The Role of the University in Building World Peace

What is the role of academe as the U.S. government tackles foreign dangers without sufficient attention to the values of democracy? And how does this relate to the way colleges pay professors? A view from 1948.

August 31, 2005

When the American Association for Higher Education shut down this spring, many of its files went to Clara M. Lovett, its last president. She recently found a speech given in 1948 at the annual meeting of the higher education division of the National Education Association, which helped create the AAHE. Lovett thought the speech -- about challenges facing higher education as the U.S. confronted the Cold War -- had relevance today. With thanks to Lovett for the find and to the NEA for permission to reprint the text, we offer the following thoughts from an earlier generation.

Universities are among our oldest social institutions. Speaking generally they have characteristically been indifferent to their social responsibilities. They have often looked down their noses at modern problems and modern cultural development. They have been slow to change and slow to assume new social or educational responsibilities. Not infrequently have they viewed questions of social policy as practical matters which lie outside of the rightful concern of the university. The events of the last three decades have, however, shaken the complacency of many university faculty members and plunged a few of our leaders into a study of the ways and means whereby the university can make its appropriate contribution to the building of a decent and peaceful world.

There are several major developments which have been responsible for the change in the typical attitude of the university. Experience in Germany and other totalitarian countries proves conclusively that no true university is possible in a police state. This being so, every university has a stake in the preservation of freedom. Even though a university looks upon itself as an ivory tower, its staff members know that no ivory tower is even a remote possibility in anything but a free society. In the realm of the sciences, many leaders have looked in on the processes of nature in the area of atomic fission. What they have seen has so frightened them that they have become our most articulate and effective protagonists for the types of social change designed to insure a peaceful world. Thinking university people know that broad forms of adult education are the only means whereby social change can be sufficiently accelerated to head off worldwide catastrophe in the form of atomic war. Thus for the first time in academic history it now seems feasible to interest the academic world in the problems of world peace and the problems of social reconstruction upon which any enduring peace must be built.

In universities our characteristic response to a new responsibility is the addition of a new course, a new curriculum, or at leaset some proposal for the acquisition of new knowledge on the part of our students. We have every reason to doubt the wisdom of our past responses in such situations. It is going to take something more than knowledge of new facts to brings about a peaceful world. New courses can teach new facts, but they do not necessarily give our students and graduates the will to build a peaceful world or the social effectiveness for bringing such a world into being.

The plain fact is, we do not as a people understand the problem of world peace. We do not have a sufficient determination to build a peaceful world. We do not sense our own individual and collective responsibilities in relation to world peace. As a people we lack the consecration to human values and the devotion to human brotherhood that must of necessity be a foundation for a peaceful world. Perhaps most important of all we fail to realize that it is the success of free institutions inside our own country and other countries that is the primary requisite for the success of any international organization any effort at the maintenance of an enduring peace. If we are interested in examining the role of the university in building world peace, we should examine the course which has been followed by our own country in both the international and domestic scene since V-J Day. Through such an examination we can discover our major errors and identify the elements of unsoundness in our domestic and world leadership. From a study of these errors we can, I believe, map a sound emphasis for the university as it seeks to make a contribution to enduring world peace.

We have seen our country disappoint liberty-loving peoples the world over. Our international role has been characterized by confusion, uncertainty, vacillation, and, on occasion, downright dishonesty. While we have faltered in the international scene, we have stumbled about ineffectively at home. As of the present moment there is more fear in the heart of the average American than there has been at any time in the history of our country. This fear is not easily explained. It is an oversimplification to say that we are afraid of Russia. Our fears cannot be connected primarily with the rise of communism; nor is our state of mind due entirely to the development of the atomic bomb. While we may not be able to explain our fears, their results in our national and international behavior are plain to be observed. We carry on or propose witch hunts after communists. We send billions of dollars abroad in an effort to  stop communism, and we order a draft of our young men on the chance that we may have to fight our ideological enemies....

We have, it seems to me, made four major errors in charting the domestic and international course of our country and the entire democratic world. If the university is to play its proper role in the building of world peace, it must give its students a type of experience and equipment which will help us as a nation and as a world to correct these errors and chart a sound course in the direction of world peace.

In the first place, we in the Western world in general and in America in particular have failed to realize that human freedom is our most priceless asset. In one way or another we have been willing to compromise this freedom, sometimes in search of economic security, at other times in what we think is a battle to preserve this freedom. In this discussion I am taking the position that of all of the components of our culture and our heritage, our freedom is our greatest trust and our greatest hope for the future. With every passing year I am less willing to surrender any part of that freedom, regardless of the pretext upon which I am asked to make the surrender. I am thus wary of loss of individual freedom through over-centralization of government, through dictatorial organizations of labor and industry, through over-concentration of wealth and economic power, or through excessive controls of local affairs on the part of state and federal government.

