Education Determines Civilization


By WENDELL L. WILLKIE, Republican Presidential Candidate—1940 Delivered at Duke University, Durham, N. C., and Broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting Company Network,January 14, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 261-263.

I THINK it can be stated as almost an historical truism that the greatest civilizations of history have been the best educated civilizations. And when I speak of education in this sense I do not have in mind what so many today claim as education, namely, special training to do particular jobs. Clearly, in a technological age like ours, a great deal of training is necessary. Some of us must learn how to be mechanics, some how to be architects, or chemists. Some will have a special aptitude for medicine. And a great many will have—or think they have—a mysterious talent which induces them to undertake the practice of law.

But none of these specialties constitutes true education. They are training for skills by which men live. I am thinking, rather, of what we call the liberal arts. I am speaking of education for its own sake: to know the sheer joy of understanding; to speculate, to analyze, to compare, and to imagine.

Look back across the panorama of history. Is it not true that the pinnacles of civilization have been achieved by the cities and states most proficient in the liberal arts and occupations? In their contributions to the enrichment of human life, the Greeks, I believe, tower above us all. Yet this is not because the Greeks were good navigators, which they were; nor because they were great architects, which indeed they were. It was rather because almost all their leaders—and many of their citizens whose names we do not know—enjoyed knowledge and reverenced the arts. The Greek cities conquered the eastern Mediterranean with the sword. But they conquered posterity with their minds.

The onrush of what we call modern civilization has obscured this essential truth of history. People—some of them in very high places—have openly disparaged the liberal arts. You are told that they are of little help to a man in earning his living or in making a contribution to his fellow men. The thing to do, you are told, is to get trained; learn an occupation; make yourself proficient in some trade or profession. Of course this advise is sound, so far as it goes. But the inference, and sometimes the outright declaration that frequently follows it, strikes at the very roots of our society. The liberal arts, we are told, are luxuries. At best you should fit them into your leisure time. They are mere decorations upon the sterner pattern of life which must be lived in action and by the application of skills. When such arguments gain acceptance that is the end of us as a civilized nation.

Today we are engaged in a desperate war, and we need for the fighting forces almost all the young men who would, normally, have had an opportunity to acquire a liberal education. It is right and proper that these young men should abandon their education temporarily and go forth to fight. It is right and proper that the universities of this country should turn over to the armed forces whatever facilities can be made useful. The government is moving very vigorously in this direction and no patriotic citizen will fail to cooperate.

But I must confess that the attitude in which the conversion of the colleges has been undertaken, together with certain public declarations, fill me with alarm. A few weeks ago, for instance, an Administration spokesmen advised all young girls to devote their time to technical training courses in college or to leave college and go to work. Now it is clear that we cannot solve our manpower problem withoutputting women to work. Yet the fact is that there are millions of women above college age, not needed in their homes or for the care of their children, who are still available. Until these older women are all employed there is no need whatever to drag young women out of the colleges and to deprive them of their one great opportunity for a liberal education. On the contrary, it is a very harmful thing to do. For just now millions of our young men are being deprived of this opportunity, and the per capita percentage of college attendance in the United States is going to fall to a record low for our time. At least, therefore, let us preserve, through the women of America, the continuity of the liberal arts.

In fact, so important are the liberal arts for our future civilization that I feel that education in them should be as much a part of our war planning as the more obviously needed technical training. There will be a certain number of young men in every college who, for one reason or another, are not available for military service. They should be given the facilities whereby they may go on with their education. There will be a certain number who will be returned disabled for active service, but of sound and eager mind. Ways should be provided by which they may continue their education. In addition, there should be some provision in the Manpower program for leaving a nucleus in the colleges of men whose aptitudes qualify them as definitely for our long range needs as, let us say, other men are obviously qualified for medicine. So, the structure of the Liberal Arts Colleges will be preserved during the war and so, minds will be trained and enriched for the humanizing and civilizing of the world to come after.

Furthermore, the men and women who are devoting their lives to such studies should not be made to feel inferior or apologetic in the face of a P.T. boat commander or the driver of a tank. They and all their fellow citizens, should know that the preservation of our cultural heritage is not superfluous in a modern civilization; is not a luxury. That it is in fact what gives meaning to that civilization. It is what we are fighting for. And they are serving their country just as surely in fitting themselves to preserve it as are the men who fly the planes or man the ships or fire the guns.

