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The Campus Battalion

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

The university and college are a part of the state. They are a part of the state at war and the state at peace; of the state’s body, and of its mind. When the President of the United States, speaking in 1934 at the Alma Mater of Thomas Jefferson, said that the function of liberal education in America is “training men for citizenship in a great republic,” he was merely restating an axiom as old as Aristotle: that a given constitution demands an education in conformity with it.

None of these propositions is likely now to be seriously disputed. The universities and colleges, if I know them right, do not see themselves as quiet islands dedicated to the Past, the Present eddying around them, hardly touching the shores. They are grateful to be co-operating parts of the state, rather than servile voices. They are happy to be able to support actively a constitutional tradition which includes the guarantees that keep them free. The present emergency has come to many of them as a time to take in sail, a time of financial stringency and emptied halls, but it has come to none of them as National Socialism came to German universities in 1933. They are not burning their best books and dismissing their most famous professors. Instead, they are trying to think their own way through the problems imposed by the unfamiliar stricture of total war.

In particular, they are asking one question with all America: What is our relation to the war effort? Let no one think that the universities and colleges have been taking lightly the events since December 7. They know that they win one victory or die one death with the American tradition of constitutionalism. They want to be part of the national will and arm. And yet they are, in a sense, cursed by complexity. They can make no such right and simple answer as that of the individual who dons a uniform. They are unable even to conceive of the problem simply, for they inhabit the Mountain of the Long View, and they behold the war and the peace to come as well as the long snake of time striped with many wars. The intrusion of a problem of great and urgent immediacy into their leisurely detachment has brought about a strange state of mind on college and university campuses. Even as I write this, students everywhere are conning their books for semester examinations, but halfheartedly as though perceiving a vague unreality about the game of rehearsing answers and outguessing the professors. The professors, for their part, are listening to the news from the Pacific, and when they turn back to their lecture notes they feel a shock of surprise at the strange sentences in their own handwriting: “The authorship of the Finnsburg fragment. . . . Within the conceptacles the gametes are formed.” Unless I misinterpret the conversations I hear in faculty clubs and in the student halls, there is a great deal of searching of conscience under way in the universities and colleges at the moment. Teachers, administrators, students alike are asking not only what can we do to help, but also, suspiciously, have we been asleep, and doubtfully, will we be ready for what is to come?


The most evident services the universities and colleges can do for their country in this time of crisis are those reckonable in numbers and hours and mechanisms.

The preparation of men to fight for their country when necessary is part of the training of citizens, therefore a logical educational function. This is not to say that the campuses should instantly become Plattsburgs. The army itself would not like that arrangement; more efficient use can be made of the educational system. But there are certain parts of the training of students for anticipated military service that the institutions can logically and efficiently assume. One of them concerns physical fitness.

Within the last year, most college students have suddenly ceased to consider “physical education” a bore. Why they should ever have considered it so is not an insoluble mystery. In some cases the reason may have been inept teaching, but in large part it was the ineptness of the educational philosophy. For some reason no one convinced the college student that he owed it to himself and to the nation to keep fit. He was not made aware of the implications in the changing American way of life; from a naturally healthful one to a naturally unhealthful one, from walking to riding in convertible coupes, from outdoor air to cigarette-laden air, from physical labor to fierce intellectual labor (on one college level) and cocktails and late hours (on another), from healthful eating and exercising to diets, vitamin pills, aspirin, and barbiturates. Two hours a week waving arms and legs or perspiring with a baseball represented an interruption in the social and intellectual routine which the student had been taught to associate with college life.

But when the draft board physicians went to work and when the reports began to drift back from army camps in the South, those hours of arm-waving suddenly leaped into perspective. It is safe to say that if physical education sinks again to the level of a nuisance course in the colleges and universities, the fault will be with the physical educators who fail to realize their opportunity and their challenge. The importance of health has now been dramatized; it remains only for educators to prepare an effective program, either within or without the usual pattern of education, that will lead the student, in the most informed and adult way, towards health and fitness. But that is for the future. Meanwhile, the colleges must do what they can to make up for past failings. Many of them are offering special conditioning courses for students who expect to be called into the services. Most of them are teaching, as never before, the principles of simple and healthful living. We are awake now, but it will take a long time to undo the effects of two soft decades.

