The Scholar, Scholarship, and the War
THE CAUSE OF TRUTH AND FREEDOM
By MAURICE BAUM, Professor of Philosophy, Kent State University
Scholarship Day Address, Kent State University, May 19, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 563-565.
WE have assembled on this occasion to do honor to the young scholars who now sit upon this platform, and thereby to honor scholarship itself. For the past eight years this has been our custom. As each year new names were added to the scroll of those who had distinguished themselves by their scholarly activity in the humanities, in the arts, and in the sciences, we have celebrated the glad event together.
And it was well that we did so. For surely it is the university and the college which should grant public recognition to individual effort most representative of their own particular function. Since a hall of learning is the appointed place for the development of scholarly interest and capacities, there it is most fitting to proclaim joyfully the discovery of the scholar.
No artist could be prouder of his creation than we are of these young men and women, the living testimony to our own scholarly effort; yet we cannot rejoice with them this year without some deep misgivings.
Our nation is at war. Our country has been attacked. Our very existence is at stake. This crisis which suddenly confronts us, although not wholly unexpected, does in its magnitude and in the scope of its issues almost overwhelm us. No peace-time activity can therefore escape the rude challenge to justify itself and suffer the consequences of its own plea.
So I invite you to participate with me, on this occasion, in the preparation of the case for scholarship and the scholar in time of war. Let us not underestimate the gravity of this undertaking or the importance of our success or failure in it. Unless we can show good reason why scholarship should be cultivated and scholars encouraged to develop their intellectual talents, our fellow citizens may cease to respect our profession, and we ourselves shall do half-heartedly what our own consciences can not even privately recommend.
Indeed this grave situation is nearly upon us. Already one of the most eloquent voices in American public life, a voice itself respected for scholarly achievement and creative effort, has deemed it his duty to denounce American scholars as "irresponsible" and American scholarship as intellectually sterile, morally bankrupt, and educationally futile. Since this criticism comes from an unimpeachable American source, from no less a person than the present Librarian of Congress, Mr. Archibald MacLeish, now a professional custodian of learning, it cannot be ignored or casually dismissed as itself a case of irresponsible chatter.
Mr. MacLeish is no intellectual fifth columnist. His act of public denunciation was not part of some Axis propaganda strategy which would undermine American morale by creating disunity and loss of national self-confidence. He did not have to make this attack; he was not hired to do it; and he realized fully the significance which would be attached to his words because of his prominent position in our government and his just fame among American men of letters.
Nor is MacLeish alone in this assault upon America's scholarly citadels of learning. Other equally competent, if not equally eloquent, voices have made forthright public denunciations of that activity which it is our purpose to honortoday. Hence it becomes necessary to examine the charges brought against American scholars and their scholarship; for such criticism bears directly upon our personal honor and upon our right to persevere in time of war.
But even if there were no public criticism to be faced, our own private consciences would provoke the self-examination of our calling. What professional teacher in this audience has not in recent months felt the futility of his routine activities, and questioned the real value of his scholastic effort in this time of national peril? What youthful scholar among us, aspiring once to ascend to the topmost rung of the ladder of learning, has not asked himself, "Should I, in this hour of my country's need, continue to seek more knowledge when I might better serve in her armed forces or in her rapidly expanding productive agencies?"
Since scholars are men as well as scholars, they may well prefer now to honor their humanity, and to do this by direct action against all enemies who have mocked the dignity and equality of man, debased the integrity of the mind, and tried to enslave the human spirit to the rule of tyrannical force.
Scholars unable to aid their country in actual combat have wished to donate their various technical skills so patiently acquired by a long apprenticeship in the pursuit of truth: ingenious industry in the collection of reliable data, expert capacity to organize and interpret such data, and a superior ability to formulate hypotheses and explanations capable of later verification.
And so it is imperative that we soberly consider the nature and the value of the scholar and scholarship in this time of crisis. Would that we were free to explore more amiable themes, but we can no longer shirk the responsibility of justifying both the theory and the practice of scholarly endeavor.
