The Double Challenge to the College
By EVERETT CASE, President, Colgate University, Hamilton, N. Y.
Delivered over the Columbia Broadcasting System, October 1, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 94-96.
DO you remember the last war? If you are old enough, you do. You may have seen some member of your family off, or perhaps you went yourself. As a boy of seventeen I myself was in training with my college unit when the Armistice was signed in 1918.
Do you remember the high hopes and high spirits of those days? If you are old enough, you do. We were fighting to make the world safe for democracy; it was only later that we grew cynical about it.
What made us grow hard and bitter? Was it because, as so many people told us, we had been fools in the first place? Was it because we were the dupes of Whitehall and Wall Street? I for one don't believe it, and neither do you.
What happened to us after the last war? When it ended, you will remember, America's position was one of unchallenged supremacy; even the old world looked like new. How does it happen that less than a quarter century later we face the most ruthless challenge in our history—a threat not only to our position but to all that democracy cherishes everywhere? It was Hitler, you say, and the Japs, and none will deny that they were the aggressors. But are we ourselves wholly free from blame? Did we do everything in our power, in the '20s and the '30s, to convert an uneasy Armistice into the durable stuff of peace? Did we who survived the conflict confront our post-war problems with the tenacity and fortitude of the doughboys who fought at Chateau Thierry?
You know the answer. You know how we turned aside. We had done enough, we said; let the rest of the world shift for itself. As for us, we would mind our own business.
If only we had! I tell you, disaster overtook us not because we were minding our business, but because in large part we fatally neglected it. Failing to perceive that the scope of our business had become in fact world-wide, we left foreigners to settle questions in which we had a vital stake. This must not happen again.
No, it was not our war-time slogans that deceived us; perhaps it was not even our peace-time slogans. We were the dupes of our own narrowness of vision and understanding. We thought we had finished our job, when we had only well begun it. We thought that victory could make the world automatically safe for democracy, when all that it did—and this was much—was to give us the opportunity of creating a world in which democracy might flourish.
So today we have another war on our hands. We thought once we could avoid it merely by announcing our neutrality. We know better now. We thought once we could avoid it by ignoring what happened in Europe or Asia. We know better now. We are learning—the hard way—that minding our business is more of a job than we bargained for.
It is not easy to adjust ourselves to the prodigious demands of this war: for men, for materials, for money. I have no doubt that we shall meet those demands, whatever they may be, and meet them with that grim American humour which takes a tough job in its stride.
But that is not the whole story. The victory we now seek and mean to win offers us a second chance to succeed where once we failed, no more and no less. Opportunity, we are told, seldom knocks more than once. We dare not throw away again what the valor of our young men and the courage of their families and sweethearts will have purchased for us at so heavy a price.
And what has all this to do with the challenge to the colleges? So far as the war is concerned, you know the answer. During World War I college students flocked to the colors, and the colleges themselves were converted into training camps. During World War II the colleges' assignment, if still not clearly defined, is certain to be both wider and more urgent. Do you doubt the colleges' response?
Do you know that three out of every four men who were graduated at Colgate last spring are now serving with the armed forces? Do you know that three out of every four undergraduates—excluding only the entering class—are now enrolled or in process of enrolling with the Army, Navy or Marine reserves? Do you know that already the casualtylists include eight Colgate men who had laid down their lives for their country? Do you think that college men will do all this and not do whatever else is demanded of them?
It is facts like these, which confront America, and especially our colleges, with a sharp and continuing challenge reaching far beyond the war. This time we must meet that challenge squarely. This time, when the war is over, we dare not rest on our laurels. Once again victory will bring us face to face with a disordered world in which weary men will return by the millions,—with significant gaps in their ranks,—seeking rest, forgetfulness, and finally jobs. Is this a problem for industry; for government? Is it of no concern to education?
Once again we shall face a world of feverish and bewildering change. Nothing could be more fatal than to regard the war as only an interlude. For if war is the disastrous conclusion of one chapter of human experience, it is also the dynamic beginning of another. Politically and economically it is a violent effort to force a new world settlement, or more accurately, to carve out a basis for one. In the world of science and technology the pressures of war open the throttle wide. Already, says Dr. Stine, DuPont's advisor on research,* "already our world of 1940 is so distant in the past that it has become an antiquity as seen through scientific eyes. The inconceivables of two years ago, (he adds) are today's realities."