Similarly, I am not only fearful of losing our freedom through a war, through a fascist or communist coup, but I am equally fearful of losing it through the adoption on our part of the police-state methods of the totalitarian world. I am accordingly extremely skeptical that the present much talked-of efforts to ferret out the Communists can actually be carried through without the loss of freedom for us all. And if through panic and fear of communism we lose our freedom, we have lost it just as truly as if it had been taken away from us by a foreign power.

Tragic as it may be, even our university graduates do not understand the meaning of our freedoms; nor do they realize the ways and means whereby these freedoms can be preserved. Therefore, teaching the meaning of human freedom is the first responsibility of the university in building world peace. We should, however, hasten to add that no perfunctory subject matter approach to the problem of freedom will be effective. For years our college students have studied our  history. They have read our Constitution. They have read the Declaration of Independence and other documents, but these and other materials have become stereotypes. They have been viewed in terms of political freedom alone. No organized and concerted attempt has been made to develop democratic principles in the area of economics, or of human relations, or in the field of the fine arts. As a result, a large proportion of our college graduates see no conflict between our great historic documents of freedom and segregation of whites and Negroes, poor housing, periodic unemployment, and lack of educational opportunities. Had our colleges and universities properly taught the meaning of human freedom, we would have had federal aid to education decades ago in this country. Had all the educational institutions in our nation really believed in our freedoms and taught them effectively, our country would today be vastly more democratic than it is.

But as a nation we have made a second tragic error since V-J Day. Somehow we have assumed that the problem of world peace can be solved through a world organization such as the United Nations, regardless of the success of our free institutions at home.... Our failure to see the relationship between the problems of our domestic society and  the difficulties of our world leadership grows out of our tendency to compartmentalize world problems, to blame our difficulties on other countries and on the weaknesses of governmental machinery and other forms of democratic implementation. We blame the machinery and we blame other countries when it is our own lack of moral conviction and sense of duty and responsibility that is to blame.

Clearly in this area the university has a large responsibility. It is not, however, enough for colleges and universities to convince the students of the inter-relatedness of our national and international problems. Something far deeper and more vital is demanded. The plain fact is, the whole Western democratic world has suffered a moral relapse in recent decades. The church has lost its hold on millions of our people. No substitute moral influence has come into our life. Opportunism, gross selfishness, and unbridled greed have had their unexampled innings. Irresponsible self-seeking has not only invaded business and labor but has made deep inroads into the profession of education itself. If freedom is to be saved and if world peace is to be achieved, the university must meet its responsibility in the realm of ethical and moral education.

In state-supported institutions, we cannot use the fact of legal restrictions on religious education as an alibi for failing to teach ethical and moral standards to our young people. Our own heritage of democracy is rich in ethical and moral content. Our literature presents enormous opportunities that can be exploited in many directions. The fine arts have a great potential contribution, and -- most important of all -- human relationships of the college and university campus can make an outstanding contribution if only we appreciate their importance and plan their programs and activities intelligently.

The third misconception which has undermined many of our domestic and international post-war policies has been the assumption that good can be accomplished through the doing of evil. We seem to think freedom can be saved for ourselves through a sacrifice of freedom for minorities and small nations and that we can further freedom for our own country by playing fast and loose with the welfare of small and less powerful countries and groups. Looking back over the period since V-J Day it seems almost impossible to understand how we can as a nation have been led into so many embarrassing and ambiguous positions. The most charitable way we can account for our blunders is to assume that we simply did not understand the processes whereby human freedom can be saved. There is in this connection a very simple principle. Freedom will not live unless it works. If it does not work, no amount of defense of freedom through persecution of its opponents, through spending money for relief, through propaganda, or through military efforts will avail....

If our universities are to play their appropriate role in the building of world peace, they must be the instrumentalities for making human freedom a working reality. As long as there are despotic, dictatorial police-state governments in the world there will be threats to peace. As long as there are social injustice, lack of educational opportunity, racial subordination, and discrimination, there will be threats to world peace. The problem of world peace has a unity and integrity which we in the academic world have failed to sense. We cannot preserve freedom for ourselves without doing all we can at all times to extend freedom to others. We cannot achieve prosperity for ourselves unless we do all we can to contribute to the prosperity of others. We cannot hope to enjoy uninterrupted liberty at home without honestly seeking liberty for the human spirit in all parts of the world, and we shall never sense this inter-relatedness until we come to understand the true foundation of our free institutions.

Freedom is not a mere accidental human aspiration. It is not only a philosophical conception; it is not only a theory or a hypothesis. On the contrary, free institutions are deeply rooted in the findings of those sciences which throw light on the nature of the human organism and on human behavior. Biology teaches us that all human individuals are different. Each person is unique, and it is out of this uniqueness that all creative power comes. We need a free society, therefore, in an effort to release the greatest creative powers of all individuals and through this release to enhance the achievements of society as a whole. We learn that personal and emotional security is essential to the greatest personal and intellectual growth. Thus respect for personality and for the worth and dignity of the individual has a sound foundation in the findings of science. It is essential that a university education should establish this scientific foundation for human freedom in the mind and heart of the student. With such understandings our citizens will be less vulnerable to propaganda, more effective in the defense of their heritage, and more zealous in the efforts to preserve it.

