Conscience and the Undergraduate
"Do not judge the college
student of today by the standards of yesterday," says JOHN S. DICKEY, President
of Dartmouth since 1945. "Remember that he is different, faced with graver
issues than we were a generation ago, more responsible in his decisions, and
much more lonely." President Dickey graduated from Dartmouth with the class of
1929 and from the Harvard Law School three years later. He practiced law in
Boston, served in the State Department over an eleven-year period, and taught
foreign affairs before returning to his alma mater. His findings in this
article will be stimulating and reassuring to many parents.
by John Sloan Dickey
The American male at the peak of his physical powers and appetites, driving a
hundred and sixty big white horses across the scenes of an increasingly open
society, with weekend money in his pocket and with little prior exposure to
trouble and tragedy, personifies an "accident going out to happen." He is not
always a college undergraduate, and not all undergraduates are trouble-prone,
but I am sure that any close observer of the campus will agree that there is no
more vulnerable human combination than an undergraduate.
The college undergraduate is a lot of things--many of them as familiar,
predictable, and responsive as the bounce of a basketball, and others as
startling (and occasionally as disastrous) as the bad bounce of a football. But
it is important to keep in mind that he is an undergraduate because he lives
and works within a specific context--the purposes of his college. The focus of
that total experience which we call "going to college" is the day-to-day
relationship between the undergraduate as a person and the college as an
institutional embodiment of other people's purposes. This relationship is not
There are those who tell us that the basic trouble with the liberal arts
college is that it really has no purpose. In this suspicious view, such
institutions are guilty of engaging in a gigantic shell game swindle where
"there ain't any pea" under any of the shells.
Without attempting here the impossibility of conclusive proof, I suggest that
the American liberal arts college (including the church colleges) can find a
significant, even unique, mission in the duality of its historic purpose: to
see men made whole in both competence and conscience. Is there any other
institution at the highest level of organized educational activity that is
committed explicitly by its history and by its program to these twin goals?
This is not to say that our great professional and technical institutions or
the graduate schools of arts and sciences are something less than the liberal
arts college, but rather that they have set themselves a different task--the
mission of developing a special competence. Nor am I unaware that these
institutions and the liberal arts colleges are borrowing more and more from
each other and may be moving toward each other in approaching a closer
integration of all higher education. But my point is that the historic liberal
arts college has had a unique mission and that this mission has reality and
There is almost no form or field of learning that does not multiply a man's
power economically, socially, politically, or physically. This is commonplace
because the creation of competence at every level of education is commonplace.
We could hardly stop it if we would. The appetite of self-interest will keep
enough of us hungry for ever larger portions of competence. It is the job of
the college to keep competence civilized.
There are many problems and shortcomings in the business of educating for
competence. Mostly they are the problems of any dynamic enterprise: how to do
it better, how to do more. These "how to do" problems trouble the liberal arts
colleges as well as the professional and technical schools; and, up to a point,
I am glad they do, although some fear that for a liberal arts college any
concern of this kind is the shortest route to perdition. I have no interest in
seeing the liberal arts college become too precious for the man who hungers for
competence. He greatly needs the tempering of liberal education; and in turn
such an undergraduate, whether he is heading for medicine, law, engineering,
business, or some other field, by the very fact that he is headed somewhere
brings a healthy reality and vigor to the work of the college. Too many men in
a college who think they know just what they want can make liberal education
too narrowly purposeful. But in order to have the abrasiveness that the
"practical" fellows bring to the campus, I am prepared to take my chances on
this danger and the exasperating troubles it breeds.
The risk seems to me worth taking because I am increasingly persuaded that the
cause of liberal education will not be overrun by vocationalism if the college
holds to its birthright and remains committed as a matter of purpose to serious
concern with the issues of conscience. A concern for the choice of good and the
rejection of evil in an institution of liberal learning quickens all humanistic
studies and prevents our increasing reliance on the physical and social
sciences from smothering those intuitive insights which both produce and spring
from goodness in a man.
