Remarks at the Alumni Dinner of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts
We have just heard from a Harvard man, speaking on behalf of the class of '55. I now speak to you on behalf of the class of '80. Mr. Choate, you can afford to be generous. A man whose life has been passed in service such as yours can freely praise those who come after you. Now, I speak on behalf of the younger men here present when I say that we will count ourselves more than happy if we can in any way approach the service of the older men of Harvard to the union.
In Bishop Lawrence's very touching introduction of me he spoke of the effort I am making for peace. Of course I am for peace. Of course every President who is fit to be President is for peace. But I am for one thing before peace—I am for righteousness first, and for peace because normal peace is the instrument of obtaining righteousness.
I am speaking now on behalf of the class of '80, and as nobody else has blown our horn for us, I am going to blow it just a little. We have followed the example so admirably set by the class of '79 in seeking to show in practical fashion our desire to do something for the university. Acting largely under the lead of Mr. Robert Bacon we have raised, gentlemen—I am going to ask you to give nine cheers for Robert Bacon.
We have raised a fund to be used without any conditions at all, for the benefit of the university, but we hope it will be used in increasing the salaries of those employed to teach in Harvard University. We ought to raise salaries for the sake of giving a more adequate reward to the men. But even if they would go on working at improperly low salaries we ought to give them decent ones for the sake of our own self-respect.
A great university like this has two especial functions. The first is to produce a small number of scholars of the highest rank, a small number of men who in science and literature, or in art, will do productive work of the first class. The second is to send out into the world a very large number of men who never could achieve, and who ought not to try to achieve, such a position in the field of scholarship, but whose energies are to be felt in every other form of activity; and who should go out from our doors with the balanced development of body, of mind, and, above all, of character, which shall fit them to do work both honorable and efficient.
Much of the effort to accomplish the first function, that of developing men capable of productive scholarship, as distinguished from merely imitative, annotative, or pedagogic scholarship, must come through the graduate school. The law school and medical school do admirable work in fitting men for special professions, but they in no shape or way supply any shortcomings in the graduate school any more than does the college proper, the college of the undergraduates. The ideal for the graduate school and for those undergraduates who are to go into it must be the ideal of high scholarly production, which is to be distinguished in the sharpest fashion from the mere transmittal of ready made knowledge without adding to it. If America is to contribute its full share to the progress not alone of knowledge, but of wisdom, then we must put ever-increasing emphasis on university work done along the lines of the graduate school. We can best help the growth of American scholarship by seeing that as a career it is put more on a level with the other careers open to our young men. The general opinion of the community is bound to have a very great effect even upon its most vigorous and independent minds. If in the public mind the career of the scholar is regarded as of insignificant value when compared with that of a glorified pawnbroker, then it will with difficulty be made attractive to the most vigorous and gifted of our American young men. Good teachers, excellent institutions, and libraries are all demanded in a graduate school worthy of the name. But there is an even more urgent demand for the right sort of student. No first class science, no first-class literature or art, can ever be built up with second-classmen. The scholarly career, the career of the man of letters, the man of arts, the man of science, must be made such as to attract those strong and virile youths who now feel that they can only turn to business, law or politics. There is no one thing which will bring about this desired change, but there is one thing which will materially help in bringing it about, and that is to secure to scholars the chance, of getting one of a few brilliant positions as prizes if they rise to the first rank in their chosen career. Every such brilliant position should have as an accompaniment an added salary, which shall help indicate how high the position really is; and it must be the efforts of the alumni which can alone secure such salaries for such positions.
