University Ideals and Democracy


By CHARLES SEYMOUR, President of Yale University

Delivered at Yale University at a meeting on "The Universities and National Defense", February 11, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 311-313.

ANY attempt to define exactly the nature and scope of American university ideals is a sure device for throwing a faculty meeting into confusion. But it is equally certain that whatever may be the comprehensive definition of those ideals, underlying them as a fundamental basis stands the principle of service to the nation. It is set forth in our charters, emphasized in our traditions, and exemplified in our practices. It was crystallized in the conviction of our colonial ancestors, the founders of Harvard and Yale, that the successful operation of a free democracy depends upon citizens who have been educated. We further make the correlative assumption that the university finds in the guarantees offered by political liberty the best assurance of its own particular purpose. It is true that learning may flourish under a benevolent despotism; but the course of history indicates that few despotisms are enlightened and almost all are short-lived. Both from the obligations laid upon them and in their own interest, the American universities must serve in the preservation of free institutions.

When our forefathers emphasized the value of education in a democracy they may or may not have recognized consciously that the qualities of the ideal scholar are closely akin to those of the ideal citizen, But it is so. There must be in the citizen an intellectual interest and experience, if he is to serve the state with intelligence; there must be in the scholar a sense of moral responsibility which shall transmute his knowledge into the higher wisdom. In the report of one of my predecessors, President Jeremiah Day, written in 1824, the process of a Yale education was defined as "discipline and the furniture of the mind." In this emphasis upon discipline President Day may have been pointing to an essential of reliable citizenship. It is certain that he believed it to be vital to the highest scholarship. Nothing is more difficult than the pathway to learning, and it cannot be made smooth by intellectual capacity alone. It can be successfully traversed only by those capable of developing and exercising the sterner virtues: courage, honesty, and unremitting self-sacrifice. He who would achieve learning, whether from the spur of fameor because of the inner urge for knowledge, must follow the course set by Milton's young hero: "scorn delights and live laborious days."

Such qualities, essential to learning, are precisely those which must characterize the citizens of a successful democracy. It has been through their vigorous exercise that the western democracies of Europe and the United States acquired their power. The failures of those same nations during the past twenty years are to be attributed directly to the absence of such qualities. We can appreciate, from the vantage point of history which gives us hindsight, the lack of intelligence they displayed in the political, economic, and the social fields of action. But we can also see that the failure has been primarily moral, resulting from unwillingness to face difficulty, from a lack of courage, and from a shirking of responsibility.

There have been those who, in search of a scapegoat, attempted to trace world disaster back to a single factor such as the Versailles Treaty. The explanation is too simple and rests upon a complete misreading of history. This is not the occasion to present a defense of that document. But it is useful to remember that the Treaty was designed primarily not as a measure of justice, a worthy but a hazy ideal, but rather of security; a system which would save the democracies of Europe from a repetition of the disastrous war which had bled the world white. This security was based upon two general concepts, expressed in practical form in the Treaty. The territorial arrangements made at Versailles, so long as they were maintained, guaranteed Europe against any attempt on the part of Germany, revived and again aggressive, to undertake a war of revenge. The Treaty also provided, in the League of Nations, a plan of so-called collective security, whereby all the states of the world would unite against a single aggressor.

The main tragedy of the years that followed the last war is to be found not in the system set up by Versailles but in the utter irresponsibility of the democracies in their feeble efforts to operate it. We can now recognize the fatal mistake of the British and French in failing to strengthen the League while the opportunity was still theirs; the yet more deadly mistake in permitting it to disappear as a factor of international peace under the attacks of Japan and Italy. They wished to stay out of trouble; they were unwilling to give full force to economic sanctions or risk a military or naval engagement with Italy. It is easy to see the magnitude of the error into which they were led by their timidity.

But even after the death-blow delivered by Italy to the League in the Ethiopian adventure and the loss of prestige thereby sustained by the Western democracies, the territorial conditions of the Versailles Treaty still protected them from a German attack. Czechoslovakia controlled the bastion of Bohemia and hindered any German offensive in Central Europe. The disarmed Rhinelands left Germany's western flank open and unprotected. These conditions formed the basis of the Locarno Pacts of 1925; freely accepted by the Germans themselves, they were an essential aspect of the European international system of good faith and a guarantee against a renascent and aggressive Germany.

