The Art of Being Free

A salty, courageous critic whose happiest days as a newspaperman were spent in company with Frank R. Kent, Henry L. Mencken, and Hamilton Owens, all on the BaltimoreSUN, GERALD W. JOHNSONis the author of biographies of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, and John Paul Jones, and of ALITTLE NIGHT-MUSIC,as charming a book on amateur musicians as one can remember.


IN THE spring of 1963 the junior senator from Arkansas, the Honorable J. William Fulbright, and the senior senator from Pennsylvania, the Honorable Joseph S. Clark, were quoted at length in a pamphlet issued by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The occasion was a discussion staged by the center on the subject “The Elite and the Electorate,” in which the participants were the two senators, a few guests specially invited to sit in, and two distinguished foreigners: Pierre MendèsFrance, former Premier of France, and Quintin McGarel Hogg, Viscount Hailsham. Conservative leader of the House of Lords.

The pamphlet received more than usual attention from the press because it contained two statements which, coming from American politicians, astonished many people.

Senator Fulbright opened his discussion with the dictum, “Government by the people is possible, but highly improbable.”

Senator Clark, in the course of his remarks, declared, “The legislatures of America, local, state, and national, are presently the greatest menace to the successful operation of the democratic process.”

Both senators asserted that the avenue to desirable change is through education; but Adolph W. Schmidt, a Pittsburgh banker who had been invited to sit in, asked how to draw the important distinction between liberal education and technological training.

I believe that both politicians were speaking unpopular truth, hence the general astonishment; and I believe that the banker’s point is an important one. But I also believe that my first duty is to acknowledge, to others and especially to myself, that I am construing all three statements in the light of my own experience; so the next man may construe them differently yet with the same chance of being right.

For instance, Senator Fulbright’s statement that government by the people is possible but highly improbable obviously involves a misuse, so common that it may be called customary, of the word “government.” To be exact the senator should have said “administration” by the people, but in that case he would have admitted no qualification. He would have said that it is impossible. To ask whether administration by the people is possible is equivalent to asking whether the umpire can play a baseball game. The umpire can govern the game, in the sense of determining its outcome, but eighteen men are required to play it.

The American people can send a lame-brained or contumacious public servant to the showers, but they cannot take his place, any more than the umpire himself can replace a batter who swings at the catcher instead of at the ball, or a pitcher who repeatedly tries to split the batter’s skull instead of the plate. In this sense, but in this sense only, the people can govern.

By the same token, Senator Clark’s assertion that legislatures (in the same paragraph he explains that he means all kinds: city councils, state legislatures, and Congress) are presently the greatest menace to the successful operation of the democratic process is sustained by the evidence, but in introducing the evidence he should have made one highly important stipulation — namely, that legislatures are in fact as well as in law representative of the people. This lays the foundation for the deduction that they may be obstacles, not because they are legislatures, but because they are people.

Let us here take time out to dispose of the foreigners. M. Mendès-France and Lord Hailsham spoke in broad, general terms, which was to be expected seeing that the word “elite” is already defined for them. They were heard attentively, but their utterances were not subjected to the critical analysis applied to the Americans’ because they were not controversial. As a matter of fact, even in the case of the Americans, it was the comment of the banker that really opened the way to disputation.

Since the facts adduced by both senators are hardly open to debate, it is natural that they should have agreed that liberal education widely dispersed is the solution. But the banker wanted to know what liberal education is, and that tripped the alarm. I have no knowledge of his studies, but perhaps he had read Plato; perhaps he had read John Dewey; perhaps he had read every important philosopher between the two. If so, he got an answer to his question every time; but if in the multiplicity of answers he could find one that is complete and conclusive, he might set up as a philosopher in his own right, for nobody else has done it.

LIBERAL education seems to be as incapable of definition as correct aesthetic taste, and for the same reason: what it is depends in part upon the student, in part upon his way of studying, and in part upon his motive in seeking education. If you fancy pedantic speech, say it is ontological, epistemological, and teleological, which should be enough to get the dust brushed off any ordinary man’s dictionary. Make it political education, though, and the field is greatly narrowed. Make it American political education, and it is narrowed still more, perhaps reduced to dimensions capable of being surveyed by intellects less wide-ranging than Einstein’s. The variant americanus of the species sapiens of the genus Homo is a relatively small part, statistically somewhat less than one fifteenth, of the population of the earth. He may be small enough for his characteristics, properties, and attributes to be ranged and ordered with some measure of success.