The colleges and universities can assume certain specialized functions in the preparation of soldiers. The modern army is an army of specialists. It needs mathematicians for artillery plotters more than it needs crack rifle shots. It needs radio men more than it needs physical giants. It needs geophysicists, photographers, typists, bookkeepers, statisticians, personnel directors, meteorologists, mechanics, men who know a little technical German, Spanish, Japanese. The American army does not now have the time to take raw men and make them all specialists. Whether the educational systems of the nation contribute to this training of specialists may mean the difference between a short and a long war, between victory and defeat. To their students who may be called into the services, the colleges and universities owe a full and informative description of these specialized needs, and the opportunity to take courses (extension or refresher courses, if necessary) which meet the needs.

It is hardly necessary to say that the universities and colleges are contributing, as they have in every war, the products of their professional colleges and laboratories: men, facilities, ideas. A few examples will stand for many: A committee of psychologists is perfecting a more efficient test for pre-selecting airplane pilots. A university specialist in railway transportation is speeding the traffic of essential materials. A number of university physicists are working on basic problems of army ordnance. Special university courses have been set up for training much-needed experts in electronics. Extension courses, taught by university engineers, are providing radio mechanics for the signal corps. All these examples are from one university, and they represent by no means a complete picture of the activity on that campus. Everywhere, the production of skilled men is being speeded up. The medical schools are graduating their classes early, and most liberal arts colleges have made it possible for a student to earn about fifteen per cent more credit hours in the course of twelve months. This speed-up, of course, must be administered with wisdom. If it is important to have more laboratory scientists, more engineers, more physicians, it is equally important to have good ones. If it is important to have good scientists, engineers, physicians now, it will be equally important to have them six years from now. The sacrifice of quality for quantity is a dangerous procedure, and the sublimation of long-term needs before immediate needs is useful only to a limited degree. Undoubtedly the administrators of the war effort will come to a system of priorities on ability, as they have established priorities on materials. A college should be able to earmark a promising lad for a career in chemistry, geophysics, medicine, engineering, on the theory that he will be more useful in that capacity than as an infantryman. The young man thus chosen would be a kind of civilian West Pointer. As long as he fulfilled the promise his sponsors have seen in him, he would continue his preparation and be excused from military service. In total war the campus battalion should theoretically be as honorable as the camp battalion, and as essential.


We have been describing the universities and colleges as parts of the war arm of the state. On most campuses, these obligations to the war effort have been recognized; the facilities have been understood, assessed, put to use. The functions of the universities and colleges as contributors to the war effort on the home front have been less well recognized and less profitably directed, chiefly because less is understood of the educational system’s enormous potency in communication.

In the United States there are about 1100 colleges and universities, more than 500 junior colleges and normal schools. These enroll about 1,300,000 students, who spend from twelve to twenty hours each week in classes. Each of these classes is a potential audience, each teacher a communicator, each student in turn a communicator. Furthermore, each college and university sponsors a number of public programs—lectures, conferences, symposiums, forums, debates, demonstrations, moving pictures—and many offer adult and extension courses, and contribute in one way or another to the intellectual life of such organizations as the luncheon clubs, the women’s clubs, and the P.-T.A. The alumni magazine of my university goes out each month to 32,000 persons. More than half of the colleges have newspapers. About 800 colleges broadcast regularly over commercial stations, about thirty own and operate their own stations, and about 500 offer courses in radio broadcasting. The 900,000 teachers in the 225,000 public schools of the United States are almost all college trained, and through them the ideologies of the universities and colleges are carried down to nearly twenty million school children.

