WE ARE IMMATURE, BUT WE ARE ON OUR WAY
By RAY LYMAN WILBUR, President of Stanford University
Commencement Address, Stanford University, June 15, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 695-696.
IN the 80's, as a boy in Dakota, I used to take special delight in driving out over the prairies along the roads that were outlined by new homesteads that marked each mile by small monuments. We had a spanking team of coal-black horses. I used to watch each milestone go by with keenest satisfaction, because I would get a chance to ride that mile again on my way back.
That kind of milestone is about the only kind that we ever get a chance to cover again. There is no back-tracking on the path which you graduates of this year are taking. You will pass many milestones, and you will never pass them a second time.
Stanford University has reached its fiftieth milestone. There is no back-tracking for it. All of us must have our eyes forward, conscious of the past but responsive to the future.
Each year of Stanford has been one of progress, for in each year plans for the future of our students, our faculty and our University have been paramount. Growth in intellectual strength has been our main business. There have been struggles, disappointments, failures, but these have acted as stimuli, for our goals were always ahead of us, our initiative was free, and our aims high and worthy. Freedom for each student to use his mind without hamperingdogmas or preconceptions has given us all a sense of opportunity and has resulted in a high percentage of capable and useful graduates.
All of us are conscious of those common sense controls that are the heritage of our human and national experience; but even these we have been willing to analyze and value.
More and more we are realizing that we are living units belonging to groups that have certain qualities and characteristics that may manifest themselves in ways that are damaging as well as favorable. Beyond everything else, man's struggle to effect group or social organization has been his supreme task. Religious, governmental, military, social and intellectual leaders have appeared over and over again with ideas, theories, ideals. In spite of the agonies of war, torture, and oppression we have had an advancing civilization. Our evolution has been upward. We have an astounding store of knowledge, and almost divine control of parts of those natural laws unfolded to us by research. Of course our use of our powers is immature, our errors are many; but our ideals for perfection make us reach out for a brighter and safer future.
We must not expect too much of ourselves in this world of living things, of which we are a part. We talk of conservation, scarcely realizing that much of what we seek toconserve, or use wisely, came from the waste of innumerable lives of plants and animals which have preceded us. Think what myriads of plants and animals died leaving their residues that have given us our supplies of coal and oil. Old Dame Nature is in no such fret as we are to achieve excellence or perfection. What a magnificent being man is, and how much he can do to make his own future!
In responding to that future, with which all of us must grapple unless we expect to be tossed about by the turbulent winds that are blowing through all civilization, it is helpful to look back over the course our country has traveled and to analyze the reason for its vast and unprecedented success. We must each pass the milestones ahead of us as part of a group making up our nation. Too often many of us see more of our inadequacies than of our achievements. We are inclined to picture an ideal state impossible to such human beings as we know, and to complain about our failure to meet this ideal. In our democracy there is ever the power to change conditions and to devise a better social order. Based on facts and careful studies we can move forward, realizing the centuries it has taken us to go from the family and tribe to the town, city and nation. We are in a day when harsh realities compel us to recognize that there is a common future for all mankind. The world has become too small to be comfortable unless we learn how to handle its affairs and to live in reasoned peace with our neighbors.
Our biological background cannot be escaped. Each of us is the only one of the kind. The individual cell is the one indispensable factor in making up our bodies. Organization of these cells is secondary. The human being in society is often presented as analogous to a cell in the human body. But as Julian Huxley has said: "In terms of biologically higher or lower, there is a radical difference between cells and human beings. Both are biological individuals which form part of more complex individualities. Cells are first-order individuals, bodies second-order ones, and human societies, like hydroid colonies or bee-hives, third-order ones. But whereas the individuality of the body of higher animal, cuttlefish, insect or vertebrate is far more developed than that of its constituent cells, that of a human society is far less so than that of its individual units. This fact, while it makes the analogy between cell and human individual almost worthless, is of great value itself as a biological analogy, since it immediately exposes the fallacy of all social theories, like those of Fascism and National Socialism, which exalt the State above the individual."
At the moment we are back again to one of those past stages in the history of man on earth where there is the drive to deify the State. At its best, though, the State is merely our social organization for handling affairs arising from the fact that we are very numerous and are a special kind of herd animal. We have an unfortunate tendency toexercise brute force, to extend any power given an individual by heredity or enterprise or such power given to any created social unit. It is this that has made the operation of our Republic difficult. Just as monopoly in private business developing exclusive power has led to the call for the government to interfere and control, so will the drive for the closed shop in labor, if it succeeds, compel the higher organization of government to step in and assume control. To be safe and to preserve democracy we must leave large margins for freedom of action. Democracy must be open at both ends. Monopoly and the closed shop are milestones on the way to fascism, nazism, communism and other tyrannies that come to our civilizations because of the tendency of men of power to seek exclusive control.
This nasty business of war has in it elements of sacrifice, group service, idealism. It may be necessary in defense, but it is a deplorable throw-back to the primitive for living beings that have given us the Holy Bible, erected the Taj Mahal, written the great symphonies, and discovered the chemical elements. But no matter how bad our present conduct, no thoughtful person need worry too much about the future of such a race. In dealing with students I have often said that I am willing to forgive almost any conduct up to the age of twenty-one. The layers of gravel that have been piled up beneath this Frost Amphitheatre in the ages behind us, should give us a sense of proportion in measuring off the comparatively few milestones our spread of ancestors have passed. We are immature, but we are on our way.
As I look back on a lifetime in which I have striven to understand man and his history my impression is that our nation, under a constitution and a representative form of democratic government, has shown the way to more human happiness, comfort and inner satisfaction for 130,000,000 people than the world has ever known. Change it will and must, for change is a part of growth. Changes can be guided by experience, reason, thought and fair play, and not by coercive power, intrigue, exaggeration of defects, uncontrolled emotions, and political claptrap used to gain a majority of votes, if an educated people takes responsibility for its government, beginning with the local units and ending with our nation as a member of the world community.
Those of us who are here today are fortunate. One of our happiest functions is to have loyalties, to homes, to mothers, fathers, children, to institutions of high purpose, to our United States, and to ideals, purposes, and causes.
In Stanford University we have something of such usefulness and high quality that no matter how strong our sense of individuality may be we can display for it that desire in all of us for service or self-sacrifice and for being part of something that calls for intellectual activity and reacts to what we do for it.