Can the Liberal Arts Tradition Survive?



Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Association of Hawaii at Honolulu, May 28, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 667-670.

THE president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr. Raymond B. Fosdick, recently said that our schools, colleges, and universities have a dual role in this present war—"that of serving the war effort and secondly, that of preserving the treasures of the spirit which we hold in trust from the past for the benefit of the generations to come." I think no one will deny the obligation of our higher institutions of learning in supporting the war. In the first World War of 1914-18 the colleges of England and America made a magnificent contribution, and they are doing so again. Indeed in our country they are being so strongly pressed to provide technically trained men for the armed forces and for war industry that I fear many persons including those in high government places have lost sight of this second duty Mr. Fosdick speaks about—that of preserving alive for future usefulness the learning of the past, the humanities and the pure sciences. This is the subject that I wish to discuss with you this evening.

Your president has announced that I have taken the topic "Can the Liberal Arts Tradition Survive?" That question is one that I think is particularly significant to members of the oldest scholarly society in America. It takes no great amount of imagination to understand that the colleges and universities in which Phi Beta Kappa was nurtured and reared are now fighting for their very existence. I do not need to tell you that the attack comes not only from the exigencies of the war (I mean the need for drafting younger men, the absorption of faculty members into the war effort, and the wholesale taking over of educational facilities for War and Navy Department use), but also in a more insidious way from the enemies of the liberal arts tradition.

It is my purpose this evening to sketch some of the difficulties that have beset the liberal arts colleges since the war began, to describe, if I can, the harm that has been done. Then I want to touch upon the bright side of the picture, if I can find it, and point out some positive benefits which I believe will accrue as a result of the war. And finally, I want to suggest the possibilities for usefulness of our liberal arts colleges in the post-war world.

I regret that I cannot present to you a precise account of what is happening in the educational world. I doubt if anyone can. If there are any college teachers present, I think they will tell you that "upheaval" and "revolution" aremild words to describe the way the war has invaded the campus. Furthermore, it has been many months now since I sat in a classroom and complained, as teachers are wont to do, of being overworked and underpaid. I can assure you, however, that if teaching was a form of slavery some thirty months ago, 1 would dearly love to go back to it now! Seriously, I hope I can mention some things that have happened as viewed by an outsider looking in and possibly see for you more than would an insider looking out.

Let me review briefly some of the recent war events as they have adversely affected the educational world:

1. Considering loss of the students who have volunteered and those 18-20 year olds that have been inducted the enrollment of all colleges has been sharply cut. Likewise a very great proportion of faculty members have gone into the armed services or into war industries.

2. There has been a corresponding decrease in the number of courses offered especially in liberal arts subjects like the languages (excepting a few), philosophy, literature, history, political science, economics, and psychology. On the other hand, certain subjects have been oriented to the immediate aim of the war. I mean, of course, subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, and the pre-professional courses for medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. Law schools everywhere report the severest curtailment of their programs. Harvard Law School, it is reported, now has but a mere handful of students.

3. This shift of emphasis which a technological war dictates has necessitated a huge supply of new teachers for these newly important subjects. In recent weeks, for example, I have heard from friends whom I knew just a short time ago as specialists in Classical Rhetoric, English Phonetics, and Dramatic Production. They tell me they are studying assiduously to become all of a sudden teachers of trigonometry, meteorology, and the theory of flight. Considering the non-scientific temperaments of these friends of mine I pity the poor teachers who are making the conversion over to the war models! But this is war and amazing changes do transpire!

4. These events have meant that the whole educational generation between the ages of 16 and 24 has been profoundly upset. Most boys, until recent changes take effect, will get only a smattering of college work, a year or twoat most, before being sent to a training center. The young men left behind in the colleges are those still too young and those physically or emotionally unsuited for military training. Only in the girls' colleges and the co-educational institutions having a large percentage of women students, has the war let liberal arts courses continue. Yet even in the women's colleges there has been a pronounced trend toward technological subjects.

5. Aside from the decline of enrollments, however, and the decrease of courses the small liberal arts colleges are being attacked from within the educational world. i refer to the movement inaugurated by President Hutch ins of the University of Chicago to grant the bachelor's degree after two years of college study. Mr. Hutchins boasts that the war is playing into his hands. One of Mr. Hutchins most vigorous and articulate critics, Dr. W. H. Cowley of Hamilton College, also a Dartmouth graduate by the way, believes that if "a dozen leading universities over the country should join Mr. Hutchins in granting the bachelor's degree at the end of the Sophomore year, the small college will face a calamitous situation: the majority of them will be forced into the status of junior colleges, and the rest will have to fight for their lives either as three-year institutions granting the master's degree or as five-year institutions granting the bachelor's degree at the end of two years and the master's degree after three more years. Under such an arrangement, only a handful of very, very small colleges will be able to survive since the vast majority of students will leave college for graduate and professional schools when they receive their two-year bachelor degree and only a Lilliputian fraction will continue on for three more years in order to earn master's degrees."

