interesting, old ideas

October 22, 2007


The earliest universities sprang from a popular need and responded to it in a popular fashion. They consisted simply of large bodies of earnest students, wholly or in part self-governed, and of a group of teachers. There were no imposing buildings, no vast endowments, none of the material comforts and luxuries that now so often accompany the academic life. The early universities were democratic, and set an example that was not without its influence in breaking down the absolute theories of government that then controlled both Church and State.

As time went on the universities developed a tendency to withdraw themselves more and more from contact with the world about them.In England this tendency was unchecked. Asa result Oxford and Cambridge have been for generations out of touch with the great body of the English people, and they can therefore exercise no such direct influence as do the universities of Germany, or such leaders of thought as Harvard and Johns Hopkins in the United States.

The modern university stands for scholarship, for tolerance and for scientific method.It dominates, and properly so, the entire educational system.    But to retain this influence and to make its ideals and methods of practical value, the university must come close to the people. Its doors must be open to rich and to poor alike, to men and to women on equal terms. The old democracy of learning must be preserved. It is the duty of the university to furnish to the country both intellectual leadership and moral stimulus. A great and composite nation like our own constantly feels the need of these from some disinterested source. The prospect is that the problems of the twentieth century, upon which we are about to enter, will be of so far-reaching a character as to make greater demands than ever upon the resources and enthusiasm of the universities. While the theorists criticise our social and political order, great masses of the population are restless and dissatisfied with them. The restlessness and dissatisfaction are more ominous than the criticism. Intellectual and moral sanity are what we most need from the universities. Principles so well grounded as to be beyond the reach of temporary gusts of passion, and a human sympathy too broad to generate selfishness or class distinctions, are what we ask for. The universities must help us to attain them.

Nicholas Murray Butler. Columbia College.1895.

from the Souvenir book of the fair in aid of the Educational Alliance and Hebrew Technical Institute. New York : De Leeuw & Oppenheimer, 1895.