The University and the Community of Learning

by Henry Steele Commager
Delivered at Kent State University on April 10, 1971

Added Perspective

Read Paul Keane's thoughts on Commager's historic speech.

In the past quarter century the university has moved to the very center of gravity in American life. It now counts over seven million students -more than the total number of farmers - and over half a million teachers and scholars. Its activities, always extensive in America, have spread into every aspect of American life; it is fair to say that no aspect of culture, society, economy, science or even politics is untouched by the academy. Young who once went to the university to prepare for life, find that the university is life: adults, who once imagined that the college-university was isolated, pastoral, and remote - a good place to stash away the young for four difficult years - discover that it is where the action is, and that next to government itself the university is the chief instrument of social change. It occupies something of the symbolical - and perhaps therapeutic -of both the church and state, and in addition fills a role which neither of these can effectively fill, for it is the powerhouse and the clearinghouse of ideas. The scientists, said Lord Snow, in a now famous essay on the Two Cultures, have the future in their bones, but it is not the scientists who man the future, it is the whole legion of scholars and scholarship.

Jeffrey Miller lies slain at Kent State University May 4, 1970

Jeffrey Miller lies slain at
Kent State University
May 4, 1970

The university may be considered the center of gravity in our society; the library may justly be called the center of gravity of the university, particularly in the United States. In a curious way it is the library that is the American specialty and that best represents and demonstrates that unique combination of intellectual distinction and material affluence which does in fact distinguish higher education in America from that of the rest of the world. Universities elsewhere - certainly in western Europe - are quite as distinguished as the American in their scholars, their students, their laboratories and museums, and some are more fortunate than ours in their antiquity and beauty of their buildings, but in no other country do universities provide either the collections of books or the proficiency of services that American universities all provide as a matter of course to all who need them. Nowhere else in the university do we find a happier combination of the intellectually affluent and the materially efficient.

What we are witnessing now in the United States [April, 1971] is a paradox which almost defies understanding, that at a time when the university has achieved its greatest prosperity, exercises its most far-reaching influence, commands its largest following, and must be conceded its greatest distinction -at a time when its repute is so exalted that society everywhere demands that it open its doors freely to all the young - at just this time it is the object of acrimonious criticism, a pervasive hostility, and a relentless attack unprecedented in our history. Hostility embraces almost every activity of the university except perhaps the athletic - that which is indeed the most vulnerable, and what is most astonishing of all is that much of the attack comes from within the academy itself, not merely from without.

Hyman W. Kritzer, Director of Kent State University Library, Henry Steele Commager and Robert I. White, President of Kent State University

Hyman W. Kritzer,
Henry S. Commager, &
President Robert I. White *

It is no doubt a tribute to the power and authority of the university that it should be thus beleaguered and besieged: no one, after all, bothers to criticize institutions that have no power and do not threaten their comfort and security. Certainly as long as the college was small and pastoral, as long as the university was content to cater to the professional needs of teachers and librarians, business men and farmers, the public tolerated them, sometimes with affection, sometimes with good-natured disdain. But now that the university occupies the vital center of society, now that its scholars and students are prepared to play that role in politics which elsewhere, certainly in Europe, they have traditionally played, it is inevitable that the winds of controversy should swirl upon it, invade its sanctuaries, and shatter its peace.

The nature and animus of the attack on the academy are by now familiar. Hostility is rooted in a suspicion of intellectuals that is sullen rather than reasoned in that segment of society which Mr. Nixon calls the silent majority, but which is certainly not silent and probably not a majority. Anti-intellectualism is characteristic not only of our own but of most equalitarian societies. Our own anti-intellectualism, which can be traced back to the Jacksonian era, has become far more ostentatious in recent years because it is so easy to blame our current malaise on intellectuals -the malaise that has accompanied (and seemed to be caused by) our role as a world power, the malaise that is associated with the impact of science and technology on our society, the malaise that is the inevitable accompaniment of the revolt of youth. The sensational and tragic expression of this hostility can be read in the report of the grand jury of Portage County [Ohio] and the formal indictment which that jury reported not against those who had shot students [May 4, 1970 on this campus] but - as in Fascist and Communist countries - against the victims. It can be read in the indictment of the president and faculty of Hobart College by the grand jury of Ontario County, New York, charges which the court dismissed with the contempt they deserved. It can be read in the shabby rhetoric of a Governor Wallace of Alabama or a Governor Reagan of California or a Governor Rhodes of Ohio.