Our fourth serious error grows out of our tendency to feel that we have achieved the fruits of freedom merely through talking about it. Fourth of July speeches, political convention oratory, and speeches of educational philosophers are examples. We have in fact become so skillful in mouthing the beautiful phrases of our democratic heritage that the mere sound of the words themselves seems somehow to have brought a democratic society into being. In our saner moments we know that nothing is further from the truth, and here we, in the university, must hang our heads in shame. With all our talk about teaching the principles of human freedom and democracy we must openly confess that our universities are not democratic in organization, in administration, or in the conduct of their educational activities or campus affairs.

My own experience in university life is now of sufficient length and in a sufficient number of different institutions that I feel I have some experiential basis for the observations I am about to make. It is my honest conviction that the universities of this country will not become major factors in teaching human freedom and democratic ideals until they begin seriously to practice these ideals in their own organization and administration. Let us, however, be more specific in treating this issue. I refer to such specific and mundane things as the determination of faculty salaries. It is my observation that no single item of expenditure in a university is as difficult to increase as the salary of a professor. One can get money for new buildings, for new equipment, for research, for public relations, yes, for almost anything you can think of before one can get money for improved salaries. I have never read any religious or ethical document which held that increasing a professor's salary is a sin, but when I observe the attitude of university administrators toward salary increases I am almost led to the conclusion that they must view such increases as a dreadful sin. If we really believed in educational democracy, we would see to it that every possible dollar is spent on good faculty salaries in order to bring the finest teaching talent to our students and put our staff members in position to render the very finest and most creative service. My experience is that we operate on almost the direct opposite of this policy.

But it is not only in matters of salary that we are undemocratic. I have now seen successive generations of young men enter academic life with great enthusiasms, high hopes for the future, and commendable consecration to the welfare of their students. I have observed them five or ten years later only to see that they have become cynical, discouraged, embittered, and resigned to the doing of a routine job, the drawing of meager salaries, and the achievement of a tenuous security. It is the most distressing and painful observation of my entire academic experience. Primarily, it grows out of the way in which a university organization functions to restrict the individual in the exercise and development of his creative talent. Here it is not only the presidents and deans who are in error. Department chairmen, full professors, and perhaps even an occasional instructor are at fault.

Excessive regimentation on the part of administrators, on the part of faculty committees, and through faculty regulations plays its part. Here we are, of course, primarily concerned with the impact of the university on the problem of saving our freedom, preserving our democratic heritage, and building a peaceful world. Certainly we shall not achieve these far-flung and difficult objectives through a program of mealy-mouthed utterances concerning the glories of freedom. If we are really serious about teaching these human values, we must see to it that the institutions in which we teach are themselves fine examples of the democratic principles and concepts of freedom we are seeking to teach. As things are, much of what goes on in a university does not teach the student the meaning and glory of freedom, but gives him a cynical notion that freedom is something you talk about but probably never will enjoy.

Clearly we shall not give our college students the understandings of the problems of world peace through a few specialized courses in the social sciences, or through occasional lectures, or through any single pedagogical or curricular device. The meaning of human freedom, the devotion to human values, the understanding of human brotherhood, and the required social effectiveness for the practice of all of these are all too involved, too subtle, too difficult to come by, for any such lick-and-promise treatment. If universities are to be successful in their efforts to preserve human freedom, they must themselves believe in our free institutions. They cannot teach without a great faith.

It is the building of this great faith that is the major task of higher education. The progress made in human freedom to date has been made by those leaders who possess a great faith in the common man and in the processes of a free society. But the problem of building a great faith is not essentially or primarily a verbal undertaking. As human beings we believe in those principles and institutions which, over a period of time, serve mankind by bringing widespread human well-being. If we want our people to believe in democracy, we must make it a working democracy which delivers well-being to the masses of our people.

We tend also to maintain our faith in those principles and processes to which we can ourselves make a contribution. It is hard for an individual to continue to believe in a process that is for him remote, external, and detached. The individual citizen will keep his faith in those processes in which he can participate and to which he can contribute. We must find more ways whereby the average citizen can participate in the affairs of the community. In our universities we must discover more ways in which students can share in the improvement of university life. We must give our students an opportunity to experience the benefits of democracy in the source of their college education.

If freedom is to live, the world needs an honest and forthright America, an America that practices her freedoms at home and defends them abroad. Such an America must have citizens that have deep faith in freedom and a new consecration to human service -- citizens who courageously practice the ethical and moral principles of democracy. Universities will play their proper role in building world peace when they give us a citizenry with these qualities.






The late Ernest O. Melby was dean of the School of Education at New York University when he gave this talk.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top