The universities implement these vast facilities with a constant supply of materials and trained communicators. The making of textbooks has grown to be such big business that several publishers now offer more than 500 texts written by college teachers, and the typical extension division of a university distributes more than a thousand separate items— study guides, pamphlets, and bibliographies—prepared by its faculty. At least one textbook has sold well over a million copies, and recently a textbook sold with distinguished success as “Book-of-the-Month.” All the writing done in a university, of course, is not in the form of textbooks. America’s leading poet is a member of a university faculty. A constant stream of written commentary flows from the campuses to the magazines, In workshop seminars, most colleges introduce their talented students to the problems of making fiction, plays, and radio scripts, and to the skills involved in speaking on the stage or before the microphone.

Every organization in the community goes frequently to the campus for its speakers. Recently the universities have become interested in the techniques for measuring attitudes and shifts in attitudes, the sampling method of polling (used so well by Dr. George Gallup), the testing of individual information. Thus they are ready not only to provide the avenues of communication to a vast and influential audience, and the communicators and the materials, but also the means to determine the effectiveness of any given communication. These facilities are not potential or projected; they are functioning now, waiting only to be mobilized and directed.

This, we are told, is to be in an important way a war of communication. More than ever before, the great issue will be decided on the home fronts. More than ever before, what America knows and thinks—not only about the war, but also about the problems that will follow the war—is paramount to the national good. The mobilization of the campus battalion to impart essential information and clarify the understanding of ideas and patterns at stake may therefore easily prove to be a more important service than the direct aid which universities and colleges can give the armies and their auxiliaries.

But the question of what the campus battalion should communicate requires for its answer certain preliminary statements about the universities and colleges as a part of the mind of the state.


What work should a man do? Socrates answered the question for Adeimantus and Glaucon by saying that the Republic would profit most if one man does one thing which is natural to him, and does it at the right time, and leaves other things alone.

Political economy generally recognizes that a citizen is most useful to the state when those three factors—aptitude, need, specialization—are at the maximum: that is, when a man is doing the work he does best, the work the state most needs done, the work fewest others do as well as he. In practice, the decision is usually a kind of compromise, a matter of weighing and averaging. But this principle, at least, may be maintained: that if the state has equal need of services on several levels, the universities and colleges will function most usefully on that level where they make their most brilliant and individual contribution.

The levels of useful service possible to an educated man are as various as filling sandbags, creating a new antiseptic, and drafting the Atlantic Charter. We might begin to define the best level of the universities and colleges by saying that it has to do with the perception and formulation of principles. This is the quality which distinguishes the lawmaker from the clerk, the laboratory scientist from the factory worker, the philosopher from the reporter. It implies analytical and judicial thinking which the universities have always tried to inculcate in their students, the using and distilling of facts, rather than remembering and repeating them. It is the quality of mind which has been chiefly responsible for the university’s most distinguished contributions.

Part of the university’s function in the mind of the state, then, is to formulate principles, to develop the kind of mind which can formulate them, and to communicate them. This is work of far more than academic importance. Pearl Harbor has clarified our immediate physical obligation, but not our intellectual one. That clarification is somewhere in the province of education. “Fascist Italy understands the importance of education; Nazi Germany understands it; Communist Russia understands it,” warned Norman Foerster in “The American State University”; and if America is less adept in educating for democracy, he contended, the reason would seem to be that we are less certain what we believe. Just as much as the Hitlerjugend deserve to know what Nazis believe, so do our school children deserve to know what principles and patterns their brothers and fathers think worth fighting for. What is this democratic tradition?

What is the American way of life? Exactly what do the four freedoms mean? This is a war of conflicting philosophies, conflicting social and political patterns; but precisely where do the differences lie? Our school children cannot answer those questions well. Can the college students, who may have to fight for a set of principles, answer them? Can the tax-paying generation, which is already digging deep to pay for this war, answer them? If the universities and colleges do nothing else for their country’s war effort than make clear to their audience the nature of the fundamental choice before the world at the present time, and the resultant problems of citizenship now and in the future, they will make a priceless contribution.

