Blind Alleys


A FEW years ago, in the swank modern salon of André Maurois, I met a vivacious old gentleman who turned out to be a professor of law. Upon learning that I had gone from Heidelberg to Harvard University, he exclaimed: ‘How could you?’ There ensued a discussion of the merits of American as compared with French and German institutions of higher learning. In the course of this exchange of views, my French friend finally summarized his disdain in the sentence: ‘ Les universités d’outre-mer n’ont pas d’esprit!

What did this man mean by his indictment that American universities have no spirit? Surely his opinion would not have been altered if he could have watched the manifestations of boisterous college spirit which vents its enthusiasm in thundering rah-rahs on the football field. In fact, the French esprit is so full of meaning, so rich in implications, that no foreign language can adequately render the word. Esprit comprises all that a Frenchman likes in intellectual life. It suggests wit and faith, candor and lucidity, imagination and originality.

But there is something else which a possession of all these qualities will give to a man, and a scholar: a profound, vital interest and participation in the growth of ideas moulding his time and his people. I suspect, from the whole tenor of our conversation, that it was this quality which my French friend had in mind. Before his inner eye he had the University of Paris in the days of Abélard and Saint Thomas, when it consisted of a few rich personalities of real genius who drew unto themselves all who were sensitive to the flowering of ideas, to the unfolding of the mind. For, although it is a far cry from Saint Thomas to the Sorbonne under the Third Republic, the tradition of the university as the centre of living ideas has never died in France. Originality, imagination, and faith in the reality of the spiritual life are the rock upon which Bologna, Paris, and Heidelberg were built. That this foundation is lacking in the United States is commonly assumed in Europe, and in its eyes justifies the condescension of scholars who often teach in institutions whose material resources are merely a fraction of those of the leading universities in this country.


Such a disdainful attitude is surely quite outmoded in the natural sciences. For in these fields American universities have undoubtedly assumed leadership very much in the same way as European universities have done. Chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, and medicine are all being pushed forward vigorously by the efforts of men and women employed in the higher institutions of learning. Though some very important work is being done outside, by great industrial concerns like the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and by government bureaus like the Bureau of Standards, the more theoretical tasks, the exploration of new paths, are largely undertaken by scholars in the universities and technical institutes. In these more comprehensive efforts, the revitalizing effect of constant communication and contact with men working in cognate fields, often remote from practical needs, — like mathematics and astronomy, — is essential. Here, then, in the broad realm of the natural sciences, American universities are in the vanguard of the movement of ideas; they are full of spirit, to use my friend’s expression; they display imagination and originality, and their work is carried forward with an ardent faith in the value and future of science. We may, for that reason, leave the natural sciences aside.

After all, my Frenchman was a professor of law, and his concern was with the social sciences and the humanities, with philosophy, history, and literature. For, decisive as is the position of natural science in the total sum of human knowledge, and tremendous as are the revolutions brought about by its recent discoveries, the spiritual climate of our time, as of all times, expresses itself more readily in our ideas on man and society, on education, sex life, government, and religion. A people’s Weltanschauung is not concerned with chemical formulas; it is built, in the eloquent words of John Morley, around ‘ the questions that haunt all ages, that survive all philosophies, that defy continuous generations of chartered soothsayers, that mock rising and sinking schools alike.’ This is the stuff with which the social sciences and the humanities are concerned: ‘man’s outlook upon the world and time and human destinies; the mental summary of experience, knowledge, duty, affections to his fellows.’ Most people are only dimly aware of these matters. It is the task of thoughtful men to examine anew ideas on these topics which tradition has handed down to us, to test them in the light of new experiences and of hitherto unknown facts which the changing social life presents. It is at this point that American universities seem to fail.


The obvious retort — the one which I immediately made in my conversation — is to point with pride to Veblen and Dewey, to Beard and Commons. Being a jurist, my friend was not too familiar with these names, and requested me to add legal scholars of similar statute. I spoke of Langdell and Ames and Pound; then proceeded to explain that the profoundly different traditions of bench and bar in common-law lands would forever give the great judges preëminence in the field of law, that it was difficult if not impossible for any scholar to match the intellectual authority of a man of great gifts on the Supreme Court, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But on further reflection these arguments seemed hollow; they did not really meet the challenge to the American university as an institution. After all, every one of these men was or is in some measure an outsider; Beard actually was induced to resign from academic life. Quite apart from the cheap attacks of unintelligent alumni and politicians in the state legislatures, men of such intense esprit have usually played a lone hand. Their influence did not radiate through their occupying a position of leadership in their institution; rather did they turn from the corporate institutional background of their university to a broader public outside. To be sure, each man has been surrounded by his group of admiring students who idolized him, but the universities themselves were not moulded by his kind, but rather by humdrum minds with so-called ‘administrative’ ability, men who conceived it as their highest ambition to become a dean or a president rather than to excel in thought or writing.


