The Place of the Humanities in a World of War


By DR. JOHN W. DODDS, Dean of the School of Humanities, Stanford University

Delivered before the Western College Association, Los Angeles, Cal., December 19, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 311-314.

STANFORD University has recently launched a new School of Humanities, and one of the questions I am frequently asked is "Why did you choose a time like this to float such a project? Aren't you putting your money on the wrong horse?" At first glance it would seem a little ironic and academic, when pressures for manpower are threatening the very lives of the universities, to establish in one of those universities an outpost of the humanities and to talk about the place of culture in our civilization when that civilization itself is careening on the edge of disaster. The role of man's inhumanities seems much clearer now than that of his humanities, and as time goes on and we feel the pressures of war more bitterly there will be an increasing reluctance on the part of many people to listen to anything which does not concern itself with planes and tanks and guns and manpower. "Why talk about making our civilization better," they say, "when it is fighting for its very survival?" But even in time of war it is well to consider what we are fighting for and not to lose that in the very process of protecting it, For the crisis of our civilization is not merely that of defending it against those who would obliterate it from the outside; it is in part an internal crisis, a constantly recurring crisis. As one critic has recently said, it is the duty of every non-combatant today to see that we have a country worth saving. And as one considers it further and tries to see before and after, the place of those disciplines we know as the humanities appears more and more integral to the preservation of the life which we like to think of as American. I have used the word disciplines, which to some educators has an unfortunate connotation, but it is at the heart of what I want to say to you today. Unless we Americans can learn a self-discipline which is not merely mechanical but moral and intellectual as well, military success, no matter how brilliant, will not prepare us for the incalculably serious problems which will face inevitably the post-war world. Do the humanities have any place in such a preparation, and can they be validated not merely as accessories to such preparation but integral to it? The question, at any rate, is worth exploring.

What are the humanities? The term has frequently been loosely used and requires definition. Clearly I do not mean merely the traditional humaniores litterae in the Renaissance sense, a study merely of the life of ancient Greece and Rome. If any one thing is clear today it is that in the future we shall be living in a global world and that the civilized man of the future will have to understand the cultures of the Orient just as clearly as we understand the cultures of Europe and the west today. Those of us on the Pacific Coast have great advantages, therefore, by nature of meregeographical position to be leaders in a new cultural reorientation. In the large sense the humanities mean the sum total of man's activities—nothing that touches man is alien to the humanities; but more specifically they mean man thinking and feeling, man preparing within himself, as a rational and spiritual being, bulwarks for his own mind and soul, signposts which will help him to move forward in the realm of human values, "letting the ape and tiger die." It becomes really a search for values, and not an abstract metaphysical search, but a concrete, living search. One philosopher has defined the humanities as "Empirical data historically oriented and philosophically interpreted," and, in spite of the six Latinized words out of seven in that definition, it has much value, for it is life properly placed. If the study of the humanities does not lead towards a synthesis of human activities it has failed to justify itself. Philosophers have been searching for centuries for "the good life." Many of them have sat in their own studies and built their own little ideological Utopias, others have gone to the South Sea Islands in search of theirs. It need hardly be mentioned in passing that the waving palm trees and the coral strands of the South Sea Islands are not exactly the place one would go today in search of the good life. The thing which we must learn to recognize is that the materials for the good life lie about us and are always with us and within us if we can learn to recognize them.

For academic purposes the humanities, so-called, are usually a grouping of those studies outside the sciences and social sciences where the approach is not primarily empirical. The chief materials of the so-called cultural or humanistic education are the arts, music, philosophy, religion, history, the languages and literatures. Always, to be sure, there must be a strong point of reference to the sciences, social and physical; and, indeed, one of the tasks that the humanities has today is to make clear the relationships among man's varied activities and knowledges. There is a humanistic way of approaching science, for example, as well as a scientific way.