Hostility takes a more dangerous form in the overt threat to academic freedom posed by the infiltration of a thousand army intelligence agents into classrooms and libraries and meeting places of universities, or the despicable activities of agent provocateurs serving the interests of the F.B.I. but not of the nation, and justified by the argument -and I quote a recent F.B.I. document -that these will enhance the paranoia among dissenters and get the point across that there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox. This is the language, need I say, of Nazi Germany, not of the American Republic. Hostility takes the form of vindictive legislation designed to cut off aid to students - or to universities -that are involved in criticism of or demonstrations against a war that they think ruinous.

It takes, too, a sobering form of subversion from within the academy itself, and by those whose intellectual and moral obligation it is to sustain academic freedom. I refer to those misguided students who have so little understanding of the nature and obligations of academic freedom that they are prepared to disrupt the work of the university of scholars, and of science, to intimidate or silence those whose views they do not share, to attack libraries and laboratories - and how does this differ from Nazi book burning? - and by these and similar interventions to repudiate the symbol of the university as a citadel of reason?

How are we to explain this upsurge of hostility towards the academy and to those who compose it, scholars and the young?

One explanation is the particular nature of the university in America. Almost from the beginning the circumstances of American life dictated a higher education radically different from that which flourished in most old world countries. There, the university was supposed to be a thing apart: to serve an intellectual elite and to train for the professions of theology, philosophy, medicine and law. But Americans repudiated the notion of an elite let alone an intellectual, and they required their universities to be both catholic and democratic, to train for almost everything - agriculture, business, engineering, journalism, hotel management, and wrestling among them. The Old World university was supposed to be a thing apart, one of a score of institutions that supported the intellectual, professional, religious, and artistic life of society; in America these activities and others were, almost from the beginning, foisted on the university. For the American university was, and is, expected not only to teach the young the heritage of the past and train them for professions, but to inculcate sound moral principles, build character, train for all forms of social intercourse, be a service agency for society, entertain the community with gladiatorial contests, and, as we amiably say, to train for life. As long as the university confined itself to these familiar and reassuring and normally harmless functions, it could count on understanding and support. But when, as in the last quarter century, the university almost everywhere in America began to grow up, when it began to subordinate athletics to scholarship and social activities to intellectual, it aroused suspicion and misgivings. And when students repudiated not only the domestic implications of in loco parentis but the academic as well, parents, who were determined to live vicariously the four golden years of pastoral innocence which they had always associated with the romance of college, reacted with a kind of frustrated bitterness to what was in fact a student declaration of independence. For, curiously enough, in the eyes of many adults, students who prefer music to football or libraries to fraternities, or who take national politics more seriously than college politics, somehow betray the ideal of American youth and the dream of the four golden years. Certainly the Ohio public is far more tolerant about demonstrations in favor of Rose Bowl games than it is of demonstrations about the invasion of Cambodia, nor is this attitude confined to Ohio!

More serious is the pervasive decline of faith in reason. Anti-intellectualism is, as I have suggested, endemic to democracies, but we have survived it in the past and even sublimated it so that it accepts intelligence without the ism. What then accounts for its revival in a kind of primitive form, at this time in our history?

The current wave of anti-intellectualism is at once pervasive and vindictive. It is, I think, a product of the cold war and of the prolonged bewilderment and confusion the of war in SouthEast Asia. It is perhaps too much to expect that the American people should be reasonable or even tolerate rationalism, at a time when their government has plunged them inextricably into a war the most irrational, the most frustrating, and the most immoral in the whole of their experience. Other wars seemed to be about something that the Americans could understand: the Revolutionary War about independence, the Mexican War about manifest destiny in the West, the Civil War about the Union, the two great wars about national survival and the survival of western civilization as we have understood it. But the current war which was based on misconceptions, which appears to have no objectives, and which cannot in the nature of things have any meaningful results except those of catastrophe, is one which inexorably demands the abdication of reason for its prosecution.