It is curious how little attention has been given to the smothering effect of such administrative control in American institutions of higher learning. And yet this predominance of a permanent scholastic bureaucracy puzzles a scholar from Europe more than anything else, when he attentively observes how the wheels go round in institutions large and small throughout the land. Every European country has, of course, its ministry of education, which holds a whip hand of administrative influence over all academic appointments and the spending of money for research. And I, for one, rather prefer the American system, composed as it is of men who after all belong to the faculty and share with it a practical knowledge of the intricacies of teaching and research, and are readily accessible for discussion and argument over any controversial point. This system seems to me to offer better opportunities for adequate adjustment of difficulties than the obsequious bureaucracy of a distant central ministry, composed of men who seek a career quite outside of the universities. The personal history of some of the master intriguers in that field — like that of the Prussian bureau chief, Althoff—would bring to light the extent to which intellectual life was throttled by the exigencies of a very questionable statecraft.

The evil nature of bureaucracy abroad can scarcely excuse our indifference to the manifest shortcomings of intramural ‘deanocracy’ in this country. We must remember that the encroachments of a ministerial bureaucracy used to founder upon the solid rock of faculty solidarity, particularly where questions of esprit, of the freedom to teach, were concerned. ‘Administrative’ professors, on the contrary, fail to respond to such intellectual issues and they therefore divide the faculty into ‘regulars’ and ‘troublemakers.’ Many a man with a profound enthusiasm for the higher aspirations of the university has been more deeply hurt by the cold stare of his former friends than by anything the authorities could have done. Unfortunately this question has too often been envisaged in terms of the teacher who is politically ‘radical.’ For, however ‘radical’ one may consider the position of some of these men in practical politics, as scholars they are often quite tame and conservative. This was true of Ludwig Lewisohn as well as of Harold Laski, and the same could be said of other so-called radicals who are to-day teaching in American universities. The really serious problem arises over the radical scholar, the man whose scientific views deviate so markedly from accepted opinion that they can be dubbed and will be dubbed ‘ unsound ’ by the recognized pundits of the particular field.


It is this discouragement of the man groping for new paths, advancing thoroughly heterodox ideas, which appears to me to be the real crux of higher thought and learning in America. Professor Karl Llewellyn, in a purposely provocative address to the students of the Harvard Law School, belabored American law schools generally for their failure to appoint ‘nuts.’ That remark obviously overstates the point I am driving at. Of course Llewellyn did not want real ‘nuts’; but he wanted a few men who would be considered in that light until a later generation would come to call some of them great.

But the law schools are by no means the only sinners. The dead hand of professional orthodoxy has an even more powerful grip on the faculties of arts and sciences. For here departmental recommendations are a necessary preliminary to faculty appointment. What is a department? Every science or field of learning constitutes a department (or division). Thus you find in every large university departments of philosophy, psychology, history, government, economics, and so forth and so on. Now these departments are composed of the men teaching the particular field, with all decisions resting in the hands of the more or less permanently appointed senior members. These men are scholars, and the stronger and greater they are, the stronger and more outspokenly do they hold their views. It is an error to believe that great minds recognize their equals; they very often do not. The young man with real fire is apt to challenge established views; the grand old man frowns upon such challenge, unless it is couched in the conciliatory language of a born diplomat.

Such young diplomats do exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most young thinkers of real mettle take an irritating joy in proving the old master wrong; they take after the great Pierre de la Ramée, who, as candidate for the bachelor’s degree in 1541, threw the gaunt let to the assembled Aristotelian scholastics with the thesis: ’All that Aristotle taught is wrong’—surely not a sound thesis, but one which later mellowed into a much truer conception of Aristotle than the hair-splitting doctors of Paris had expounded. Ramée was, of course, repudiated by his seniors, and so are his kin of to-day. Not always, to be sure. There are wise men of generous disposition who will look upon the youthful antics of their critics with magnanimity. I have been rather lucky in encountering some such men in my own path. But institutions must reckon with the average run of men, not with the happy exception. This average scholar will oppose the heretic; if recommendations must be passed upon by him, they will be rejected. He will mistake obsequious repetition of his own views, or their faithful application to some unexplored set of facts, for real promise.


It must, of course, be admitted that a considerable number of such ‘sound’ men are needed in every institution, because they will carry on the work. This is particularly true as long as the general scientific outlook remains unaltered. But, unhappily, in the moral and particularly in the social sciences the general outlook rarely remains stable for any length of time. Sensitivity to the general movement of ideas in the community is a prime requisite for really significant work. Soundness turns readily into dry-as-dust accumulation of irrelevant stuff. The human spirit cannot remember everything, cannot consider everything; it must select and explore anew. Where new ideas emerge, new work has to be done. To find the men who can do it is a task which no panacea of organization will solve. It depends forever upon the understanding and insight of those who determine the choices.