A moral purpose exists for its own sake or it is nothing. I have no thought of
propping it up here with extraneous arguments. I merely offer the observation
that there seems to be a significant natural affinity between the liberating
arts and an educational enterprise committed to the dual pursuit of competence
and conscience. You might call it reciprocal invigoration.
To create the power of competence without creating a corresponding sense of
moral direction to guide the use of that power is bad education.
This is the point in the story where most college catalogue statements of high
purpose end, leaving the blissful impression that the undergraduate and the
moral purpose of his college once met will live happily together ever
afterward. There are more reasons why this is not so than I understand; but, in
fairness to the undergraduate and to the task the liberal arts college has set
itself, there are certain things which ought to be taken into account before he
and the modern college are assumed to be hopelessly immoral and faithless.
Consider the raw material on which the college seeks to work a moral purpose.
The undergraduate begins as a boy and leaves as a man. Between the ages of
seventeen and twenty-two he crosses the last dramatic threshold of personal
growth. As a freshman he is sure all things are known or knowable; as a senior
he wonders. I have never known a freshman who sensed the humorous ambiguity in
the advice given a city-bound daughter by her mountaineer father: "When in
doubt, Nell, do right." On the other hand, the sophistication of the senior is
wonderfully caught in the reply of one of them to my tirade on respect for
facts: "Sir, the only trouble with facts is that there are so many of them."
In adult life there are new adjustments to be made, new troubles to be met, and
wisdom to be learned, but instead of four there are fifty years or more for
learning the ways of goodness and creating the works of love. And to put it
very mildly adult learning is not handicapped by the fact that it takes place
on the ebb tide of a man's physical appetites and power.
The undergraduate on the other hand must make his peace with the moral purposes
of an institution during four hectic years when his appetites and powers are at
flood tide and before he has had much, if any, experience with what can happen.
The lack of intimate personal acquaintance with trouble and tragedy is not, of
course, a condition peculiar to modern youth, but it is the impression of many
of us that most undergraduates today have seen far less of these things than
had their grandfathers or even many of their fathers at the same age. Again
there are many reasons--among them the rising standard of living, the lack of
hard times or widespread business failures in the last ten years, and the
growing urbanization, or sub-urbanization, of the population that heavily
patronizes the liberal arts college.
The farm or small-town home where the whole family shared the troubles and
uncertainties of life at all three meals, seven days a week, provided an
earlier exposure to the rough edges of life than does a suburban childhood
topped perhaps by years away at boarding school. The fact that life has narrow
margins also comes earlier in the story for most rural boys. This is not a
lament for the good old days and it is not an appraisal of our many
contemporary advantages; but before we apply the standards of yesterday to the
undergraduate of today, we ought to remember that some basic things in his
pre-college experience are very different.
I shall forgo here any attempt to compare the pre-college church background of
today's youth with yesterday's, but I do want to mention one more changing
reality that seems to me to have a very sharp bearing on the undergraduate's
readiness for the deep spiritual insights of humility, compassion, and faith.
Today's freshman was only seven at the end of World War II and he was too young
for Korea. He brings to college a very dim and impersonal notion of death.
It is increasingly probable that he comes to college without having known the
immeasurable grief which falls on a boy with the death of a parent, a brother,
a sister, or of a grandparent living in the same household. The terror of
diphtheria epidemics is unknown to him; he is rarely wrenched from college by
the death of a father. Modern medicine pushes death further and further up the
years, both for those who go and those who stay. In a time when each young
family goes off to its own home, when hospitalization of the sick increasingly
takes illness and death out of the home, and when the practice of holding
funerals in the home has almost passed, young people know little of shared
suffering and are kept at arm's length from the crush of death. How many boys
now coming to college have lived day in and day out with a grandparent dying on
the parlor sofa?
