The Place of the University in a Modern Democracy


By A. A. BERLE, Assistant Secretary of State of the United States

Delivered at a dinner of the Association of American Universities; Washington, "November 15, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 149-151.

IT has been suggested that we discuss tonight the place of the university in a modern democracy. The subject is sufficiently challenging. Universities were conceived and existed before democracy appeared as a world force; yet in large measure what we call democracy today is the product of universities. These helped to release intellectual forces which finally flowered in a great revolution—the revolution which established democracy as a world system a century and a quarter ago.

Now there is in progress a counter-revolution, whose avowed object is to drive democracy out of existence. In historical rhythm, this is precisely what we should expect. Rarely has a new force gained ascendancy without having to struggle for its very life against the re-formed battalions of the ideas which it has displaced. At present the struggle takes the form of a world war, carried on by the methods of revolution quite as much as by those of military science. We are in the midst of a crucial phase of that war. The difference between this and most wars lies in the fact that a challenge has been thrown, not merely to the force of the resisting nations, but also to the ideas and intellectual structure of those nations. As a result, the conflict is fought not only on land and sea and air, but in the mind of every thinking man.

For myself, I can find it in my heart to be profoundly thankful for this challenge, despite the world-wide misery which is being let loose. It seems to me that if democracy itself, and if the universities which have played so large a part in developing it, had not been forced to meet certain issues squarely, this system of ours which we love so dearly might well have degenerated into a weak and sprawling mass, without form or direction, and ultimately without content. As matters have transpired, we are one and all required to think things through, take a position, bring ourselves into agreement with others who feel as we do, and so united, to stand and deliver in the hour of a great crisis.


The thesis here proposed is that universities in the democracy of today have as their fundamental task the choice and the guardianship of eternal and spiritual values. This is their primary reason for existence and their ultimate reason for survival.

As will presently appear, in developing this thesis I am also pleading a cause. For it seems to me that in some measure modern universities have allowed their fundamental justification to become obscured and have taken refuge in considerable degree in the less difficult occupation of creating tools, without guide to their use.

I take it we are agreed that democracy is not a body of dogma, but a method of evolution. Its precise objective, indeed, was to remove from any external agency, such as the state, the power to prescribe for each or any man the life he ought to live. In seeking to offer human beings liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the plain intent was to evolve a means by which each man could, in the widest possible measure, choose and follow his own conception of the "good life," rather than have some leader or dictator, some state or feudal lord, some banker or employer, determine what his "good life" ought to be and thereupon ram it down his throat. The institutions of democracy were designed to permit the successive and peaceful displacement of any group or groups, political, social, or economic, which might attempt to attain or use power over the lives of other men.

But by reason of this very freedom, democracy of necessity assumes that there will be a body of agreement on spiritual, social, and aesthetic values not imposed from above, but based on free choice. These are the values which must guide men in a democracy toward a conception of the "good life." They have in their hands the political tools which adapt the mechanism of the state toward making their conceptions possible of attainment; but to them is left responsibility for finding and choosing these basic principles.

Unless we are to assume that every individual is born with all the wisdom of civilization inside his head—a manifest absurdity—it is sufficiently plain that the democratic doctrine builds heavily indeed upon the work of the artists, the writers, the schools, and most of all, upon universities and their cousins in spiritual responsibility, the churches, to maintain that constant flow of education, moral as well as secular, which enables men to choose their values, find their way of life, and develop sentient, gracious, and productive existence.

To us, trained in this school of thought, the claims of the counter-revolution seem merely ridiculous. When one world power talks of a "new order," we remember that we have here a new order as rapidly as men can develop and digest new ideas. When another speaks of "youthful and virile national organization," we remember that in the evolution of democracy we have a world which is perpetually young. Only when the effectiveness of some of our institutions is called into question do we have to reconsider our premises; and that is entirely healthy, since we should always be reexamining the functioning of our life.

