1918 campus wars: Academic freedom at Columbia

Tension is high at the universities. Some say the war is unnecessary and immoral; those who support it cry “treason.” There’s a raging debate over free speech. Columbia University is at the epicenter.

Yes, 1968—but 1918 as well.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

In 1917, the Columbia board of trustees came up with a plan to investigate the teachings of the university’s faculty members, in order to determine “whether the influence of a given teacher is injurious to private morals or dangerous to public order and security.”

The idea was eventually dropped amid widespread opposition—law professor Ellery Stowell called it “Prussianistic”—but in October the trustees fired two faculty members, James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, for anti-war activities. Their crimes: Cattell had written to Congress asking that conscientious objectors be exempted from service, and Dana was involved with the People’s Council, a pacifist organization.

Cattell had been the first American to publish a dissertation in psychology, and was the first American psychology professor.* Dana was a comparative literature professor and a grandson of both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast.**  To the Philadelphia Ledger, that was the worst part: “The distressing feature of the situation is that both these men bear eminent names and come from long strains of patriotic ancestors.”

Charles Beard in 1917 (Library of Congress)

On October 8, noted historian Charles A. Beard resigned from the Columbia faculty in protest. Beard was one of America’s most prominent historians; his 1913 book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States remains famous (and controversial) today. He was pro-war himself, but, as he said in his resignation letter to Columbia president Nicholas Butler,

thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions can not be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments addressed to their reason and understanding are our best hope. Such arguments, however, must come from men whose disinterestedness is above all suspicion…I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the trustees of Columbia University I can not do effectively my humble part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire.

Good riddance, the New York Times said in an October 10 editorial. In resigning, the paper snarked, Professor Beard “has just rendered the greatest service it was in his power to give.” About An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the Times said that

it was pointed out to him at the time, with due kindness but frankly, that his book was bad, that it was a book that no professor should have written since it was grossly unscientific…It was a book that did Columbia much harm, just as the two professors who were recently dropped for seditious utterances did the university much harm.

If this type of nonsense was allowed to go on, the Times said, “we would soon see the doctrine of economic determinism applied to everything from the binomial theorem to the Lord’s prayer.” The trustees, the Times said,

have been very tolerant, very patient, and the university has suffered through the acts, the utterances, and the teachings of some of its professors who mistook the chairs they occupied for pulpits from which doctrines might freely be preached that are dangerous to the community and the nation.

Nicholas Murray Butler in 1916 (Library of Congress)

If you’re thinking that the Times is taking this way too personally, you might be onto something. According to a 1958 article in Columbia’s newspaper, the Daily Spectator, it was widely believed that Times publisher Adolph Ochs let Butler, who was a friend of his, write the editorial himself. That seems plausible. For one thing, the Times editorial board displays a surprising amount of knowledge about the inner workings of Columbia University. Also, the turnaround between Beard’s October 8 letter and the October 10 publication of the editorial was awfully speedy.

John Dewey, date unknown (New York Public Library Digital Archive)

Writing in The Dial on November 8, educationist John Dewey, who was also on the university’s (apparently very illustrious) faculty, said that the press had falsely portrayed the controversy as a free speech issue because the real issue, administrative control of the universities, was too boring. But just because it’s boring doesn’t mean it’s not important:

It is not too much to say that the final issue is how much the American people cares about the integrity and responsibility of the intellectual life of the nation.

Ellery Stowell in 1917 (Library of Congress)

In February 1918, Ellery Stowell, the law professor who had called the inquiry “Prussianistic,” submitting his own resignation. Stowell himself supported not only the war but the firing of Cattell and Dana. Like Dewey, though, he believed that the issue should have been left up to the faculty rather than the trustees.

Beard himself weighed in in the Dial on April 11:

At bottom and forever, the question of academic freedom is the question of intellectual and spiritual leadership in American democracy. Those who lead and teach, are they free, fearless, and worthy of trust?

If the trustees take over, Beard says,

men who love the smooth and easy will turn to teaching…Men of will, initiative, and inventiveness, not afraid of falling into error in search for truth, will shun such a life of futile lubricity, as the free woman avoids the harem.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, “The World’s Work,” 1919

Beard praised Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who wrote in a December 1917 university report that

the teaching by the professor in his class room on the subjects within the scope of his chair ought to be absolutely free. He must teach the truth as he has found it and sees it. This is the primary condition of academic freedom, and any violation of it endangers intellectual progress.

Well said, President Lowell!***

The debate over free speech (or whatever you want to call it) wasn’t the only battle raging on the campuses. Also at issue was the whole essence of what a university, and the country’s intellectual life as a whole, should be about. Here, too, Columbia was at the center of the action.

But that’s an issue for another post.

Widener Library, Harvard University, 1914 (Harvard University Archives)

*He was also a eugenicist. He offered his children a cash gift of $1000 if they married the offspring of a professor.

**That ought to be worth at least $2000 to Cattell’s kids.

***I’d be a lot prouder on my alma mater’s behalf, though, if Lowell–who was the brother of poet and critic Amy Lowell–didn’t have such a sorry record on treatment of black, Jewish, and gay students.

2 thoughts on “1918 campus wars: Academic freedom at Columbia

  1. Frank Hudson

    This another incident in those momentous times. America’s entry into WWI seemed turn on the switch of a very militant patriotism which set back progressive ideas for a decade or more.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. My Year in 1918 Post author

      Exactly. Censorship, loyalty tests, etc.–all happening under a supposedly liberal president. Jeremy McCarter writes interestingly, and depressingly, about this trend in his book “Young Radicals.”

      Like

      Reply

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