Free Inquiry or Dogma?


SCHOLARSHIP is under fire to-day from many directions. The ever-recurring suspicion of man’s creative intelligence has once again become a powerful force and threatens to sweep all before it. The universities and colleges as focal points for speculation and research are the subject of hostile criticism and in at least one country have suffered a devastating persecution. Man’s restless spirit of inquiry has always been disconcerting to those who demand a final and unchanging picture of the universe. The Paduan professors whose orthodoxy did not allow them to look through Galileo’s telescope have had many followers. A group movement supported by a dogmatic philosophy and rushing toward an apparently definite goal is necessarily impatient of the detached thinker and observer and will ride him down on the slightest provocation. The scholar’s faith in the human mind is a faith alien to the fanatic social reformer, who will attack it with every conceivable weapon. Such has been the case in countless localized combats during the development of the universities, such was the case during one phase of the English Puritan Rebellion, such is the case in Germany to-day.

To throw defiance at the enemy is always comforting: we can meet verbal attack by counterattack and proclaim our opponents as the forces of evil and darkness. This was Robert Boyle’s method of answering the scoffers and critics in 1664; the theology of that period allowed a delightful simplification of the problem in the following words: ‘The Devil is not only a Liar but the Father of Lies, that is, the great Patron and Promoter of falsehood, and, as such, he studiously opposes all useful Truths; not only those for which we must be beholden to Revelation, but those also which may be attained by Ratiocination, and the well regulated exercise of our natural Faculties: And he were much less an Adversary and an Old Serpent than he is, if his Enmity to God and Man did not justly make him think that scarce anything is more his interest than solicitously to divert men from thinking, and discourage them in it, there being few things whereby he could more effectually oppose at once both the Glory of God and the good of Men.’

Recast in the impersonal and nonsulphurous language of the twentieth century, Boyle’s statement can still stand as the scholar’s defiant reply to those who question his faith in the significance of man’s power of understanding. But a courageous enunciation of a belief rarely converts anyone. A great mass of people to-day have not as yet taken the offensive against our institutions of higher learning, but they are quite rightly asking searching questions. Every institution must justify its existence to each successive generation and explain its rôle in the new world which appears to be dawning every twenty-five years. In spite of their antiquity, colleges and universities cannot claim immunity from this inquisition. They must be prepared to support their creed with convincing arguments.

For evidence in his defense the scholar and investigator may be permitted to draw on the past, but he will also, if he is wise, outline his plans for the future and show the consequences of their rejection. He must also realize that the court of inquiry is no longer composed of a few men with great power — this is not the day for appealing to a princely patron for protection. The jury which will render the verdict is a multitude — a multitude fully conscious of its strength.

At the outset the case is made difficult by lack of proper historical documentation, and the man of learning has no one to blame for this but himself. Try to draw up a list of books which will give some idea of the Advancement of Learning in the last four hundred years and see how pitiful is the result. Leaving aside any attempt at popular presentation, there are few histories which deal adequately with even the separate phases of the great adventure in which man has been engaged since the Renaissance. If our young men and young women are to have an understanding appreciation of the spiritual values of the civilization which they inherit, they must be given an account of the historical development of our knowledge and of our philosophy. The History of Science (using this word in its widest sense), the History of Ideas, the History of Scholarship, and the History of Universities should now be occupying the attention of many instead of a few. A discussion of these subjects with the proper emphasis on their relation to social and political history might well form an important part of a liberal education, but to find satisfactory teachers for such courses is now almost impossible.

Our political and to some extent our social history has been painstakingly explored by eminent men, and their labors have resulted in a plethora of books for the general reader, who is now in a position to understand something about the origin of our economic order, our political philosophy, and our governmental machinery. We can trace in detail the influence of this or that statesman and the consequences of the rise and fall of many movements, but an understanding of the genesis of our own intellectual background is woefully lacking. As far as applied science goes, of course, there is no difficulty. The history of inventions has been widely disseminated. For example, a great many people are at least dimly conscious of the steps which led to the development of the modern steam locomotive. But how many know anything of the steps in the recapture of the literature and art of the ancient world? How have we arrived at a chronology which dates with assurance a multitude of events stretched over more than four thousand years? How many have any appreciation of the importance of the Islamic contributions to the history of the sciences? Something about the history of philosophy is probably understood by anyone who has studied this subject, since the usual approach is historical; but who except the specialist has the faintest comprehension of the history of mathematics? How many college graduates know anything of the scholars who have developed our modern philology?

