The Demobilized Professor


WHEN, early last October, ‘the dark cloud of peace’ low’r’d upon the horizon, a faint but unmistakable shadow of annoyance was to be observed upon the faces of the ‘leaders of thought’ gathered at the Cosmos Club in Washington, where they held council while waiting hungrily for the attention of that remnant of the physically and mentally unfit who, having escaped the draft, were still following the waiter’s trade. There were no open complaints at the approach of peace. You cannot devote yourself, body and soul, to getting something, and then express disappointment when you get it. You cannot proclaim the righteousness of your cause morning, noon, and night, for a year and a half, and then announce your regret that righteousness should suddenly and unexpectedly have prevailed. But though you felt guilty, and were surprised at your own feeling, and wondered if anybody else felt the same way, and hoped somebody else did — there was no mistaking the fact that you were for the moment annoyed.

The fundamental fact was a radical shifting of the scale of values. The thing that yesterday was the most important thing in the world had to-day entirely lost its point. A belligerent depends for his equilibrium upon a sustained opposition. Let the opposition collapse, and he finds himself in the awkward posture of one whose opponent in a tug-ofwar has suddenly let go.

Furthermore, there was the feeling that you had n’t yet shown what you could do. Everybody went around telling everybody else how, if the war had lasted a month longer, this or that epochmaking discovery would have revolutionized the art of war, or this or that branch of the service would really have begun to function effectively. It was precisely as if, in the second half of a football game, with the score against you, and you about to make a touchdown after having carried the ball the length of the field, the opponent should suddenly withdraw his team and forfeit the game. You would rather win the game than have it handed to you. You have a lot of tricks up your sleeve that you’ve never had a chance to try. You were a green team at the opening of the game, and now, just as you have grown seasoned and resourceful, the game is over and your chance to prove your strength is gone forever. It is n’t exactly peace without victory, but victory without a sense of mastery.

There was no evidence of bloodthirstiness in this moment of annoyance. It betokened rather a past forgetfulness, both of the proximate end of killing Germans, and of the ulterior end of establishing a durable peace. It suddenly revealed to each man how much he had been absorbed in his job, and how much he had relished it. It proved the love of doing well something that one could put one’s heart in; the love of expending energy with an undivided conscience and with the approval of one’s fellows. It was the sudden consciousness of the new comradeship springing from coördinated and enthusiastic effort; above all, it was a sense of scope and power most keenly felt when it was about to be lost.


Among those who were thus momentarily affected by the breaking out of peace, the professor deserves special mention. The professor had for some months been having the time of his life. When the great professorial migration first began, a certain high officer of the General Staff was heard to remark that his main difficulty in Washington was ‘keeping these professors from under foot.’ That was a long, long time ago — in another age, when it was still naïvely assumed that the best-equipped man to run a war was the professional soldier. Since that time the War Department itself has introduced a system by which the competence of officers is graded by intelligence tests and rating scales devised by professors! And for the last year it has taken a practised eye to tell a professor from a soldier. There have been captains, majors, colonels, and even brigadier-generals, officers innumerable, whose incoming mail, addressed to Professor—, or Dr.—, or Dean—, has betrayed to unsuspecting clerks the late herbivorous habits of these sons of Mars. The khaki has been worn by many a knight of learning, who had never met any crisis but a crucial experiment, or handled any weapon but a pen, or faced any foe but a hostile audience. The military and academic professions have interpenetrated in this war. Just as it appeared that modern warfare embraces, in addition to the homicidal agencies of battle, virtually all organized activities, including trade, industry, agriculture, research, and education, so the personnel of modern armies and navies embraced almost every type of human talent and skill. And these new warriors did not all wear the costume of war. Besides the colonels of chemistry and majors of history, there were the ‘ plainclothes men,’ to whom no man gave orders, who were quite at ease with generals and admirals, and who were not unaware that the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and the Chief Magistrate himself, were also civilians.