You may well say with me, "Thank God for this." But can we doubt that deep
personal experience with the reality that every life ends and that, with all
our knowing, there are earthly bounds beyond which there is no knowing--can we
doubt that these are the ingredients out of which honest humility, compassion,
and faith become personal to the human self? An undergraduate who has not yet
known these things in his own life can sometimes borrow from the total store of
human woe and joy, and by using the tools of the intellect he can begin to lay
out a pattern of belief for himself, but it will be a sharper etching after the
bite of life's acid is on it.
Moreover, one of the very tools he must use can cause an undergraduate to feel
that the liberal arts college is at war with itself, and that there is an
irreconcilable contradiction between its approach to competence and its
approach to conscience. The name of that tool is doubt. The tool of doubt is
simply indispensable to the fashioning of the kind of critical mind that does
the daily intellectual work of the world. Any fact, any assumption, any theory,
that has not been tested by the diamond-pointed drill of doubt is at best a
doubtful thing. Almost every good teacher at some point takes the calculated
risk of pressing this tool into the hands of his undergraduate students. Most
of them learn to handle and respect it as a tool, but there are always some
who, for a time at least, insist on treating doubt as an end in itself.
Likewise, I think, many undergraduates go through a phase of being genuinely
perplexed because the use of doubt does not produce uniformly satisfying
results in all situations.
Today's undergraduate--and for that matter today's college teacher--is not much
interested in the type of science versus religion wrestling match that drew so
well on many campuses in the twenties. He is quite willing to leave that
argument where it fell of its own futility. You can, of course, hear almost
anything on any campus if you listen long enough, but generally the questions
today seem more manageable: What is science? How far can it reach? Are
different religions compatible? Is religion really livable? Is it "for me"?
And, as always, there is the large, relatively silent sector of opinion which
believes in letting your mind alone about such things. For these fellows the
religious practice or indifference of their fathers is good enough.
I am often asked whether there is not greater interest in religion on the
campus today than during the pre-war period. Such judgments are at best
imprecise, but so far as I can judge, the answer is yes. On our campus we see
such intensified interest in the classroom, the chapel, and the Christian
Union. Student attendance and activity in the local churches have sharply
increased. This manifestation of growing religious interest on the campus
undoubtedly reflects in part what is happening throughout American society, but
I am sure there is also in it a factor indigenous to the college.
Even though there is no great debate between science and religion as competing
absolutes on the campus today, a goodly percentage of freshmen and sophomores
can be counted on to keep their parents harried about religious matters. It has
ever been thus, and I feel certain that so long as disciplined doubt is one of
the mind's tools it will always be thus--at least until the last apprenticeship
has been served in these workshops of the mind. This seems to me healthy as
well as inevitable, and I commend those who need reassurance to President
William Jewett Tucker, who, after a lifetime of preaching and teaching, wrote:
"The doubting mind always seemed to me a part of the believing mind." The
understanding of such paradox is the fruit of full maturity, rarely, if ever,
within the reach of any undergraduate.
Whatever the reason, an undergraduate often hesitates to accept moral and
spiritual commitments that seem to him to limit his free-wheeling
maneuverability of either body or soul. I respect and value this instinct as a
reaction to unexamined dogma. However, I think I also know something of its
perverse possibilities as a subterfuge for an unwillingness to examine, and as
a form of chronic immaturity. These are ancient foes of education; they are
hard to live with even when you are paid to do it, and they are harder to
The undergraduate of the days before yesterday was not quite all that as an
alumnus he now thinks he was, but as a general thing he probably was ready to
commit himself earlier and more rigidly on moral and spiritual issues. He
personally often felt the need of such commitment earlier, and such commitments
fell right into the general pattern of his family and community life. Any
commitment comes easier if everyone is doing it. Whatever the reasons, for some
time now, not everybody is doing it, and as a consequence today's undergraduate
feels very much more on his own in working his way through these things.
