American Higher Education


By EDMUND E. DAY, President, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Delivered at Simmons College Commencement, Boston, Mass., June 12, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 571-573.

IT is possible to think of this war as a tremendous convulsion in the international body politic; it is equally possible to think of it as the violent culmination of a prolonged and fundamental transformation of our social order. Whichever view is taken, it is clear enough that the world will never again be the same. Basically this is even more true socially than it is politically. It is no mere party propaganda to say that the rest of the century will belong to the common man. On every hand we can observe a rising tide of democratic power. If war has become total, with everyone in the suffering and sacrifice, then peace too must be made total, with everyone sharing in the blessings of victory.

This is not to say that the world is about to go communistic. It does mean, however, a further extension of effective democratic controls. As a result of the tremendous social forces released by the war, the common man is likely to dictate the type of political state in which he lives, the form of economic system in which he produces and distributes the fruit of his labor, the educational system under which he provides for the instruction of his children, and the social order through which he strives to work out his destiny.

All this is by no mean ominous. We but witness the contemporary phase of man's endless search for freedom and the satisfactions of living that only freedom can bestow. Now that victory in the war is so clearly in prospect, the rimes are not for fear. Rather they are for renewed affirmations of strengthened democratic faith for a new belief in the common man.

But faith alone is not enough. Whether the impending developments, for America and for the rest of the civilized world, are to be genuinely progressive depends upon the adequacy of certain basic social factors. There is a self-discipline of freemen without which freedom is not likely to be maintained. And there are indispensable elements of common knowledge and understanding. That is why the responsibilities of education loom so large in the decades ahead. Never has it been quite so important that education be prepared to play its part. This is true of all levels of education and of ail types of educational institutions. It is certainly true of the colleges and universities.

Periodically American higher education has had to be blasted out of its complacency. It was so uprooted in the second half of the 19th century. The great changes wrought in American higher education during that period were in answer to widespread insistence: (1) that the traditional classicism of the American college curriculum be abandoned; (2) that equal curricular rights be accorded the newer disciplines such as history, modern language, and especially science; and (3) that opportunities for advanced training be more freely extended to non-professional applicants from whatever economic or social class they might come. Three important new types of institution emerged during this period: the modern university, the land-grant college, and the institute of technology. All three served to perpetuate the gains which came to American higher education as a result of the great revolt led by such men as Tappan of Michigan, White of Cornell, Walker of M.I.T., Eliot of Harvard, and Gilman of Johns Hopkins. In no other land in any like period has higher education made such striking and significant advances.

Once more great changes impend in American higher education. Again there is complacency in important quarters; all that is needed according to some educators is a return to the established practices of earlier days. But more generally, the attitude is one of frank perplexity. Perhaps the reforms of the second half of the 19th century have been carried too far. Is it not now evident that science does not comprehend everything? Perchance the very idea of the equality of the disciplines should be reviewed. Again, is it not now clear that the practical and applied may be carried too far in higher education: so far, in fact, as not to give desired practical results? What, after all, are the responsibilities of higher education in a free society? Is it not high time to think these matters through with a view to the tremendous social and political developments that are almost certain to come in the post-war world.

The answer to this question is certainly not to be found in any attempt on the part of American higher education to draw apart. It would be the height of folly to foster any intellectual elitism. The time has passed for educational, as well as political, isolationism. Higher education in America must go along with the great democratic trends. Our colleges and universities, whether public or private, must be made a thoroughly coordinated part of a total educational system in which the essential needs and interests of democratic society are fully served.

How revolutionary for our existing colleges and universities is complete and wholehearted acceptance of this principle likely to be? It is my considered opinion that the consequences will not be as revolutionary as some would think. Let us examine the prospects in terms of (1) the purposes of higher education, (2) the ways and means of their accomplishment, and (3) the points at which successful adjustment between the old and new is likely to be most critically important.

With respect to clarification of the purposes of higher education, no serious difficulties should be encountered* Institutions of higher education in America have always been thoroughly democratic in intent, and their thinking with respect to educational aims in contemporary society is not fundamentally divergent. Pronouncements of purpose such as are to be found in the statement of the Baxter Commission on the Liberal Arts, or the McConnell Commute on the Design for General Education, or even in President Hutchins' latest volume on "Education for Freedom," cart be quite readily reconciled. In fact, these statements essentially support and complement one another. It should be entirely possible to get a statement of purposes for higher education which will be generally acceptable and at the same time fully in accord with democratic aspirations of the post-war world.

It is when we consider the ways and means of achieving these stated purposes in higher education that we encounter sharp divergencies of view. There are those who believe with great fervor in the one-hundred-great-books curriculum; others who would build instructional programs functionally around the observed needs of individual daily living in a free society. There are those who would make much of vocational interests; there are others who would eliminate all vocational drives just as far as possible. All this conflict of plan and proposal with respect to ways and means of accomplishing the recognized purposes of higher education in America becomes really threatening when much of the advocacy of specific schemes is in terms of a complete exclusion of all others. Too many urge a panacea. Apparently no concession is to be made to the values which lie in continuous experimentation and permanent differentiation. After all, there are tremendous variables in the individual and social setting in which education occurs. These variables relate to the mental, physical, and emotional capacity of the individual, to the interests and needs of the learner, to the needs of society, and to the entire social environment in which learning takes place. These are all matters to which higher education should give more attention than it has, both in determining its own program and in formulating its attitude toward education at other levels. Meanwhile it will be a great mistake if formal education is allowed to become either stereotyped or standardized.

If the great changes which are almost certain to occur in higher education over the next generation or two are to be effected with a minimum oi destruction and disruption of existing institutions, more receptive attitudes must be established with respect to probable developments in three areas. First, the very structure of higher education at the level of the lower college years is almost certain to undergo a change. New public institutions are bound to come rather generally at this level to meet the needs of local constituencies in the age-range from eighteen to twenty-one. Developments along this line should not be opposed but should be so shaped as to avoid unnecessary waste of existing institutional resources. Second, a more catholic attitude toward vocational interests in education should be cultivated. Vocational interests are certain to remain strong in the common man. DeTouqueville, following his remarkable tour of America in the 1830's, had these observations to make with respect to this very point: "It is evident that in democratic communities, the interest of individuals, as well as the security of the commonwealth, demands that the education of the great numbers be scientific, commercial and industrial, rather than literary." It will be altogether unwise for higher education to oppose, or even to subject to ridicule, the infusion of popular education with vocational concerns. Sound handling of these vocational interests requires their full acceptance and their subsequent full articulation with other major educational purposes. Third, the basically required personal and social outcomes of education need to be more clearly recognised by those directing the course of higher education in the United States, not only so that these outcomes may be more effectively kept in mind for higher education itself but so as to give higher education a more sympathetic understanding of the requisites of sound education at other levels. Speaking broadly, education at all levels should service the tame democratic ends, however selective it may become in Its higher reaches.

Great changes impend in higher education in America. As a matter of fact, they must be surely effected if the educational system as a whole is to meet the needs of democracy in these perilous times. The great innovations which lie in prospect should involve no scrapping of the great institutions we have all come to cherish. On the contrary, these colleges and universities of ours are an indispensable means of the realization of the advances which should come over the years with renewed peace. Seeing this, may we not rally the colleges and universities of America in one great combined cooperative force for the tremendous democratic developments which so surely lie ahead.