At the moment, the question is raised whether or not our democratic institutions provide a sufficiently commanding choice of value to maintain the dynamic quality which has made democracy successful.


The fundamental challenge to American universities today is whether they make a maximum contribution toward integrating the thought and the taste, the emotions and the will, of men in a democracy to work toward a constantly higher end. This is no idle question. Democracy itself, and its continued existence, must stand or fall by the cohesive strength created by this integration.

The area of thought and knowledge with which modern universities are concerned can be roughly divided into two great classes.

There is a body of thought and of knowledge which acts as a director of desire; which tends to guide men in the choice of values on which they will build their lives. Properly speaking, this is philosophy in its great sense. It is the spiritual, if not the historical, reason why the true scholar in any held was given the degree of Doctor of Philosophy—a teacher of the love of wisdom.

The second great classification consists in knowledge and thought which is fundamentally auxiliary to life, but is neutral in character. This field includes the tools for civilized existence, but it offers little or no guide toward the use which may be made of them. Thus a physicist may work out a new principle for the release of energy and may thereby vastly increase the powers of men. The question as to how the new tool will be used—whether for good or for evil—remains wholly unsolved. Most of the strictly analytic studies, such as economics, in and of themselves can merely record the effects of human desire made concrete through existing and potential economic mechanisms. Whenever in either of these fields there is a directive toward what is assumed to be good or evil, that directive comes from a concealed premise—a premise based on value, derived from lesstechnical, philosophical speculations which do concern themselves with the better and the worse, the good and the evil.


We have, then, these two great fields of intellectual endeavor: The one which seeks to discriminate between values and guide men toward the greater; the other, a neutral field which creates new tools and leaves to others the task of directing their use.

I cannot escape the conclusion that American universities have taken an undue refuge in this second, or neutral field, when they ought to have maintained their primal leadership in the first, or positive field.

I use the word "refuge" advisedly. The choice of values, the discrimination between good and evil, is always hard. Frequently it is under bitter attack; for no one yet undertook to establish standards or values in life without finding himself in conflict with some self-interested group which believed itself threatened. In fact, in a perpetually evolving democracy, which healthily includes progressive improvement in social morals, every advance in ideas almost by hypothesis threatens a group of interests built around older conceptions. In consequence, one who seeks the good life is in a perpetual and unavoidable struggle. It is infinitely easier to flee to neutral ground and to abandon the more difficult task. A chemist in a laboratory, a mathematician with his equations and formulae, a scientific historian merely interested in giving an exact picture of the past situation, can retire to an ivory tower. He can avoid conflicts which at best are intellectually and morally difficult and at worst are actually dangerous to his career.

The flight to neutrality has, of course, been rationalized by the academic world, and this rationalization has a measure of truth in it, as rationalizations usually do. It is said that a scholar who begins with preconceptions spoils that perfect detachment which alone makes possible a just determination of fact in his chosen field. To some degree the great foundations which have subsidized research by universities and scholars have aided and abetted this dogma. In my earlier university years, a grant for research purposes was commonly accompanied by the caution that a scholar's business was to determine "facts," leaving others to draw conclusions. Further, in stating his facts he was to be careful not to give them a slant either one way or the other which might tend to bias the reader in making up his own mind. What criteria the reader was expected to use appeared not to concern anyone. Scholarly work accordingly was thus definitely steered in the direction of creating bodies of knowledge which were, really, sterilized: The more sterile the work, the more perfect the scholarship.

It is, of course, true that the search for fact is aided by absence of preconception. But no one save a mental eunuch can accumulate a body of facts without speculating a little as to their interpretation and significance. I have no quarrel with the early attempt to sterilize the fact-finding process, since it was a normal and natural and perhaps a healthy reaction from an earlier phase in which facts were assembled only to prove a preexisting thesis. But I cannot help wishing that the advice which used to be given to the younger men had been enlarged upon. They should have been told that it was their duty to seek, find, and face facts and state them with scrupulous fairness; but that, having done so, they were bound to consider them, interpret them, and in the interpretation lay out their philosophical premises so that the work done might contribute to that choice of values which is, I suppose, the principal distinguishing mark between men and animals.