This duty can be fulfilled best by considering MacLeish's indictment of the American scholar and American scholarship. The scholar, he asserts, stands condemned on three grounds: for his indifference, on the whole, to the ordeal of European scholarship during recent years, for his unwillingness to defend as a scholar the great Western tradition of culture upon which he was himself nourished, and for a false conception of the nature of scholarship that has reduced it to a useless personal ornament.
It is not necessary on this occasion to defend the attitude of the American scholar toward the plight of his colleagues abroad. Some future historian possessed of more facts and impartiality than we the living could possibly acquire, can be trusted to appraise the record. When he does so, I do not doubt that the American scholar will prove to have been no less sensitive than any other class of citizens to the sufferings inflicted so ruthlessly upon his foreign colleagues.
To the next two charges, a different answer must be given.
The American scholar, argues MacLeish, has failed to resist the assaults upon learning, made both at home and abroad, because he has conceived his work to be independent of all worldly affairs. Yet his eyes did not fail to perceive, even at the great distance of three thousand miles, the glowmade by scholarly books consumed to flames at famous old institutions of learning, and his ears heard faintly the cries of anguish uttered by the tortured victims of the concentration camp before all sound had been suffocated. Moreover, the actual presence of exiled scholars at his own institution, men whose personal virtue and great learning were so plainly visible, made him ponder the fate of scholarship in a world dominated by the new alien philosophies. But when the American Scholar did take full cognizance of the threat to learning embodied in the policy and practices of totalitarianism, he sought either to meet the enemy on the field of battle, physically armed, or to condemn him not so bravely by resolution. He would not, and he did not, combat this growing danger to his own activity with the intellectual weapons upon which this activity depended. In a word, he failed to utilize his scholarship, its methods and ideals, to attack the avowed enemies of the intellect.
This circumstance followed, states MacLeish, from the fact that in America the scholar had conceived his work to be completely divorced from all social, economic, and political responsibility. To be true to itself, scholarship must remain literally irresponsible; that is, not responsible to any other interest but its own. It should be always loyal to the ideal of its autonomy, complete detachment from all moral concerns.
"The irresponsibility of the American Scholar", declares MacLeish, "is the irresponsibility of the scientist upon whose laboratory insulation he has patterned all his work. The scholar has made himself as indifferent to values, as careless of significance, as bored with meanings as the chemist. He is a refugee from consequences, an exile from the responsibilities of moral choice. . . . He has taught himself with the biologist to refrain from judgments of better and worse. His words of praise are the laboratory words—objectivity—detachment—dispassion. His pride is to be scientific, neuter, skeptical, detached—superior to final judgment or absolute belief."
In the past, adds MacLeish, the scholar and the man of letters were one individual "man of wholeness of purpose, of singleness of intention—a single intellectual champion, admittedly responsible for the defense of the inherited tradition, avowedly partisan of its practice. . . . He was a man of learning whose learning was employed, not for its own sake in a kind of academic narcissism, but for the sake of decent living in his time. . . . Learning to him was no plump pigeon carcass to be picked at for his private pleasure and his private fame, but a profession practiced for the common good."
What of this indictment. Is it fair? Is it sound? Is it true? And if it is, how must the scholar repent and scholarship recover its pristine glory. Note carefully that MacLeish has not criticized the American scholar for excess of bookish learning—a familiar type of complaint, nor for the vain display of his intellectual accomplishments—which is pedantry, an academic vice known even to the ancients.
His indictment is new and far more serious: the scholar has misconceived the very nature of his enterprise and in so doing he has encouraged the rise and triumph of those forces in the world whose very purpose is to annihilate even the vestiges of true learning. This is a terrible accusation which if true does indeed nullify all the claims and privileges of scholarship.
