Nicholas Murray Butler.

Scholarship and service; the policies and ideals of a national university in a modern democracy online

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edge of physical problems and processes without be-
coming a physicist; or a general knowledge of chem-
ical problems and processes without becoming a chem-
ist; or a general knowledge of zoological problems and
processes without becoming a zoologist; or a general
knowledge of mathematical problems and processes
without becoming a mathematician. The reply that
knowledge has become so highly specialized that no
one can be found to give such courses of instruction is
the saddest confession of incompetence and educational
failure that can possibly be made. It ought not to be
made except under cover of darkness.

It is worthy of note that while difficulties are found
in providing general courses of instruction of the kind
described to deal with a given and limited field of
knowledge, there is apparently no particular difficulty
in finding courses that in limpid and desultory fashion
deal with everything in the heavens above, in the earth
beneath, and in the waters under the earth. Last year
a graduate student who was about to leave an Amer-
ican university made the statement that he had at-
tended four courses of instruction given by four dif-
ferent persons under the auspices of four distinct
departments, and that he had heard substantially the
same thing in all four. This is surely a type of aca-
demic freedom upon which some limitation, economic,
temporal, ethical, or intellectual, might well be placed.

Columbia University has at its doors one of the
greatest and most inviting laboratories in the world.
New York City is a laboratory of almost unexampled


magnitude and many-sidedness. Here are courts of
every sort and kind for the observation and study of
the student of law; here are hospitals and clinics with-
out number for the observation and study of the stu-
dent of medicine; here are engineering undertakings
that cannot be matched, perhaps, anywhere in the
world for the observation and study of the student of
applied science; here are buildings of amazing variety of
type for the observation and study of the student of
architecture; here are colleges and schools reaching
directly hundreds of thousands of human beings for
the observation and study of students of education;
here are museums of art and of natural history as well
as a zoological park and botanical garden of unusual
excellence for the observation and study of students of
these subjects; here is a complex and highly organized
municipal government, a congeries of nationalities, a
constant stream of inflowing immigration, for the ob-
servation and study of him who would know the social
and political problems of to-day at first-hand. An in-
creasing proportion of the advanced and professional
work of the university should be done in this labora-
tory. There should be co-operation at every possible
point between the university teachers and the directors
of this laboratory in its various departments and sub-
divisions, both official and unofficial. Here, as no-
where else in America, perhaps as nowhere else in the
world, the advanced student may measure the working
of different and opposing theories and may see the
practical results of old and new tendencies and ideals.


In this laboratory productive and inquiring scholar-
ship can speedily test the results and proposals of
these tendencies and ideals. Every year should see a
larger number of graduate and professional students
leaving the university filled with a new pride in the
city of New York because they have come to know and
to understand some one of the myriad admirable
things that happen or are done there.


From the Annual Report as president of Columbia University,
June 30, 1918


Restlessness under conditions that have prevailed for
many years as to school and college instruction in mod-
ern foreign languages is not of recent date. The teach-
ers of these subjects have long insisted that they were
not allotted sufficient time in which to accomplish the
results that they desired, while the students them-
selves, their parents, and the teachers of other subjects
have complained loudly that no matter what the rea-
son, the fact was that very few American college stu-
dents had anything approaching an easy familiarity
with spoken or written French, German, Italian, or
Spanish. The new international interdependences that
are a result of the war have put new emphasis upon
these discontents, and it is high time that some way
were discovered to meet and to allay them.

It is probable that the root of the difficulty is to be
found in the conditions under which the teaching of
modern foreign languages was begun in American
schools and colleges. This teaching was not at first ac-
cepted as a necessary and integral part of the school
and college curriculum, but was treated as an extra,
and in old days often paid for as such. When under-
taken in this way and in this spirit it was hardly possi-
ble for the teaching of modern foreign languages to
lead, save in exceptional cases, to any very large result.


It is high time to consider whether this whole branch
of instruction should not be radically reorganized and
readjusted to meet conditions that are not only mod-
ern but very real.

The American college is still far from realizing the
goal of modern language teaching described by Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow in his inaugural address when
entering upon his work as professor of modern lan-
guages in Bowdoin College, September 2, 1830. Nearly
ninety years ago Mr. Longfellow was moved to say:

A knowledge of the principal languages of modern Europe forms
in our day an essential part of a liberal education. ... I cannot
regard the study of a language as the pastime of a listless hour. To
trace the progress of the human mind through the progressive de-
velopment of language; to learn how other nations thought, and
felt, and spake; to enrich the understanding by opening upon it
new sources of knowledge; and by speaking many tongues to be-
come a citizen of the world; these are objects worthy of the exertion
their attainment demands at our hands.