One of the first hurdles that one has to get over in the popular mind is a concept of the word "culture" as signifying a superficial patina of elegant accomplishment—mere sweetness and light, whose chief discipline is that of balancing a teacup gracefully or entering a drawing-room without tripping over the rug—something which can be acquired in fifteen minutes a day and which will help you to remember Mr. Addison Sims of Seattle. There are even some people in our colleges and universities who believe that a little bit of the humanities will go a long way, that it is well to make a gesture in the direction of culture, so-called—that like adose of salts it is not bad medicine, but is to be hurried over as rapidly as possible in the first year or two of college life while the young man or woman is getting ahead just as rapidly as possible with the prime business of preparing himself for a vocation. Now if the humanities mean merely superficial elegance it is well that they should be minimized; but if, as I believe, they stretch into every corner of human experience and help the man or woman to build a design for living in the true sense, then it is well that their true place as a profoundly important implement for living in a difficult world should be recognized. You will remember that Matthew Arnold analyzed the four powers of life as being the power of conduct, the power of intellect and knowledge, the power of beauty, and the power of social life and manners. If any one gets out of balance, you have a fragmentary, lop-sided, parochial personality. In the equilibrium of those powers lies "the good life," and the humanities are the most powerful influence in helping us to establish that equilibrium.

But if the humanities are to be defended, and they very clearly are on the defensive today, they must have the power of establishing a continuity of the good life in society—and this in spite of whatever cataclysmic dislocations may occur from time to time. Their function in a normal society—the arts of peace—is clear enough. One wonders, however, if we'll ever see a normal society again—and even in the past we have vibrated between the opposite poles of action and reaction, always trying to go somewhere but never being quite sure where our destination lay. One remembers, for example, the cultural breakdown after the last world war, that slump in American intellectual morale when, as Henry Canby put it, "we went backward seeking for 'normalcy' like a dog for his vomit. It was this wallow into smug complacency that not only forecast another war, but bred that mosquito brood of satiric writers that stung us to irritation, bit at their own loyalties, and disillusioned the oncoming generation of much that was illusion, but still more that was not, but belonged to the heart and soul of America." This must not happen again. We must somehow learn to think clearly and to feel justly, and to do so requires a deep and broad understanding of all that is humane in life—of what man can be at his best.

I said "feel justly" as well as "think clearly"—and I should like to emphasize that particular responsibility of education today. Even in fighting a war, as Jan Smuts has put it, we do not wage war with planes and tanks and guns alone, but by high character and moral courage. And Archibald MacLeish is profoundly right when he says that "even the reformed isolationists have discovered that this war is a war, not for the continents and islands which distance can protect, but for men's minds and the kingdoms which men have in their minds established—things which no oceans and no distance and no fleets of battleships could ever make secure."

Now the kingdom of man's mind, as MacLeish means it, is not merely the kingdom of reason, but of imagination as well. Desperately we need to get the wide and luminous view which will read potential order in disorder, which will find creative forces in seeming chaos. And to do that we need to rediscover the dynamic which lies in the proper use of the feelings. We need to learn, and to teach our young people, what is worth getting excited about, if they are ever to act wisely. Nothing is more symptomatic of a certain kind of modern decay (you find it in our fiction, our advertising, our devotion to spectator-sports) than the general debasement of the emotions, until they become so identified with trivial or ignoble things that well-meaning people beginto suspect the very word "emotion." They have seen the word, and the thing itself, distorted and perverted. The result is that many academic people have devoted themselves to the so-called "academic" attitude which reflects endlessly without ever, under any spiritual and emotional compulsion to commitment and action, attaining anything but a sort of unbuttoned intellectual paralysis. It is better, I suppose, to have no emotions at all than to use them dangerously; nevertheless it is a commonplace that one of the deep reasons for the success of National Socialism was that it became a religion for a whole generation of youth. And until the democracies can find a moral equivalent for that belief in something, our young men will go to distant battlefields as I have seen a distressing number going these past months: without being quite sure what they were fighting for, and without being sure, except in a vague traditional way, just how much it was worth fighting for. Those of us who profess to teach must face the charge that we have placed perhaps too great a premium upon intellect as such, without referring it to the other deep needs of man's nature.

