Standards of Thinking


By DR. JAMES P. ADAMS, Provost of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Delivered before the Adult Education Institute, Detroit, Mich., May 16, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 620-623.

TWELVE years ago, in 1933, there was a World's Fair in Chicago. It was described by those who planned it as A Century of Progress. It was a resplendent array of some of the fruits of a hundred years of national purpose and effort.

Six years ago, in 1939, there was a World's Fair in New York. This conclave of wonders was called The World of Tomorrow. It seemed to be picturing the progress of the next hundred years.

I visited both of these extravaganzas, but something happened in New York I have not forgotten. It was a little thing, but it offered me a springboard for my thinking. I was in the British Building. The British exhibit wasn't very elaborate—the central feature was the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta.

As I turned away from this exhibit, I felt that I wanted to express my personal appreciation for the kind of thing the British people thought we would want to see in America—as an example of their prized possessions, as the symbol of their national achievement, as an embodiment of their national purpose. And so, as I passed an attendant attired in a uniform of the British civil service, I stopped and said, I congratulate the British people on this exhibit." He replied, "Thank you, sir," and then added. "You see, sir, it consists of a few things of very great importance to the world."

Those words rang in my ears for months. I let my mind wander back to 1933—just six years before—to the Century of Progress. I remembered that the central feature of the British exhibit in Chicago was the Royal Scot—the great fast train which travels from London to Edinburgh, one of the finest examples of British railroad engineering. You may remember that the whole train was sent over here for us to see.

Exhibits Expressed Change

I've sometimes thought of those two exhibits as an expression of the change which came over the world in those six years. One was a superb example of material progress—of engineering skill, of harnessed mechanical energy. It was a part of the physical accoutrements of our civilization.

The other was a piece of parchment on which some medieval scribe had penned the concessions wrung from King John at Runnymede. "Something of very great importance to the world." Yes, something the importance of which had loomed very much larger in the minds of men as they had watched the lights of liberty going out in some parts of the Continent of Europe in those few preceding years. Neither this civil servant of the British Crown nor I, neither the British people nor we here in America, knew even then of what supreme importance this Magna Carta and all it stood for would prove to be in the dark days of war ahead when Britain would be standing alone—the only bulwark against a tidal wave of tyranny.

We are in the midst of that war—a war which has reached its conclusion in Europe and a war which we must pursue for some time to come in the Pacific. We have been devoting our energies to the achievement of ultimate and complete military victory. We have been trying to maintain unity of purpose among our own people and unity in collaboration with our allies aboard. We have been attempting to sustain our own national strength so that we can meet with resoluteness and courage the problems of adjustment which we must face at home when peace is restored. We are helping to reweave the torn fabrics of life for millions of people in other lands with threads of respect and sympathy and material aid. And we are searching for the ways and means by which we, in association with the other peoples of the world, can build a structure of international understanding on the foundation stones of a moral order.

We Face Great Issues

Never before in the history of the world has so large an issue faced so many people with so much of great importance depending upon the success or failure of their effort.

In his recent book, The Making of Tomorrow, de Roussy de Sales makes the statement that in the years which lie ahead, it will be far more difficult to maintain the standard of our thinking than to maintain the standard of our living. This thought deserves our earnest attention.

There have been eras in the annals of human history in which the minds and hearts of men, in which their lives, were dominated by some great ventures of faith, by some great spiritual urge, by some great ideal, by sacrificial labor for some great cause. The great religious controversies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries provided such an experience. Men were stirred by their convictions, and they built their lives around the choices they had made. Their thoughts and words and deeds were expressions of their faith, and this was more important than all the physical things which conditioned their existence. That was a world in which interest in ideas superseded concern for things.

Again, in the eighteenth century, men's minds reached out beyond the exercises of daily living and sought new realms of experience and new elevations of spirit through political and personal freedom. They saw themselves and their fellowmen in a new light—a light in which every human being reflects his own personality and by which he casts his own shadow.

Both of these eras are a part of the history of our civilization ; but they are more than that. All such expressions of the indomitable spirit of men are a part of our cultural legacy, a part of the spiritual environment of our living.

A New Renaissance

I wonder whether the time may not have come for another such resurgence of interest in the things of the mind and spirit. The world of tomorrow, of which we are dreaming with fervors of hope, is already calling us to account and pointing to the lessons of history—that, if it is to be worthy of mankind, it must be fashioned by the faith of men and supported by the courage of their convictions.

If I were to attempt a definition of the one great lesson which the world must learn from the history of the twenty years between the wars and from the course of this war itself, it would be this: That neither men nor peoples can flout with impunity the majesty of the moral order. The war in all its fundamental purposes is being fought in defense of it. The peace must be built upon it.

Moral Order Defined

Through the ages mankind has labored to build a structure of fundamental truth by which men test the quality of their personal living and the integrity of their relationships with their fellowmen. That's what I mean by the moral order.