The mere acquisition of a language is not the ultimate object:
It is a means to be employed in the acquisition of something which
lies beyond. I should therefore deem my duty but half performed
were I to limit my exertions to the narrow bounds of grammatical
rules: Nay, that I had done little for the intellectual culture of a
pupil when I had merely put an instrument into his hands, without
explaining to him its most important uses.

Mr. Longfellow goes on throughout this notable ad-
dress to give a general outline of what he conceived to
be his field of academic duty, and drew a picture as
satisfying as it was inviting.


Except in rare cases it cannot be doubted that the
study of modern foreign languages has been carried on
quite apart from any study of the life, the institutions,
the art, and the civilization of the peoples whose lan-
guages they are, save that opportunity is given to
read, more or less haltingly, a few of the great literary
masterpieces which a particular language enshrines.
The very name of our academic departments indicates
a narrowness of view and purpose which we should
now quickly strive to outgrow. Instead of a Depart-
ment of Romance Languages and Literatures, for ex-
ample, there should be, let us say, a Department of the
Latin Peoples, in which might be assembled not only
those teachers who give instruction in the Romance
languages and literatures, but also those who give in-
struction in the history, the government, the art, and
the architecture of those peoples that are of direct
Latin descent. In similar fashion there might be De-
partments of the Teutonic or Germanic Peoples, of
the Slavic Peoples, and of the Oriental Peoples. The
Department of Classical Philology is already appro-
priately named, since the broad interpretation of that
term is inclusive of the history, the institutions, the
art, and the life of the ancient peoples of Greece and
Rome. The main thing is to cease thinking of a lan-
guage as something apart or as a mere tool for tech-
nical use, and to come to regard it as a pathway lead*
ing to new and inspiring regions of understanding and
of appreciation. The chief purpose in studying French
should be to gain an understanding and appreciation


of France, and that cannot follow upon a mere study
of the language as a form and instrument of literary
expression alone, vitally important though that be.


From the Annual Report as president of Columbia University,
June 30, 1913


The younger generation shows many signs of being
too impatient to prepare for life. What is called vo-
cational training is being steadily pushed down through
the secondary into the elementary schools, and pre-
sumably it will soon reach the cradle. The old notion
that a child should be so trained as to have the fullest
and most complete possession of its faculties and its
competences, in order to rise in efficiency, to gain
larger rewards, and to render more complete service,
has given way to the new notion that it is quite enough
if a child is trained in some aptitude to enable it to
stay where it first finds itself. Of course, under the
guise of progress, this is retrogression. Carried to its
logical result, it would mean a static and a stratified
social order. It would put an end to individual initi-
ative and to individual opportunity. It is not diffi-
cult to foretell what results would follow both to
civilization and to social order and comfort. The basis
for any true vocational preparation is training to know
a few things well and thoroughly, and in gaining such
knowledge to form those habits of mind and of will
that fit the individual to meet new duties and unfore-
seen emergencies. This is the real reason why the
traditional training given at the University of Oxford
has produced such stupendous results for generations.



Of course the Oxford training has had, to some ex-
tent at least, selected material to work upon; but it has
done its work amazingly well. Whether in states-
manship or at the bar or in the army or in diplomacy
or in large administrative undertakings in business,
the man trained at Oxford has won first place by rea-
son of the character and quality of his performance.
No such result has been obtained, and no such result
need be expected, from a school and college training
which is a quick smattering of many things. At the
bottom of the educational process lies discipline, and
the purpose of discipline is to develop the power of
self-discipline. When discipline is withdrawn, dawdling
quickly enters, and the habit of dawdling is as corrupt-
ing to the intellect as it is to the morals. The patience
to be thorough, the concentration to understand, and
the persistence to grasp and to apply are the three
traits that most clearly mark off the truly educated
and disciplined man from his uneducated and undis-
ciplined fellow, and they are precisely the three traits
which are most overlooked and neglected in the mod-
ern school and college curriculum. A school is sup-
posed to be modern and progressive if it offers some-
thing new, regardless of the fact that this something
new may be not only useless, but harmful, as an educa-
tional instrument.

With the growth of democracy the need for self-
discipline becomes not less, but far greater. When
great bodies of men were controlled by power from
without, then they were in so far disciplined; now


that in all parts of the world men are shaping their
own collective action without let or hindrance, the
need for self-discipline is many times greater than it
ever was before. In an older civilization self-disci-
pline was necessary for the protection of individual
character; to-day it is necessary for the protection of
society and all its huge interests.

