A University Celebrates in War Time


By A. H. COMPTON, Professor of Physics, University of Chicago

Radio Address, September 30, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 51-52.

I HAVE just had a part in the greatest educational event of the year. Ten thousand persons have collected during the past week at the University of Chicago to help celebrate its fiftieth birthday. Five hundred of these were scholars who came as delegates from institutions of learning throughout the world. The festival included an academic procession with black gowns and brilliantly colored hoods, extending for almost half a mile. There were symphonic concerts, discussions of the most recent contributions to science, and addresses on what is a college education all about any way? Why should there be such a celebration? The nation is girding its full strength for defense. In order to attend, many of those here in Chicago had to break away from urgent work. Is the fiftieth anniversary of a university an event of such importance to the nation as to justify such an interruption of our great national effort?

Some of you will not know what the University of Chicago stands for. Let me explain:

Fifty years ago with a financial backing less than that of many small colleges, William Rainey Harper organized an institution which should have as its great objective the finding of the truth. He wanted to open up the whole realm of man's affairs to the searching eye of trained investigators, who without passion or prejudice would try to find the best answers to their problems. The new university was the embodiment of the faith that truth will make men free.

To achieve his end he brought to Chicago, as teachers and investigators, a small number of the best minds that could be found, and around them soon gathered an ardent group of students eager to learn for themselves how to search for further truth.

With this beginning the original founder, John D. Rockefeller, became so convinced of the possibilities of the future of the new institution that he strengthened it over twenty years with magnificent gifts to the extent of $35,000,000. Others also, from Chicago and elsewhere, saw here a unique opportunity and shared in the great enterprise. Thus was begun a university which had the distinction of being inspired by no other ideal than to find the truth and to make that truth effective for the enrichment of man's life.

The effect upon American life of the institution thus begun has been enormous. It has set the tone for universities throughout the West and Midwest and has stimulated the universities in the eastern part of our country to greater achievements. Our State universities have become universities in fact as well as in name, not only inspired by the example of the University of Chicago, but also strengthened by the well trained men who were now available from Chicago for their faculties. Colleges raised their scholastic standards, giving a more adequate education. It is doubtful whether any single event during the last century has meant as much to higher education in America as the establishment and growth of this institution. That is why the educators from the whole of the Western Hemisphere, from Europe and from Asia, came to congratulate the University of Chicago on its fiftieth birthday.

But if you are not a college man or woman, or maybe if you are, you may well ask why all this fuss about higher education? Let me say at once that there are many people who consider it of such vital value that they will spend years of their lives to get it. Fifty years ago, when the University of Chicago was founded, only one in fifty of the young Americans of college age received a college education. Now the number is one in five. In no other part of the world, except in very limited portions of Europe, has such widespread college education ever before been available. In England and Europe the question is continually raised, why educate so many? We need only a few educated leaders to control our councils.

America has taken the position that a democracy can work only if its citizens are prepared to understand its objectives and judge for themselves the way we should go. Only by adequate education can such understanding become widespread. We assume also that life is worth more to men and women to whom a greater world has been opened. Society is stronger and the individual lives a fuller life because of education. Without a knowledge of life's possibilities one cannot be free to choose his course. University education is designed to give the understanding of truth that will thus bring to men and women a greater freedom.

This celebration at the University of Chicago can thus be taken as symbolizing what we as a nation would defend. We would defend the right to develop our individual lives.

We would defend the freedom to seek the truth and the freedom to strive to attain the best we know. We would die if necessary for the right thus to grow to our greatest destiny.

The work of a university such as this is divided into four great aspects. We call them physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Each of these contributes its share toward our greater life.

Physical science includes physics and chemistry and geology. It is because of what they have given us that we have greater power to defend ourselves in time of war. They are the basis for engineering and technology, radio, automobiles, electric lights. Such things come from physical science. Through the new powers thus given, physical science opens to us a new world. We see new visions of what life can become. Men control machines and are no longer slaves. The possibility of a new freedom for all is thus placed before us.

Biological science means botany and zoology and medicine. This gives us the basis for an improved agriculture and for better health. We have more to eat; we live longer and more comfortably because of biological science. With better health comes not only more strength to defend our shores, but also the greater possibility for happiness.

Our society is rapidly growing in size and in complexity. We live a different life than did our fathers or grandfathers. Our economy is continually changing. Each of us is a specialist who depends upon others for most of the things he uses. Continual adjustments need to be made. Here is where social science must be applied. But first of all, social science is a new field of knowledge that must be learned. We must know how the industrialization of life affects the lot of the aged before we can plan for social security. Our national resources must be known if we are to use them wisely in defending our nation. We must learn the truth about our society if we would be free to shape it to our desires.

Thus physical science has given us powerful new tools. Biological science has given us longer and healthier lives. Social science is helping us organize our new powers to give us the things we need. But for what shall we work? What are the things of value that will satisfy us? It is the effortto answer these great questions that is the task of the humanities. Here one learns the world's best thoughts. Art and literature and philosophy and religion work together to make us alive to all true values.

In one of the lectures of last week's impressive symposia, Dr. Hu Shih, the Chinese Ambassador, remarked upon the humanizing effect of gadgets. It is a point that has impressed itself strongly upon me. See how technology places unprecedented emphasis on the value of education. Cheap power and ingenious machines have decreased the need for common labor, while growing specialization has increased the need for those who coordinate our activities. Thus the slave has been freed, and labor to be employable must become skilled. Vastly increased numbers of professional men and women are engaged in occupations which fifty years ago were hardly known. These include the secretary, the engineer, the economist, the patent lawyer, the research scientist and a host of others. But it is on those responsible for planning the work of society that the pressure is most intense. Down in Washington the government offices multiply like rabbits. Schools of business and public administration are rapidly growing. The need is less for brute strength, more for expertness in every field, and most of all for wise direction. Thus the growth of the machine is spurring us all toward an ever higher standard of training and education. By forcing us to look where we are going, our new powers over the world are making us more human.

The climax of the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration was the address by President Hutchins as he looked toward the next fifty years. "We must now seek not knowledge alone but wisdom," this was his impressive message. "Our people should look to the universities for the moral courage, the intellectual clarity, and the spiritual elevation needed to guide them and uphold them in this critical hour." For this purpose, President Hutchins pointed out, we need candid and intrepid thinking about fundamental issues. In time of crisis we must think straight if we would survive. We must look for the meanings of life. This is the road to wisdom.

It is the search for this wisdom that the University of Chicago, representing this week the educational life of the country, pledges itself for the next fifty years.