Working out such commitments on your own builds self-reliance. It is, however,
difficult, even dangerous, and it certainly takes more time. It is a lonely
business and today's undergraduate is often more lonely than he admits or we
But nothing could be more foolish and unjust than to assume that today's
undergraduate does not respond positively and in distinctive ways to a moral
challenge. Within the reality of his experience he is ready, willing, and able
to come to grips with issues of conscience which in other days were largely
left to his elders. During the past ten years I have watched our post-war
undergraduates face up to problems of conscience in passing hard disciplinary
judgments on fellow students, in taking their own measure on the issues of
racial discrimination and the honor system, and in meeting the easy-to-duck
challenges of such things as the campus community chest, the needs of DP
students, and the unadvertised troubles of some hard-pressed North countryman
in the outlying community. It is no false bravery to say that having watched
both his doing of these things and his contagion for trouble, I am prepared to
take my chances with the kind of world the undergraduate creates when he works
And he does work at it. It is a common thing for our undergraduate committee
handling the investigation and recommendations on disciplinary cases to sit
into the early morning hours of the night. There is no duty on a modern campus
more distasteful to an undergraduate than sitting in judgment on the
shortcomings of his peers. He is keenly aware that "but for the grace of God,
there go I" and he probably still retains a strong trace of the American
schoolboy's loyalty to the group as against the authority of the school. And
yet I have never known an outgoing undergraduate judiciary chairman whose
capacity for both compassion and just judgment was not admired, indeed envied,
by students and faculty alike.
Recently this committee sat until 2 A.M. considering whether to recommend the
dismissal from college of a boy who had gotten himself into serious trouble. It
was a hard case all around, and it was only after an independent investigation,
a hearing of the boy, and lengthy deliberation that the committee finally
decided the interests of the college required dismissal of the student. Before
he went to bed that night the undergraduate chairman on his own initiative
called on the boy's parents at the Inn to report the decision and to give them
the kind of explanation he would have wanted his parents to get if he were
being dismissed. This is more than responsibility; this is conscience.
It is not the leaders alone who measure up. On things such as racial
discrimination and compulsory military service every man must face himself as
well as the nation and his Maker. Today's undergraduate has no choice about
going or not going into the armed forces. He must go, but his attitude in going
is important. At Dartmouth, we who have worked with all our seniors in the
Great Issues Course know that today's senior goes into the service of his
country understanding far more than did his father or grandfather why he does
so. He knows why it is all so necessary and yet so unnecessary. He puts two or
three years of his life into what he is told needs to be done without becoming
embittered, without retreating either to "know-nothingism" or pacifism, and
with a growing awareness of the role of conscience in all his doing.
An undergraduate generation capable of coming to terms with itself and its
elders on the issues of man's brotherhood is surely capable in the course of a
lifetime of coming to terms with the universe as children of God.
Is today's college as well prepared as it should be to meet these needs of
conscience? When it comes to commitments, the independent college itself has a
problem. It has a long history of fighting clear of doctrinal commitments and
for good reasons. Yet a college cannot take its problems of purpose seriously
without venturing into some form of institutional commitment. The early
American colleges were generally very clear about their commitment to a moral
and religious purpose. For several hundred years the primacy of this purpose
was both attested and served by three constitutional elements in the life of
these colleges: 1) the tradition of preacher presidents, 2) a curriculum heavy
with religion and moral doctrine, and 3) compulsory church and chapel. I refer
to these elements as "constitutional" because for a long period, above and
beyond men, their influence permeated all that these institutions were and did.
But, as with other mortal constitutional forms, they proved susceptible of
amendment and not as permanent as they had seemed to earlier generations.
Certainly it is a rare thing today to find any college, except those
institutions which are integral parts of a church, where the moral purpose of
higher education continues to be attested by this triad of constitutional
The time has passed on most campuses for arguing the merits of these changes;
they are done and in the main they were in response to serious weaknesses and
real needs. There is little or no prospect that any of these elements could be
re-established intact today. many do believe that college chapel in some form
still has a future. I hope so and I should personally be sorry to see it
abandoned or weakened on those campuses where it still exists even though in
greatly modified form from the rigors and requirements of yesterday.