And what have these professors been doing? Let us observe a few of them at their work. Professor A compounds poisonous and death-dealing gases more terrible than any the world has known; Professor B devises masks to counteract these same gases; and Professor C, a cure for the bodies which they torture. Professor D discovers that, by pouring sodium bicarbonate into the veins, it is possible to save thousands of suffering and dying men from the effects of surgical shock; and he revolutionizes the care of wounded men throughout the great Allied armies on the Western front. Professor E organizes a score of ground and flying schools to train a hundred thousand fliers; while Professor F devises tests by which these schools may be supplied with apt pupils. Professor G devises and carries out a system of occupational classification, by which three million soldiers are ticketed, tabulated, graded, and sent where their talents are needed. Professor H (who was formerly a Chaucerian scholar) unravels codes and ciphers, and invents new ones by which military secrets are sent to and fro upon their epoch-making errands. Professor I, who has hitherto corrected themes in English composition, now corrects the redundancy of cable messages, and saves a dozen fortunes at thirteen cents per word. Professor J plots and charts the commerce of the world, finds ships for cargoes and cargoes for ships, and by this shrewd manipulation and that, finds the tonnage to transport to Europe the two million fighting men who arrive just in time to fix the destiny of Europe. Professor K has his finger on the pulse of Germany, and detects by a hundred signs her waning morale and predicts her mortal sickness. Professor L mobilizes the entire educated youth of America, converts five hundred colleges into army camps, and all the diverse agencies of science and learning into a vast training course for officers. Professor M, with his eye on the Peace Conference, cuts and trims and patches the map of Europe, or frames a new constitution for the world.

But I shall reach the end of the alphabet long before my inventory is complete, and I have said enough to show what I mean when I say that the professor has been having the time of his life. He has at least enjoyed the illusion of power, which, until the verdict of history is pronounced, is all that one can ever be sure of. And subject to the same reservation, the professor has been a success, at least enough of a success to make one wonder why.

Certain it is that the pedant during the past year has not been the professor. There have been professional soldiers, and even professional business men, who have made the mistake of thinking that they already knew enough to enable them to cope with this war. But not so the professor. Although he has had no chance to practise his former occupation of pouring knowledge into empty upturned minds, he has found another job that is fortunately not less familiar to him. This is the job of solving new problems.

The war proved to be a perpetual round of new problems for which no existing precedent or remedy, and no existing habits or stores of erudition, nor any degree of acquired skill, sufficed. This war has been in a sense an amateur’s war. It has called for two or three fundamental qualities. First, determination, or faith — the quality that enables a man to stick to his job with a naïve belief in the attainability of the impossible. Second, readiness, adaptability, and the power quickly to absorb and profit by experience — a naked and uncorrupted power of mind that is not surprised or confused by the novelty or magnitude of unprecedented difficulties. The professor was reputed to be fossilized; but he has turned out to be almost embryonic in his modifiability and capacity for growth. He was reputed to be learned, and much to everyone’s surprise he has turned out to be intelligent. The third of these basic qualities is capacity for work. Here the professor’s old habits served him in good stead. Overtime (formerly known as ‘midnight oil’) was an old story to him — he may be said to have discovered it. When Washington adopted the fourteen-hour day, he took it as a matter of course, and felt thoroughly normal when many an athletic line officer showed dark streaks under his eyes.

It may surprise some readers to hear that Washington adopted the fourteenhour day. The man who invented the joke about the swivel-chair officers who wore spurs to keep their feet from sliding off the desk, must have been a disappointed and embittered office-seeker. As a matter of fact, the man or woman who observed fixed hours was viewed askance. It was not time-work, but jobwork, and the job was winning the war. In fact, the only redeeming feature of Washington was over-work. Everyone will tell you that the best days of all were those in which he could just barely keep his head above water, when everything was in arrears, when life was one continuous succession of alarms, emergencies, and crises. In the battle of Washington this was the equivalent of over the top. It was almost as good as being at the front, because, at any rate, you were too excited or tired to remember that you were n’t at the front.

I am far from wishing to claim that the professor possessed a monopoly of these three elemental qualities. It is sufficiently startling that he should have possessed them at all. But such is the case. In a time when most of the big things were done by main strength, the professor was among both the many called and the few chosen.


And now what is to be done with these embattled professors? It is a pity that, before being discharged, the Association of University Professors cannot march down Fifth Avenue in full battle-array, headed by its own band, protected by its own airplanes soaring overhead, and by its own artillery and tanks. There should be floats bearing the trophies, the death-dealing gases and explosives, the life-saving surgical and medicinal devices, the new offensive and defensive engines of war, which have sprung from the professor’s inventive brain. And there should be battalions of War-Workers bearing transparencies and pennants with such legends as, —

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL We Revolutionized the Art of War



SPECIAL ASSISTANTS TO THE SECRETARY OF WAR We did all the Inside Work of the War Department


We did it and now We’re Going to Write it up


We Sorted out Three Million Soldiers and put Every Man in His Place

COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND SPECIAL TRAINING We Mobilized Six Hundred (600) Schools and Colleges with 180,000 Students

To make such a pageant complete, the college presidents should line the curb to applaud the returning heroes.

