The Appreciation and Understanding of Values


By ERNEST A. JOHNSON, President, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois

Convocation Address Delivered in College Chapel, September 21, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 54-55.

THE years ahead will be full of dramatic events and great decisions. We shall see German armies which rolled so triumphantly over Europe crushed by the allied forces. Thereafter we shall see Japan struck from all sides until she is broken as a power in the Pacific. When that final victory comes we shall be standing at one of the strategic cross roads of all history. For at least a quarter of a century, a new world order has been struggling to be born. This second war will decide that this new world shall not be a fascist dominated one, ruled from Berlin or Tokio. But the positive answer has not been given. The people of the allied nations must now provide the answer.

In that fateful decision, the people of the United States will have an extremely important role to play. The victory in Europe could hardly have been won except for our military and industrial might. We shall be primarily responsible for the defeat of Japan. We have had no bombings or battles on our own soil. We shall be far stronger economically than our allies. Force of circumstances makes it impossible for us to escape responsibility for determining the character of the post war world. If the American people really believe in democracy, we must seek the establishment of a world order based upon mutual understanding, regard for the rights of others and the willingness to make sacrifices for the common good.

How well equipped are our leaders and citizens to undertake this important task? Or to put the question another way, how well are we educated to help build a new world order along democratic lines? When we try to answer this question we are faced with a paradoxical situation. The colleges and universities of the country in their liberal arts programs have sought to give students just the type of education that would enable them to grasp the nature of world problems and to attack them in an intelligent and realistic fashion. However, when faced with concrete issues, our people and our political leaders have displayed an amazing unconcern for the consequences of our acts to other nations. For example, in 1930, we passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff designed to relieve an agricultural depression in certain sections of the country. The rates, raised to unprecedented heights, destroyed the markets of many foreign manufacturers and spread economic distress all over the world. When nation after nation protested, we answered that the tariff was a domestic issue. We were quite willing to create problems for every nation just at a time when cooperation in rebuilding world trade was highly essential.

So too in 1933, we wrecked the world economic conference which had been called to bring world currencies into stable relationships. We bluntly told the world that we were interested in American prices and were not concerned with any disastrous effects our money manipulations might have upon the rest of the World. The tariff was a Republican venture; the sinking of the economic conference was a Democratic doing.

Many other instances might be cited of our refusal to assume world leadership. Our politicians, most of them educated in liberal arts colleges and universities, have signally failed to help voters to see their responsibility for world order. The attitude of the typical politician seems to have been, "There goes the mob. I must hurry and catch them, for I am their leader."

Certainly our failure cannot be ascribed to the content of liberal education. We have no lack of courses in history recording the accomplishments of people from Greece and Rome to the present. We have collected and presented to our students the best literature, art, and music from all ages. We have analyzed and compared the operation of the economic, political and social systems of all times and all nations. We have steeped our young men and women in the nature of science and the scientific method. We have studied the psychology, philosophy and educational systems of the nations which have been important in world history. Liberal education has contributed greatly to an appreciation of the forces which rule the world today. But why have our people failed to profit by their educational background?

While there may be many factors that are responsible for this situation, one stands out as of paramount importance. We, faculty and students, have not sufficiently realized that knowledge is only a means to an end—which is an appreciation and an understanding of values that have been important over time. History should give us not merely a sequence of events, but an understanding of man's eternal struggle for justice and tolerance. While the ideal has never been reached in this man-made world, history records abundant evidence that when the struggle for justice ceases, decay and degeneration set in. The black pages of history are quite as revealing as the bright ones for we see that persecutions of Negroes and Jews is merely a prelude to suppression of Catholics and Protestants. Our study of the social sciences should reveal that systems endure only so long as they give the bulk of the people tolerable living conditions and reasonable security. Our study of politics should make clear that a government based upon a principle that only a small body of the elite are competent to rule is unsound theoretically and ruinous morally. There is no such thing as "knowledge for knowledge sake." Such a cry is only a plea to make education meaningless. Liberal education is made vital only as knowledge is translated into an appreciation of real values and a whole-hearted commitment to those values.

What significance has this for us today? It means that we must recognize that values are not merely individual and national, but international as well. Permanent peace without justice to the various peoples of the world is quite impossible. Accordingly we, and other nations as well, must shape and determine our policy according to the consequences they will have to the rest of the world as well as upon ourselves. Tariff barriers, unsound in economic theory, become ethically reprehensible as well. So too do all schemes which seek to bolster our economic system by forcing crises upon other nations. A willingness to make sacrifices for the general welfare of the world is the beginning of responsibility for world leadership. This does not mean that we must forget ourselves, or be a Santa Claus to the rest of the world while we forget our own people. It only means that we must consider others along with ourselves. Of course, we shall have to give up some of our notions about absolute sovereignty. But so will every other nation. The alternative is another war which might engulf the nation we are trying to preserve.

Since the task of rebuilding the world will be neither an easy or a short process, much of the problem will fall upon the young men and women of your generation. As preparation for that responsibility, your years in college can be immensely fruitful. If there is any truth in the old saying that Britain won her wars on the playing fields of Eton, it is eminently true today that the peace of the world will be won in the classrooms, laboratories and discussion groups devoted to liberal education. But peace can only come if college faculties, students and citizens generally are willing to make liberal education purposeful in its search for values and dynamic in its capacity to infuse American people with a willingness to live by those enduring values.