The impersonal nature of the scholar’s contribution has necessarily led to his anonymity, but this is of little consequence — names and dates of individuals are only of passing interest. The important landmarks in the history of civilization are to be established by noting the times and places of each successive phase of human thought and knowledge. Until we have an adequate survey of our intellectual history we cannot expect the world at large to understand the importance of the scholar’s contribution to civilization. Without a widespread appreciation of what the creative human spirit has accomplished, the forward advance will always be subject to the danger of being halted by a mob demanding dogma, not discussion, and crying for a ‘moratorium on research.’


It is being said that our higher education has no unity, that the influence of our colleges and universities is purely negative, that real problems are avoided or listlessly discussed by disillusioned old men, that endless time is wasted on trivial details and no attempt is made to coördinate our knowledge. It is implied that we have reached a point where it is impossible for our civilization to assimilate the fabulous wealth of new information and the new ideas which are being continually poured forth by a host of specialists. The critics who attack along these lines usually have as their objective an educational system which will be the means of propagating that particular set of ideas which they believe to be essential to the salvation of a nation. Some others who do not share their social philosophy are nevertheless carried along by the current, and demand that we abandon the whole enterprise of attempting to advance knowledge and understanding by investigation and inquiry; they would have us devote our entire energies to formulating a unified static doctrine (perhaps with peculiar national content) and base our educational philosophy on such dogma.

We can all agree that the rapid increase of knowledge and the everincreasing subdivision of subjects present a serious problem. We can further agree that higher education can benefit from criticism as much to-day as in the past — there is ample room for improvement. But I for one will not admit for a moment that there is any lack of purpose, any lack of a positive faith, in the great undertaking on which we are embarked. The fundamental issue raised by the hostile critic seems to me clear. Are we to have a civilization which draws its non-material sustenance from dogma or from free inquiry? Or, to put it in another form, is the next generation to find its values in some closed system of thought now complete or in the process of completion, or will it push ahead with creative work, unshaken in its faith in man’s intelligence? To all friends of learning and to all lovers of real liberty there can be but one answer to the question when put in this form. Social forces over which we have no control may conceivably submerge the entire learned world, but whether or not we go down fighting may be of vital significance to a subsequent generation. A common unifying faith is implicit in all the labors of those who are sincerely devoted to the creative activities of the human mind. This is no time to minimize that faith; on the contrary, we should be well advised to make it more militant.

It is customary nowadays to divide the whole of knowledge into four large fields: the physical sciences, the biological sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I suppose no one takes this quartering process very seriously, but it has its conveniences. Within these boundaries, at least, we may strive for some interrelating of research activities, some coördination of the ground already won, some joint planning of new attacks.

As far as the physical and biological sciences are concerned, it seems to me that we need have little worry about the specialists’ getting too far out of touch with one another. Discouraging statements which emanate from time to time from a few weary scientists imply that no one can follow the rapid advance of science. I venture to think that the history of the last decade proves the contrary; the facts show that research workers are able to keep abreast of the times and that an interchange of ideas goes on with extraordinary rapidity. An important discovery becomes known throughout the world with almost lightning speed, and immediately a host of workers are off on a new scent. In a short time the original isolated new fact has become built into the fabric of the science, and this work has been accomplished not by one man but by dozens of scientists in laboratories scattered all over the world.

There is little or no difficulty in arranging for coöperation between the various specialists in the experimental sciences or between them and the mathematician. In the progress of biochemistry during the last year or two there have been a number of striking examples of the effectiveness which results when an organic chemist, a physicist, and an expert on nutrition collaborate. Great advances in our understanding of the vitamins have been accomplished by such teams. More and more we must look forward to providing sufficient flexibility in our universities so that this sort of spontaneous coöperation may arise. Wide and extended is the scientific front to-day, but coördination is possible, and, moreover, the recent trend is clearly toward an increasing unification. Those young men now entering upon a scientific career who realize this fact and set their course accordingly will be the leaders in the next great forward movement. Even with an acceleration in the growth of the natural sciences, I believe the scientist twenty-five years from now will see the picture more as a whole than we do to-day.