It is impossible to talk about principles applicable to the present without speaking, as we have just done, of past tradition and future problems. For one characteristic of the university functioning at its best level is the long view—the perspective which history teaches, the combination of telescopic and microscopic vision with which science and humanities alike implement the normal eye. We need the long view now. In 1917 and 1918 we fought a “war to end war.” We marched in the armistice parade, went home and relaxed hugely because war was ended, returned to business as usual. The result was two unreal decades and a second world war beside which the first now seems like boys playing Indian. This time we are not fighting a war to end war. We are really fighting a war to have a chance to fight a peace. The peace will be harder to win than the war, and its price will be constant vigilance, an end to isolation, daring and constructive planning for the whole world. In a sense this is a never-ending war, and the armistice when it comes will be merely a transition to another stage of the conflict. This must be clearly understood in America, or the price is world chaos.

What the colleges and universities can do towards laying a sound basis for a wise peace, they should do, both as communicators and thinkers. Already a planning board in Washington is looking ahead to the economics of the postwar years, but there is precious little time for a distraught and overworked government to leave the problems of the moment and look ahead. I saw, the other day, what seemed to me a symbol: an executive, harried look on his face, telephone in either hand, receiver at either ear, trying to conduct two conversations at once. The next day I flew for several hundred miles above the cloud level. The earth vanished, and with it all the hurrying men and overcrowded offices and buzzers and clerks trying to talk over two telephones at once; and there was nothing except the plane and the inky sky and the long slow rhythm of sun. And I thought, here too is a symbol. Here is the precious solitude and detachment we no longer have time for. Here is Walden Pond and Darwin’s study and Monticello. Here is a symbol of another of the university’s obligations to the war effort: to furnish some of that detachment and quiet, and some of the wisdom to go with it. We shall not send all our economists, all our historians and chemists to Washington to work on the war effort, nor should we. There will be brains left in the universities that can well be directed towards the peace effort: assembling the facts, stating the issues clearly, considering alternative plans of action.

It is particularly appropriate that the educational institutions should take this long view of the matter because their immediate audiences—from nursery school to graduate school—are the citizens who will be chiefly concerned with the results of plans now being made. There is no more effective way of insuring a constructively intelligent citizenry tomorrow than by turning the students of today to long-range problems. The great enthusiasm engendered by the Harvard student forum on post-war problems points the way to other colleges. Indeed it points the way to Americans of other ages and other affiliations; for the long problems, no less than the war effort, are subjects about which every loyal American should be well informed and intelligently concerned.

We must defend democracy in the spirit of democracy. The attitude of the university, at its best, has always been democratic, not authoritarian. Even Mr. Kittredge’s conclusions have not been above argument, and Plato and Newton are names to be reconsidered in the light of Kant and Einstein and Dewey and the latest laboratory experiment. The college student is not commanded to believe; he is taught a love of truth, encouraged to seek it, shown how to develop his powers of perception and discrimination so that he may recognize it. And when the universities and colleges employ their powers of communication to further the war effort, they may be expected to work in the same spirit. During the last war, certain professors of my acquaintance wrote pamphlets and articles of which they were speedily ashamed. In the heat of the moment, they forgot the attitudes towards truth they had taught so long—the university’s best level, the obligations of the long view, the democratic method— and produced billingsgate, highly doubtful atrocity stories, dogma of the kind we have come to associate with the propaganda of certain countries we do not admire. They were not at home on that level; their work was marvelously ineffective ; they repented. The chief use of their pamphlets was to furnish highly entertaining reading for their students. We can learn a lesson. The function of the colleges and universities as communicators in this war is not to raise another Goebbels on the campus, but rather to cultivate free investigation and discussion, and the voluntary rallying of intelligent men around ideas and patterns worth fighting for.