As a people I think we are waking up to the fact that there must be better pay for the average man and average woman engaged in the work of education. But I am not speaking of this now; I am not speaking of the desirability, great though that is, of giving better payment to the average educator, I am speaking of the desirability of giving to the exceptional man the chance of winning an exceptional prize, just as he has the chance to do in law and business. In business at the present day nothing could be more healthy than an immense reduction in the money value of the exceptional prizes thus to be won; but in scholarship what is needed is the reverse. In this country we rightly go upon the theory that it is more important to care for the welfare of the average man than to puta premium upon the exertions of the exceptional. But we must not forget that the establishment of such a premium for the exceptional, though of less importance, is nevertheless of very great importance. It is important even to the development of the average man, for the average of all of us is raised by the work of the great masters.
It is, I trust, unnecessary to say that I appreciate to the full the fact that the highest work of all will never be affected one way or the other by any question of compensation. And much of the work which is really best for the nation must from the very nature of things be non-remunerative as compared with the work of the ordinary industries and vocations. Nor would it ever be possible or desirable that the rewards of transcendent success in scholarship should even approximate, from a monetary standpoint, the rewards in other vocations. But it is also true that the effect upon ambitious minds cannot but be bad if as a people we show our very slight regard for scholarly achievement by making no provision at all for its reward.
The chief use of the increased money value of the scholar's prize would be the index thereby afforded of the respect in which it was popularly held. The American scientist, the American scholar, should have the chance at least of winning such prizes as are open to his successful brother in Germany, England, or France, where the rewards paid for first-class scholarly achievement are as much above those paid in this country as our rewards for first-class achievement in industry or law are above those paid abroad.
But, of course, what counts infinitely more than any possible outside reward is the spirit of the worker himself. The prime need is to instill into the minds of the scholars themselves a true appreciation of real as distinguished from sham success. In productive scholarship, in the scholarship which adds by its work to the sum of substantial achievement with which the country is to be credited, it is only first-class work that counts. In this field the smallest amount of really first-class work is worth all the second-class work that can possibly be produced; and to have done such work is in itself the fullest and amplest reward to the man producing it. We outsiders should, according to our ability, aid him in every way to produce it. Yet all that we can do is but little compared to what he himself can and must do. The spirit of the scholar is the vital factor in the productive scholarship of the country.
So much for the first function of the university, the sending forth of a small number of scholars of the highest rank who will do productive work of the first class. Now turn to the second, and what may be called the normal function of the college, the function of turning out each year many hundreds of men who shall possess the trained intelligence, and especially the character, that will enable them to hold high the renown of this ancient seat of learning by doing useful service for the nation. It is not my purpose to discuss at length what should be done in Harvard to produce the right spirit among the men who go out of Harvard, but rather to speak of what this spirit should be. Nor shall I speak of the exceptions, the men to whom college life is a disadvantage. Randolph of Roanoke, he of the biting tongue, once remarked of an opponent that he reminded him of certain tracts of land which were almost worthless by nature, and became entirely so by cultivation. Of course, if in any individual university training pro duces a taste for refined idleness, a distaste for sustained effort, a barren intellectual arrogance, or a sense of supercilious aloofness from the world of real men who do the world's real work, then it has harmed that individual; but in such case there remains the abiding comfort that he would not have amounted to much anyway. Neither a college training nor anything else can do much good to the man of weak fiber or to the man with a twist in his moral or intellectual make-up. But the average undergraduate has enough robustness of nature, enough capacity for enthusiasm and aspiration, to make it worth while to turn to account the stuff that is in him.
There are, however, two points in the undergraduate life of Harvard about which I think we have a right to feel some little concern. One is the growth of luxury in the university. I do not know whether anything we can say will have much effect on this point, but just so far as the alumni have weight I hope to see that weight felt in serious and sustained effort against the growing tendency to luxury and in favor of all that makes for democratic conditions. One of our number, the one whom I think the rest us most delight to honor—Col. Higginson—has given to our alma mater the Harvard Union, than which no better gift, no gift meeting a more vital need, could have been given to the university. It is neither possible nor desirable to try to take away all social differences from the student life; but it is a good thing to show how unimportant these differences are compared to the differences of real achievement, and compared also to the bonds which should unite together all the men who are in any degree capable of such real achievement; bonds, moreover, which should also knit these capable men to their brethren who need their help.