The deeper significance of these traditions has become apparent only as we
begin to be aware that with the passing of these constitutional elements from
the campus, the college's concern for conscience was left without tangible,
pervasive, and enduring witness. Nothing comparable was substituted for the
outmoded agencies, and this gap in the context of purpose remains an
uncorrected weakness on most undergraduate campuses today. This seems to me to
be clear unless we are ready to say either 1) that the college's historic
commitment to furthering the moral and spiritual growth of an undergraduate
truly ceased with the passing of these particular witnesses, or 2) that in
serving this purpose we can rely exclusively on the ebb and flow of its
awareness in individual teachers and administrators rather than on the more
traditional combination of men plus the prod of institutional form and purpose.
Either of these seem to me bad education.
The challenge of this problem is to get beyond words. In an effort to be
concretely responsive we have done three things at Dartmouth:--
First, the Board of Trustees has formally affirmed that the College's "moral
and spiritual purpose springs from a belief in the existence of good and evil,
from faith in the ability of men to choose between them and from a sense of
duty to advance the good."
Secondly, the Trustees by the same resolution established an independent
endowment within the College to be known as the William Jewett Tucker
Foundation for the specific purpose of supporting and furthering in all ways
and in all areas the moral and spiritual work of the College.
Thirdly, the Trustees have created a new position of pervasive scope, to be
known as the Dean of the Tucker Foundation, the occupant of which will have the
campus as well as the chapel for his province.
The Tucker Foundation takes its aim and scope from the outlook of Dr. Tucker,
Dartmouth's last preacher president and one of the greatest, who at the turn of
the century spoke thus in the College chapel:--
"I make no closing plea for any formal religion, but I do plead now as always
for the religious spirit....Seek, I pray you, moral distinction. Be not content
with the commonplace in character any more than with the commonplace in
ambition or intellectual attainment. Do not expect that you will make any
lasting or very strong impression on the world through intellectual power
without the use of an equal amount of conscience and heart."
There are no panaceas in education and I claim no patentable novelty for the
individual features of the Tucker Foundation. Taken together, however, I wonder
if they do not add up to an approach that is genuinely responsive to the
problem of keeping conscience to the fore as an indispensable ingredient of an
education that can commit a man to a better life as he liberates himself from a
Here on the side of conscience in the broadest and firmest terms is an explicit
commitment of purpose. So long as our society places its bet on the power of
free men to choose their destiny, such a commitment will be relevant. It is
built low to the ground but it looks up, and I should think that it has a good
chance to remain resilient and meaningful under well-nigh any future
circumstance. Here also is a store of material resources which, joined with the
avowal of purpose, will stand as a tangible reminder to the students, teachers,
alumni, presidents, and trustees of tomorrow that they are committed to the
work of righteousness and that it is their task to fashion tools appropriate to
their day. Finally, here in the deanship of the Tucker Foundation is a position
of both scope and prestige which, while rooted in the religious spirit, could
open to its occupant the kind of intimate but wide-ranging relationship to the
campus that our highly departmentalized colleges so badly need. Incidentally,
such a representative-at-large might well accomplish some of the college-wide
missions the preacher presidents were able to perform in their day which a
present-day college president is kept from doing because of his amphibious
existence, half on and half off the campus.
Up to now I have spoken of competence and conscience as if they were the twain
that never get closer than the opposite sides of that ubiquitous thing called
"and." This cleavage is not the reality either on or off the campus. It is the
mixture that counts, and among our other blessings I rate very highly the fact
that in the liberal arts college neither competence nor conscience is taken
straight. Rather, it is the human interplay between these two poles of purpose
that gives liberal education its orientation to the light and brings to the
undergraduate grown a man those liberating and civilizing qualities men never
quite define nor ever quite deny.
Copyright © 1955 by John Sloan Dickey. All rights reserved.
"Conscience and the Undergraduate"
The Atlantic Monthly, April, 1955, issue.
Vol. 195, No. 4 (p.31-35).