This question of the college presidents is worthy of reflection. Some have gone off to war with their militant professors, but most of them have been compelled to remain at their academic posts, and have been engaged in keeping the home-fires burning with little fuel. When the War Department converted the colleges into training-camps, and kindly supplied commanding officers to relieve the academic authorities of responsibility, these presidents found themselves in a new and interesting situation. For the first time in history the absolute authority academic was pitted in the same place and at the same time against the absolute authority military. In a few cases both forms of energy were rapidly converted into heat. But in the great majority of cases the college president withdrew and held his power in abeyance. He became, as one of them put it, merely ‘ a superintendent of grounds and buildings.’ Even this description is somewhat exaggerated, judging by a report sent to Washington by the commanding officer of a certain college in South Carolina: —

‘On Tuesday, November 5 th, this unit very thoroughly policed all grounds and outbuildings, tearing down all chicken and hog fences, cattlesheds, removing stumps and dead trees, and sweeping and raking the yards. The pigs, cows, chickens, and the horse belonging to the president of the college were removed from the campus, and the places of litter were cleaned and limed. All ungainly outbuildings have been sold and are being removed to-day from the premises. These buildings were sold on recommendation of the commanding officer, and the faculty cheerfully complied with the recommendation.’

The cheerful compliance of the faculty should be specially noted. They evidently in this case found in the commanding officer a welcome ally. But that the presidents have suffered any permanent diminution of their power must not hastily be taken for granted. The home-coming faculty warriors will doubtless require some disciplining before they are reconciled to the old ways. But there are few indications that the presidents have experienced any change of heart. They have been biding their time, but they have not abdicated, or retired to Holland. At a recent meeting of these powerful dignitaries there was a frequently repeated remark which fell somewhat ominously upon the ears of the professors who happened to be present. The Students’ Army Training Corps, it was said, was essentially unworkable because it involved divided control! And apropos of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps it was remarked with satisfaction, that under that plan the officer detailed by the government should maintain the same relation to the president of the institution that is commonly sustained by a member of the faculty. This remark was greeted with applause. It struck all the assembled presidents as a very happy analogy; as a definition of status which contrasted most favorably with the authority arrogated by the late commanding officers of the S.A.T.C., and which signified that undivided control which alone could make the academic situation workable.

So it is not easy to predict what will happen when the academic family once more reassembles about the presidential fireside. It is supposed that the returned soldier will have an enlivened sense of his power and rights, and that he will not readily acquiesce in old usages or yield to the spell of old authorities. Perhaps this will be the case with the returned professors. At any rate, there will be in each institution a considerably larger proportion of men of affairs than formerly. There may be changes in prestige, in weight, in competence, that will convert undivided control into parliamentary government, or even into a council of soldiers’ and workmen’s delegates.


But it is perhaps more profitable to inquire concerning the effect of the professor’s expedition into the world of affairs upon his teaching, and so indirectly upon the intellectual life of the country. For several years we have been affirming the expectation that the world after the war would be a new world. And now that the war is over, we find that the world does n’t look so different after all. The first impulse seems to be even to exult in a return to the old ways. One of the common nuisances in Washington is the officer who drops into the office with his discharge papers and beaming face, to crow over his associates, who are still uncertain as to when they will ‘get out.’ There is more joy just now in passing out of the service than in being in it, which suggests that service is not just now an idea to conjure with. The homesick man wants the home he returns to to be the same, the familiar home, with that particular comfortable chair by that particular fireside. The soldier who has been getting up at five in the morning, living frugally, keeping himself fit and obeying orders, wants just now to lie in bed till ten, live luxuriously, loaf in idleness, and do as he pleases. The business man who has been regulated, controlled, exhorted, and commandeered wants to be allowed to indulge in a little selfish gain. Last, but not least, the colleges, which have been militarized and harnessed to the national movement, want just now to get back as fast as possible to culture, scholarship, competitive athletics, ‘college life,’ and all the local ways that set each apart by itself in a contented little world of its own.

But I think it is safe to assume that this reaction is only a surface wash, a wind-ripple on a current that still flows on in the original direction. When the tired man has slept himself out, when the homesick man has sated himself with the dear familiar things, he is going to find that his capacity and appetite are fundamentally and permanently changed. This phase will mark the beginning of that new world we have heard so much about. What is it going to be like? What, in particular, is the new educational world going to be like?

