Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/August 1911/The University in Politics

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By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL


SEEKING to define the functions of a university in a few words, I have thought that we might say: the purpose of a university is to conserve useful truth and to add to it. It should be in some sort the axis of our intellectual and moral growth, whence proceed the flowers and fruits of achievement. This is, of course, claiming a great deal for the institution, but it must be remembered that currents flow both ways, and the so-called product of the university is really the outcome of all human progress. Perhaps a homely illustration may serve our purpose. On pleasant evenings one may see the inhabitants of suburban districts engaged in watering their gardens. Superficially, they seem to hold in their hands useful little machines, from which, by a light pressure of the fingers, they are able to project sprays of water, strong or weak, straight or spreading, at their pleasure. Now we know that the water comes from a great reservoir, and the amateur gardeners have nothing to do with its origin or the force with which it escapes from their pipes, beyond, indeed, contributing their share of the water-rates. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of practical gardening, a mere deluge of water, unguided in its application, would be worse than useless; consequently the pipe, the nozzle and the gardener are essential factors for any kind of success. The university would be nothing without the great reservoir of accumulated human knowledge and experience. From this it draws its material and its energy, and yet not altogether so, for its own members, day by day, contribute intellectual capital. Literally construed, our analogy of the gardener probably breaks down in every case, because there is something creative in all human activity, though it may be, and perhaps usually is, reduced to a negligible quantity. Broadly speaking, however, the resemblance is sufficient for the purposes of argument. The university is, as it were, a nozzle through which flows, under the influence of human volition, the directed and organized output of man's mental activity. In the case of the gardener, very much—in one sense everything—depends upon his judgment, his ability to direct the water where it is needed, and in the best manner. It is even so with us. I have in the definition above not said merely that the university is to conserve truth, but useful truth. An intensely selective process is implied, and for this the power of judgment. Thus another definition is equally valid: the purpose of the university is to cultivate judgment. The untrained individual will carelessly neglect, wantonly throw away, the most precious things because he is deficient in this quality. Without judgment it is impossible to conserve and add to useful truth, from sheer inability to distinguish what is useful. What is the criterion of utility? Simply the common sense one, a useful truth is one which will serve some purpose, one which has pragmatic ability. We may go deeper than that, however. What purpose can truth serve? Obviously to join with other truth in a system of ideas. There is, as it were, a sociology of thought, a cooperative commonwealth of the mind, not unlike that exhibited by human society, and strictly parallel with it in development. Now in society, where all may share in the fruits of the intellect of the few, numbers and variety are necessary; so is it also with the mind, and thus judgment is not an esoteric ability conferred at random on pensive souls, but is dependent for its very livelihood on sufficient and diverse knowledge.

According to the description we have given of university functions, it must be apparent that the relation between foci of learning and public affairs is fundamental. Knowledge and judgment are the very qualities which necessarily determine the success of a politician in any broad and lasting sense. A successful public man is one who efficiently serves public ends; no other definition is possible, although, according to it, some current motions of success may be reversed. Many there are who unquestionably are successful, and likewise are public men; so there are great fools who are also men, but we do not call them great men. I think we may say without contradiction that the things the university stands for are precisely those most valuable in genuine politics, as distinguished from the mere struggle between predatory interests.

Here it will occur to many that academic bodies are somewhat arrogant, in the face of the fact that so much good knowledge and admirable judgment has resided and does reside in persons who have never been subjected to college influences. Such criticism is justly directed against claims occasionally made, but broadly speaking it has no foundation. The university is an intellectual focus, just as the church is a religious one, and from each the light spreads in all directions. It is not possible to say just where either begins or ceases. Legally, it is true, the university is a definite corporation, with particular precisely indicated members. Spiritually, intellectually, it is nothing more than the nucleus of an intellectual nebula; which nebula, in fact, is world wide, with as many nuclei as there are centers of learning, whether represented by buildings and charters or not. Thus to be a citizen of the university is ipso facto to be a citizen of the world, and the custom prevalent in some European countries of addressing all co-workers in one's subject as "dear colleague" is abundantly justified. So the university need not be ashamed to make large claims, always provided that it is really a place of intellectual and moral activity, and not a mental vacuum concealed by handsome buildings.