For we cannot win a true victory unless there exists in this country a large body of liberally educated citizens. This is a war for freedom—freedom here and freedom elsewhere. But if we are going to risk our lives for freedom, we must at the same time do all we can to preserve the deep springs from which it flows. Recently we have been prone to think of freedom in purely economic terms. It is true that a man cannot be free unless he has a job and a decent income. But this job and this income are not the sources of his freedom. They only implement it. Freedom is of the mind. Freedom is in that library of yours, around which this campus is built. When you range back and forth through the centuries, when you weigh the utterance of some great thinker or absorb the meaning of some great composition, in painting or music or poetry; when you live these things within yourself and measure yourself against them—only then do you become an initiate in the world of the free. It is in the liberal arts that you acquire the ability to make a truly free and individual choice.

Our American higher education for many years has felt the influence of the German university. And it has been a harmful influence. It has encouraged the sacrifice of methods that make for wide intelligence to those who are concerned only with highly specialized knowledge; it has held that the subject is more important than the student; that knowledge is more important than understanding; that science, in itself, can satisfy the soul of man; and thatintelligent men should not be allowed to concern themselves with politics and the administration of state. Such matters should be left to trained politicians. President Hopkins of Dartmouth has stated these trends more clearly than anyone I know and has pointed out that "it would be a tragic paradox if, as a result of the war, we were to allow our system of higher education to be transformed into the type of education which has made it so easy for a crowd of governmental gangsters like Hitler's outfit to commandeer a whole population."

The destruction of the tradition of the liberal arts, at this crisis in our history, when freedom is more than ever at stake, would mean just that. It would be a crime, comparable, in my opinion, with the burning of the books by the Nazis. And it would have approximately the same results. Burn your books—or, what amounts to the same thing, neglect your books—and you will lose freedom, as surely as if you were to invite Hitler and his henchmen to rule over you.

The preservation of our system of liberal education during the war will make an enormous difference in the moral and human tone of our society in the future, of the very atmosphere in which the peace is made, and, since we are not an isolated society, of all civilization after the war. Let me remind you of Irwin Edman's recent fine statement of the significance of the very word "humanities." It is not trivial art or playful thought. It is the name for the whole of the tradition of civilized life which from the Greeks down has accented freedom in political life and individuality and creativeness in personal relations, creativeness in art, and originality in the experiment of living which is each individual's opportunity. If the humanities, or the humanistic temper which they promote, are permitted to lapse now, we shall have lost the peace before we have gained it, and the real victory after the war will be to the way of life, inhuman, tyrannical, mechanical, of those whom we shall outwardly have conquered."

In pleading for the humanities I am not preaching any gospel of high-browism. The relationship between a liberal education and freedom is good sound American doctrine. There are hundreds of colleges in this land of more or less advanced education, and in recent years they have been graduating thousands of students every year. Naturally, all of these graduates are not proficient in the liberal arts. And yet no matter how they may have neglected their college courses, or how over-zealously they may have specialized, they have won some measure of equality with all the great minds and all the challenging personalities of all time. That fact has been immeasurably important in making our American doctrine of equality a real and living doctrine.

I regret that during the last several decades we have had a tendency to overlook this important American fact. And I think we are paying the penalty for our shortsightedness in unexpected ways.

For instance, there has been a trend recently toward what is called "leadership"—but what is really nothing more than the idolization of individual men. In Italy, Mussolini took the title of Il Duce—the Leader—on the grounds that he was the one man who could fulfill the destiny of the Italian people. Not long after, in Germany, Hitler began calling himself Der Fuehrer. The politics advocated by these men were totalitarian, and therefore, antipathetic to our way of life. Yet the over-emphasis on single individuals has gone on, even in countries which are fighting totalitarianism now. Everywhere you turn today, you find people clinging to certain men who have been exalted in the public mind out of all proportion to their talents, however great. In Russia there is Josef Stalin; in China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; in Britain, Winston Churchill; in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. The stature of these men is in every case out of the ordinary and they deserve the high positions they have won. And yet, dare we say that any one of them is indispensable? The moment we say that, our world must change.