Actually, in the field of physical, mechanical, and scientific research, the results have been so coldly neutral that a world has seized and used the best product of the best scientific minds—and has therewith succeeded in creating, overseas at least, the closest replica of hell which perhaps this planet has yet experienced. No wonder that a European generation has cried out against the "sterile intellectuals," the men whose thought contributed everything to power, and nothing to choice of values or use in building life.

We have turned loose knowledge on an unprecedented scale. We have not comparably developed that moral control of the use of the knowledge which alone can make it constructive. In result, the world at this moment is not looking for another great scientist. It is looking, instead, for a great saint.


It is perhaps allowable here to digress and pay a little attention to another academic dogma, not without its justification, but which has been pressed to an undue extreme. This is the classic theory that every honest scholar has a right to his own opinion and to his own conclusions.

This right to my mind is of the essence of academic freedom, and it must be cherished by every university in a democracy as the very foundation on which its free existence is based.

But, while I personally would die to maintain that right, I should go almost equally far in asserting the counter-proposition: All opinions are not of equal value—and they must be evaluated.

It seems to me that an honest scholar may, quite honorably, come to the conclusion that men are biological animals and that the proper construction of society is accordingly on the basis of a purely animal life. It is possible for a student of jurisprudence to come to the conclusion that honesty is merely a conventional fiction designed to safeguard property interests and to conclude that it would be perfectly possible to reorganize society in a fashion which would honor the skilful thief quite as much as it honored the productive toiler. In the evolution of thought which is the strength of democracy, there is a real utility in having men who continuously challenge and reexamine the premises on which we run things. Out of this welter of different but honest opinions, we do arrive at advances in our thought and in our organization. But precisely because we do permit this freedom to reach and hold opinions, we are subject to a higher obligation of discriminating between these opinions—what they do, what they mean, what effect they have on men, the results with which other men may have to cope.

And so my plea tonight is that the universities re-emphasize that part of their work which is dedicated to seeking and maintaining eternal values.

In older times this entered into the thinking of every university president and of every faculty. Those were not the days when one sought additional money to bring a particularly noted scientist to serve on a faculty in order to advertise the intellectual wares which the university had to offer. Those were the days in which men were valued for their personalities, and for two older qualities not often heard of today: The quality of goodness and the quality of faith.

I think our fathers knew something in this field which we have forgotten. I think they knew that all truth in any field involves of necessity an act of faith. Particularly in the higher field they considered this act of faith essential.

They were not afraid to use the word "sin," in the glorious sense of that abused phrase. Sin was then defined as the choice of a lower course (even though it might be good in itself) when a higher course was available; the acceptance of a lower value when higher values could be expressed. In large measure the great days of our greatest universities were due as much to this quality in their teachers as to the scientific and scholarly attainments of these men. William James was great as a pioneer in psychology, but he was even greater as William James; and his line has gone out to the end of the earth because of those qualities in him. It is the tragedy of today that many teachers have a lingering and not always suppressed ambition to be great politicians, at precisely the moment when most first-rate politicians sincerely and passionately wish that they were great teachers. It is a contradiction in the times that now, when the greatest body of knowledge is available, the greatest affairs have to be determined on instinct, which is, analyzed, an affirmation of unexpressed faith. The practically universal yearning for a way of life which gives spiritual release will never be satisfied by a formula for utilizing atomic energy.

I am very clear that our fathers knew this. In their thinking, the great and coldly splendid fields of neutral knowledge were always subordinate. The controlling conceptions had to do with values—values which they believed to be universal and which by faith they considered eternal. These values they tested, as well as they could, and their human results; by what happened to men who followed them, to communities which expressed them, to nations which guarded them, and to international systems which gave them place.

The perpetuation of these great values is the proper work of universities in a democracy.