When a people are confronted with problems that are both incomprehensible and unbearable, they lash out not at those who contrived the problems but at those who expose them. When they are confronted by moral problems that they find insoluble, or perhaps intolerable, they blame the moralists. The anxieties, tensions, revulsions of our day create an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to think clearly and dispassionately about just those problems which most imperatively require reason and objectivity - problems of adjustment to fundamental change.

We are - it is a familiar observation - caught up in a revolution, old and young alike, a revolution more complex and challenging than any in our experience. It is a revolution of the neglected and underprivileged peoples of our country seeking to achieve racial and social justice; a revolution of the young against the stubborn errors of the past which they are expected to embrace - they will in fact embrace others; a revolution of new ideas about the equality of men social, educational, sexual, as well as political and economic; a revolution against much that science and technology have inflicted upon us, against the superstitions of history and the obscurantism of the past, against the ultimate authority of secular government and what Walt Whitman called the never-ending audacity of elected men. It is a revolution, on a larger scale, of one half of the human race seeking to triumph in one generation over the poverty and misery, ignorance and superstition that has cursed them for centuries.

Most of us are frightened by these revolutions, by the threats which they appear to pose to our security and our comfort and our peace of mind. But it is not revolution which threatens these things: they are indeed already hopelessly undermined. What threatens our security is not change but the inability to change; what threatens progress is not revolution but stagnation; what threatens our survival is not novel or dangerous ideas but the absence of ideas.

A third and ominous explanation of the current wave of anti-intellectualism is one which may be temporary - antagonism toward the young. This is something new in our history for traditionally America was a kind of paradise for the young - the one country where society could afford to indulge them in school instead of driving them to work, the one country rich enough to give to each of them something of a chance to make his own life, the one country where it was taken for granted - and quite rightly, too - that each new generation would be bigger, stronger, better educated, and even happier than the previous generation.

No need to exaggerate hostility to the young, but we must recognize that it is present, and that it is an important ingredient in the disillusionment with the university. The gap is not in fact so much a generation gap as an education gap. That has always been present but, in the past, on a small scale. But in the past decade the number of students in institutions of higher education has doubled: so, I am inclined to think, has their seriousness and their self confidence and their activity in public affairs. No wonder they alarm their elders.

It is a curious development, this hostility to the young, curious especially at a time when the young are reaching physical maturity a year or two earlier than in past centuries and when they are about to be granted political maturity at the age of eighteen - after all Congress has passed the amendment -curious too, at a time when we have the good fortune here in America to have the most idealistic, the most imaginative, the most generous, the most dedicated, generation of young people in the whole of our history.

May we not indeed say of this generation what Camus said a decade ago when he accepted the Nobel prize:

As the heir of a corrupt history that blends blighted revolutions, misguided techniques, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, in which second rate powers can destroy everything but are unable to win anyone over and in which intelligence has stooped to becoming the servant of hatred and oppression, starting from nothing but its own negations -it (that is, the generation of young), has had to re-establish both within and without itself a little of what constitutes the dignity of life and death. Faced with a world threatened with disintegration in which our Grand Inquisitors may set up once and for all the kingdoms of death, that generation knows that, in a sort of mad race against time, it ought to re-establish among nations a peace not based on slavery, to reconcile labor and culture again, and to reconstruct with all men the Ark of the Covenant...that generation deserves to be acclaimed and encouraged wherever it happens to be, and especially where it is sacrificing itself.

Let us not deceive ourselves. To lose faith in the young is to lose faith in the future; it is to lose faith in life.

What all of this proclaims is the failure of many among us to understand the nature and the functions of that institution which is peculiarly the citadel of reason, the guardian of the young, and the prophet of the future: the university.

