Dark Hours in Our History


By ROBERT M. HUTCHINS, President of the University of Chicago

Convocation Address, June 10, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 569-570

ON these occasions the University feels satisfaction at the accomplishment of the graduating class and regret at its departure. This year the satisfaction is no less keen than in previous years; the regret is far deeper. We are turning you out on the world at one of the darkest hours in history. The dangers that threaten you seem more menacing than any that ever overhung a graduating class. The equipment with which you confront them looks pitifully inadequate to the task.

What can I say except to offer you the good wishes, hopes, and prayers of your Alma Mater? What can I tell you except that you have done well and that we trust you may fare well in your journey from this place? What can I do but ask you to lift up your hearts and face the future with the fortitude becoming to educated men and women?

Yet there is, perhaps, one thing more that can be said. Your equipment may be better than you know. We may go to war. The political, social, and economic institutions under which you have been brought up may disappear. All the plans you have made may fail. All the hopes you have cherished may be disappointed. You will still have reason for new plans and new hopes, you will still have reason for courage and faith, if you have preserved your integrity.

All other goods are goods of fortune. They are important; they are not indispensable. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole earth and lose his own soul? A man may lose the whole earth and keep his own soul. No catastrophe can touch that. Personal freedom, the freedom to think the truth and will the good, is indestructible. It can survive all the vicissitudes of fortune.

The teachings of the Stoics gained their ascendency in just such times as these. Though in some respects absurd, they hold a kernel of essential truth to which men have returned in like periods in history. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor who, much against his will, spent his life fighting the Germans, said, "The mind remains untouched by fire and sword, by tyranny and malediction."

Though we may not deny, with the Stoics, that external goods are goods; though we must reject the passive indifference and defeatism with which they thought we should accept evil, we can believe with them that the highest good is untouched by fire and sword, by tyranny and malediction. Personal freedom can be the possession of every man, in war and peace, in prosperity and disaster. In the language of Scripture, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you."

Freedom is the great word nowadays. Academic freedom is a prerequisite to higher education. A free press and a free radio are the last bulwark of a free country. The system of free enterprise must be maintained, for our free institutions would die with it. We are urged to go to war, if necessary, for freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and freedom ofthe seas. We are urged to stay out of war to obtain or preserve these same freedoms.

When we talk about freedom, we usually mean freedom from something. Academic freedom is freedom from presidents, trustees, and the public. Freedom of the press is freedom from censorship. Free enterprise is free from interference by the state. Freedom of thought is freedom from thinking. Freedom of worship is freedom from religion. A free world is simply a world free from Hitler.

But freedom must be something more than a vacant stare. It must be something better than the absence of restraint or the absence of things we do not like. If freedom is nothing more or better than this it is no wonder that Mussolini announced in 1923 that men were tired of liberty.

The President of St. John's College has lately said, "Under our Bill of Rights Congress may not prohibit you and me from worshipping Godóbut suppose we know no God to worship? It may not forbid us to speak our mindsóbut suppose we have no minds to speak? It may not prevent our daily paper from telling us the truthóbut suppose our paper does not know how to tell us the truth, or which truths are worth telling? Congress may not prevent you and me from peaceably assemblingóbut why assemble if we have nothing worth saying to each other?"

What this comes down to is that political freedom, negative freedom, freedom from, is merely a necessary condition of human freedom. When we get political freedom, the important question remains: What shall we do with it? What shall we do with ourselves?

So it is that men can be nominally free and actually slaves. The drunkard, the gambler, the ignoramus, the man suffering from any vice or obsession is not free, no matter how much political freedom he may enjoy. So the man whose education has consisted of obsolescent information or outworn skills may be locked within them. The information that was to adjust him to his environment cannot help him when that environment has changed. The tools with which he was to carve his way are not effective upon new material. So too the man whose education was intended to develop his "personality," or his own interests and preferences may find himself tied up in the whims and prejudices which such an education fosters.

For freedom is not doing what you like. That would leave unanswered the great question: What should you like? As Montesquieu put it, "In societies directed by laws, liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will." A man who does not know what he ought to will remains a slave. He has no personal freedom. He does not deserve political freedom.

The object of the will is the good. The object of the intellect is the truth. A man has personal freedom if hewills the good and knows the truth. "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

The human mind is not free to reject the truth. It must accept those principles which are self-evident and those conclusions which follow by a correct course of reasoning from them. The man who says he must be free to say 2 plus 2 equals five is not a liberal; he is a fool.

The human will is not free to seek what seems evil. It must seek what appears to be good. The man who says he must be free to pursue ends that seem to him bad is not a liberal; he does not know what he is talking about. The human will is free in matters of opinion. It is free as to contingent, singular things; for such things may appear in one aspect good and in another bad. Decisions upon them may be affected by passion. The discipline of the intellect to distinguish truth from falsehood, the discipline of the will and the passions to seek the real and not the apparent good, this is the path to personal freedom. As Matthew Arnold said, "There is nothing so very blessed about doing what one likes. The really blessed thing is to do what right reason ordains and to follow her authority."

A free man, then, is one who is equipped for the positive task of doing what right reason ordains and following her authority. He is, of course, free from something as well. He is free from ignorance, cowardice, intemperance, stupidity, and selfishness. He is free from the bonds of archaic information, obsolete techniques, and whimsical eccentricities. He is prepared to face any world that comes.

And a nation will be free in proportion as its people have a chance to gain and succeed in gaining this personal freedom. This is the reason for education in a free country. We cannot suppose that the state or private individuals are interested in supporting institutions that will teach people how to get rich, or how to get power over their fellow-men, or how to clamber up the social ladder. These benefactors must be trying to help the rising generation learn to be free, to help them acquire those moral and intellectual habits which will give them personal freedom.

In this light we see, too, the course which American education must take. John Dewey said, "The discipline that is identical with trained power is also identical with freedom." The human powers are the will and the intellect. The discipline of these powers is nothing but the formation of good moral and intellectual habits. American education, if it isto aim at personal freedom, must eliminate those studies which have nothing to do with the formation of such habits. It must strengthen those directed to their development. The liberal artsówhat a mediaeval ring the phrase hasówere the arts intended to train the human powers and thus to make men free. They have now almost disappeared, except in name, from American education. Their place has been taken by unrelated, undigested, and even untrue information; by courses thought (mistakenly) to lead on to wealth, prestige, and power; by triviality, mediocrity, and futility.

We want freedom for our country. We say we need a two-ocean navy to protect our political freedom. But our political freedom is empty unless we know what to do with it when we get it. We shall not know what to do with political freedom unless we have personal freedom. Personal freedom is the product of liberal education.

Truly liberal education, therefore, is just as important to this country as national defense. Personal freedom is just as important as political freedom. The importance of political freedom, indeed, is merely that it provides the conditions for personal freedom.

Fortunately the education you have had has been directed toward personal freedom. As we look back over the fifty years of its history, we see that this university has withstood the disintegrating forces that have swept the country. It has tried to insist that a sound character and a trained intelligence were the goal of education.

A sound character and a trained intelligenceóthese possessions have value in any time, place, or political order. They will remain to you through any economic or social change. They will keep you free. They are possessions through which you can help your country and the world to that freedom which is the destiny of all mankind.