An America of Opportunity


By DR. HAROLD W. DODDS, President, Princeton University

Baccalaureate Address delivered at Princeton University, June 14, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 597-599.

ANYONE speaking on an occasion such as this must approach his responsibility with a profound sense of inadequacy. Now is the moment, if there ever were such a moment, to say to young men going forth to war the one word that might answer all questions and resolve all difficulties. If one but knew the word! Wise men have been seeking it for centuries and it still eludes them. For life is a process of becoming; in this world we never arrive.

This morning I am not going to talk about the war, but rather about the years after the war, when the fighting planes have been grounded and the guns silenced and civilization begins to pull itself together again for another and, I trust, more sagacious attempt at a just and durable peace.

I do not believe there is any question in your minds as to why we are fighting this war and what we must do to win it. There is none in mine respecting the stamina of you who will graduate next Tuesday from Princeton. For the demands of the war your courage is ample. From talks with various members of your Class, I believe that you are more troubled about the sort of world you will come back to than with your fate in war. Some of you trained in science and engineering are wondering whether your technical talents will be in demand when the time comes to convert to a peace basis. Others of you who have specialized in the arts and social sciences are asking whether there will be a place for you in the post-war era which, it is said, will witness great technological activity. To both groups I should say that you need have no worry because of the particularcourse of study pursued in college. The great problems of reconstruction will involve those areas of life and conduct with which Princeton has always been occupied. Capacities which we seek to develop here will be in demand as long as the human race endures.

But I know that you are concerned with speculations more fundamental than your training for a particular job after the war. What, you are asking, does the future hold for the Nation? What will it require of men? What opportunities will it afford? Are we on the brink of a new age? How shall I fit in?

A good part of man's waking hours is consumed by efforts to foretell the future. Formerly it was done by observing the flight of birds or by interpreting dreams. Such methods are no longer considered satisfactory by rational people, although I am told that an astrologer can still make a good living at his trade.

Today most of us prefer to rely on science, sociology and statistics. We study social trends; we project the curve of social changes which we observe in current events and by this projected curve we try to predict what will occur tomorrow.

While I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I think that it is wise to assume that we are reaching the end of a phase. The economic and social life of Great Britain and the United States is changing at an unusually rapid rate. The dislocations of war are sweeping; controls introduced for war purposes will be relaxed but slowly and some not at all. Yet no young man need be pessimistic becauseof the new problems which this trend will create. Disturbed moments of history such as the present can be made creative moments. The troubles and dangers that we are undergoing may be but a prelude to new and better times. Despite the fact that the outlook at the moment may seem forbidding, today's disorder will usher in an age of fresh opportunity for young people, if they will it hard enough.

In urging you to banish pessimism I am not promising you ease and material comfort. We know now that the shallow optimism of the past which assured such a rosy future through the evolution of man's natural instincts for goodness without struggle on his part prepared us poorly for the realities of life. Be prepared for a realistic world, but do not surrender to the conviction that you cannot if you will reconstruct an America of opportunity.

There is historical evidence that disturbed epochs of the past have been creative epochs as well. I realize that we are apt to read into the record of past events the meanings which we wish them to have; but I believe nevertheless that the general proposition just recited is sound.

For example, historians tell us that the end of the Middle Ages was characterized by disorders, deep dejection and universal pessimism. Yet we know now that the Renaissance was just around the corner, preparing to throw off the ecclesiastical and feudal despotism of centuries.

The English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century coincided with an era of disintegration of accepted customs in politics, economics, and religion. Many men of the time who saw their familiar and prosperous world crumbling about them must have viewed the event with grave misgivings and fears. Yet a great yeast was at work, says John Buchan, which, surviving the disorder of revolution, worked for human betterment and freedom, and America at once became a direct beneficiary of it.

The French Revolution gave birth to terror, disorder and world wars. Supported by a victory-intoxicated nation, Napoleon was able to disturb the peace of the world for years and to threaten the liberties of all Europe. For two years England lived in almost daily expectation of invasion by a militarist whose reputation for success had become legendary. There were ample grounds for dark pessimism in those days when Napoleon's yoke threatened as Hitler's does today. Yet the idealism of the Revolution embodied in the slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity survived the evils of hate and fear; and the period that followed was marked by the expansion of democracy and opportunity throughout the civilized world.