The few points I have just enumerated represent the barest sketch of what I believe has happened in recent months in our colleges and universities. Practically everywhere, of course, so-called accelerated programs by which degrees may be secured in three years or even less, have been in effect. And practically everywhere the decline of income from tuition and the uncertainty of government contracts have seriously affected the financial outlook of endowed institutions.

Let us turn then to what shows on the other side of the ledger. What possible good effects has the war done for the liberal arts colleges?

1. First of all, I firmly believe that the present critical inspection of the liberal arts colleges will ultimately have far-reaching effects for good. The proponents of the liberal arts tradition have been forced to state their case in terms of real analysis and not of mere sentiment. This re-examination of the functions of the liberal arts colleges has focused attention anew upon the eternal problem in every age of what makes an educated man. In August of last year the American Council on Education set up a special committee to serve as a clearing house for all problems relating to higher education caused by the war. The committee was headed by President Day of Cornell. It included Presidents Conant of Harvard, Sproul of the University of California, Dykstra of Wisconsin. Dr. Cowley of Hamilton was chosen to represent the liberal arts colleges. His minority report is an extremely persuasive statement of the value of the small college in our national life. Incidentally, only last month the Carnegie Corporation made a grant of $5,000 to Dr. Cowley to enable him to conduct the research necessary to publish a book on the present and the future of the liberal arts college in American life. It will, I am confident, throw new light in a definitive way on the subject. Dr. Cowley, President Conant and Dr. McBride of Bryn Mawr—to name a few educational leaders are convinced that the end of the war will bring a great revival of interest in the liberalarts They think that the skills of the technologies will not begin to solve the problems of a post-war world, "that men and women must be disciplined and educated through the arts and humanities to seek truth, that civilizations cannot expand, or even exist, unless the generations to come understand moral values."

2. This restatement of the need of the liberal arts college I think in the long run will mean better teachers, better teaching methods, and better ways of selecting students who can profit by liberal arts subjects. I believe both the liberal arts curriculum and the liberal arts colleges ten years hence will be vastly better than they are today. A great many poorly managed, ill-equipped small colleges cannot survive the present war.

3. Further, the writings and speeches of leaders like President Dodds of Princeton, Walter Lippmann, Wendell Willkie have highlighted the vital need for an adequate supply of broadly educated men in the critical months following the war's end. President Dodds has succinctly said: "The Hitler heresies are confirming us anew in the belief that attention to technology must not lead our nation to neglect the values of the will and the spirit to which a liberal arts education is directed."

4. Perhaps the most interesting phase of American higher education lies just ahead. President Hutchins refers to this era as the phase of education by contract. He describes the plan in these terms: "Institutions are supported to solve problems selected by the government and to train men and women selected by the government, using a staff assembled in terms or requirements laid down by the government." The immediate application of the plan started last month when nearly 400,000 American boys between 17 and 21 were given an aptitude test devised by the College Entrance Examination Board. Those who attain high rank will be offered a college education sponsored by the Army or the Navy. Nearly 500 of the large colleges and universities have been approved by the War and Navy Departments for the operation of this experiment in publicly financed higher education.

5. Next, and of tremendous importance, America has become the repository of the learning and scholarship of the rest of the world. The great libraries of Europe, the British Museum, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Bibliotheque Nationale, are damaged, ruined, or closed. Or, as in Germany and the occupied countries the books which Dr. Goebbels distrusts have been burned. I do not think we Americans fully realize or begin to appreciate the great treasure-houses we have in the Library of Congress, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the Widener Library of Harvard, or the Huntington Library in California.

In addition to our wealth of great libraries and research laboratories we have in our midst the greatest of the old world's refugee scholars and scientists. To mention a single supporting fact during the past ten years 131 leading European mathematicians have migrated to the United States. America is now the world center of mathematical learning. In the last annual Rockefeller Foundation report we read that these refugee scholars are today making "an extraordinary contribution to America's war effort."

This brief survey of the heritage we have acquired should make us proudly aware of the responsibility and trusteeship which American higher education owes to the rest of the world. Much is expected of us in the solution of the tremendous problems of the post-war world. Much will be thrust upon us because there is nowhere else to turn for help and guidance. The leadership we can lend and not the money in the anxious months and years after the armistice will determine the course of world events for the nextgeneration and perhaps for the rest of the twentieth century.