Now this area of the emotions, as it relates to intellect on the one hand and to action on the other, is a peculiar province of the Humanities. This sort of thing can not be dissected out and presented at nine o'clock each Monday morning as a formula (any more than you can create patriotism by herding three thousand men together in a barn and addressing them on "War Aims"). You can't say: "Your assignment for next Wednesday will be to feel nobly about page 34 of Paradise Lost and about Chapter Six on the Treaty of Ghent." But in the Humanities one learns, or should learn,—not didactically, but in the very tissue of the disciplines themselves—the grounds of relevant and courageous thought and feeling. It is the task of the Humanities to create a pattern of values and relationships which alone can give a point of view in which reason and imagination join hands to create new stimuli for action.

As one thinks of the humanities, outside the pattern of total war, he is inevitably impressed by the problems which an accelerating industrial society brought in its wake. The process started away back in the eighteenth century with the invention of the steam engine, and ever since the race has reminded one of the dog chasing the mechanical rabbit around the track—we never catch up, and always there is that steady perceptible gap between aspiration and achievement. In spite of the manifold advantages which the machine brought, its development has been accompanied by a progressive dehumanization of society, until at last the Frankenstein monster seems in a good way to wipe out its master. Man's mechanical contrivances are the marvel of the world, but morally and ethically and socially we are still (relatively speaking) trying to crawl out of the primeval slime. Man has gained mastery of his environment but he seems to be less and less master of himself. Today we see him turning the weapons of his brain against himself—groping, amid the noise of a tottering civilization, for some faith in man to which he can cling. We are beginning to learn that machines are not enough. Somewhere beyond all these man must discover the frontiers of his own spirit, else the machines he has created will destroy him. Only in learning the richness of his common humanity can he come to live at peace with himself. This is no mere verbiage, for beyond the waste and disaster of this war lies the problem of constructing the post-war world, and more intellectual fortitude and imagination will be required for that difficult task than it takes even to fight a successful war. President Roosevelt said recently: "Government and industry need skilled technicians today. Later we shall need men andwomen of broad understanding to serve as leaders of the generation which must manage the post-war period." And where are those men and women of broad understanding, those leaders, to come from, if not from college and universities which have seen to it that they have been exposed to that very sort of training?

If the role of the humanities is important in times of peace, in the face of mere technological expansion, it is more than ever important in war-time. For peace will come, and with it, as I said, the problems of living in a world to be reconstructed. We must not forget that; we must not repeat the debacle of the 1920s. The English have learned that lesson (as they seem to have learned so many lessons better than we), and in the midst of righting for their very existence they have been laying far-reaching plans for reconstruction, both material and human, after the war.

If the democratic ideal is to be salvaged and maintained it must be supported by men of good will who have, in addition to good will, responsibility, purpose, social consciousness, and an understanding of that frequently misunderstood word "culture." If the success of our increasingly complex democracy hinges, as it well may in part, upon a proper cultural orientation for those who are to direct its destinies, it is clear that some reasonable balance must be maintained in education between the pressure for early specialization and the need for a coherent view of human activities—the need to produce critical minds capable not simply of acting but also of judging what is good and what is bad.

Granting the validity of a conception of education which will preserve and integrate and perpetuate these values, it is the clear responsibility of the university to make available to its students a coordinated program to accomplish that purpose. The difficulty too frequently has been that the conventional "liberal arts" program is insufficiently pointed and synthesized, incompletely related to the world in which we live. It has represented on the one extreme a smattering of unfused subjects; or on the other extreme too great a concentration in one department of knowledge, with resulting lack of cross-fertilization of ideas. The true program in humanities can afford to be neither a cultural catch-all nor a too narrow bit of specialization.