I do not need to tell you that many a revolutionary development is a secret of war and must remain so for the duration. It is no secret, however, that synthetic chemistry is rapidly making obsolete our pre-war processes, machinery, —and concepts. Motor fuels, the petroleum engineer tells us, improve so rapidly today that autos built to consume the fuels of yesterday are already out of date. Synthetic rubber, so-called, challenges the slow growth of the strategic rubber plant. Synthetic foods and drugs promise drastic surprise in much that we have long taken for granted. As the mathematician would put it, we will have to deal with an equation in which the constants have suddenly become variables.
What will we do with the new processes, the new energies, that war-time research will put at our disposal? Will synthetic chemistry, reviving our dream of self-sufficiency, send us off on a new and stubborn venture of isolationism; or will we perceive and mind our business wherever it may lead? Will we use our new devices for effective two-way communication between our leaders and our people?
Our American experiment in democracy rests squarely upon the belief that, given the facts, the people can be trusted to decide the issues. We would better insist, however, that our leaders give us not isolated facts, but some understanding of the facts in their relationship to each other. Only so shall we have the materials for exercising judgment. Only so will we have a government not merely of public sentiment but of informed public opinion.
It is to our colleges and universities that we must look, not so much for the solution of these problems as for young men who have what it takes to solve them. They will need technical proficiency, yes, but that is not enough. They will have to understand something more than a wing-back formation or even the differential Calculus. They will have to understand as never before what this experiment in democracy is all about. They will have to understand people, of all sorts and conditions, and know something of thesprings of human action. Above all they will have to realize how much they do not know and how important it is to go on learning.
If the colleges are to meet this post-war challenge, no cherished habit or practice can escape the critical scrutiny that educators must give to the curriculum. Here the war may. actually help. Meeting my colleagues of the Colgate faculty for the first time just two weeks ago, I invited every department to do two things at once; first, to see what courses for specialized war training might be added to those already being offered; second, to examine critically all existing courses with a view to determining which could be omitted, if necessary, with a minimum of loss. The reports are due today, and taken together they will constitute a fresh survey of what we are doing and why. This should be useful not only now, but for the future.
In that future, our technical and professional schools will be more important than ever, but it is primarily to the liberal arts college that we must look for the kind of discipline and understanding we shall need. So-called practical courses alone will not teach men to deal effectively with change, either in the world without or in the sensitive world within. For successful adjustment to change requires a responsible sense of values, both individual and social. We must educate young men for the toughest assignment in history, confronting faculty and students alike with a full-time, adult job.
There will be no room for complacency or laziness. There is even less room, if possible, for mere exclusiveness. Three or four years and several thousands dollars invested in a boy who has no vital interest in the intellectual life of the college is waste. Failure to make this investment, wherever possible, in the boy of limited means but unlimited capacity is for society the unpardonable sin.
In the last analysis, of course, the problem of the college is a community problem. We must look to American homes and American schools for our raw material, and hope that when it reaches us the material will not be too raw. Our own faculties must grasp, before they can expect to teach, the roots of human obligations as well as human rights. The college student is not easily fooled, but he is easily stultified, and he had better be given too much than too little to do. Resistance to the educational process, natural as it is to the human race, reflects more often than not the failure of dull and routine instruction to capture the student's interest at the crisis—namely, the beginning—of his college career.
Victory, like the war, will confront America and its colleges with a truly formidable job. The stakes are correspondingly high. In peace, as in war, we shall have to fight, against odds, for those decencies and opportunities which make life worth living. In peace as in war there is no place in our vocabulary for failure. In peace as in war, success will not come cheap.
But see what it offers. It will yield us all the satisfaction of stretching to do a job. It will open for our young men and women—who now pay the price of our past failures—unparalleled opportunities in all fields of human endeavor for a venturesome, responsible, and creative life. Above all, it will maintain for our children, and for our children's children, that American heritage of freedom which none but ourselves can destroy or preserve.
*Vital Speeches October 15, 1942.