I do not know all the reasons for this emphasis on single individuals. But I do perceive a connection, here in America at any rate, between that emphasis and the neglect of the liberal arts. Had we more faith in liberal education, we would have, I believe, more faith in ourselves—more faith in the great leavening process of democracy, which forever pushes new men to the top.

I have had the privilege of meeting most of the great men of our time and of conversing with them intimately. I have talked with and know all the allied leaders I have just mentioned, and many more besides. Yet I can say truthfully that, however impressive their abilities—and I have found them impressive—I saw nothing in them that could not conceivably be duplicated in Akron, Ohio, where I practiced law for many years, or here at Duke University. I think it was William Howard Taft who said that you could find a man fit to sit on the Supreme Court Bench of the United States in any town in America of more than 5,000 population. Possibly Mr. Taft exaggerated. Yet surely the principle has been proved time after time in American history. The vast American educational system has set men free—free not alone to serve, but free also to lead. Education is the mother of leadership.

Now I think there is another phenomena of our time which is linked with our failure to grasp the real significance of liberal education. This is an excessive indulgence in the practice of what is known as censorship and propaganda. Of course, censorship of military matters is necessary in order to conduct a war. But this principle is being daily, if not hourly, abused and extended to many other matters that have no military significance whatsoever. More and more the doctrine of telling us what we should know is being adopted.

It is of course natural for men who attain high office to seek to preserve themselves from the ordeal of public criticism and to attempt to stimulate approval of their policies and so to perpetuate themselves in power.

And those who are suppressing free discussion among us and our allies have of course a rationalization for their policy. They say that they must conduct political warfare. In the conduct of political warfare, they claim, it is damaging to say certain things. The enemy, they tell us, picks them up, distorts them, uses them against us. All this, of course, is true enough. But what of it? The time has never been when men did not seek to distort the utterances of their enemies for their own advantage. And what has won out in the long battle? Always the truth. Spread the facts, analyze them, debate them, make them available toall the world. There is no other form of political warfare that can possibly win the great political struggle in which we are engaged. Truth alone can win it.

Is not this worship of leaders, this willingness to be told what to think, this unquestioning acceptance of unnecessary restrictions on our freedom of speech, is not all this part of the same trend—the trend away from self-reliant judgment, the trend away from the little towns, the trend away from the dignity of the common man, the trend away from liberal education, by which men achieve equality in fact as well as in law? We have seen these impulses take root in other countries, which are now our enemies. We have seen them carried to their dreadful conclusions. We have seen the exaltation of government, the abasement of culture, and the resulting violation of all that civilization cherishes. We have seen the devolution of human aspiration. It is a tragedy as great as men have ever witnessed. And it is our task, a task in which we shall be engaged for the rest of our lives, first to stop it, and then to repair it.

There is much discussion now—and quite properly—of the matter of war aims. Yet I have listened to some of these speeches with misgiving. I have shuddered to hear a member of our government planning, when the war is over, to police the education of our late enemies, after the traditional manner of conquerors. To disarm those enemies, yes. To take whatever measures are necessary to prevent rearming, yes. To remove from the necks of the people an enslaving totalitarian rule, certainly. But having done that, education is another matter. It must grow out of and carry on a native culture. To determine the nature and manner of their own education is the right of men everywhere. And alien ideals superimposed by force will only produce resentment and hatred.

Too many of the planners, I feel, are trying to look ahead by looking backward. Too many are seeking the future in the past. I find in many of their speeches an attempt to solve everything by their pet economic theories—the same attempt that has nearly ruined us during the last ten or fifteen years. The study and practice of sound economics is indispensable to a successful solution of the peace. And yet even sound economics cannot define the aim of the peace, nor the aim of the war. To discover that aim we must go deeper. We must establish beyond any doubt the equality of men. And we shall find this equality, not in the different talents which we severally possess, nor in the different incomes which we severally earn, but in the great franchise of the mind, the universal franchise, which is bounded neither by color, nor by creed, nor by social status. Open the books, if you wish to be free.

Now, in the midst of war, I give you as war aims the perpetuation of this university, your right to attend it, and the certainty that your children, if they so wish it, can follow in your steps.