Web Exclusives: PawPlus

July 7, 2004:

at the Baccalaureate Service
Princeton University, Sunday, June 7, 1970



In September 1960, when most of you seniors were somewhere around 11 years old, I spoke from this pulpit to the entering freshman class about the importance of the “spirit of discontent.” I pointed especially at the ability of the human mind to see clearly and then to seek a possible better in place of an actual worse.

“Without this motive force (I went on to say) primitive man would never have substituted the wheel for the sled, Greeks would not have evolved democratic processes of government, Romans of the empire would not have troubled to develop an impartial system of law, Englishmen would not have struggled through to achieve freedom of speech and limitations on the powers of government, art would have languished and science been unknown. Each would have accepted what he knew at hand, what was passed down to him, and very likely we would all be resting still in a slough of primordial contentment.”

Well, we’re clearly in no such slough today. The discontent of many young men and women, and not a few older ones, is clear. The objects of concern have become so conspicuous and cry out so demandingly for correction that few can fail to see or hear. The list is long: our protracted involvement in Southeast Asia, so costly in lives and national morale; the pressing problems of racial injustice, poverty, urban decay, population growth, environmental pollution, bigotry, ignorance; and on and on.

Along with your counterparts on campuses across the country, most of you have shown that you are not content to acquiesce in, or just silently oppose, those wrongs. Your discontent seeks expression and action.

This puzzles some of your elders, who may feel as you do about many issues, but less vehemently or with less urgency. “Where is the failure of communication?” they ask. President Bunting of Radcliffe offers a partial explanation. She observes that in childhood a sense of morality is mainly a matter of simple rules directly enforced by punishments and rewards; later it shifts to the broader framework of larger social groups; then comes a third phase, the asking: “What is really right? What is really wrong?”. Nothing can stop the dialogue faster, she observes, than reasoning at the second level (my community -- or even – my nation) with a college student who is trying to think at level three -- the level of the human race, of universals.

That of course is only part of the problem of communication. When in Major Barbara, Stephen exclaims impatiently to his father: “I know the difference between right and wrong!” Sir Andrew Undershaft replies:

“You don’t say so! ... the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers . .. the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you're a genius . . . at twenty four, too.”

Ideas of right and wrong, of course, are not to be cynically dismissed, nor are the deeply rooted obstacles to the attainment of our ideals in this imperfect world to be ignored. We must look to the ideals and face up to the obstacles, even though our perception of both is often less than full. Young people of every generation have been impatient, and some of those of today seem to want to make things right instantaneously. When that is so, we must recognize that they are conditioned by a fast-moving world. As Professor Walter Kaufmann wrote recently:

“Many students have very little patience. Their experience of time differs from ours .... We can remember taking two weeks to cross the Atlantic in a boat, and longer than that to hitchhike across the United States. Our sense of time was molded by experiences like that, and we are prone to feel that the condition of the Negro in America has changed a great deal in the last two decades. But our students know that we have landed men on the moon less than ten years after Kennedy proclaimed this as a goal, and the speeds reached by the rockets rushing toward the moon have a place in the experience of youth, while we still think in pre-rocket terms.”

Some young people say that they have tried to help bring about change constructively, but that “the System” is too resistant and that their patience is exhausted. On this campus, at least, during the undergraduate years of the Class of 1970 quite a few changes have been effected -- most of them, I think, constructive ones. To some of you, no doubt the pace of those changes has seemed slow, but according to my mail, to many alumni it has seemed breathtaking.

Looking beyond the campus, we see many expressing consternation at all the slow, laborious effort required to bring about change in their communities and on the national scene. But in all fairness let us take note that this nation is now finally -- if belatedly -- beginning to question, seriously and broadly, the propositions that a large and expanding military enterprise will actually provide security and promote peace in the modern world -- and that our national interest depends on sustaining a particular government in South Vietnam. The tragic consequences of American military involvement in Southeast Asia, both for our own society and for our relations with the rest of the world, are now being examined deeply in the makings of a great national debate. Meanwhile, the ugly facts of our decaying cities and our deteriorating environment are no longer glossed over. Lip service to the needs of the poor and the rights of minority groups no longer gets by; the drive now is for action. True, all this has been a long, slow time coming; yet, that does not mean that the pace of constructive change cannot be advanced and remarkable goals achieved.