In a democracy the best propaganda is truth. The greatest thing the universities and colleges can do to frighten Hitler, to encourage America, and to lay the basis for a just and lasting peace is to make the truth about the world situation available where every American who wishes may find it. This truth may be in the form of a clear and concise statement of war aims for Americans in general. It may be study material on the geography and civilization of the Orient (so long neglected!) for the use of school children. It may be a bibliography and guide for women’s clubs studying foreign affairs. It may be an account of how the government’s agencies are operating to further the war effort. It may be a thoughtful review of the week’s developments by an economist or a European historian. It may be a pamphlet telling a certain occupational group what it can do to help. It may be a closely documented report of economic resources, which can be referred to at the peace table. It may be a textbook on the American way of life, or such a symposium as the Virginia Institute of Public Affairs. It may take any one of a thousand other forms. But let it be truth. As far as I have been able to observe the workings of Washington’s informational offices, there is no intention of enlisting the universities in any less honorable activity than the one I have been describing. There is no intention of closing the truth off from them, except as that truth would give aid or comfort to the enemy. There is only the wish that the truth may be known, and the confidence that it will make us free.


The war is very near our campuses now. The enemy is not only in Singapore and Manila; he is five miles off our coasts; he is listening in the next seat, whispering in our ears, challenging the ideals of freedom and dignity and fellowship that alone make higher education meaningful. He is ruthless, cunning, strong. We were warned of him long ago, but a warning was not enough to cut through our “detachment.” Now he is here. We must raise up an army to meet him.

In the campus battalion, if not the camp battalion, there is a place for every college or university teacher who wants to contribute to his country’s effort. The physicians, the dentists, the engineers, the physicists, the chemists found out their usefulness very early. A good many economists have been put into direct war service. Linguists, geographers, mathematicians, psychologists, statisticians, and lawyers have been set to work in intelligence or personnel work, or the F.B.I., or one of many agencies. It is reasonable to suppose that the task of informing Americans will enlist the service of every university and college man who is in any important way related to communication: writers, speakers, educational radio men, teachers of journalism, teachers of speech, college newspaper editors, professors of education, semanticists, and many others.

But there is another way, quite apart from fighting or serving on a national committee or working behind a desk in Washington, in which every teacher may further his country’s effort. Teachers are the guardians of minds. There is one teacher to every twenty students in the country. If the teacher is fulfilling his average obligation, then, he is responsible for exposing at least twenty minds to the kind of democratic education that is the trunk of a free country. America will need minds tomorrow—clear, inquiring, critical, constructive minds. The obligation of the educational system is to produce those minds. The one irreplaceable function of the colleges and universities and schools in wartime is simply to supply the best education they can.

Events of the last year have challenged American educators to review and reappraise the means and ends of their teaching. If this is done in a twenty-year perspective, rather than a temporary wartime perspective, the war may yet do a great service for American education. But anything done to the educational system now will bear its fruit when the youngest students now in school are casting their first ballots in 1960. And it may be maintained, I believe, that the best education is the same in war as in peacetime. There are differences in accidentals, peripheries, magnitudes, but not in essentials. If political and social realities deserve more attention than they have been getting, they will deserve no less when peace comes. If a war is worth fighting now, the futility of war is not worth teaching in peacetime. If the dignity of man is worth fighting for, it is worth studying, defining, and living, in peace or wartime. If it is necessary to define our national attitudes in school rooms now, it will be folly to forget the definitions after the armistice. If the humanities are not luxuries in peacetime, they are necessities now. If our educational system has not been producing the order of mind which a democratic state needs if it is to survive as a great state, then indeed let us overhaul the system in the pitiless light of war years, but let us try to make a long-term investment in national welfare.

Ultimately, however, the challenge comes not to the administrators who revise curricula and remake systems, but to the individual teachers. These members of the campus battalion—more than a million of them, if one counts the schools as well as the colleges and universities—stand as the state’s representative in every classroom in the country. They represent not only the men and offices in Washington, but the nation behind those men and offices, and the constitutional tradition behind the nation: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, Patrick Henry’s speech at Williamsburg: the tradition that freedom is better than slavery, the dignity of man more honorable than the degradation of man, and government of the people, by the people, for the people, more to be desired than government of slaves, by a coterie, for the glory of the state. Now, charged with a new wartime responsibility, they may pertinently ask how fully they are meeting their obligation, For theirs is the most important task of all those within the power of the republic to delegate: the task described by the great man who omitted from his epitaph his Presidency of the United States but included his founding of the University of Virginia—the task Thomas Jefferson described as the training of leaders who are “rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.”


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