When we leave mathematics and the natural sciences, which to a greater or less degree depend on mathematics, and turn to philosophy, it seems to me we meet a radically different situation. This must be faced in discussing not only philosophy but many aspects of the humanities and the social sciences. The physicists and chemists both start from essentially the same premises; they have agreed to isolate in the same way their Weltanschauung, at least for professional purposes. There is a mass of factual information as well as a multiplicity of concepts on which all scientists are agreed; the physicist takes the chemist’s chemistry on faith, and vice versa. By and large it is difficult to provoke a vital controversy on strictly scientific matters. Such being the case, it is clear that the advancement of scientific knowledge will be accomplished by coöperation, not by debate.

But is not the situation exactly the reverse of this in philosophy and also in many of the fields of social science and in a large portion of the humanities? At the present moment, at least, in these subjects there is no such body of concepts on which all learned men agree — to a large extent there are rival doctrines, there are unsettled disputes which go to the heart of things. The clash of opinion is the essence of such subjects. Only from continued debate can new vistas be opened. On this side of the field of learning a university must be concerned not with providing for coöperation but rather with arranging an arena for combat. Above all things, the different camps must be represented by vigorous champions — champions preoccupied not with maintaining the cause of their own particular orthodoxy but with developing new values and new ideas from the heat of battle. The vital importance to a university of vigorous controversy has never been better expressed than in a letter of William James to George Herbert Palmer, outlining his ideal for the Harvard Department of Philosophy.

‘If our students,’ wrote Mr. James, ‘now could begin really to understand what Royce means with his voluntaristic-pluralistic monism, what Münsterberg means with his dualistic scientificism and platonism, what Santayana means by his pessimistic platonism . . . what I mean by my crass pluralism, what you mean by your ethereal idealism, that these are so many religions, ways of fronting life, and worth fighting for, we should have a genuine philosophic universe at Harvard. The best condition of it would be an open conflict and rivalry of the diverse systems. . . . The world might ring with the struggle, if we devoted ourselves exclusively to belaboring each other.’

It seems to me that there is a certain tendency among our scholars to avoid debate. Perhaps a false analogy with the natural sciences has had a stifling effect. One seems to feel that the opposing forces are at times sulking in their tents, enjoying their own brand of orthodoxy, damning all heterodoxy in private, but not engaging in open discussion as freely as might be desired. Our colleges and universities must not only guarantee the right of free inquiry, they must also see that the various points of view are represented so that a conflict of opinion really takes place. From such clashes fly the sparks that ignite the enthusiasm in the students which drives them seriously to examine the questions raised. We must have our share of thoughtful rebels on our faculties. It will not suffice if each college or university has its own brand of doctrine. The conflicting views must be brought in as close contact as possible; only thus can all sides be presented to the student and the true meaning of the phrase ‘free inquiry’ be made evident.

If I am right in my diagnosis, the various fields of the social sciences and the humanities only rarely can be brought into effective contact by teams of specialists. What is needed more often is a wise and learned man with wide interests and a roving commission. A fortunate academic community might have several such men, ranging over the same broad field, but perhaps in complete disagreement as to their fundamental points of view. Then indeed might ‘the world ring with the struggle.’

This phrase of James’s has deep significance for all who are concerned with the future of our institutions of higher education. The controversy must be, of course, strictly academic, a combat of sound learning and thoughtful scholarship, but, unless the fundamental issues are to a considerable degree vital to the world, the struggle may soon degenerate into rather a sham battle — at all events the world will not ring with the struggle. It has been well said that a university, like the poet’s garden, should not stand in the market place, but should be hard by. It is no accident that the English universities attracted the largest number of students, in proportion to the population, when they were the centres of a vigorous theological controversy which soon developed into civil war. Oxford and Cambridge in the first half of the seventeenth century were vital organs of the body politic because the profoundest scholars of the day there debated issues which had significance for the whole nation. The by-products of this fermenting period of scholarship are the valuable intellectual heritage of a later age. The problems then discussed with so much passion leave us cold to-day. But we can hardly overestimate the significance of the quickened pulse of intellectual life stimulated by these now discarded questions.


