The Purpose of a University


By LORD HALIFAX, British Ambassador to the United States

Delivered at the Harvard Alumni luncheon, Cambridge, Mass., June 19, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 570-571

THERE is, I believe, an ancient statute of one of our colleges at Oxford which says: "Let not the Master discourse too learnedly after dinner, lest by his superior wit he should abash the junior fellows."

On this historic occasion in the life of our two universities I am not ashamed to confess to a feeling of some trepidation. I can only hope that after all the kind things which the Governor has said about me my audience will not entertain exaggerated hopes, and will treat me with indulgence. So, by kindly warning, may I protect them from participation in an experience which once befell me, passing through an English village. Across a gateway I saw a banner bearing a large device "Strawberry Festival" and underneath in very small letters "Owing to the scarcity of strawberries stewed prunes will be served instead."

Spirit of Oxford Men

Your Excellency, the memorable ceremonies which we have witnessed today testify to that spirit of generous understanding between Harvard and Oxford, which impelled your university to offer its hospitality to mine, for a ceremony in which I, and all Oxford men who have been privileged to take part, will forever be proud to have assisted. Some one has reminded me that if today Oxford has been in Harvard, she has also been in Cambridge. I am very happy to agree, and if my loyalty to Oxford has made me feel a momentary regret that your venerable founder, the great John Harvard, was a Cambridge man, that regret is now happily merged in the thought of how inseparably, after today, his memory is bound up with the sister university of Oxford.

I am happy too to think that in spite of the wanton destruction of so many buildings in England as precious to you as they are to us, the chapel in Southwark Cathedral, consecrated to John Harvard's memory, and refurnished by the piety of Harvard men, stands undamaged.

Chief Purposes Defined

Today the oldest university in England has come three thousand miles across the seas to greet, and to be the guest of, the oldest university in the United States. And it wouldseem fitting that we should consider for a moment what are the chief purposes which, through the long centuries, you and we have existed to fulfill.

Our two societies, and indeed all other universities in free countries, are the embodiment of the desire of men to pursue the truth for truth's sake, and thus to lay the foundations of, real knowledge.

Two of the principal faculties of human nature, viewed in relation to other manifestations of life, are this appreciation of knowledge and the power of criticism. Each postulates a sense of ultimate truth and each is impossible without some standard of truth and judgment.

The Purpose of a University

This sense of ultimate truth is the intellectual counterpart of the esthetic sense of perfect beauty, or the moral sense of perfect good, and it is this standard, appraising as iff does our thoughts and actions in everyday life, which it has been the principal function of our two societies to supply, Many of you may recall the definition which the great Cardinal Newman gave of a university's purpose:

"A university training," he said, "is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end. It aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to our popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power and refining the intercourse of public life."

But if this be, as I think it is, as good a definition of our aims as can be made, let us never forget that these high purposes can in no wise be achieved unless underlying and informing all our efforts is the birthright of our freedom. For without freedom we can never hope to bring these high purposes to fulfillment.

Mirror of Nation's Youth

Today, our universities are no longer, as they were a century ago, the home of a privileged class. Ability to profit by their instruction is, once again, as in the days of their first foundation, the sole test for membership. They have become the mirror of a nation's youth, and the standards they uphold are more than ever before of vital interest to the nation as a whole.

That freedom, at once the first purpose and condition of life, for our two countries and the universities within them; that freedom, bought and sealed at the price of blood, is now in mortal conflict with the Powers of Darkness.

Your Excellency, the dangers with which the American Republic and the British Commonwealth are now confronted, though they appear to us in more fearful guise, are yet not new in the history of mankind.

Nearly 150 years ago, and more than a year before the battle of Trafalgar—that battle which secured the freedom of the seas for the ensuing century—my country, then friendless in the world, was in imminent danger of invasion.

Last Home of Freedom . . .

Then, as now, England, the last home of freedom in Europe, was in peril and at bay. Then, as now, men of all classes and creeds flocked freely to her defense.

Volunteers, or home guards as we should call them, came forward in their thousands, and in the city of London a great company marched to St. Paul's Cathedral for a service of dedication before taking up their stations.

