Youth Is More Sinned Against Than Sinner


By DOUGLAS ROBERT ROBBINS, '42, President of Student Body, College of William and Mary in Virginia

Delivered at the Sixth Annual Honors Convocation, October 15, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 126-127.

IT is the custom for the President of the Student Body to address a few remarks at the Honors Convocation. It is fitting, for so often we are lectured to rather than given an opportunity to express our own thoughts. Some day America will awaken to the realization that youth is more sinned against than sinner. Youth is not to blame that it has gone astray. Youth is not to blame that it stands in a specialized age—mystified, confused and distracted.

The students of this generation have been subjected to a bombardment of bitter cynicism. In recent years, many men of penetrating intelligence have been busy blowing to bits, almost every combination of words which express high human aspirations. We have lived in an age when brilliant novelists

have made cynicism their profession. We have lived in an age when many of the nation's teachers joined in this cult of cynicism, in brief, we have grown up in an age in which men have thought it clever to be cynical.

In face of this, it is no wonder that we have drifted unconsciously into the fallacious position of viewing the activities of the human race through the glasses of complete cynicism. This distortion of the past does not improve our ability to understand the present.

The time will come when the state of apparent madness of a part of the human race will no longer be fashionable. Meanwhile, those of us who recognize the worth of the intellectual and spiritual fruits of our western world mustbecome convinced of the part education is bound to play in a world returned to its senses.

There are certain fundamental values which in this skeptical age we have been too ready to throw over. Instead of losing these values we should seek to recapture positive values, we should seek for some definite direction.

May I urge you my fellow students of William and Mary to use your college education in seeking and maintaining worthy ideals.

In older times this thought was in the minds of everyone who had the privilege of attending college—those were the days in which men were measured by their personal qualities and two older qualities not often heard of today—the quality of righteousness and the quality of faith.

In the Chapel of this college there is a plaque dedicated to the memory of that great Law Chancellor, George Wythe—

"Erected as a tribute to his courage, ability, uprightness and purity." What an inspiration it is to study under men of that character. In large measure the greatest products of our colleges are due as much to such qualities in their teachers as to the scholarly attainments of these men.

In times past I am sure the great and mighty fields of purely formalized knowledge were always subordinate—the controlling conceptions had to do with values—values which they believed to be universal and which by faith they considered eternal.

Is not the perpetuation of these great values the real work of a college in a Democracy?

Most of you will agree that education in the United States today should undertake the great responsibility of making democracy meaningful. It has to teach its youth the kind of life in which the nation believes—the principles and ideals which the people hold priceless. The primary purpose of education then, will be to lead the young people to understand, to appreciate and to live the kind of life for which we as a people have been striving throughout our history.

Instead, today much of our thinking has gone along the lines destructive of values—too much of our education has been destructive and without moral purpose. Now that the job of destruction is done, it is time to come back and seek to recapture the virtues we have lost.

We in America are on the verge of a new cycle of values. It is easy to understand how wars and turbulent times such as today draw people into such a realization.

Our way of life in America will continue only if the young people and the oncoming generations believe in it.

No nation can be great at any time, no nation can survive in these times, unless it has a vivid sense of its purpose, a clear perception of its ideals and an enthusiastic devotion to them. The students of America are seeking desperately for a great cause to which they can devote their lives. You and I want something in which we can believe whole-heartedly. We are not soft, we are ready to respond to a challenge that means hardship, sacrifice, and struggle.

The Democratic ideal by its very nature appeals to the finest and best in youth—who want to think seriously and act nobly. We as young people are ready and eager to share in Democracy when we catch the vision.

Maybe we students want to know just what Democracy really is. For several generations youth has not been stabilized in a democratic way of life. We encountered the postwar dilemma and all the economic, moral, and—religious changes that came with it. Young people faced the depression, unemployment and all its shortcomings. Now it is being asked to fight for a Democracy in which it has not found stability in the past.

Students have a right in a democracy to expect that personality will develop and that an individual may have the opportunity to live a full life. Students in America have a right to expect a place to work with a possibility of marriage and security for the family.

We have the right to expect that there will be an integrity of governmental policy that will secure us work, decent living standards, and provision for old age. Finally, we have a right to expect of our democratic country—spiritual teaching and atmosphere.

Nothing is more difficult than the road 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 constant self-sacrifice.

The aforementioned qualities essential to learning are precisely those which must characterize the citizens of a successful democracy. The failures of some nations in the last few years can be attributed directly to the absence of such qualities. We can readily see the failure has been primarily moral, resulting from unwillingness to face difficulty, from lack of courage, and from an avoidance of responsibility.

We as students of the College of William and Mary must learn to hold fast to a firm and definite faith—that there is a difference between right and wrong which cannot be destroyed by a negative philosophy. We must make distinction between truth and lie, between courage and cowardice, between moral initiative and cynical irresponsibility. Such a belief is essential to the fulfillment of the ideals of a college whether in time of emergency or in days of peace to which we look forward.