OPENING CONVOCATION

February 1, 1961

Address by President Howard

DECUS ET VERITAS

Not too long ago I came across a cartoon that consisted of a series of six pictures.  In the first five a man was waiting by an elevator door in successive stages of agitation while the elevator indicator needle continued to point to the highest floor in the building. In the sixth picture the man had leaped up, and with his feet braced against the rafters, was wrenching the indicator arrow back to the first floor.

I suspect that in undertaking my project this morning I am not unlike that frustrated vertical commuter. Both of us are optimists, both try the means available to accomplish the purpose, and both may burn up some excess energy if they accomplish nothing else. Remember, however, the optimist can visualize that seventh picture, with the elevator door opening.

An arresting essay by Arnold Bennett entitled, “Seeing Life,” tells of a traffic mishap in which a small puppy was run over by a bus. Having precisely described the incident and its effects upon bus driver, policeman, passengers and passerby, Mr. Bennett goes on to observe:

“The members of the crowd follow their noses, and during the course of the day remark to acquaintances: ‘Saw a dog run over by a motor-bus in the Fulham Road this morning! Killed dead!’

 

And that is all they do – remark. That is all they have witnessed. They will not, and could not, give intelligible and interesting particulars of the affair (unless it were as to the breed of dog or the number of the bus.) They have watched a dog run over. They analyze neither their sensations nor the phenomenon. They have witnessed it whole, as a bad writer uses a cliche. They have observed – that is to say, they have really seen – nothing.

 

It will be well for us not to assume an attitude of condescension towards the crowd. Because in the matter of looking without seeing we are all about equal. We all go to and fro in a state of the observing faculties which somewhat resembles coma. We are all content to look and not to see.”

 

Mr. Bennett has taken an occurrence of small consequence to illustrate our unused human capacities. Let us cite a recent event of great importance which has, I believe, an analogy.

Less than two weeks ago in a solemn, wintry ceremony, a man was invested with the greatest responsibility which Americans have to bestow. Many of us watched the procedures on television or heard them on the radio. Our new President performed his part with earnestness and confidence.    His message was eloquent and earnest.

Listening to conversations about the inauguration, it appears, however, that the President was upstaged by Robert Frost. The pathos of a well-loved poet suffering a public contretemps is seemingly more penetrating and more permanently fixed in our minds than the carefully measured statement of a new government setting forth critical policies for critical times.

We might well ask ourselves how many of us have given more than passing thought, or did give more than passive attention, to the inaugural address. That speech, presenting the most careful evaluation our new first officer can form of the paramount issues of the day, was, for many of us, only a formality, a pageant scene, programmed after the parade and before the five-fold formal ball. Mr. Bennett says we look without seeing. We also listen without hearing. The number of people who let the speech pass by them without pondering it indicates the state of health or decay of our intellectual life as well as the vitality of our form of government.

My purpose here is not to berate this particular assembly, nor to predict for our democracy a slow death of indifference and lethargy, (you may do either for yourself) but rather to submit a point of view about some aspects of the college experience.

In the first place, one of the absolute attributes of an educated man or woman is the habit of intellectual response. The human mind is an uncounted personal treasure. No matter how fully we may draw upon that treasure, there is always a reserve supply which has never been tapped. The college experience should offer to the mind successively greater challenges so that the student cannot fail to recognize the suppleness, the variety and the still unused reaches of his own intellectual capacities. I am not here describing the mere acquisition of factual information; On the contrary, it is the mental processes of imagination, comparison, judgment and application of knowledge that constitute the fulfillment of intellect. A good education should call into constant use these processes and sharpen them. A good education should make man into a thinking creature so that the events of his life elicit a response that puts to use his unique gift of mind.

The educated man not only uses his brains, but he also develops a selectivity in the subjects to which he applies them. Intellectual application, like everything else, can get badly out of hand. Some recent erudition gone wild is cited by the Council for Basic Education Bulletin.

One is a doctoral dissertation from Teachers College at Columbia entitled, “A Suggested Methodology to Formulate a Composite Ideal Image of the Professional Nurse,” (and if you understand what that person is writing about on one go-around with the title, your concentration power is acute) and the other a thesis from Michigan State University, “A Study of the Personality Differences Between a group of Women Who Had Participated in Sewing Classes in an Adult Education Program and a Group of their Friends and Neighbors who Had Not Participated in Any Adult Evening Activities.”     To repeat, the intelligent person is discriminating in the books he reads, the topics he chooses to investigate in depth, she subjects he contemplates and weighs.

He also develops a sensitivity to certain matters which will always command his full attention. There is at least one such matter that I would like to dwell on this morning, one which is part of our identity, which has a claim on every one of us – the topic I mentioned earlier, the inauguration address – the government.  If at Rockford, we can build a college community where everyone recognizes that he is, that we are, the government, that each of us can have a hand in selecting candidates, that we can influence policies and affect legislation with our letters to platform committees, and to our elected representatives, if we can engender here an automatic intellectual response to affairs of government, we will not only be creating a special place for this college, but we will be giving strength to democracy in an era when its strength is being put to the greatest test.

Let us turn to the inaugural address: “Let every nation know,” said the President, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” And lest there be any doubt that the pronoun “we” which he committed in this declaration, was confined to himself and to his administrative officers, he later said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

I wonder how many asked. I wonder how many have given any thought to the price that must be paid, the burdens to be borne, the hardships to be met if the survival and success of liberty are to be assured.   These burdens and these prices and these hardships are readily endured in a war. We set aside our personal affairs, our civilian pleasures and unite our estates for a common cause. The great question is can we do as much without a military engagement to startle us out of our singleness. I don’t know. But I do know Mr. Kennedy spoke not lightly of freedom’s “hour of maximum danger.” Some of us had better take him seriously and ask what we can do for our country, what we can do to preserve liberty imperiled. What, we must ask, do constitute, in Churchill’s phrase, “the endless demands of freedom”?