Its most important materials have been contributed by our heritages of religion. Other materials have been hewn out of the quarries of experience by philosophers and poets and teachers and soldiers and statesmen, by men of venturesome faith, by men of dauntless courage, by men of sacrificial zeal, by men in high places, by men of humble station. And other materials are being added, generation by generation, as new revelations of truth and new bases of understanding find their sanctions in the corporate conscience of mankind.

In this ever-enlarging structure of civilized existence one can And the lessons of natural law and the precepts of social experience. As it has developed in our western world, we see in it judicious mixtures of contrast and custom, of liberty and restraint. In its fabric there is an acknowledged respect for the integrity of the individual, an acknowledged regard for the definitions of justice, and an acknowledged fidelity of truth.

It was this structure of the mind and spirit of men that the sordid philosophies of the Nazi revolution set out to destroy. It was this moral order and the tenacious hold which it had upon the consciences of men and the faith of mankind

that made it possible to mobilize the free peoples of the world, the genius of their minds, the labors of their hands, and the courage of tfeeiT hearty to destroy the source of these devilish designs. Viewed in the broad perspectives of time and space, this is the purpose of tfoe war in which we have been engaged. Let's not be unmindful of this larger view—just because our purpose seems to be more immediately described in terms of security for our freedom and safety for our homes. There may have been other ways than war by which we might have preserved that security and that safety, but* once the forces of tyranny had mobilized their power, there was no other way in which we could do it within the iramework of a moral order in which the dictates of the personal conscience would have been respected.

This being the purpose for which we have waged war, it is essential that we 4o not disregard the substance of our purpose as we reach the climaxes of our effort and begin to see the fruits of our sacrifice. So far as the western democracies are concerned, this war has been a conflict between two fundamentally opposed philosophies of life, two irreconcilable patterns of human relationship It has been fought to determine whether mankind is to continue its steady progress along the path by which it has been moving for two thousand years and more—moving sometimes with stumbling step and slowly, but moving, none the less, toward the light—or whether it is to be turned back into the catacombs of darkness by the power of tyranny feeding upon ignorance and fear.

War Fought for This Order

This war has been fought in defense of the moral order by which civilized men have come to measure the substance of humane living. For anything less than that it would have been unworthy of the awful sacrifices the world has made.

The revolutionary forces which set out to destroy this edifice of faith and freedom, by waging war upon the peoples who cherish it as the heritage of civilization, made their assault upon it at a time when they had everything which is essential to success—everything, except the most important thing, the moral power of a just cause. They had tanks and planes. They had programs of conquest, the men of evil intent who would direct them, and the hordes of sub-servants who would carry them out. The democracies were unprepared. They had no adequate conception even of what modern warfare would be. They had no weapons. Poland could not be reached with aid. Norway was invaded. The low countries were ravaged. France fell. All was dark. England stated alone. She had almost nothing left with which to fight against invasion—almost nothing, except the most important thing, a supreme faith in her heritage of freedom and a relentless determination to preserve it.

We find it so easy to forget. But in these days which lie before us we must not forget the days through which we have passed and the lessons which we were so eager to learn when the darkness seemed to be enshrouding the liberty-loving peoples of the world.

Do you remember Dunkirk? Do you remember the Battle of Britain? Do you remember those ringing words by which Winston Churchill voiced the moral judgment of the British people? They worked with almost superhuman zeal at their tasks of production. They sent an army to Egypt when their own island home was in danger of invasion. They stood alone but as they worked, and watched the skies, and patrolled their shores, they looked back a thousand years and saw the things which had made their natiorfl great, the things for which their fathers had struggled through the centuries. These were the moral weapons which;

the enemy could neither capture nor destroy. These were the things which made the difference.

It is hard for us to realize today the full meaning of that determination in those dark days of July and August, 1940. I remember hearing Lord Halifax describe those days. He spoke feelingly of America's immediate response to the needs of the British Army after Dunkirk—the million rifles which we dispatched on ships across the sea. "Day by day and hour by hour," he said, "we charted those ships across the Atlantic until they arrived in our ports and their precious cargoes were placed on fast trains which took them to the men who were waiting for them on the shores, on the roads, and in the country." They had no weapons but they had faith—and as we look back upon it, we gain a new understanding of the imponderables.

For three years Greece lay prostrate nander the heel of the invader—defeated, starved, and recently disturbed by civil strife. Two years ago I heard a public address by a representative of the Greek Government in this country, He recounted the sufferings of his countrymen, the bravery of their fight against the brutal aggression. But he realized that the spirit of his people was living on despite the dire conditions of their existence. And as he described his beloved Athens, he lifted up his eyes as if he had caught a glimpse of the distant Acropolis and then he said, "But the Parthenon hasn't noticed the invaders." What a magnificent testimonial to the belief that there are things of the mind and spirit which can countermand the cries of the flesh. Do you remember the defense of Moscow—how the women and children went out beyond the reaches of the city and dug tank traps and trenches for defense; how they went into the forests to cut the firewood for the Russian winter? Do you remember the Russian armies at Stalingrad, with their back to the Volga? They knew the time had come to halt strategic retreat—that the time had come when they must stand or fall. Do you remember the words of that Russian soldier, "There is no space beyond the Volga"? They fought and won against everything that the Nazi power could throw against them.