Many, substantially agreeing with what has been said, will declare that the university should not be in politics, because it cultivates knowledge and judgment, for others to apply. It is also often said that university professors are not practical men of affairs, being absorbed in their studies, while the world goes by unheeded. Taking the last statement first, we must confess that there is something in it. It is possible for a specialist to be doing splendid work, of the greatest advantage to mankind, without having any clear idea of the ultimate application of his discoveries, much less those in other fields. On the other hand eminent specialists are sometimes distinguished, like Huxley and Virchow, for their broad grasp of social questions and great services as publicists. Aside from these considerations, however, is the fact that the university is in a sense an intellectual baby-farm, and the infant ideas nourished there are many of them not yet ready to go out in the world and do their day's work. It is about as just to complain of the inutility of new truths as it would be to blame mothers of young children in time of war, because of failure to contribute members to the army.

There is, however, one quality of great public value in which scientific men are admittedly as preeminent as the majority of present-day politicians are deficient. This is the power, or the habit, of forming so-called impartial judgments, that is, judgments based on the available evidence, not dictated by partisan or personal desires. We are only just beginning to realize that men of this class will be widely useful in the guidance of the ship of state, bringing about the transformation of much that is undesirable in the life of this nation. It is not expected that every scientific man will offer opinions on every subject; precisely because he has the quality referred to he will refuse to do this; but when he feels competent to express an opinion, after due research, it will be worth more in the consideration of the tariff, the treatment of the Filipinos, or the question of railroad regulation, than that of any political boss who ever lived. This opinion will not be impartial, in the sense of being colorless rarely will the expert desire or contrive to sit gracefully on the fence, but it will bring to a focus the best results of human thought as applied to the matter in hand. Against all this will be cited the well-known saying that "doctors disagree." You can find an "expert," people say, to declare anything. It is true that on many important scientific questions eminent workers differ greatly, but when this is the case, those questions are considered still open for discussion. It is one of the merits of science, as against partisan politics, that she does not feel obliged to decide everything as though by infallible judgment. Many things are still in the experimental stage. It should be stated, however, that most of the alleged experts who muddle the public mind are partly or wholly pseudoscientific. A very small amount of inquiry among the citizens of the real republic of science would demonstrate this to any one.

Thus, I think the members of any university faculty should be "in politics" to the extent of being ready and anxious to help wherever they can, to come forward and fight for what they believe to be true and wise. They should also, it is almost superfluous to say, stand always for the moral and decent thing. On the other hand, speaking for myself, I do not see how any man with scientific training can be a strictly "regular" member of any political party. In some particular controversy, he may be wholly on one side, but in the long run, orthodox party service deprives him of that freedom of judgment and action which he deems so essential. Fortunately, everything indicates the breaking up of the old rigid lines; not, I believe, so much to form new ones along fresh directions of cleavage, as to allow greater freedom for the products of honest thought. Thus the initiative and referendum, by compelling people to form judgments on particular questions, will prove well worth the expense and sometimes inconvenience they may occasion.

What about the student body in politics? Its members are young and relatively inexperienced, but they are, we hope, to be the politicians of the future. They ought, at any rate, to be in training for public service. Probably the greatest criticism that future generations will make on our present educational system is this, that thought and deed are too far apart; so far, often, that the deed never follows. Every one deplores the lack of earnest purpose shown by so many university students, and many attribute it to an absolute deficiency in the individuals concerned. Much of it, I fancy, is due to nothing more than lack of opportunity to do things; an opinion confirmed in part by the extraordinary activity shown from time to time in foolish undertakings, and in part by the excellent record in life of many men who were never considered very able in college. It is in many ways a difficult situation, yet I confess I should be willing to see our students more active in public affairs, more like those men of the universities who have always taken prominent parts in political crises in Germany. To some extent the faults of immaturity are offset by the fresh and generous attitude of one who goes to battle unwounded and unafraid. I remember how a certain writer once rejoiced that he had, when a young man, written a book. It was bold to the point of error, he would not, could not, write so' now—but, after all, it had a precious quality he could never again approach.

The internal activities of the university afford scope for a good deal of political talent, but unfortunately their purposes are often petty, and their conduct sometimes reflects all too well the method prevalent in "real" politics outside. Here again, no doubt conditions are improving, and the time may come when even the most insignificant matters afford scope for the development of habits and points of view of the utmost moment. We have also the civic clubs, really entering into the national arena to some extent, and already doing valuable public service.

In all of this, we shall reap approximately what we sow. If, in some countries learning and possibly virtue are more highly esteemed than in our own, it is the work of those who have stood for learning and virtue, year after year, month by month, day by day. These things will not come without conscious and long-continued effort. I feel that in our anxiety for material support, we sometimes forget the essential things. It is good to have money, it is delightful to see a large and growing student body, but whatever comes of it, let us always refuse to sell our birthright for even the largest, most attractive mess of pottage.