In few nations around the globe are the opportunities for effecting change through orderly political processes as open for ready minds and willing hands as they are in this country. Some of you are already at work politically, seeking to make your efforts felt in the next elections. That is good. But it is not just the next elections which will count. It will be the elections year after year, involving both parties, and the willingness of men and women of good will to work, to run for office and to accept appointment, to stay in there contending, that will count in the long run. If you keep at it for only a short time, don’t expect results.

Youth is not powerless -- as Lyndon Johnson might testify. But, paradoxically, youth can exert sustained power only if it acts with some maturity, and maturity, as you know, involves a number of things. One is a readiness to assess realistically both the situation to be faced and one’s own capabilities.

Maturity means also understanding the nature of freedom. To the child, freedom means doing whatever comes naturally, and some adults try to live their lives that way. But such freedom is little more than the freedom of the jungle, where every creature does what comes naturally, and tooth and claw prevail. Nor do we nourish genuine human freedom when we justify actions on the ground that they embody strong or deep feeling. The witch burners of Salem felt strongly and sincerely. So did the Nazis who murdered millions of Jews. So do the proponents of apartheid in South Africa. All were and are, in their barbaric ways, sincere -- dreadfully sincere!

The 19th century anarchists held that human beings are by nature altruistic and reasonable, and some of our contemporaries see all institutions as things that repress good human impulses. Yet, little in the records of history or human thought really supports the romantic notion that life would be better and most men happier if all the restraints of civilization were lifted to give free rein to instinct and desire. The freedom claimed by maturity is a freedom that includes self-discipline. On such self-restraint rests a free, orderly, and progressive society. The other options are the jungle or, more likely, iron rule.

There is unquestionably much danger in the many divisions now so apparent in this country. The welling up of discontent in so many quarters, but especially among the young, is disturbing, and in some it raises acute fear that calls into play deep, latent resentments. Nor should we be naive about those who consciously seek to magnify divisions, to force confrontations, to encourage violence.

Nevertheless, with all this, we are in far better position as a people when, as now, many are awake to the grave faults and imperfections of our society, instead of being smug and oblivious to them. We are better off when people do not simply take for granted the good, the bad, and the indifferent that they see around them, but instead take on themselves seriously the age-old, essential task of trying to reduce the gap between men’s finest ideals and their actual, always flawed accomplishments.

Violence can cripple this promise inherent in the current discontent and restlessness of so many Americans. Fear can stifle or pervert it. Extremists of the left and of the right to the side, however, we should see that in the discontent and restlessness of our time there is much creative energy, much constructive potential.

We must also see clearly that simple impulsiveness is not enough -- that excessive impatience can undermine the most effective means we have for recognizing and then effecting those changes that will actually make for a more peaceable, just and humane society. I mean specifically the pursuit of the life of the mind and, following from it, the exercise of the powers of searching, disciplined thought on the large, tough problems which confront us today in such emphatic ways. Indeed, what may be the greatest danger facing us today lies neither in the realm of national policy nor in the many divisions within our country. It lies rather in the flight from reason -- in the tendency to see things (and to try to deal with things) in large, sweeping, emotion-charged terms -- in the rejection of complexity and gradations. The champions of direct feeling as against the exacting work of principled thought are legion, and their number seems to be growing. The result is an intolerance that makes neither for healthy human diversity nor intelligent common purpose; it leads instead to deeper divisions and more numbing forms of repression. In the words of Dean Calvin Linton of George Washington University:

“The situation is really frighteningly simple. Only two motives can produce the orderliness without which society is a jungle, either the free pursuit by free men of common goals, goals which have emerged from learning, knowledge, enlightenment, discipline or the unity imposed by a common fear or a common hate. The first emanates from man's best nature, his capacity to love that which is good. The second is based on that which is anti-human: fear, hatred, shared animosity.”

As university men and women, the call on you especially, then, is to uphold the cause of reason wherever you go, in whatever you set your hands to -- to uphold it not as a sole or sufficient answer, but as an indispensable part of that better world you want to bring about.

If we can do this, both in the universities and in our callings beyond them, then the promise for the future which the present holds is large indeed. More than one thoughtful observer has marked the marvelous vitality of America. I suspect that it is as great now as at any period in our history. Who is to say that this time of discontent and of restless stirring may not be a dawn?

To be sure, no generation is uniquely endowed with perception or judgment or compassion. Yet, it just might be that yours will have a stronger will to work and to sacrifice for a better world than some that have gone before. With all my heart, I hope so.