The second point upon which I wish to speak is the matter of sport. Now I shall not be suspected of a tendency unduly to minimize the importance of sport. I believe heartily in sport. I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured. I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality which would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collar bone as of serious consequence, when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question not of damage to one man's body, but of damage to the other man's character. Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it, especially if this brutality is coupled with a low cunning in committing it without getting caught by the umpire. I hope to see both graduate and undergraduate opinion come to scorn such a man as one guilty of base and dishonorable action, who has no place in the regard of gallant and upright men.
It is a bad thing for any college man to grow to regard sport as the serious business of life. It is a bad thing to permit sensationalism and hysteria to shape the development of our sports. And finally it is a much worse thing to permit college sport to become in any shape or way tainted by professionalism, or by so much as the slightest suspicion of money-making; and this is especially true if the professionalism is furtive, if the boy or man violates the spirit of the rule while striving to keep within the letter. Professional sport is all right in its way.
I am glad to say that among my friends I number professional boxers and wrestlers, oarsmen and baseball men, whose regard I value, and whom in turn, I regard as thoroughly good citizens. But the college undergraduate who, in furtive fashion, becomes a semi-professional is an unmitigated curse, and that not alone to university life and to the cause of amateur sport; for the college graduate ought in after years to take the lead in putting the business morality of this country on a proper plane, and he cannot do it if in his own college career his code of conduct has been warped and twisted. Moreover, the spirit which puts so excessive a value upon his work as to produce this semi-professional is itself unhealthy. I wish to see Harvard win a reasonable proportion of the contests, in which it enters, and I should be heartily ashamed of every Harvard athlete who did not spend every ounce there was in him in the effort to win, provided only he does it in honorable and manly fashion. But I think our effort should be to minimize rather than to increase that kind of love of athletics which manifests itself not in joining in the athletic sports, but in crowding by tens of thousands to see other people indulge in them. It is a far better thing for our colleges to have the average student interested in some form of athletics than to have them all gather in a mass to see other people do their athletics for them.
So much for the undergraduate. Now for the alumni, the men who are at work out in the great world. Of course, the man's first duty is to himself and to those immediately dependent upon him. Unless he can pull his own weight he must be. content to remain a passenger all his life. But we have a right to expect that the men who come out of Harvard will do something more than merely pull their own weight. We have a right to expect that they will count as positive forces for the betterment of their fellow-countrymen, and they can thus count only if they combine the power of devotion to a lofty ideal with practical common sense in striving to realize this ideal.
This nation never stood in greater need than now of having among its leaders men of lofty ideals, which they try to live up to and not merely to talk of. We need men with these ideals in public life, and we need them just as much in business and in such a profession as the law. We can by statute establish only those exceedingly rough lines of morality, the overpassing of which means that the man is in jeopardy of the constable or the sheriff. But the nation is badly off if in addition to this there is not a very much higher standard of conduct, a standard impossible effectively to establish by statute, but one upon which the community as a whole, and especially the real leaders of the community, insist. Take such a question as the enforcement of the law. It is, of course, elementary to say that this is the first requisite in any civilization at all. But a great many people in the ranks of life from which most college men are drawn seem to forget that they should condemn with equal severity those men who break the law by committing crimes of mob violence, and those who evade the law, or who actually break it, but so cunningly that they cannot be discovered, the crimes they commit being not those of physical outrage, but those of greed and craft on the largest scale.