The only rational aim of political education anywhere is the establishment of order that can be maintained with minimum expenditure of energy, blood, and cash. Americans are committed to the theory that this means order based on justice rather than on force. For us, then, political education means the process of learning to establish and maintain order in that particular form.

My individual preference is to approach the subject by analogy. The proper education of an umpire is directed toward the development of three capacities— sharp sight, instant decision, and resolution enough to make the decision stick. Resolute, of course, does not mean bullheaded. A good umpire is not to be intimidated, not even by the bleachers spilling onto the field, roaring; yet if they pull the rule book on him, he has humility enough to reverse a wrong decision gracefully.

It sticks in my mind that a liberal political education is one that will develop analogous qualities in a voter. Without actually participating in the political game by doing any running himself, he watches it narrowly. He cannot be caught napping by a quick throw, nor fooled either by acrobatics or by clouds of dust; and the pandemonium of the cheering section affects him less than the droning of a mosquito would.

This is the ideal voter, like any other ideal only to be approximated in real life; but the closer the approximation the nearer we shall come to Senator Clark’s “successful operation of the democratic process.” It is not perfectionism, it is merely optimism to believe that we can make the approximation a good deal closer than it is at present; which gives point to study of the process.

To begin with, it is essential to recognize the division of education into its two classes — the relatively slight doctrinal and the immensely larger empirical, or what you learn in school and out. I am inclined to think that the proper function of the college, the higher institution, is not education at all, but de-education. It is, however, an inclination due to no logical process, but to individual experience. When I entered college at the age of seventeen I knew everything. When I emerged, just short of twenty-one, I had begun to doubt that I knew anything; and the subsequent fifty years have been one long confirmation of the doubt.

Yet, to be disburdened of the crushing load of misinformation under which I staggered when I entered was a favor for which I owe my alma mater a debt that can only be acknowledged, never paid. It was not that Wake Forest, in the first decade of the century, was an exceptionally good college. Measured by its own standards of today, it was very bad. Its endowment was minuscule; trustees as purblind as patriotic had sunk its original funds in bonds of the Confederate States of America. Its plant and equipment were scanty and, for the most part, antiquated. Its ratio of students to instructors was more than twenty to one. Its faculty salaries were a scandal. Its students were in overwhelming majority products of the North Carolina public schools of fifty years ago, which is to say, miserably prepared. It was constantly harassed by guerrilla warfare waged by bands of Holy Willies from backwoods churches, who demanded that the college cram down the students’ gullets, with ramrods if necessary, a granitic conviction that Jonah swallowed the whale.

Notwithstanding all this, light streamed from its windows over a darkling land. After more than half a century, I well remember the first blinding flash that left me with spots before my eyes. William Louis Poteat, opening his course, an introduction to general biology, remarked, “The first thing to remember, gentlemen, is that until you have learned the facts, you have no right to an opinion.” Never before had that elemental been mentioned to me by any teacher; so right then my de-education began.

It proceeded under John Bethune Carlyle, classicist, who in a presidential year taught Cicero’s Letters, not out of the book, but out of the Charlotte Observer, a morning newspaper. Comparing, day by day, the text with the news stories, he drew parallels, obvious once they were pointed out, between Cicero’s advice to his son-in-law, running for some office in Rome, and the maneuvers of the campaigners then raging across the country. I learned little or no Latin in that class, but I did learn that as a smooth political operator Marcus Tullius Cicero could have given cards and spades to Franklin D. Roosevelt and licked him four out of seven. I have since had use for that information, but none for any equivalent of “the doctrine of the enclitic de.”

The process was capped by a remark made — but not in class — by Benjamin Sledd, head of the English department, by birth a Virginian, and how! I have sometimes thought that all the Randolphs, Byrds, and Marshalls between Accomac and Lee counties were, combined, not as Virginian as Dr. Sledd, whose pride of birth had been greatly accentuated by long residence in Tarheelia. But for all that, he was a salty character, whose ideas were not derived from his ancestors and who, although a pedagogue, had never learned to suffer fools gladly.

We strolled across the campus after the last class one afternoon late in May, when the magnolia blossoms and the gentlemen were both out in force enjoying the balmy air. A pair of men in running shorts and spiked shoes trotted by, not speeding, merely limbering up. Down by the rough stone wall that enclosed the campus another pair tossed a baseball languidly. Sheltered by low-swinging magnolia boughs, a group engaged in what looked suspiciously like a poker game. In the shade of a giant oak lay one man who actually had a book; but unfortunately the book, spread open, rested on his chest, and he slept blissfully.