In 1936 Hitler proceeded to tear up the Locarno treaties and to send an armed German force into the Rhinelands. Europe had reached the turning point in the history of the decade, perhaps of the century. Had the French and the British possessed the intelligence to recognize the meaning of the German move and the courage to implement their intelligence with action, Hitler would have been helpless. But again they desired to stay out of trouble. Again they were unwilling to assume the responsibility for action whichthey guessed to be right but which would have called for moral qualities that were lacking. All the world knows the result of their passivity. Once protected from the French threat on the west, Hitler could turn his attention to the east, and bit by bit, as one takes an artichoke apart, could incorporate under his control first Austria; then, at the Munich Pact, the Sudetenlands; in the following spring he achieved the conquest of all Czechoslovakia; in the autumn he was ready for the attack on Poland and for the general war. The British and French, so anxious to stay out of trouble, thus found themselves in the worst kind of trouble. Unwilling to accept the risk involved in extinguishing the incipient blaze, they were caught in the overwhelming conflagration.

There is no lack of comparable irresponsibility on the part of the United States during these same years. We emerged from the last world war with an intense desire for peace and for the prosperity which we saw ahead. But we were quite unwilling to pay the price involved in the maintenance of peace. We wanted our cake and wanted to eat it. We withdrew from all political responsibility in Europe and turned our back upon dangers of the future. The penalty was deferred. For a decade and more the troubles of Europe touched us merely as an economic inconvenience. But when, in the middle thirties, it became clear that the materials for a new conflagration were being heaped up, so far from assuming the responsibility for helping to disperse them, we touched the limit of irresponsibility. By our neutrality legislation we gave implicit assurance to any aggressor that, so far as America went, he might launch his attack without fear that his victim would receive our help. We jettisoned the American doctrine of the Freedom of the Seas and paralyzed our means of action. One can imagine the amazement of the old Kaiser at Doorn when he read the Neutrality Act and wondered how it was that Adolf Hitler had hypnotized the United States into making a free gift of that for which the Kaiser had had to fight America and from which proceeded a major cause of his downfall. We made this surrender not as the result of an intelligent study of the international situation, but merely because we wanted to stay out of trouble; and thereby we heaped up more rouble.

Inevitably one must draw from the history of the past twenty years the lesson so often reiterated, and as often disregarded, that not wealth alone, nor material armament, but moral quality is essential to national defense. As President Wriston puts it, the political and military success of Hitler has followed upon his assumption of the moral initiative. The ultimate weakness of the totalitarian programme relative to democracy is obvious. But Hitler gave it at least temporary strength by stealing the positive qualities which first made democracy: intelligence, courage, self-sacrifice, the sense of responsibility.

These are the qualities which according to our ancient tradition characterize the ideal product of our universities; in so far as we provide for their intensive culture we are serving the democratic cause.

There is no established technique for their production by the universities. I do not believe that our purpose will be greatly aided by a revolution, great or small, in our course of study. The defense of democracy is not better assured by the establishment of courses on patriotism, even if they could be devised. We deceive ourselves if we believe that the moral qualities we seek will result from added emphasis upon the study of the social sciences, history, or the field of international relations, desirable as such courses may be in themselves. It would be futile as well as dangerous for the university to attempt to impose upon its teachers and students any frozen interpretation of history or politics, no matter how"patriotic" in character. Once the university became the organ of a propaganda demanding the acceptance of this doctrine or that ism, it would have closed its doors to our primary principle, the unhindered search for truth. We must beware that, in seeking to assure the existence of free institutions, we do not destroy their vitality.

In meeting its obligation to train men for the defense of democracy the university is not called upon to, nor should it, depart from the maintenance of its traditional ideals. Our duty beckons us rather to an intensified service in behalf of them, to preserve the atmosphere in which those ideals may flourish and not be slighted; to inspire every teacher and student, every course of study, whether in the arts or sciences, with their influence; to inject their spirit into all ourpersonal relationships upon the campus. For while we may not impose specific doctrines in the social, economic, or political fields, we must hold fast to a firm and definite creed: that there is a difference between right and wrong which cannot be destroyed by any negativist philosophy; that there is a distinction between the truth and the lie, between courage and cowardice, between the moral initiative and cynical irresponsibility. We believe that it is part of our university experience to make the distinction and to give effect to it. Such a creed is essential to the fulfilment of the university ideal, whether applied to pure scholarship or to preparation for citizenship, whether in time of emergency or in the days of peace to which we look forward. Through loyalty to this creed we serve in the defense of democracy.