And I could cite significant scenes in our own American experience during these past four years—Bataan, Salerno, Tarawa, Anzio, Normandy, the Rhine, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and who knows what other names may be added in the next few weeks and months.

More Than Morale

The British know, the Russians know, and we know that in all these events something else has been thrown into the balance—something more than guns and tanks and planes. We sometimes call it morale. It's something more than that. It's something moral. It is an imponderable force that's left when all of the material bases of hope have disappeared. It isn't fed by victory. It isn't fed by fear. It is fed only by faith—the invincible surmise that somehow in good time the Supreme Justice which rules the universe will strengthen the arm of truth.

I have drawn these pictures because they must be important elements in our thinking during these days of war and in the future. The very magnitude of this conflict, the significance of the issues involved, the sacrifices it has entailed, have offered men the opportunity—yes, have made it necessary for them to climb up on Mount Olympus and survey not alone the wide, wide world of things but also the limitless realm of the mind and spirit of men which provide the impulses by which they move the mountains which impede their progress. Men have been standing on these heights searching their own souls and trying to understand the landscapes of history so that they may think and speakand act more wisely when they return to the plains of daily life in rimes of peace.

Standards of Thinking

Yes, indeed, we must maintain and elevate the standards of our thinking—we, as a people, and the peoples with whom we must live as joint tenants on this planet. And I am prepared to state my faith that upon no secular institutions in the world does so much depend for the achievement of this end as upon the enterprises of education. They were founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding. And we who serve them must ever keep in mind that understanding must be an attribute of the individual before it can become the possession of a group. There is no synthesis of understanding which can be transmitted for the benefit of others except that which has been achieved in the mind and heart of a wise man.

Must Elevate Standards

You and I and all of us who are prepared to accept the full responsibilities of enlightened citizenship must help to elevate the standards of our thinking so that, as a people we will be more interested in the refinement of the quality of our desires and not be primarily concerned with the development of our capacity to meet them. We must help to elevate the standards of our thinking so that we will be interested not alone in the truths revealed by taking things apart but also in the larger truths which are revealed by putting things together.

Only in such an environment of high purpose, of deep insight, and of understanding can we and the world achieve a peace which is enduring. We can expect to find it only in a world which recognizes that peace is not a cause but a result, in a world in which there is a lively respect for freedom, an unshakable devotion to justice, an unwavering fidelity to truth, in a world in which men dare to defend the great heritages which have become essential parts of the master plan of humane living.

Only in such an environment of understanding can we continue in times of peace the refinement of the substance of our own democratic national life so that we can enlarge the opportunities for the pursuit of happiness on the part of all our people without depriving them of the moral incentives of responsibility for their own welfare, so that we can live with the differences which divide us and yet achieve unity in terms of ultimate respect for the integrity of the individual.

High Purpose—Large Demands

These high purposes will impose large demands upon the resources of the mind and spirit of our people. They will require venturesome faith and moral courage. They will provide a supreme test of the quality of our thinking. We are going to be living in a world of physical variables as yet beyond our comprehension. The character of our civilization will not be determined by these things; it will be determined by the uses which are made of them by men. And these uses will depend upon the planes on which we do our thinking.

As we lift oar eyes above the horizons of daily routine in our search for understanding, we will be advised by some of our associates that we should be sure to keep our feet on the ground. Yes, indeed, that is essential. Neither we nor our neighbors are yet prepared to build and live ill Utopias suspended from the sky. We are still human beings walking around on the ground. But I must add, with pointed emphasis, that, having set our feet upon the ground, we should not stand looking at them all the time. We are endowed not alone with eyes and ears and hands and feet but also with the faculties of the mind and heart. We can remember and we can dream; we can enlarge our comprehensions, deepen our insights, and enrich our understandings.

Vision Needed

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that there are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. As we face the problems of these coming months and years, there will be men among us who will focus their attention upon the visible fabrics of life. They will add and subtract and rearrange and count. They will see evidences of men's complacency and of other men's selfishness, and they will see in the future an inevitable repetition of the past. They will fail to comprehend the impelling power of faith and the possible fruits of determined effort. These men have the one-story intellects.

There will also be other men who see those same things, but they will also make discoveries of their own. They will learn to analyze and compare and select. They will learn by experience and will lay plans for the future. These men are the builders. They have the two-story intellects.

And then among us there will be men who can lift their minds and hearts up into the great open spaces which God has made for the use of men with vision and imagination. These men are prepared to make great ventures of faith and to support that faith by the solid substance of wisdom and understanding and by the loyalty of their own labors.

These men have the three-story intellects, and they get their best illumination through the skylight. We need that kind of illumination through the skylights of human experience if we are to meet and solve the problems which lie before us in the next few years.

We are about to face a supreme test of our ability to maintain the standards of our thinking. We may be successful if we can build for ourselves two-story structures of the mind and spirit and three-story structures with skylights.