Two of my examples from history involve armed revolutions, but please do not understand that I am arguing that revolutions are either desirable or necessary. No matter how idealistic their mottoes, revolutions inevitably involve irrational waste of property and lives. As instruments of change they are frightfully costly; they are a needless social expense. America is too mature in democratic experience for revolutions. In a functioning democracy disciplined to peaceful change there is no place for them.

What I am asserting is merely that periods of disturbance can be transformed into epochs distinguished for human advancement. If we in America are passing through a moment of more rapid evolution than usual, in which our democratic institutions are serving as the instruments of change, the final course of that evolution will be guided by young people now of college age. If we are at the end of a phase, then by the same token we are at the beginning of another; and the future is yours.

This present hour of trial by battle, in which we must first prevail, can serve as a preparation for a fresh start. At this moment our nation may be clearing the stage for a newdrama of American life that will portray the American dream more accurately than any in our history. It will be an exciting and satisfying time to be alive. But first there will be some accumulated rubbish to sweep away.

For example, one serious error that has injured the tone of the past generation, a peculiarly all-embracing materialism, must be corrected. This error has taken various forms, some of them highly philosophical and abstract. It has not been confined to raw preoccupation with worldly goods. Money grubbers and profiteers have not been the only guilty ones. Belief in the primacy of material goods has infected wide areas of thought in recent years. It led some sincere humanitarians to accept a lop-sided economic interpretation of history. The doctrine that human values are but reflections of economic forces has distorted our attitudes more than we are generally aware. Some even have exhorted us to believe that economic betterment and wider distribution of wealth is about all that there is to religion.

I do not mean to deny that economic welfare will not always be important. Certainly I am not arguing against reforms which spell higher standards of living for the less privileged or wider distribution of cultural opportunities and advantages. What I do assert is that any philosophy of life is evil that does not recognize the inescapable opposition between the material and the spiritual that runs through all human experience, is evil because it is untrue.

Another variant of the general materialism that afflicted the United States was the comfortable doctrine that spirituality and business success were but two sides of the same shield. Be good and you will prosper can easily be made to mean that whatever prospers is good. It was pleasant to know that religion was good business; that if you were right with God your affairs were bound to flourish.

These various manifestations of materialism, whether issuing from the pulpit or from the chamber of commerce, were rooted in a single comprehensive fallacy that was draining America of its faith in ideals and its will to sacrifice. Human perfection through economics was thinning our blood.

"Shall we be a prosperous nation after the war?" The question is natural but is it really of first importance? The stern historical truth seems to be that prosperity does not develop strength of character; nor have prosperous eras been characterized by the dominance of the highest human qualities and aspirations. Circumstances of ease and safety are far more dangerous than we think. If the war purges our souls through suffering and work for a common cause, as it undoubtedly will, success in the years of peaceful reconstruction to follow will come to those who worry less about prosperity and more about the satisfactions of self-expression not for one's self but for others.

Our deficiencies have not been in the region of knowledge or science. Our failures have been due to lack of sufficient wisdom and will power to link our highest aspirations with our knowledge and science. Even in respect to economics and politics we have been unwilling to utilize what we know, fragmentary and piecemeal though it be, because to do so would have involved what appeared to be a sacrifice of our short-term interests or a risk to our vested security. Our outlook was narrow and self-defeating because we had forgotten to pay sufficient consideration to those higher faculties of man that mark him off from the animal. We assimilated goodness to our own shortsighted preference for material welfare and we elected to enjoy freedom without discipline.