Let us start with the vulgar assumption that, since for the last eighteen months both students and professors have been engaged in doing something, rather than in memorizing and vaporizing, therefore the education of the future is bound to be severely practical. Everybody has been getting ‘down to brass tacks,’ and in future is going to remain there.

This is in a measure obvious, and in a measure true; but what is obvious is not true, and what is true is not obvious. The obvious thing, the hasty assumption, is that education is in future to be more sordid and more closely yoked to livelihood; and that therefore trade-schools and professional schools are going to flourish at the expense of research and the liberal arts. But this is not true. At any rate, there is no ground for inferring it from the experiences of the war. For if there was any one thing that ‘war work’ did not signify, it was livelihood, or private advancement and gain. It signified participation in a big collective undertaking, where the end sought was a victory from which in all probability one would derive no calculable private reward whatsoever. To seek such a victory and to rejoice in it signified that for the time being one had forgotten selfish ambition and become absorbed in a new and bigger thing. The habits of thought formed in service are therefore not such as to incline one to measure one’s success by the size of one’s pay-check.

It is true that participation in the war will serve to draw one closer to life and to affairs, but not in any obvious sense. Those who have taken part in the war have lived under the stern compulsion of getting something done. The war is fitly spoken of as ’the period of the emergency.’ For eighteen months life has been one emergency after another, emergencies large and small, all the way from the President’s dealings with the peace overtures of Germany down to some humble stenographer’s problem of getting out five hundred telegrams in time to reach their destination next morning. The capacity the war has cultivated is capacity to meet an emergency. This means thinking to some purpose, the use of one’s wits to cope with a danger, a threat, or a predicament. It requires that one shall think pertinently, and that one shall think through to those movements of men or materials in which one’s thinking is to take effect. Practicality in that sense the war will undoubtedly have promoted, even in educational circles. And with it goes learning by doing. Very little in this war has been the execution of a preconceived plan. Action has been extemporaneous, a fencing with circumstance, in which the effect of the first thrust determined the form of the second.

Now, while this is practical, it is not sordid and ignoble, because of the nature of the emergency. It has been a profound and a common emergency. Being a profound emergency, it has forced men to go back even to first principles in their thinking; and being a common emergency, it has forced men to meet it together in thought and in action. So that the effect on men’s minds has been to emancipate them from the trivial and to redeem them from the selfish.

Let us suppose that the returned fighting men and war-workers carry their new habits of mind with them into school and college. What may we expect? What ought we to hope for? That both teachers and students will be readier than before to put their minds to work, and less disposed to browse about aimlessly. There will be an inclination to think about something that at the time appears to need thinking about, an aptitude for living problems. And it is not necessary that such practicality should be more sordid in peace than in war. It is all a question of what we have learned recently to call ‘morale.’ The war fired the imagination. Here was an emergency that finally got home to all mankind. To-day it is a question of seeing that not only war, but life itself, is one perpetual emergency; and that the emergencies of today like those of yesterday, are both profound emergencies and common emergencies.

In other words, if, as I am inclined to believe, we must assume for the future that education will be more practical in emphasis, then we shall avoid what is sordid and ignoble, not by a stubborn resistance to this tendency and a harping on the old shibboleths of scholarship, pure science, and liberal culture, but by becoming practical in a new sense. If we must assume that hereafter all education is to become in a sense ‘vocational,’ then there is need of retaining the new conception of man’s vocation. Let a man once feel that his vocation is the service of mankind, and he can safely be allowed to be as vocational in his aims and training as he likes. He can scarcely be too vocational.

If there is any one indisputable fact amid the conflicts, ambiguities, untested theories, and unreasoning habits of the educational world, it is this: that you cannot work any profound change in the soul of a man until you touch his motives and determine what he wants to be. If a man wants to be a football hero above all things, you gain very little merely by forbidding him to play football more than an hour and a half a day. You have got to make him want to be something else. And the greatest force which inclines a man’s will to this or that is the force of the common ideals, of the class or community consciousness in which he participates. The classical training of the English universities and public schools has been effective mainly because tradition and public opinion have defined a certain definite type of the admirable and enviable man. With us in America this pattern of the gentleman has never been heartily adopted, so that our study of the ancient languages has been forced and perfunctory. The great obstacle to the classical curriculum in America lies in the fact that the product of that curriculum is not widely and sincerely admired. Our methods have been desultory, and our educational faith irresolute, because they have never been aligned with any great enthusiasm or aspiration springing from the hearts of many people and moving the individual like an instinct.