It is the function of the university to preserve what is best in the heritage of the past, and pass this on to the future; what other institution can do this so magisterially? Its function is to inflame the minds of the young with passion to serve society, and to train them for that service; what other institution does this? Its function is to inspire all its acolytes with a sense of the beauty and the dignity of the search for truth, and to make sure that this great task will never be neglected. Its function is to stand aside from its own society and its own time, to exalt those values that are universal and timeless. Its function is to push outward the bounds of knowledge - knowledge of the physical universe, and of the nature and history of man, and thus enable man to confront and perhaps even to triumph over those problems which crowd about him so pitilessly. No other institution can do this.

The university - and the scholar - have in addition one function which is bound to excite misunderstanding and hostility in society; that is to serve as the conscience and the critic of society and of whatever establishment is in power. In the United States the task is peculiarly important because there are so few other institutions prepared to perform it. The rationale of this responsibility is simple enough, but hard for any establishment to accept. It is that the university has loyalties that transcend those of a particular society and the immediate time in which they can flourish. Its loyalties are to mankind, to the people of every nation and race of every faith and creed, and to the whole of history, past and future as well as present - indeed past and future more than present, for the very concept of present is a secular and popular one; the scholar and the philosopher know only the past and the future.

Those who make up the university, the scholar and the student, must follow the law of their nature at their peril - the law which in a very real sense sets them apart and assigns them special obligations. Free Should the Scholar Be -It is Emerson's essay on the American scholar I am quoting -Free Should the Scholar Be - free and brave. Free even in the definition of freedom, without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution. Freedom is not only the prerogative of the scholar, it is the requirement of society which sustains the scholar. For here, as elsewhere, freedom is not only the tribute which an irrational society pays to reason, it is the price which an imperilled society pays for survival.

There is not the slightest likelihood that this situation will change. While the university survives, it is bound to follow the laws of its own character -laws that have grown up over eight centuries of history, long before there was any America, long before there were any nations in the modern meaning of the term. It cannot remain a university and be other than it is. No fulminations of grand juries, no gross assaults from government, no vapid warnings from vice-presidents, can change its character.

Society must preserve and protect the independence of the university not as an act of indulgence to a priesthood of scholars, but in order to survive. For it knows, if it knows anything, that in the long run its survival depends on preserving independent and objective criticism. Independence means independence of all improper pressures - pressures from students, no matter how well meaning; pressures from church, from government even from public opinion. It means independence from overt pressures of armed attack, as here at this institution, or in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Berkeley; independence from the threat of fiscal retaliation; independence from the more subtle threat of pressure from government or from society to turn aside from the proper business of scholarship and to serve special or parochial interests.

Can the university survive the present crisis? That it will not emerge unscathed is already clear from the tragic events in France and Germany, in Mexico and Japan, clear even from the less traumatic experiences of the past few years in the United States. But over the long arc of time, eight centuries no less, universities have lived through and survived many crises, and there is no reason to doubt that they will survive the present crisis if indeed civilization as we have known it survives that crisis. May we not say quite simply that the university must survive because society cannot function without it - and I mean the free university, the university as we have known it.

The dedication of this library is a profession of faith in the university. For the library is not only the heart of the university, it is the symbol as well. It welcomes every student to that most noble enterprise, the advancement of learning; it spreads out before his enchanted gaze all that man has thought and achieved; it admonishes him to cherish the past, to defend the present, to serve the future.

Let those who are anxious or faint of heart recall those great words which Pericles addressed to the Athenians over two thousand years ago, that they should:
draw strength from the busy spectacle of our great city's life as we have seen it before us day by day, falling in love with her as we see her, and remembering that all this greatness she owes to men with the fighter's daring, the wise man's understanding of his duty, and the good man's self discipline in its performance... For you now it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not to stand idly by from the onslaught of the enemy.

- Henry Steele Commager

*PHOTO: Hyman W. Kritzer, Director of Kent State Library, Henry Steele Commager, and Robert I. White, President of Kent State University, April 10, 1971.

The University and the Community of Learning was presented April 10, 1971 in University Auditorium as the main address at dedication ceremonies for the new building of the Kent State University Libraries. Dr. Commager, who was Distinguished Visiting Professor at Kent in 1960, held the John Woodruff Simpson Lectureship at Amherst College in 1971.

Transcribed June 10, 2007 by Paul Keane from Kent State University Library's Occasional Papers No. 7