And now a word to relate what I have said to the sentiments and truths which this Chapel symbolizes and which the service this morning expresses. We are beginning to learn anew in this country that the quality of our civilization is not determined so much by things as by beliefs, by what the people believe to be true and what they believe to be false. Belief in truth is a matter of faith as well as knowledge. Although many moralists and scholars have tried to divorce truth from religious ideas and affiliations, it remains rooted in religion. The fact is that the values which democracy embodies, which America at her best accepts as her own, were first expressed through religion. We shall go astray to our own hurt if we forget that the basis of judgment between true and false originated in religion and will continue to be religious.

Viewed in its natural aspect alone, civilization has made a great mess of things and there are compelling reasons for pessimism. But if we recognize that the roots of what is good in us tap infinite springs of goodness; if we realize that our highest aspirations reaching out to God survive wars and pestilences and even death, we can look to the epoch after the war not as an unfriendly stranger but as a welcoming friend.

I owe to an older man, rich in experience and eminent for his wisdom, the following graphic summary of the cosmic choice before us in epochs like the present. We can say

"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right."

This view reeks with self-pity over a fate that threatens tough days ahead. It describes a character able to float with the stream as long as the current is easy and favorable but too weak to swim upstream. Every crisis discloses that there are multitudes of such people in the world. My generation, which will so soon be passing its responsibilities on to you young men, has no reason to be proud of the condition of the world it is bequeathing to you, and you may be tempted to lapse into inert bitterness. But the subject for you to ponder is not how badly your fathers performed before you. The test you have to meet is whether you can do any better.

Fortunately there is an alternative to this defeatism available to you, a brighter philosophy, more comforting and more invigorating. It is found in the words of Jesus:

"In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good
cheer; I have overcome the world."

This assurance unadorned by the vocabulary of theology or bedimmed by the refinements of religious doctrine is sufficient for me. It promises no easy conquests but it rings true.

Gentlemen of the Class of 1942

The burden of my remarks this morning has been the opportunity which will be yours after the business of the present war has been attended to. I have stressed the fact that times of change favor youth and that disturbed moments can be made creative. I do not wish, however, to mislead you by passing over too lightly the hazards and problems thatlie ahead. The opportunity which will come to you will be tied to a very grave responsibility.

Unless all signs fail you will do your life work in a more socialized and collectivistic world. The domain of government will continue to expand. This fact involves dangers more real than many well-intentioned people understand. It can spell abridgment of historic liberties unless we are wise and watchful and see to it that we do not blindly barter liberty for promise of material goods. If the application of our social idealism should result in the substitution of closely held political power for economic power our last state will be worse than our first.

Making the peace after the war is going to be a hard problem to solve. It will be a process long drawn-out; it will not end with the signing of a treaty. The victorious United Nations will have to deal with a whole generation in Germany which has no intellectual familiarity or moral sympathy with our way of life. The youth of Germany have been trained not to think but to follow; they have been held in complete isolation from exposure to democratic ideas. Because they have been trained so narrowly and intensely, common ground on which to build a just and durable peace will be hard to find. It may take years. In this interval as afterwards, the responsibilities of the United States will be heavy, militarily, politically, and morally.

Moreover, the nations will come out of the war fatigued in spirit and depleted in nervous energy for the long view which alone will produce the fruits of victory we desire. The danger then will be that the people will prefer momentary security to freedom and opportunity. Large elements of the populations conquered by Hitler seem, for the time being at least, to have lost interest in the liberal faith as the Americans understand this term. We shall have to be a leader in restoring belief in human freedom. It will be hard because everyone will be so tired.

The difficulties are very real but if you are willing to face them squarely you will be happy because you are pulling your weight in a thrilling race. As we have reviewed our perplexities today they may seem to add up to an appalling total. They are a challenge it is true, but they present also an absorbing and inviting opportunity. You are fortunate that you will have a part in it.

Remember that the basic elements in human nature continue constant. Truly satisfying success in epochs of change and trial comes to those who reject the egocentric viewpoint. We tend to forget this truth when we are prosperous. Danger recalls us to it. Princeton has tried to teach you an understanding of the timeless values and the enduring qualities of the human personality. This learning is good for any age. If you carry it with you, it will see you through. We shall follow your careers with constant interest and profound hope. May you be preserved in firmness of purpose for the great days before you. Good-bye and God bless you.