It follows that what education most needs is to get a motive and model from the popular consciousness. This does not imply vulgarity. The habits of the crowd may be vulgar, but the aspirations of the crowd are not vulgar. They are, however, inarticulate. They need to be evoked, kindled, symbolized, and organized, so that they may be conscious of themselves and acquire a rational method.

The present opportunity of education undoubtedly lies in the fact that the American people is quickened by a new enthusiasm. There is a new type of hero, who promises to supersede the pioneer, the athlete, and the self-made business man. The physiognomy of this new hero is not yet wholly clear. But all would agree on certain of his features. He possesses the dauntless and precipitate courage that springs from the conviction of right; he is a good fellow, noth an aptitude for the promiscuous social relationships that spring from a habit of trust instead of suspicion; he is recklessly indifferent to the form, so long as he has what he believes to be the substance of the thing; he is a brother of man and a citizen of the world, not having lived long enough in his own little corner to become altogether rooted there; he is unafraid of change, too naive to be cynical, and does not regard anything as too good to be true — so that he is constantly scandalizing the world by setting to work to bring about on earth what more knowing people merely contemplate and relegate to heaven. And with all this, our hero has two saving graces: the grace of humor which saves him from priggishness, and the grace of common sense which saves him from fanaticism..

Now let us suppose that some such type as this commands the unquestioning admiration of the average man. He does n’t have to be forced or reasoned into it — he acquires it unconsciously, like his native language, and judges other things in terms of it. It would follow that an effective educational process can be elaborated only by making this aspiration more vivid and articulate, and then developing and coordinating the means which will realize it. The resulting educational system would be as wide and as deep as any champion of liberal culture could desire. For such an ideal implies sympathy and tolerance, both in space and in time. The past will not be cast off, but humanized — brought into place as the successive phases of man’s development, or presented as old attempts to meet new problems. The fundamentals will not be ignored, because the great human problems are not technological problems merely, but political, moral, and religious problems. The imagination will not remain uncultivated, because a hopeful facing of the future stimulates speculation and invention. In short, what will be needed is not an abridgment of the range of studies, but a change of focus. The past must be oriented with the present, felt to be the past of this present. Similarly, the fundamental must be felt as pertinent, and the speculative as a means of making something better than the past.

During the last decade, while professional and technical studies have been improved in rigor and thoroughness, they have at the same time been liberalized. This is notably true of medicine, so that the student of medicine is learning to think of himself, not as a ‘practitioner’ merely, but as a servant of the community. The business man is coming to feel that every great industrial problem is a moral problem, involving the reconciliation of conflicting interests and of conflicting claims to health, happiness, and opportunity. The lawyer realizes that he is called to be more than an expert in litigation. He sees a better opportunity — to be the adviser of business, an instrument of public service, a counselor on questions of constitutional and social reform. The result of these changes is to create a demand in professional and technical schools for the underlying and outlying branches of knowledge.

The kernel of the matter appears to be this. For any process to be profoundly educative, there must be a passion and a problem. There must be something very active going on inside. Education cannot be applied to one’s scalp like a shampoo; it is an incidental benefit obtained in the course of an earnest effort to get something that one wants. In this sense all real learning is learning by experience, a storing up for future use of ideas, methods, and habits acquired in successful action. The proper educational bait is a live and appetizing problem. And it must be a reasonably specific problem, so that the solution may be recognized and acknowledged when it comes. The proper sequel and corrective check to effort is success or failure, felt to be such by the mind that makes the effort. It follows that the key to a humane and liberal education lies in a keen realization of the great soul-stirring problems.

Here, then, is a new outlook and opportunity for American colleges: to confirm and to exploit the new public interest; to reanimate all humane studies by connecting them with the enlivened humanity of the American youth; to focus the attention of students on the great outstanding problems — the problem of international security, the problem of industrial organization, the problems of health and happiness and of human development; to create in every student the feeling that these problems are his problems, and to set him on fire to solve them; to teach whatever may be needful as a part of the equipment for service, or as a personal realization of the new and better type of Americanism. To enter upon this new enterprise together will continue the fine comradeships of war, and will convert into powerful agencies of constructive peace the memories of the great days spent in the shadow of world-wide calamity.