Happily for us an examination of these charges reveals a telling weakness in their structure and no adequate evidence to support the conclusions erected upon them. Let us grant what is undoubtedly true, the scholar today has become a highly specialized individual who pursues a given inquiry with no regard for any facts and factors, conditions
and consequences, except those which are directly relevant to the problem at hand. When he excludes any values and meanings from his survey of a situation, it is not because he is himself indifferent to all values, careless of significance, and bored with meanings. Nor is it because he fears the responsibility of personal moral choice. Quite the contrary. He firmly rejects certain values and meanings in a particular instance because they are not directly related to that problem. Having no bearing upon the origin, nature, and reconstruction of the given difficulty, he refuses to allow them to confuse or divert the inquiry. Precisely because he has made a personal moral choice, namely a commitment to exclude all interests and all consequences that might prejudice his investigating mind or warp his rational conclusions, he resolutely sticks to those facts, relations, values and consequences which are truly part of the immediate problem.
MacLeish, as an outside observer, has failed to describe correctly what the actor in the drama of scholarly research alone knows, the great moral courage required to maintain the impartiality, the objectivity, and the detachment necessary for the attainment of a truth unsullied by subjective passions or corrupted by selfish, external forces. To be "scientific, neuter, skeptical, detached—superior to final judgment or absolute belief" is then to attain the very highest level of intellectual honesty.
When MacLeish asserts that in the past the scholar and the man of letters were one individual who assumed moral responsibility for the preservation of an inherited tradition, whereas today the scholar is a selfish recluse who pursues learning solely as a means of catering to his own appetite for private pleasure or fame, he is guilty of two grievous errors. He has distorted the record of history to make his point, and he has defined the activity of scholarship in terms of certain other activities that are not essentially related to it.
MacLeish is wrong historically because few among all the scholars in the past concerned themselves as scholars with the solution of immediate, practical problems. While they did not ignore their surroundings, or disdain on occasion to participate in political, social, and religious contests, their scholarly works represent a sustained effort to think logically and truly about more general concerns. That is why their scholarship is timeless.
It may also be shown by concrete example that whenever a scholar did surrender his intellectual independence and objectivity, his work became inferior in substance, took on a local bias which deprived it of universal significance. Scholars who set out to prove a case deliberately, too often prove too much; their own venality and the finite weakness of their cause.
If the scholar as scholar has an intellectual duty, it is not to confuse himself and others by identifying a practical necessity, the defense of his activity, with his ideal aim. This aim can be only the honest pursuit of truth conceived in the broadest possible terms as embracing both scientific, factual knowledge and the moral, aesthetic, and religious insights to be gained through practical human experience.
There could be no more fatal blunder than to pervert the intellect in order to protect it. The Axis enemies of true scholarship could wish for nothing better. Beware of the intellect which begins to fight lies with other lies of its own invention; of an intellect which would distort history to conceal previous errors of national policy; of an intellect that does not hesitate to glorify the American way by subtly rationalizing away its real failures. Such an intellect is more treasonable than any cowardly appeaser. For it is destroying that which alone dignifies this second worldwide struggle, which alone lifts it above the merely political, the merely economical, the more practical. It is destroyingthe faith of man in his own words and in his devotion to the truth of things.
What MacLeish has recommended must be avoided by all scholars if true scholarship itself is to be preserved. In his fear and hatred of totalitarianism, which would destroy Western culture as we have known it, a mighty synthesis of Greek wisdom, Christian love, and scientific truth, MacLeish would adopt the very tactics used so adroitly by the enemy. He would have scholar turn propagandist and scholarship become a useful weapon in the warfare of ideas. There should be another holy crusade, only this time it would be led by the scholars who alone know, and can serve, the common good effectively.
If what MacLeish really desires is a strong emotional defense of Western culture, let him, perhaps, turn to the lesser poets or the rhetoricians, or better still to the advertising men and the public relations counsels, to the organized publicity agencies and the newspaper experts who know how to sell an idea and how to put over an appeal. The scholar should have none of it. It is not his business, even if he possessed the talent which he does not, to persuade others to accept a set of fixed ideas and absolute ideals.
Because we want no "private and parochial sciences and private and parochial arts," to borrow MacLeish's phrases, we must not, even in the name of Democracy, permit the subordination of the intellect to the status of a political servant.
The glory of scholarship at its finest is that it yields to no external master, cannot be bribed, and will not accept dictation from an armed conqueror. Pagan scholar and Christian scholar, occidental scholar and oriental scholar, are alike in this one respect, whatever may be the subject matter of their discourse and the nature of their conclusions.