This leads to the final part of my talk this evening. You recall I said I wanted to suggest the possibilities for usefulness of our liberal arts colleges in the post-war world. It is not at all too early to consider this problem because it is inseparable with the problem of drawing up the peace and of administering it. In his stirring address at the University of California a few weeks ago Mr. Archibald MacLeish prophetically remarked that the future is America's to make. "It is not our future, as a few Americans have asked us to believe, to master or exploit. . . . It is ours to shape, not because we have many planes or great numbers of ships or rich industrial resources but for a different reason; because we have the power as a people to conceive so great a future as mankind must now conceive—because we have behind us a tradition of imagination in the people." Let me continue just a moment and read to you the poet MacLeish's beautiful description of the American: "A restless man. A great builder and maker and shaper, a man delighting in size and height and dimensions: the world's tallest; the town's biggest, . . . A man naturally hopeful, . . . foremost of all, a restless man and a believing man, a builder and maker of things and of nations."

It is a mistake to assume that an enduring peace will come from winning the war. Only the opportunity to shape a lasting peace naturally follows the winning of a war. The concepts which will emerge with peace must now be studied—and they require the mightiest kind of intellectual endeavor. The soldiers and sailors of the United Nations have every right to expect that our leaders will not let them down in the winning of the peace—and more important still in, administering the peace in the difficult reconstruction years. President Roosevelt fittingly pointed out last fall: "No soldiers or sailors in any of our forces today would so willingly endure the rigors of battle if they thought that in another twenty years their own sons would be fighting still another war on distant deserts or seas, or in far away jungles or skies."

To come directly to my main contention: The responsibility of those who win and survive this war will not cease with feeding and caring for the sick and the hungry and with loaning money. If we really want enduring peace we must begin now on a constructive program to share the learning both humane and scientific that fortifies and enriches peace.

How can we prepare for peace? What are the weapons of peace? Obviously, they are not like the weapons of war. In fact, they are not weapons at all. They are philosophical concepts based on understanding, respect, and moral values. If we look back on the happy days of world peace we find at the same time periods of fair dealing, mutual trust, and real willingness to appreciate one another in the family of nations. The formula for peace is understanding. The formula for keeping peace is in providing the leaders in all countries who can honestly and honorably strive to prevent war. Peace and ethics go hand in hand.

Let me quote from Mr. Winston Churchill's address of last March 21st:

"The future of the world is left to highly educated races who alone can handle the scientific apparatus necessary for pre-eminence in peace or survival in war. I hope our education will become broader and more liberal. Facilities for advanced education must be evened out and multiplied. Nobody who can take advantage of higher education should be denied the chance. You cannot conduct a modern community except with an adequate supply of persons upon whose education, whether humanitarian, technical, or scientific, much time and money has been spent.

A moment ago I said that the bed-rode foundation of a lasting peace was made up of understanding and harmony among the peoples of the great regions. The supply of leaders which Mr. Churchill mentions must be skilled in the arts of creating understanding and harmony. How then are we to train such leaders? Let us consider what they need to know. First and foremost comes the matter of communication. I mean the necessity of knowing languages. In spite of the predominance of English as the leading world language the need will multiply for those who can speak the languages of the conquered nations. We Americans must turn towards the Orient and train our young leaders to speak and to understand Japanese. We must not neglect the languages of our great ally, China. We shall need, too, men and women who can speak Russian and the languages of India. Our Good Neighbor program sponsored by Mr. Nelson Rockefeller and designed to establish better cultural relations among the countries of South America has already paid high dividends. The fact that Vice President Wallace is able to address our South American allies in Spanish has made a profound impression. In the old world the need for those who can speak French and German, Italian and Spanish will certainly not lessen at the beginning of the peace.

After acquiring languages those young persons in all countries who will have the task of making the peace take root and grow will need to know the literatures and histories of the peoples in which they will become specialists. The airplane had made this mid-20th century world a much smaller place, but paradoxically the need of knowing one's way around is even greater. You will note that I am constantly referring to young persons. I say young emphatically because the ideas of peace will most certainly be applied by the generation now fighting the war and their younger brothers and sisters, and not by the generations now directing the war. If we are to avoid one of the irreparable mistakes of the last world war we will not try to decide everything for the next twenty-five years a few weeks after the last gun is fired.

We shall not I hope plan at once a series of peace treaties. We must have a cooling-off period. Mr. Churchill, for one, has wisely suggested a four-years plan. He thinks this is "the right length for a period of transition and reconstruction which will follow the downfall of Hitler." During this period we would have time to study "five or six large measures of practical character" in preparation for a series of adjusting international agreements.

If such a four-year program is adopted I propose that we use the four years wisely and well. I can think of no plan that offers more possibilities for real peace than the inauguration of a program of international exchange fellowships for promising college students of all countries. A few hundred students a year, carefully selected, and with the highest qualifications of leadership, from each of the other countries of the United Nations and from Germany, Italy, and Japan, would come to America and study in our best liberal arts colleges. Likewise, when the European and Asiatic colleges and universities are in condition to resume their activities they would welcome a proportionate share of American young men and women.