But you can remove obstacles. You can seek to offer a fair chance to the aspirant of real mettle. I have for a long time felt that the usual departmental and school boundaries should be disregarded in considering the promise of applicants. It is not enough that a fellow be a competent economist or lawyer; he must have a comprehension of and a sympathy for a wider field. I have, moreover, felt that some form of open competition should be introduced. If an assistant professorship in economics, let us say, is to be awarded, why not have several candidates submit to an open competition? Let anyone who feels he has the capacity to fill the job submit all he has written, as he is allowed to do in Holland, and secure the written comment of leading scholars of opposite opinions on this work. Let the three best ones address the faculty and student body; afterwards one can ascertain their opinion on the performance. The reason the faculty of Paris had to award Ramée his degree in spite of their disgust at his views is that examinations were at that time public; they could not afford to disregard the powerful impression which the candidate had made upon the assembled student body.


If it is difficult to induce the real creative and powerful minds to enter the universities when they are young, it is even more difficult to provide adequate opportunities for growth after they have entered. The division of the arts and sciences into fields and departments, and the subdivision of these departments into various specialties, superimpose a rigid and narrow classification of each man’s ‘interest’ which in no wise corresponds to the actual nature of intellectual work in these philosophical disciplines; nay, it does violence to the well-known urge to explore ever wider areas in search of a comprehensive synthesis. One president of a great university, perceiving the obstacles to learning under this system, has suggested a certain number of ‘roving professorships.’ This idea has not had the reception which it deserves, partly, perhaps, owing to the fact that the idea of roving is commonly interpreted to signify aimless wandering about. From a practical standpoint this is deplorable. But in the intellectual realm to go afield without settled determination is often a most fruitful undertaking. ‘Seek and ye shall find . . .’ The most crying need is to provide room for the growth of men who show an inclination to explore.

If, for example, a young man starts by teaching Roman history, and out of his intense occupation with the problems of Roman history develops a desire to investigate phases of early mediæval history or archæology or political science, he ought to be able to do so. An understanding university administration could make it its business to work out techniques for fitting such an aspiring scholar into the work of another department. Recognized tests to determine his abilily to participate in the teaching of the new field might readily be prepared. There can be little doubt that a greater freedom in our universities in this respect would contribute mightily toward the breakdown of that departmental exclusiveness and inter-school chauvinism which crops up time and again, to the incalculable detriment of learning and teaching alike.

To-day our universities are run on the motto, ‘Once an economist, always an economist.’ The consequence is often a deadening of interest; in particularly serious cases it results in a duplication of effort. For, if a really remarkable thinker develops a strong interest in a subject outside his ‘specialty,’ he will commence to divert his specialty to the teaching of that subject, and thus a course in comparative literature will become interlarded with digressions on ethics. The twists and tortuous ramifications of such a genuine flower grafted on to an alien bush are distressing. To make matters worse, such a man continues to address students in literature. Not having even an elementary grasp of ethics, such students are either mystified or indulge in a superficial enthusiasm instead of giving that sympathetic and competent criticism on which the teacher’s intellectual development thrives. Yet often such a man more nearly approaches the ideal scholar as a living force in the community than many of his colleagues who look down upon him because he is neither a philologist nor a philosopher exclusively. But he is not nearly as good or as great as he could be in a more favorable setting.


Discovering the little acorns out of which big oaks will grow, and providing the room for the growth of such mighty trees — such is the task in the spiritual and social sciences which the leading American universities must fulfill if they are to assume that position of intellectual leadership which alone would justify their claim for academic ‘freedom.’ Freedom must be earned by work and by achievement. Unless the universities lead the community in the realm of the spirit, they must be content with training the young in the spirit of others. If that is the case, really creative minds will be obliged to dissociate themselves from the university, and one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization — the constant collaboration of many different minds in the fellowship of learning, the universitas literarum — will be lost.

In order to assume the leadership which ought to be theirs, the great universities of this country must concentrate upon the problem of providing a fertile soil for the growth of pioneers of the spirit. They must get away from a preoccupation with the schooling of the average student. They must vigorously oppose ‘the curse of bigness,’ as Justice Brandeis has so aptly phrased it. Neither numbers of students nor magnitude of plant can compensate for the lack of really choice spirits. They are rare even under the most favorable conditions, yet they are the most precious possession an institution of learning can harbor. Without them the faith in the reality of spiritual life dies, is bound to die. Once that faith is dead, the universe of learning has lost its warming sun. Soon it will disintegrate. A heap of ashes will be left.

  1. Although the author has in recent years been connected with Harvard University, the following thoughts are based upon extensive observations of more than a hundred colleges and universities from Maine to California. Needless to say, none of the illustrations refer to individuals unless these are specially mentioned. EDITOR