Insofar as the scholar is a man and not merely an "animated slide rule," a disembodied reason, or a hermit sage, he may choose to act, to participate in the struggles of his fellow men, to take sides. But if and when he does so it will not be as the scholar, nor will he serve the interests of scholarship directly by so doing. Though the scholar may learn from active experience as much, possibly more, than he can learn from books and nature, as Emerson insists, what he gains is only the raw material of knowledge concerning human affairs, which knowledge will later require much pruning, editing, and re-checking in quieter movements of observation and analysis.
To Emerson, the scholar was the sage, the philosopher, whose wisdom derived from nature, books, and actions, might elevate and guide his fellow men. In our day, the conception of the scholar has changed radically; his function has been narrowed while it has been strengthened. He is the careful reporter and analyst; he is the doubter and the finder. He teaches us all to be cautious in our assertions, certain of our evidence, sure of our reasons. What he has lost in comprehensive vision he has gained in clarity of perception and soundness of deduction. Although he is no longer the poet and the sage, his work is not less important or truly inspiring to those who seek truth instead of consolidation or rationalization.
Western culture does not need the scholar to defend its worth. That worth shines radiantly by its own light, a light first generated by such scholars as Plato and Aristotle, fed later by the great spiritual energy of the religious leaders of Asia Minor and Europe, and now multiplied a thousand fold by the genius of the modern scientist.
Since the pursuit of scholarship, however, becomes impossible in a period of brute force and general turmoil, the scholar may find it necessary to abandon his unique labors while he strives manfully to assist in the practical restoration of order, justice, and tranquillity on earth.
This the American scholar may well do, and may prefer to do, to the honor of his country and to the glory of his own good name. Nor should anyone, least of all the teacher, try to discourage the youthful scholar who, being physically fit and mentally mature, prefers now to serve in the ranks of democracy's army.
But let us not forget, least of all the scholar himself, that in yielding to the patriotic impulse to be of immediate practical use to his country, the intellectually gifted individual is not surrendering either the aims or the ideals of scholarship itself. Those scholars who are not fitted to share in the vital work of offense and defense, may still serve their country well by remaining true to their profession. Should all scholars abandon their activity, there would be none left to preserve and to cultivate the function of scholarship. In a society governed by a division of labor, it is only the scholar who is adequately trained to do the highly specialized work of investigation, analysis and synthesis.
And so I say to all American scholars, young and old, do not lament if you are of no real value to your country as a sailor, a soldier, a flyer, a bombardier; or as a tool-maker, welder, riveter, moulder, lathe operator, draftsman, airplane mechanic, and so on through a selective service list of more than 200 special skills and trades.
There remain the challenge and the duty outlined so vividly by Emerson more than one hundred years ago.
"Free should the scholar be—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, 'without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.' Brave; for fear is a thing which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance. It is a shame to him if his tranquillity, amid dangerous times, arise from the presumption that like children and women his is a protected class; or if he seeks a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up. So is the danger still; so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. Let him look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin—see the whelping of this lion—which lies no great way back; he will then find in himself a perfect comprehension of its nature and extent; he will have made his hands meet on the other side, and can henceforth defy it and pass on superior."
Never was there a time when the world as a whole, and America in particular, so greatly needed this scholarly type of fortitude and enlightenment. In the future, even more of it will be required.
It is your privilege and mine to cultivate as long as we are permitted and are able to do so, that humbleness of spirit, that purity of motive, that singleness of purpose which alone make possible the attainment of this needed scholarship.
Though man must first live before he can learn,—and so both individuals and nations alike must fight if necessary to preserve themselves,—without knowledge man cannot live well for long. Let not the din of war deafen your ears to this basic truth. A democratic nation of all nations can least afford to permit the liquidation of all true scholarly activity. Minus such activity, its own existence will always lack permanent security and wisdom.
Continue, then, young scholars, to perform this unique service for your country, and perform it with all the skill and with all the energy of which you are capable; perform it with all your heart and all your soul; supremely confident that you, too, humbly serve the noblest of all causes—the cause of truth and freedom and man's unconquerable spirit.