What would be the result? At the end of four years each the present warring nations would have available for turn to home shores a group of prospective leaders of the highest type. They would return with a knowledge of the language, the literature, and the history of the country to which they were accredited. They would return I hope with friendship and understanding for the country of their temporary adoption. Our government would have available for use in the Departments of State and Commerce and in the Commissions for the study of the peace a reserve of young men and women with practical ideas and convictions on howthe peace could and should be constructed and maintained.

But this is not all. In this four-year period we could do much to build the informed public opinion and to erect the framework for the series of peace discussions that will be needed throughout the world. To be more particular let us consider the Pacific Theater at the close of the war. If the United States, Australia, Japan and China could establish what I shall call the Asiatic-Pacific Federation of Universities it would be possible to arrange at institutions designated by the various countries a series of exploratory conferences or discussions. Leaders from the peoples of Asia and the Pacific would address the groups of fellowship students I spoke about earlier. The students themselves could then carry on further discussions, submit reports, and develop ideas in small international parliamentary student unions. A procedure similar to this has now been successfully carried out for the past twelve years at Princeton University in the School for Public and International Affairs.

I am a great believer in the techniques of public discussions in small enlightened groups. For the solution of the problems of the peace I am convinced we must have free, informed, progressive discussion rather than oratory and debate. Discussion, you recall stems from the Latin verb, discutere, meaning "to tear apart" whereas debate comes horn a verb meaning literally "to beat down." The peace you and I long to see will not be won by beating down.

It would seem fitting to me for our government to select the University of Hawaii as one of the Pacific universities, the one to represent the United States as a place to receive students from the other nations.

It seems only logical to add that Hawaii possesses great advantages as a meeting place for the discussion of the problems of the Pacific Ocean areas.

Such a plan of exchanging students and arranging conferences would be costly and difficult to administer, you may say. If it will prevent another world conflagration a generation hence the cost and effort will be small indeed. Besides, we train hundreds of young men a year at our Military and Naval Academies and Aviation Training Centers in the arts of war. Why not train also in the arts of peace?

I believe that the opportunity to study and sponsor such a plan as outlined should present a great challenge to the members of Phi Beta Kappa in active chapters and in alumni associations throughout the land. The details of the plan will require the closest attention and care. Phi Beta Kappa possesses the organization, the prestige, the mental capacity to conduct the survey needed. I commend this constructive project for your most earnest consideration.

The suggestion of establishing these International Exchange Fellowship is not especially novel. The germ of the idea perhaps goes back to the Boxer Rebellion when theUnited States refrained from accepting the indemnity ordered and stipulated that the sum should be used as a scholarship fund for worthy Chinese students to be sent to American colleges. Of course, you are familiar with the operation of the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford and the Commonwealth Fellowships for British students at American universities. At the present time the Russian Government has sent fifteen superior good-will students to Columbia University for the purpose of studying the American way of life.

I could go on at length and discuss the significance and later value of the exchange of students in their formative years. Perhaps one instance will illustrate what I have in mind. The wife of the great Chinese leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, has just successfully completed in America a diplomatic mission of the highest importance. Everywhere she went Madame Chiang was greeted with the greatest respect and attention. Part of this sympathetic reception is explained by the fact that she is a great woman in her own report and she represents for a great people a thrilling cause. But if you question the average American I am sure you will find him reminding you also that Madame Chiang is a graduate of Wellesley College and that he is inclined to trust her because he understands her and believes her. In her charming way she appeals as an American. She represents the best traditions of our liberal arts colleges.

I return therefore to my central idea: the post-war era will need for its leadership the best mind in every nation to cope with the tremendous issues that will arise. Real statesmanship then as in the past will call for a knowledge of the meanings and responsibilities of such fundamental concepts as justice and injustice, friendship and hatred, truth and non-truth, beauty and ugliness, virtue and non-virtue. Whoever attempts to manage society in the latter half of the 20th century is bound to fail without the broadest understanding of what the great thinkers of the past have reflected and written on the state, the church, the family, and man himself.

The great and guiding concepts for the conduct of public affairs are still to be found in books like Plato's Republic, the Phaedrus, Gorgias and in Aristotle's Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric. Our debt to the classical writing of ancient Greece and Rome remains immeasurably high. I do not need to remind you that the glory of the liberal arts curriculum rests on the fact that it teaches as the best of what the best minds have thought and spoken in the past.

I come therefore to my final remark. The great mission of the liberal arts studies lies ahead. The vital need will be for broadly educated men and women for the years to come. The question therefore is not "Can the Liberal Arts Tradition Survive?" but rather, "Can this whirling 20th-century world long survive without the liberal arts?"