Too much slovenly reading, particularly of news-
papers and of magazines, but also of worthless books,
stands in the way of education and enlightenment.
In no field of human interest is the substitution of
quantity for quality more fraught with damage and
disorder than in that of reading. The builders of the
Constitution of the United States and the great law-
yers of the colonial and early national period knew
but few books, but the books that they knew were
first-rate books and they knew them well. Nothing
contributed so much to the fulness of their minds,
to the keenness of their intellects, or to the lasting
character of the institutions that they built as their
reflective grasp on a few great books and on the prin-
ciples and literary standards which those books taught
and exemplified. Such a task as that which Gibbon
set himself over a century ago would be impossible to-
day, even for a syndicate of Gibbons. There are too
many books now to enable another History of the De-
cline and Fall of the Roman Empire to be composed.
Productivity of the highest type is checked by the
excess of facilities. This is true both of books and of
physical apparatus. We could get along well with far


fewer books and far less apparatus, and we should be
likely to get more ideas and a higher type of human
being. The universities of the world search restlessly
for truth, but too often they overlook the indubitable
which lies at their feet.


From the Annual Report as president of Columbia University,
June 30, 1915


A not inconsiderable part of the occupations of the
president is to reply to letters addressed to him in criti-
cism of some reported utterance by a member of the
teaching staff, and in making such reply to point out
what is the precise status and responsibility of an aca-
demic teacher, and what is the university's share of
responsibility for his utterances. The number of such
criticisms made on the part of the public has notably in-
creased in recent years, and during the past year, prob-
ably on account of the European War, these criticisms
have been even more numerous than heretofore. In
most cases they are based on incorrect or garbled re-
ports of what the person in question really said. In
other cases they reflect merely narrowness of view and
stupidity, or a desire to use the university as an agent
for some particular propaganda which the critics hold
dear. One thing these criticisms have in common:
they almost invariably conclude by demanding the in-
stant removal of the offending professor from the rolls
of the university.

During the past year one amiable correspondent has
attacked a university officer under the caption of a
"Snake at large." The fact that the gentleman in ques-
tion was not a snake but a professor and that he was
not at large but in retirement, had no weight in the


eyes of the writer of the letter. It appears that in this
case the offense was the expression in public of a favor-
able opinion as to the nutritive qualities of beer. The
effect of this reported utterance on the mind of the
objector was to deprive him of any modicum of reason
that he may have hitherto possessed. He was and
still is very much offended that the officer in question
was not subjected to some public humiliation and re-

In another case a clergyman wrote to object to the
reported utterances in the classroom incorrectly re-
ported, it turned out of a professor who was described
as endeavoring to destroy whatever of faith in Chris-
tianity there was in the members of one of his classes.
This particular complaint did not ask for the dismissal
of the professor in question, but his letter left no doubt
that such action would be entirely acceptable to him.

A third and more exigent correspondent wished a
professor dismissed and dismissed by cable, inasmuch
as he happened to be in Europe at the time of his of-
fense for having written a letter to the public press
in which he expressed a personal view as to the merits
of the European War that was not in accordance with
prevailing American opinion. This correspondent
based his demand for the professor's discharge upon
the fact that he was traitorous and densely ignorant.
Of course these two defects would doubtless have
weight with the offender's colleagues and with the
trustees if the matter ever came before them in formal


Still another complainant was an official representa-
tive of a belligerent power, who wrote to denounce a
university professor as a slanderer because of some dif-
ference of opinion as to the qualifications and char-
acter of an individual whose name was given. In this
case the complainant did not ask for the dismissal of
the offending professor but only that he should "be
kindly called to account."

All this would be amusing were it not sad. It illus-
trates once more how much the public at large has still
to learn as to the significance and purpose of univer-
sities. The notion which is sedulously cultivated in
some quarters that there are powerful interests, finan-
cial, economic, and social, which wish to curb the
proper freedom of speech of university professors in
America, probably has little or no justification any-
where. So far as Columbia University is concerned it
has no justification whatever. That there are large
elements in the population which do desire to curb the
proper freedom of speech of university professors is,
however, indisputable. Evidence for this is to be
found not only in such correspondence as has just been
referred to but in letters addressed to the public press,
and even in editorial utterances on the part of sup-
posedly reputable newspapers. The fact is that peo-
ple generally have a great deal to learn as to the
meaning and functions of a university. The last thing
that many persons want is freedom either of speech or
of anything else unless its exercise happens to accord
with their own somewhat violent and passionate pre-