I have already suggested two specific actions and I will add a third. As liberty is dependent upon the intellectual capacities of those who defend it, and as liberty necessitates the acceptance of responsibility by those who enjoy it, liberty is also restricted or enhanced by the degree of integrity of the government and of the people who compose that government.

These are not latter-day thoughts about what is necessary for freedom and democracy. Those who meticulously drew up our constitution were keenly aware of the requirements of democracy. These men were not inspired country bumpkins, they were not untutored geniuses. They were highly literate, familiar with the classics, and well-read in the political philosophy of the times, particularly that of certain French authors. Rousseau’s book entitled “The Social Contract” had been published in 1762 and Montesquieu’s monumental “Spirit of Laws” in 1748.

Montesquieu analyzed three forms of government, despotism, monarchy and republic. Each, he stated, relied upon a particular characteristic, without which it could not govern. In a despotism or dictatorship fear is essential; in a monarchy, loyalty, and in a republic, virtue.

In support of the absolute relationship between virtue and democracy Montesquieu cites Sylla’s futile attempts to restore Rome to liberty when virtue had become outmoded, and Cromwell’s failure in 17th Century England, and Athens’ defeat by Phillip of Macedon because, says Montesquieu, Athens “dreaded Phillip not as the enemy of her liberty, but of her pleasures.”

“When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be as free to act against law; …that which was a maxim of equity he (the citizen) calls hardship; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear.”

Subsequently Montesquieu observes that Democracy is the best form of government; it is also the most difficult, and he believes it cannot work in a large country.

Perhaps these are matters about which we should be asking ourselves at the President’s behest.   Have we reached the state of decline, where, like the Athenians, we dread Communism not as an enemy of our liberty, but our pleasures, or to update the term, our standard of living? Has our collective virtue been banished and do ambition and avarice reign?

Rather than trying to assess the whole nation, let us consider briefly the college students of this country.     Recently the extent of cheating on American campuses has been dramatized on television and in some of our popular periodicals. One of the rapidly growing universities in the East recently proclaimed in a news release its triumph in reducing the incidence of cheating by requiring every professor to supervise personally the typing and mimeographing of his examination questions. What more damning self-revelation could a university make? Here are hundreds of professors at one of our national centers of learning having to become policemen to keep the process of higher education from becoming a mockery.

There are almost two thousand institutions of higher learning in the United States. At twenty-seven of these, twenty-seven out of two thousand, one point five three per cent, there is an honor system. At the other 98.65% such a system is either regarded as not worth the trouble it takes, or else is considered unworkable because of the number of crooks enrolled.

I realize that there may be students here who look upon our honor system as a quaint and archaic inheritance handed down from one Rockford college generation to the next along with Miss Sill’s class bell, and who may look upon the honor system and the bell as about equally useful and equally effective.

Fortunately, however, there is a much larger group who take great pride in belonging to a College that has an honor code and who stand ready to make sacrifices to perpetuate it and improve its effectiveness.

Recently I had a letter from a friend to whom I had sent the artist’s rendition of our new campus. He is a retired teacher, and a continuing scholar despite advanced years. He wrote a note about the campus picture, and his message was this, “All I can see is roofs. The concept is only two dimensional.    What is lacking is a campanile – the third dimension – aspiration.” Actually, the artist, in an effort to include the Rockford skyline in the background, had shown a view from above, obscuring the bell tower, which is not only in the plans but stylized, is used as a symbol for Rockford College on all of our literature.  The point is still valid. Too much of our education is two dimensional, – pedestrian, practical, short-sighted. The third dimension, a reaching up toward man’s full potential is what gives life meaning and stature. An honor system, that presumes that the best in man will prevail is one part of the third dimension on campus.

Of course, the case for integrity as for intellectual training and acceptance of responsibility, rests not alone with their importance to democracy. From a vocational point of view honesty really is the best policy, lady bank executives from Iowa to the contrary notwithstanding. Believe me, other banks will think twice before they hire that woman, just as any employer will quickly lay aside the papers of a person which include, misdemeanors of a far less serious nature. Or the point could be made just as effectively from a psychologist’s point of view, citing the mental problems which grow out of dishonesty as well as those which precipitate it; or from a religious point of view, and the mockery into which religion is transformed by deceit and dishonesty.

The President has solemnly charged us to determine what we might do for our nation and our freedom. I have suggested some answers that apply to our work and our circumstances here: to prize and to seek the virtue that Montesquieu tells us is the sine qua non of democracy, to become a responsible participant in government, and to strive for that state of intellectual effectiveness which Arthur Little described as “the simplicity to wonder, the ability to question, the power to generalize and the capacity to apply.”   These goals are not new at Rockford: virtue and responsibility are two of the qualities encompassed in the concept of decus; and veritas, or truth, cannot be fully perceived except intellectually.

The questions we could weigh are: In our present passage to the land of the ever-higher standard of living, do we really choose that as our principal destination?    If another goal seems more worthy of our lives individually and collectively, when will we reach the point of no return in our present course, where our leaders, like the Roman Sylla, cannot find enough who cherish their liberty above their pleasure to sustain it? Are there, or are there not eternal requirements upon the citizens of a republic as foreseen by Montesquieu, and likewise eternal requirements of a human being in his relationship to his own soul?

Those men who brought this college into being believed there were. The motto, Decus et Veritas, is not an idle piece of academic pageantry. It represents those qualities that raise the study of the liberal arts to their highest fulfillment.

 

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