The connection between intellectual freedom within the academic walls and liberty without is obvious. Substitute dogma for free inquiry, and open discussion ceases. The spirit of inquiry is too deep-rooted in a modern democratic land to be banished by the wave of a magic wand. It could be exterminated only by a stern and ruthless persecution. Abandon our faith in the value of the dispassionate search for the truth, and by a series of definite steps we shall find ourselves living in a spiritual prison with an organized mob for our jailers. Some think that under such conditions ‘non-controversial values’ might be enjoyed, ‘non-seditious research’ pursued with success. To my mind this is an illusion. Under such régimes I do not believe really original research will develop even in those special fields where it may be permitted. Highly organized and luxuriously equipped laboratories may make important advances in the sciences along clearly indicated lines, but the really important step in advancing knowledge is by its very nature in a totally unsuspected direction. I do not believe that a regimented social life will produce the genius who will turn the corner.

Now one of the serious charges brought against modern scholarship and research is that a great deal of it is alleged to be trivial. I think any candid observer will admit that a fair proportion of present-day research is trivial, but no one regrets this more than the scholars themselves. However fascinating stamp collecting may be as an avocation, no one would suppose that it should be a university subject, and the line between stamp collecting and certain types of research is admittedly very thin. No one wishes to encourage the uninspired plodding which often is supposed to pass for creative work. (Contrary to the popular opinion, I am inclined to think there is as much of this stamp-collecting type of research in the sciences as in the humanities.) But when you come to legislate against this or that special phase of man’s intellectual activity you are on dangerous ground. The search for the truth has been profitably pursued in more than one instance on swampy land that looked hopeless to all the bystanders. The history of scholarship shows clearly that a great deal of time must be wasted by many men on profitless intellectual adventures in order to provide the proper milieu from which significant contributions may emerge. There are many competent tacticians, but the able strategist is rare; this is as true in research as in war. But it is only after the war is over that the generals may be justly evaluated. It is not easy for the contemporary world to follow the progress of a campaign, and it is folly to shut off the supplies for an expedition because popular judgment condemns it. Mere research, even if in the words of Daisy Ashford it is ‘very mere,’ must be tolerated if we are not to discourage the whole great undertaking and sap its spiritual vigor by overemphasis on the immediate objective. Above all let us beware of setting up standards which measure the value of research by its utility — even its social utility. This is nearly as bad as measuring the worth of a scholar by the number and length of his books and articles!

In the last analysis it seems to me that, when judgments have to be passed (and they do have to be passed in the world as it is constituted), it is the scholar as a man who must be judged. And he must be judged in toto. The students who flock to our colleges and universities, the outside world which supports them, will in the long run demand that type of academic scholar who has characterized our institutions at their best. The sympathetic understanding and inspiring enthusiasm of a great teacher are soon recognized; the fire in the eye of the real creative worker is hard to counterfeit; in the course of years the sincerity and selfsacrifice of a devoted scholar win the appreciation of an ever-increasing circle. At their best, academic communities have been composed of men living consecrated lives — lives devoted to the passionate but almost selfless search for the truth. Such men have profoundly influenced the students and the world at large; they are honored and reverenced for their sincerity and their unswerving attachment to an ideal.

I am sorry to say that there are signs that another element has been injected into many colleges and universities in recent times. We all know too many cases where a man once appointed for life to a professorship proceeds by slow degrees to betray his trust — he enjoys the security of his office and neglects all but the most formal duties. To anyone who ponders on this problem the fate of the monasteries in the storm of the Reformation comes grimly to mind. If the time arrives when a considerable proportion of our professors have their eyes solely on their ‘outside income’ and spend most of their time in writing ‘potboilers’ or acting as high-salaried consultants on problems of no real scientific value, then the mob will be quite justified in storming the academic gates. As long as the members of the faculties of our many colleges in this country hold fast to their faith in the sacredness of their trust, I believe we can weather many gales. Without this we are lost no matter what may be our material resources.

Now finally one may still ask, Why all this emphasis on the advancement of knowledge? Free discussion, yes, but let us just thresh over the old straw; we have enough information and enough ideas to last us for many generations. Let us concentrate on the teaching process, on the process of assimilation, and stop wasting time and money on this so-called creative work, on investigation or research. To those who incline to this view I recommend for consideration the state of Greek culture at the end of the tenth century. The following passage describes the inhabitants of Constantinople at this period: ‘They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea had been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation.’ Dogmatic teachers of a servile generation — these words should stand as a warning to all who would shackle our universities and call a halt to the Advancement of Learning.