is impossible—or at least undesirable—to give time and thought to student social life, to athletics, to the persistent problem of personal purposes and values which every college student faces. In a word, they assert that the college must concentrate all of its attention upon intellectual training: or else become a mere country club. They insist that the college must be either tall or short: tall and intellectual or short and country chubbish. They admit no possibility of a middle ground where the whole student is educated— socially as well as intellectually, in spirit as well as in a professional specialty.

It would be interesting to explore the implications of this disjunction as it affects fraternities, athletic teams, andstudent life in general. I prefer, however, to discuss a much larger question: the bearing of intellectualism upon the spirit, upon the spirit of faculty members and therefore upon the spirit of students.

In his brilliant address given before the American Philosophical Society last spring one of our outstanding American poets, Archibald MacLeish, deplores the disappearance of fire, of passion, and of broad social purpose from among college professors, scholars, and writers. He entitled his address "The Irresponsibles" and described and criticized them in this passage:

"The irresponsibility of the scholar is the irresponsibility of the scientist upon whose laboratory insulation he has patterned all his work. The scholar in letters has made himself as indifferent to values, as careless of significance, as bored with meanings as the chemist. He is a refugee from consequences, an exile from the responsibilities of moral choice. His words of praise are the laboratory words—objectively, detachment, dispassion. His pride is to be scientific, neuter, skeptical, detached— superior to final judgment or absolute belief . . ."

"It is not for nothing that the modern scholar invented the Ph.D. thesis as his principal contribution to literary form. The Ph.D. thesis is the perfect image of his world. It is work done for the sake of doing work— perfectly conscientious, perfectly laborious, perfectly irresponsible. The modern scholar at his best and worst is both these things—perfectly conscientious, laborious, and competent: perfectly irresponsible for the saving of his world. . . . He has his work to do. He has his book to finish. He hopes the war will not destroy the manuscripts he works with. He is the pure, the perfect type of irresponsibility—the man who acts as though fire could not burn him because he has no business with the fire. He knows, because he cannot help but know, reading his papers, talking to his friends—he knows this fire has consumed the books, the spirit, everything he lives by, flesh itself, in other countries. He knows this but he will not know. It's not his business. Whose business is it then? He will not answer even that. He has his work to do. He has his book to finish." This is as pointed an indictment of intellectualism which anyone has written since Tennyson in 1830 deplored the spiritual and emotional poverty that had come to dominate Cambridge, his Alma Mater. The verse Tennyson wrote is perhaps an even more stinging rebuke. Here it is:

Therefore, your halls, your ancient colleges,
Your portals statued with old kings and queens,
Your gardens, myriad-volumed libraries,
Waxed-lighted chapels, and rich carven screens,
Your doctors, and your proctors, and your deans,
Shall not avail you, when the day-beam sports
New-risen o'er awakened Albion—No!
Nor yet your solemn organ pipes that blow
Melodious thunders thr' your vacant courts
At noon and eve: because your manner sorts
Not of this age, wherefrom ye stand apart,
Because the lips of little children preach
Against you, you that do profess to teach
And teach us nothing, feeding not the heart.

Because the great majority of men and women who teach in our colleges and universities are consciously or subconsciously giving their allegiance to intellectualism, we have fallen into the bog of irresponsibility which MacLeish deplores. In Tennyson words we are not feeding the hearts of our students. We are feeding their minds, but we ignore their spirits, their passions, their latent fire.

Thus intellectualism has crippled us not only educationallybut also in our national life. For decades we have been graduating young men and women who have been taught to look at everything intellectually, to be objective, to weigh all the evidence, to see both sides of every question, to be supercritical, to hold judgments in abeyance. This is all very well in the abstractions of science, but where the values of our civilization are at stake, it is criminally destructive. It has made of us a sceptical if not a cynical people. It has lulled us into a false impartiality. It has made us apathetic about our heritages of democracy, of freedom of speech and of the press. It has driven us individually and collectively into a selfish hunt for security. In brief, it has deprived us of emotion, of enthusiasm, of national spirit and passion.

It would obviously be an over-simplification to lay our current spiritual poverty entirely at the door of intellectualism, but that intellectualism has played a large part there can be no question. It has made of us spiritual neutrals in a world where everything we cherish is being viciously attacked. If we continue in this frame of mind we'll soon be ripe either for subjection by passionate Nazism or by some native leader who will make capital of our spiritual starvation and lead us to God-knows-what extremes of uncontrolled emotional debauch. That is exactly what has happened in Germany. Hitler succeeded in enlisting the enthusiasm and the devotion of German university students to his hooked-cross banner because they were fed up with the bloodless objectivity of German professors, and in a few short years Germany swung from the extreme of intellectual objectivity to the opposite extreme of emotional drunkenness. The same fate awaits us unless we achieve a balance between intelligence and spirit. Neither can be neglected. We must have both. We must denounce and renounce the coldness of reason alone and the hotness of passion alone. Unless in our colleges and our universities and in our national life we reaffirm and reestablish the place of spirit, we shall sink to a shadow of our powers. We must temper spirit with reason, of course, but we mustdisavow the intellectualistic doctrine that reason is sufficient Instead we must give the place of honor to the driving force of spirit without which intelligence drugs us into torpor and emotional importance.

Because of the inroads that intellectualism has made, the world situation which threatens our national life comes in the nick of time to save us from spiritual atrophy. Once again we have national cohesion, a consuming enthusiasm, a great passion to unite us. It will purge us of our impurities and re-infuse spirit into our cold, intellectualistic hearts. We shall pay a large price in wealth and perhaps in lives. If such sacrifices will reestablish our national spirit and kill off intellectualism, the price will not be too great.

The future of the country will soon be in the hands of you young men and women who are students in our colleges during these present years. We are a great and wealthy people in things material. Whether or not it is great and wealthy in things spiritual depends upon you. Thomas Huxley expressed the situation clearly when he came to this country in 1876 to speak at the founding of Johns Hopkins University. This is what he said:

I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressedby your bigness, or your material resources as such. Sizeis not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. |The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity andthe terror of an overhanging fate is what you are goingto do with all these things.

"What are you going to do with all these things?" This is the question which faces the nation and every college man and woman. It cannot be answered in intellectual terms alone. It must be answered in terms of spirit. It must he answered by our response to the challenge that totalitarianism has thrown at us. Fire always makes room for itself. We shall be equal to the challenge only if we fight the fire of the dictators with a greater and more powerful fire burning in each of us—a fire consecrated to the protection of the Anglo-Saxon tradition both in government and in education.