dilections. It must be said, on the other hand, that
professors of established reputation, sound judgment,
and good sense rarely if ever find themselves under
serious criticism from any source. Such men and
women may hold what opinions they please, since
they are in the habit of expressing them with discre-
tion, moderation, good taste, and good sense. It is
the violation of one or another of these canons which
produces the occasional disturbance that is so widely
advertised as an assertion of or attack upon academic
freedom. Genuine cases of the invasion of academic
freedom are so rare as to be almost non-existent. It
may be doubted whether more than two such cases
have occurred in the United States in the past forty
years. It is a misnomer to apply the high and splen-
did term "academic freedom" to exhibitions of bad
taste and bad manners. A university owes it to itself
to defend members of its teaching staff from unjust
and improper attacks made upon them, when in sin-
cerely seeking truth they arrive at results which are
either novel in themselves or in opposition to some
prevailing opinion. Here again the question is much
more largely one of manner than of matter. The seri-
ous, scholarly, and responsible investigator is not a
demagogue, and demagogues should not be permitted
to take his name in vain.

A well-organized group of American youth such as is
to be found at any college or university of consider-
able size offers almost irresistible temptation to the


propagandist. It seems to the ardent supporter of
some new movement the most natural thing in the
world that he should be permitted, in season and out
of season, to harangue college and university students
on the subject around which he feels that the whole
world revolves. Any attempt to protect the students
or the reputation of a given college or university for
sobriety and sanity of judgment is forthwith attacked
as a movement toward the suppression of free speech.
A portion of the newspaper press and not a few of their
more constant correspondents are aroused to action,
and pretty soon there is a full-fledged agitation in
progress, directed against those responsible for the ad-
ministration and good order of the college or univer-
sity in question. In particular, the agitation in favor
of woman suffrage, and those in favor of what is called
prohibition or of what is called socialism, are most
active and determined in seeking to use colleges and
universities as agencies and instruments of propa-

It may properly be pointed out that in each of these
cases, and in others that are similar, there is not and
cannot be involved any question of free speech in the
proper sense of that term. There is no good reason
why the youth who are committed to the care of a col-
lege or university should be turned over by that col-
lege or university to any agitators or propagandists
who may present themselves. On the other hand,
there is every reason why the college or university
should protect its students from outside influences of


this sort. The sound and proper policy appears to be
for a college or university to see to it that its students
receive information and instruction on all of these
subjects, and on similar matters that interest large
groups of people, from its own responsible officers of
instruction or from scholarly experts selected by them
because of their competence and good sense. For
many years it has been the rule at Columbia Univer-
sity, established in 1891, that any bona-fide organiza-
tion of students interested in a political or social move-
ment and wishing to organize a club or association in
support thereof might hold one meeting for organiza-
tion in the university buildings, but that, so far as
clubs and associations interested in political or highly
contentious subjects were concerned, all subsequent
meetings must be held outside of the university pre-
cincts. This plan has worked well for nearly twenty-
five years. The university has been most hospitable to
clubs and organizations of every sort, provided they
were organized in good faith by duly registered stu-
dents. Under the operation of this rule, no serious
abuses have arisen and no charge has been made, or
could justly be made, that freedom of speech was in
any way interfered with or limited. On the other
hand, the university and its students have been pro-
tected from constant and persistent agitation, during
political campaigns in particular, in regard to matters
that lie quite outside the main business and purpose of
the university.


From the Annual Report as president of Columbia University,
June 30, 1917


Some years ago the London Spectator invited Lord
Salisbury, then prime minister, to read to his col-
leagues in the cabinet the eighteenth chapter of Exo-
dus, beginning at the thirteenth verse. The writer
pointed out that in that chapter the true principle of
civil administration is laid down with a clearness and
precision which no subsequent writers on public af-
fairs have ever bettered. The passage in question re-
lates the visit of Jethro to his son-in-law, Moses, in
the course of which Jethro observed that the whole of
Moses' energy was occupied with the details of ad-
ministration. He therefore felt compelled to protest
and to ask Moses why he was so continually immersed
in the details of his work. The answer of Moses was
not satisfying, and Jethro at once pointed out where
the weak spot lay. He said to Moses: "The thing that
thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away,
both thou, and this people that is with thee: for the
thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to per-
form it thyself alone." This wise man went on to urge
that Moses should content himself with laying down
general principles of action, and that details should be
left to subordinates. His exact words have not lost
their consequence: "Thou [Moses] shalt teach them



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Online LibraryNicholas Murray ButlerScholarship and service; the policies and ideals of a national university in a modern democracy → online text (page 8 of 18)