I have spoken of the defense of the humanities, and it must be said that sometimes they need to be deferred against their avowed practitioners in academic circles. The danger takes two forms: the first is that of excessive specialization and departmentalization. The incubus of German scholarship still rides the humanities and one discovers that faculties need to be educated as well as the students. When the humanities tried to become too scientific they sold themselves down the river. One of the first things we need is a change of heart among certain teachers and a procession of mourners to the mourners bench. If our students think in compartments it is because we have taught them so to think. The other danger is that of excessive thinness, the watering down of our cultural tradition to meet the mind of the student on a level which has been conditioned by Hollywood and the pulp magazines—the refusal really to come to grips with the great traditions which shaped the past and which must be the anvil upon which we will forge out any theory of the future. The process of strenuous self-discipline in the humanities which is the only means by which we can achieve enough intellectual toughness to meet the problems which will face us cannot be gained through the pores, it involves disciplining the mind for its own use.

Lewis Munford, now professor of Humanities at Stanford, has expressed the humanistic ideal well when he says,

"The aim of this School will be primarily to create better men and women. Its studies will be grounded in the experience of the past, vitalized by constant reference to the present, and directed toward the progressive mastering of the future. It will attempt to develop people who will have an equal capacity to think and feel and act: to think, not in compartments, but in related wholes; to feel and express their emotions with the discipline that comes through high art; and to act, not as creatures of routine or as victims of circumstances, but as fully purposive and enlightened beings. Only those who know that human ideals are as indispensable to practical plans as vitamins are to the normal diet, will be capable of combating the inhuman nightmares that the foes of civilization have turned loose upon the world. We who believe in democracy and freedom must have the courage to dream nobly, to plan boldly, and to act with utmost resolution. The day of the time-servers and the routiners, the day of dehumanized mechanisms and an over-mechanized humanity, is now past. Only whole men, liberated men, integrated men, will have the vital energy to rise to the creative tasks that lie before us." The humanization of man in society is the great task of the Humanities.

One thing more needs to be said. It is insufficiently recognized in these days that the humanities can help to fight a war as well as prepare for peace. More immediately, the great ideas of the past and the present can be a stay to us in the current crisis. These disciplines of the mind, of the spirit, these great reaches of human understanding, cannot be seen under the microscope or measured on charts, but they are as real as they are intangible. We need to be reminded of the dignity of man, to remember that we are potentially noble, to learn the infinite worth of the individual.

Turn to the drama, for example—what does one learn from the great literatures of the world, from Shakespeare's plays? Certainly no neat moral lessons, no easy solutions to the problems of waste and disaster and pain and suffering which beset mankind; no pattern, even of a happy hereafter. But one does learn that man has that within him which can laugh at disaster and triumph over defeat. That man can rise above the cataclysms which overwhelm him, and even as he goes down to seeming ruin, discover the triumphant invincibility of the human spirit. Human values still exist, and will endure beyond the shadow of our time and beyond the darkness which now covers the world. These things the humanities have to teach us.

One of the most thrilling documents to come out of the present war is the little book called They Were Expendable, in which W. L. White tells the story of the men in the mosquito boat squadron which evacuated General MacArthur from Bataan Peninsula, men who, in the closing phases of that disastrous campaign, continued a fight which they knew was hopeless, against impossible odds. There are a multitude of ironies to come out of that simply told story, but the overall impression that one gets as the narrative unrolls about Bulkeley and Kelley and their fellows who scooted around in those 70-foot plywood torpedo boats is one of the unpretentious and yet indomitable courage, the kind of courage that one expects of Americans and yet which always warms the heart to find. Well, civilian pursuits as well as military must have their heroisms, and in the academic world the call is for those who have the courage to rethink old patterns, and who, without sacrificing anything worth while from the past, have the penetration to move forward to a design which will make the best that has been known and thought in the world visible to the young men and women of our time who must face a future for which there is as yet no blueprint, but the mastery of which will

require energy and imagination and a broad synthetic comprehension of the best that is possible. The humanities are as old as man and as new as the pages of the morning newspaper. It is our job to revitalize them, and in the processto convince a sometimes reluctant academic world that far from being peripheral to the important business of getting an education they lie at the very heart of any education which can be called worth while.