“Johnson,” said Dr. Sledd suddenly, apropos of nothing, “I don’t care if this place never turns out a scholar, if only it can turn out men.”

A college advised by perhaps its most austere scholar to put the fabrication of scholars in second place — gunpowder, treason, and plot! I think the process of my de-education reached its climax at that moment. The stunning shock was the idea that education does not consist primarily of book learning, for Wake Forest, despite all its handicaps, did occasionally turn out scholars. Adams, the Shakespearean authority, long an ornament of Cornell; Murchison, successor to G. Stanley Hall at Clark; McCutcheon, dean of the graduate school at Tulane and later at Texas, to mention the first three who come to mind, were pundits at least one hundred proof.

As for men, well, the Kitchin brothers: Will, governor of the state, Claude, Woodrow Wilson’s majority leader in the House of Representatives, Thurman, president of the college; then Bailey, United States senator; Bickett, governor; and among my own contemporaries, Broughton, governor; the younger Murchison, Assistant Secretary of Commerce; Stallings, of the Marines, who left a leg on the battlefield but returned to write What Price Glory?; Howard, chaplain in the First World War and dead somewhere in France; McMillan, the missionary in Shanghai who defied a Japanese patrol to shoot as he blocked the doorway to a room in which Chinese nurses were huddled; Green, medical officer commanding the general hospital at Pearl Harbor on the Day — with me, these pass for men, and with such, I am confident that Sledd, long gone where good Virginians go, would be content.

I AM, therefore, reasonably satisfied with my formal de-education. What I lost by being restricted to poor equipment and archaic methods I made up for, probably more than made up for, by close personal contact with men whose dedication was of a kind, completely new to me then, which I have seldom encountered since. My respect for the modern college, on a new campus, heavily endowed, with plant and equipment costing twenty times the total monetary value of the old Wake Forest, with three hundred teachers of three thousand students, is very high. I note with great pride that it was the first Southern senior college, privately endowed and therefore exempt from the Supreme Court decision of 1954, voluntarily to open its doors to Negroes on the same terms as whites; and I note with glee that a staff member who wrote a novel satirizing religious fanaticism had his contract renewed in the face of thunderous howls for his dismissal.

That the new college is admirable, I am happy to maintain against all comers; but that it is as efficient as the old one was at decontaminating youth who come to it infested with innumerable types of false knowledge, I piously hope but find pretty hard to believe. For, in the old college it was not accomplished by any recognized method of handling what are now called “learning situations,” unless close association with cultivated men be called a method. A passing remark, a lifted eyebrow, a frown, a smile — how can the power of these be channeled into any pedagogical method?

So I emerged from Wake Forest with a parchment inscribed, by a margin so narrow that it had to be expressed in decimals, cum laude, which had cost my father the sum of five dollars, the diploma fee, and which was worth just about the price; but I emerged also with a dawning realization of the vast extent of my own ignorance that was worth a fortune. For at Wake Forest there was first lighted in my mind a glimmer that the passing years have blown up into a glare — the knowledge that although I am a native, white, Protestant, literate American, and although I have studied for many years, to this day I know far less than I need to know about how to be politically a freeman.

The college, I still feel assured, had cracked the links, but a long time passed before I shook off the chain that bound me to the delusion that George Washington had made me free back in the eighteenth century. What a body of death, as St. Paul said, is the superstition that “American” is synonymous with “freeman”! I yield to none in my reverence for the Pater Patriae, yet I know now that what he gave me was not freedom, but merely a tair chance to learn how to be free; and that knowledge, I am persuaded, is the indispensable foundation of anything fit to be called a liberal education in politics.

The fact that this knowledge is still scantily diffused is a threat to our national security, by comparison with which the ravings of Khrushchev are mere persiflage. In the spring of 1963 the newspapers carried a story from Kansas City, Missouri, stating that the municipal authorities were considering abandoning that year their former custom of hoisting around the War Memorial, later rededicated as the Peace Memorial, the flags of the United Nations, or such of them as maintain diplomatic relations with this country. The action was proposed as a police measure, in the interest of maintaining public order, for in other years vandals had torn down some of the flags; and not only were the crackpots threatening riots, but even such organizations as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were protesting the display of foreign flags on the sacred soil of Kansas City.

