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Educational Statesman

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

Edwin A, Alderman. By Dumas Malone. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.50.

The man upon whom Jefferson’s educational mantle fell was throughout life an eloquent interpreter and defender of democracy. What Jefferson was in statecraft as philosopher and prophet Edwin Anderson Alderman became in public education. Espousing early in life the cause of popular education in his native state of North Carolina, he won his spurs as an effective campaigner in the renaissance that soon spread to the South in general. And so by the time he was called in turn to the presidency of three universities, two of which were state institutions, he had attained a leadership which was to be enlarged and enriched to the end of his days. From Chapel Hill, via New Orleans, to Charlottesville, he marched in steady, fruitful progress, reaping the harvest of his long crusade. He had been teacher, administrator, and an orator of national renown.

The main theme of Dumas Malone’s official biography of Alderman is the public career of an educational statesman. The work of a trained historian who had abundant source material supplemented by personal knowledge, this narrative is no doubt factually complete. One could wish, however, that the analytic interpretation of Alderman the man might have been fuller and that the white light of a just evaluation of his public services, inspired by evident admiration, might have been colored by a warmer, more inward revelation of his personality. But perhaps that more properly belongs to another biographical type. In general, it should be said, Mr. Ma-lone’s account of President Alderman’s life and contribution is vital and comprehensive; as an authentic record of the part this able and constructive leader played in the movement for better secondary and higher education in the South, it is a solid and significant achievement.

Those who knew Dr. Alderman “in his habit as he lived” may supplement this official portrayal according to their temperament and knowledge. There would be general agreement with Mr. Malone, I think, as to his distinction of manner and speech, particularly on formal occasions. There was something knightly about his bearing, and both his speech and movement, while utterly free from pomposity, were often in the grand manner. The enchantment of his presence and the humanity of his private conversation, marked by an infectious humor, were felt by all. A certain canniness, perhaps an inheritance from some Scotch ancestor, frequently gave a piquant touch to his talk. Sometimes— when, for instance, a departmental head asked for more money—there would come over his face that inscrutable Mona Lisa look which appears in the Speicher portrait of him.

His manifest pride in “my University,” the subject of mild ironic comment by his students, was an expression of loving personal ownership in an institution which is the lengthened shadow of two men, Jefferson and Alderman. Its grounds and buildings, especially “The Lawn,” which had so long been the scene of his official activities, were near to the heart of the man who graced them daily by his confident dignity of step and mien. He had an eye for beauty and a mind easily touched by the sanctity of tradition, and he liked to remind incoming youth that here they had both in generous measure. More than once he commented to me, as we walked along the street north of the Rotunda, on the loveliness of the view across the little Gothic chapel and the nearby buildings silhouetted against the crimson winter afterglow. Besides these evidences of aesthetic sensibility one likes to recall the more spiritual virtues of tolerance, truth, and honor, which, in his addresses to students, he was wont to emphasize as inherent in the traditions of the University of Virginia and its founder. These he regarded not as aristocratic cliches but as essential verities in the lives of common men. And to these he would doubtless have added the grace of magnanimity, a word which he analyzed with rare beauty and impressiveness in one of his last short valedictories to the graduating class.

His own broad culture came not from any technical training in special fields of scholarship but from his wide reading, particularly in history and biography, mellowed by reflection and a varied experience. Qualities of the older classic as well as of the newer social humanism shone in his stories—for he was an accomplished raconteur—in his numerous public addresses, and notably in his memorial speech on Woodrow Wilson in the Capitol at Washington. This highwater mark of his public speaking illustrates the salient qualities of his eloquence—clarity of thought, lucidity of style, grace of phrasing, and sincerity.

Perhaps we are still too near Edwin A. Alderman to see him altogether in proper perspective, But it is not so difficult to paint the picture of his day and generation. He lived in changing times and through one world war, and even then he seemed to think democracy needed defending. Since his death, nearly a decade ago, changes have been more sharp and swift, and democracy has not only to be defended but strenuously fought for. Were he living it is certain he would be in the fight one way or another. The fundamentals of freedom to which he and his friend Woodrow Wilson gave so much of their thought and strength would still be for Alderman pregnant realities. “The spirit of this apostle of education,” as Mr. Malone remarks, “remained democratic to the end.” Since then democracy has fallen upon evil days in much of the world, but Edwin A. Alderman, one of its most gifted defenders and prophets, would still keep the faith,


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