The very rich man who conducts his business as if he believed that he were a law unto himself thereby immensely increases the difficulty of the task of upholding order when the disorder is a menace to men of property; for if the community feels that rich men disregard the law where it affects themselves, then the community is apt to assume the dangerous and unwholesome attitude of condoning crimes of violence committed against the interests which in the popular mind these rich men represent. This last attitude is wholly evil; but so is the attitude which produces it. We have a right to appeal to the alumni of Harvard and to the alumni of every institution of learning in this land to do their part in creating a public sentiment which shall demand of all men of means, and especially of the men of vast fortune, that they set an example to their less fortunate brethren by paying scrupulous heed not only to the letter, but to the spirit of the laws, and by acknowledging in the heartiest fashion the moral obligations which cannot be expressed in law, but which stand back of and above all laws. It is far more important that they should conduct their business affairs decently than that they should spend the surplus of their fortunes in philanthropy. Much has been given to these men, and we have a right to demand much of them in return. Every man of great wealth who runs his business with cynical contempt for those prohibitions of the law which by hired cunning he can escape or evade is a menace to our community, and the community is not to be excused if it does not develop a spirit which actively frowns on and discountenances him.
The great profession of the law should be that whose members ought to take the lead in the creation of just such a spirit. We all know that, as things actually are, many of the most influential and most highly remunerated members of the bar in every center of wealth make it their special task to work out bold and ingenious schemes by which their very wealthy clients, individuals or corporate, can evade the laws which are made to regulate in the interest of the public the use of great wealth.
Now, the great lawyer who employs his talent and his learning in the highly remunerative task of enabling a very wealthy client to override or circumvent the law is doing all that in him lies to encourage the growth in this country of a spirit of dumb anger against all laws and of disbelief in their efficacy. Such a spirit may breed the demand that laws shall be made even more drastic against the rich, or else it may manifest itself in hostility of all laws. Surely Harvard has the right to expect from her sons a high standard of applied morality, whether their paths lead them into public life, into business, or into the great profession of the law, whose members are so potent in shaping the growth of the national soul.
But in addition to having high ideals it cannot too often be said to a body such as is gathered here to-day that together with devotion to what is right must go practical efficiency in striving for what is right.
This is a rough, workaday, practical world, and if in it we are to do the work best worth doing, we must approach that work in a spirit remote from that of the mere visionary, and above all remote from that of the visionary whose aspirations after good find expression only in the shape of scolding and complaining. It shall not help us if we avoid the Scylla of baseness of motive only to be wrecked on the Charybdis of wrongheadedness, of feebleness and inefficiency. There can be nothing worse for the community than to have the men who profess lofty ideals show themselves so foolish, so narrow, so impractical, as to cut themselves off from communion with the men who are actually able to do the work of governing, the work of business, the work of the professions. It is a sad and evil thing if the men with a moral sense group themselves as impractical zealots, whole the men of action gradually grow to discard and laugh at all moral sense as an evidence of impractical weakness.
Macaulay, whose eminently sane and wholesome spirit revolted not only at weakness, but at the censorious folly which masquerades as virtue, describes the condition of Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century in a passage which every sincere reformer should keep constantly before him.
It is a remarkable circumstance that the same country should have produced in the same age the most wonderful specimens of both extremes of human nature. Even in things indifferent the Scotch Puritan would hear of no compromise; and he was but too ready to consider all who recommended prudence and charity as traitors to the cause of truth. On the other hand, the Scotchmen of that generation who made a figure in Parliament were the most dishonest and unblushing time servers that the world has ever seen. Perhaps it is natural that the most callous and impudent vice should be found in the near neighborhood of unreasonable and impracticable virtue. Where enthusiasts are ready to destroy or be destroyed for trifles magnified into importance by a squeamish conscience, it is not strange that the very name of conscience should become a byword of contempt to cool and shrewd men of business.
The men who go out from Harvard into the great world of American life bear a heavy burden of responsibility. The only way they can show their gratitude to their alma mater is by doing their full duty to the nation as a whole, and they can do this full duty only if they combine the high resolve to work for what is best and most ennobling with the no less resolute purpose to do their work in such fashion that when the end of their days comes they shall feel that they have actually achieved results and not merely talked of achieving them.
Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at the Alumni Dinner of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/343650