And at that service they were addressed with words which once again in these fateful days strike home:

"Be not deceived" said the preacher, "there is no wall of adamant, no triple flaming sword to drive off these lawless assassins that have murdered and pillaged in every other land. Heaven has made with us no covenant that there should be joy and peace here and wailing and lamentation in the world besides. I would counsel you to put on a mind of noble acting; whatever energies there are in the human mind you will want them all; every man will be tried to the very springs of his heart, and those times are at hand which will show us all as we really are, with the genuine stamp, and value, be it much or be it little, which nature has impressed upon each living soul."

These words, across the centuries, awake natural echoes in our minds and hearts today. The meaning of freedom we have learned at our universities; its practice we have learned in our daily lives; the price we must pay to preserve it, our consciences alone can tell.

Cites Roosevelt's Stand

The President has declared in terms that no man can mistake on which side in this grim contest stands the United States. And there is no need for me to dwell upon the encouragement that his words have brought to my people, to the whole British Commonwealth, or to lovers of freedom everywhere.

You, in these United States, are forging for us in steadily mounting volume those weapons of war which we require—and which, as they reach the hands held out to receive them, will assuredly be powerful to bring final victory.

Nothing will indeed make me believe that those abiding values for which Harvard and Oxford stand, which have made your country and mine which are the things by which we live—nothing will make me believe that those things can go down before so foul and vile a thing as Nazism has shown itself to be.

Let us then have faith; let us measure truly the cause which we are determined to preserve, and let us see that the quality of our resolution is not unworthy of it.

a constitutional form of government as originally planned, ridicule the opinions and advice of the great men of our past, such as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and John Marshall, who prepared the foundations and policies which have given us 150 years of expansion, happiness and prosperity unequalled in history.

They would have us believe, for example, that the opinions of Marshall, who was the greatest legal philosopher not only of his own time but in the history of this nation, are foolish, despite the fact that the wisdom of such decisions has been demonstrated through the years. It has been truly said that Marshall "made the Constitution live, he imparted to it the breath of immortality, and its vigorous life at the present hour is due mainly to the wise interpretation he gave to its provisions during his long term of office."

If we reflect for a moment, we will realize that the people who now tell us how we should live, do not themselves know how to live. The private lives of many of them are as chaotic as their public utterances, yet they hold themselves out as models to the American people and believe that they, and they alone, are qualified to advise and to govern us.

I do not suggest that you have the power to correct all the conditions in America that should be improved. I know, however, that as patriotic Americans you have accepted grand jury service as one of your contributions to good government.

I felt, therefore, that I should discuss with you some of the conditions that are reflected in our city life and that demand immediate attention.

It is my opinion that you should exercise the great powers which are yours to terminate such abuses as are within your own jurisdiction. To continue that work the members of the County Jury Board in this Department will send youonly those men worthy of a position of such power. We realize that the great powers thrust upon you are extraordinary in that they are possessed by a body that is perhaps the only one of our public agencies that is wholly independent. When the official existence of the grand jury terminates, its members mingle again with the great mass of the citizens and may not be called upon to answer for their official acts, either by private action, public prosecution or legislative impeachment.

It is essential, therefore, that we continue to exercise the greatest care and vigilance to maintain the present high standard of membership. This calls for the continued cooperation of every member of this organization, as well as the County Clerk and his assistants.

The members of the County Jury Board which is now the board for the selection of grand jurors, will continue, as in the past, thoroughly to scrutinize every application for membership, but the duty of interesting men and women of character and ability in the work of the Grand Jury is one which we ask you to share with the County Clerk.

I trust that each of you, knowing full well the importance to our community of outstanding Grand Jurors, will be continually alert to obtain qualified men of high repute and impeccable character as applicants for the important public service of Grand Jurors.

This is most essential, because as I have said to you on a past occasion:

Show me a county that has an able, fearless and independent Grand Jury, completely divorced from all outside influence of any kind, political or otherwise, and I will show you a county that is relatively free from crime and corruption.