What abysmal ignorance that reveals! It is not simply ignorance of how to be free, but ignorance of the difference between love and hate. Patriotism is usually defined as an attitude growing out of love of one’s country, but these people base it on hatred of other countries, for not otherwise can they justify insulting the symbols of nations with which we are not at war. Love and hate are both powerful emotions, and when emotions are strong enough, to distinguish them requires a capacity for analysis that is always associated with some degree of intelligence. Mark the word; it is “intelligence,” not “education.” The Daughters of the American Revolution are not illiterate, but their tendency to equate patriotism with hatred has long been notorious.

It is painful to intimate that even a minority of residents of the Honorable Harry S. Truman’s native state rate below the D.A.R. in intellectual level, but there are the facts. Some of them did threaten to riot against the display of flags of nations with which the United States is at least technically at peace.

This, though, was not the colossal prool of American ignorance of the art of being free in the year 1963. The colossal proof was our singular choice of a style of celebrating the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That style included setting police dogs and turning fire hose on schoolchildren exercising the constitutionally guaranteed right of peaceable assembly to petition for the redress of grievances.

Half a century has passed since Booker T. Washington good-humoredly — perhaps too good-humoredly — reminded us of the obvious truth that you can hold another man down in the gutter, but only by staying there with him. Within my lifetime my native region has made downright fabulous progress in building schoolhouses, laboratories, and libraries, in supplying textbooks and raising teachers’ salaries. Twenty years ago the state of Mississippi was spending a larger proportion of its total income on schools than either New York or Massachusetts was spending. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1963 the South was still in the gutter, sitting on the Negro, albeit more and more shamefaced about being there. The question then arises, Have the billions of dollars been applied to education or almost entirely to technological training?

As regards the elementary schools, the question is irrelevant. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are essentially technological training, which is to say, development in the adept use of tools. It is to higher education that the question really applies, and I, for one, accept the theory that its principal application is not to any of the institutions that we call schools, but to the empirical education that a man acquires on the street and in field and factory. The faculty in that vast “academy” consists not of pedagogues, but of the straw boss, the foreman, the superintendent, the precinct leader, and the parson, with the men of law and medicine playing supporting roles.

Every American whose position gives him any influence at all over another man is saddled with responsibility for teaching the art of being free. But how shall anyone teach if he doesn’t know the subject, even if he understands the duty? Journalists alone among those in the secular occupations recognize the obligation, since it soothes their vanity to look upon themselves as molders of public opinion; but when one examines the record, the way in which Southern journalism — including radio and television, as well as printed matter — has discharged this function, one is hardly overcome with admiration.

Yet to intimate that the degradation of the South is attributable wholly, or in the larger part, to dereliction of duty on the part of its journalists would be not only unjust, but idiotic. In this respect journalism stands above, rather than below, other types of Southern leadership, the clergy perhaps excepted. Indeed, the craft can point to a handful of representatives whose courage and ability can bear comparison with that of any of the glorified martyrs to freedom of the press.

One of the most curious circumstances in this situation is the startling evidence that the genuine freemen tended to concentrate in the lower rather than the higher ranks of leadership. More foremen than factory managers were realistic; more college professors than college presidents took risks; more curates than bishops were liberal; sockless denizens of Tobacco Road no doubt composed most of the lynching mobs, but slightly above their level, among the poor but not pauperized, wise tolerance seems to have been appreciably more widely prevalent than among millionaires.

Ralph McGill has pointed out that the reaction against the school segregation decision of 1954 was not instantaneous; there was at first a silence of some weeks, after which the clamor was raised, first by politicians, then by business leaders, such as those who formed the White Citizens Councils. It was distinctly later, and then by unmistakable invitation, that they were joined by the wool-hat boys.

The attitude of the politicians is comprehensible. The decision — or, to be exact, its implications — threatened all the neat arrangements by which they had been keeping political power in their own hands. No one wonders that the hit dog howled. The mystery is why business and professional leaders could not see that a policy of apartheid was detrimental to their own interests. The inescapable inference is that they lacked understanding of the nature of liberty, in which respect they were worse educated than their hired hands.

Senators Fulbright and Clark spoke well in proclaiming education as our hope. But quis custodiet — Banker Schmidt was the one to raise the crucial question, Who is to educate the educators?


For eighteen years the ATLANTIC has held out a special incentive to short-story writers. In January, 1946, we began to publish what we called Atlantic “Firsts” — short stories by unestablished writers making their first appearance in our pages. We are happy to announce the following prizewinners for 1963:

First prize of $750 awarded to JORDON PECILEfor “The Barrel Lifter” in the October issue

Second prize of $250 awarded to MARTIN J. HAMERfor “One, Two, Three, O’Leary” in the April issue