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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

April 1955

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 easily probed.

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 validity today.

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.



2.

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.



3.

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 cure.

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 realize.

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 at it.

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.



4.

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 witnesses.

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 lesser one.

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).

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