Setting the Scene
Let’s start by setting the scene. It’s mid-June 1921. Nearly half the living alumni throng the campus and the town for a festive five-day celebration that encompasses graduation, reunion, and, finally, centennial day, June 22, 1921.
There has already been quite a build-up to the events. The previous November, an official campaign booklet entitled “The Gift of Amherst’s Sons to their Alma Mater on Her Hundredth Birthday” had been mailed to every graduate. In a brief two months, the alumni body raised an at-the-time-unprecedented $3 million centennial gift. Then—after the class oration and march of the classes (in costume) on Saturday, June 18th; the baccalaureate sermon on Sunday; commencement on Monday; and lectures on Tuesday on “Amherst in the Law and Education,” “Amherst in Science and Industry,” and “Amherst in the Ministry and Missions”—Meiklejohn speaks at College Hall on Wednesday. His topic: “What Does the College Hope to be During the Next Hundred Years?”
It must have seemed odd to, at least, some members of the audience that day that Meiklejohn starts with an apology. His speech, he says, is not really for them. “I am planning to speak not to you who are here,” he says, “but to others who are not here—persons who are far away, in time if not in space.” Specifically, he means two groups: “those who discussed our theme one hundred years ago when Amherst was established” and “those who, one hundred years from now, will talk upon the theme again when next we have Centennial celebrations.” He’s talking about us!
Now, I think, this opening is something more than just a clever rhetorical strategy. The fact is: although Meiklejohn would not be forced out for more than two years, he already knew that his position was at risk. The previous month, Meiklejohn had been called back suddenly by the board from his European sabbatical to attend the Trustees’ meeting on May 28th, at which a he was informed that a majority of the board had lost confidence in him. He refused to resign, and the board didn’t force the issue. A compromise of sorts was reached. According to Stanley King ’03, who had just been elected to the board, some trustees thought “the situation could be salvaged.” Still, the writing was very much on the wall.
So, I don’t think it was entirely a coincidence that Meiklejohn’s imagined audience for his address was the past and the future—i.e., precisely not the people in the audience that day. As he puts it: “Prophets, men say, are seldom honored near their homes . . . . But may I ask you to take note that he who makes a prophecy is even nearer to his home than are his critics.”
With that initial framing, Meiklejohn warms to his subject. To answer the question of what Amherst will be in the next hundred years, he says, we need to answer the question of what America will be. After all: “This is an American college.”
There is a tendency to see the Meiklejohn story as one of a dynamic, visionary president pulling what had heretofore been a sleepy New England college into the 20th century. This is only partly true. As Rick Teichgraeber ’71 points out in his essay “The ‘Meiklejohn Affair’ Revisited,” in the bicentennial anthology Amherst in the World, Amherst at the time of Meiklejohn’s hiring already had a national reputation—in particular, for its alumni who were members of the new national social and economic elite that had emerged from the Gilded Age. The center of gravity of the alumni body, for example, had already shifted from New England to the big cities: pre-eminently New York, but also Chicago and St. Louis. And since the 1890s, members of two of the richest families in Gilded Age America—the James’s and the Pratts—were on the Amherst board.2 So, at least in social and economic terms, Amherst was already very much an American college—or, at least, a college of the American elite. Indeed, part of the reason Meiklejohn was hired in the first place was to renew the faculty and transform Amherst’s academic status so that it was equal to its recently acquired social and economic standing.
But if Amherst was taking its place as an institution of the American elite, it was doing so in a society experiencing a period of massive unrest and turbulence. The America of 1921 was a society characterized by growing economic inequality, nearly constant labor conflict, social and racial divisions, widespread anxieties of cultural decline and disappointed idealism, and, in particular, a virulent nativism supported by the pseudo-science of eugenics. And, of course, it was still living in the aftermath of the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919. In other words, it was a society not so different from our own!
In his speech, however, Meiklejohn wasn’t talking only about what America or Amherst was in 1921 but rather what it would become—and, even more, what it ought to become. And in the course of his speech, he described three prophecies for Amherst’s—and America’s—future; prophecies understood not in the sense of predictions but in the sense of visions for a desired future. “To prophesy is not to know,” he told his audience. “Our prophecies are hopes and wills, desires and yearnings for the common weal in coming days.”
“We Must Welcome Boys of Other Stocks”
The first prophecy is about what Meiklejohn terms “national independence.” Here, he makes an argument not so different from the one that Ralph Waldo Emerson made in his Harvard Divinity School Address some eighty years earlier. America might have its political independence; it may have been the only nation to emerge from the First World War economically stronger and become global leader. And yet: “We, thus far, have been in cultural ways a dependent people. The time has come when we must win our independence.”
To frame his comments about national independence, says Meiklejohn, “First I wish to speak of Anglo-Saxons and of aristocracy.” I’d like to pause for a minute on this term Anglo-Saxon. When I was at Amherst, the term “WASP” (for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”) was still au courant although more or less on its last legs.3 Few people use it today.4 And yet, when Meiklejohn was speaking, Anglo-Saxon had a pervasive cultural meaning and power.
The term first became popular in American society in the years following Reconstruction. The emerging ideology of reunion between the North and South, and in particular the myth of the “Lost Cause,” recast the Civil War not as a conflict over slavery but, rather, as a kind of drama of Anglo-Saxon martial virtue and a celebration of American nationalism as a triumph of Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy.
The term acquired additional meanings at the turn-of-the-century, roughly from 1880 to 1920, in the forty-year nativist reaction against mass immigration, especially of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe, that was transforming the nation’s ethnocultural identity. In this context, the term Anglo-Saxon had become a marker of racial superiority in the pseudo-scientific “racial science” of eugenics, which was widely shared among elites, on the part of both conservatives and progressives alike.
Finally, the alliance with Great Britain during World War I had contributed to a wave of Anglophilia and revalorization of America’s Anglo-Saxon roots. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that this period saw the extraordinary popularity of neo-colonial architecture (which is why the Inn at Boltwood looks the way it does and why so many of Amherst’s former fraternity buildings are neo-Georgian in style). Indeed, Amherst archivist Mike Kelly has suggested that this fashion for all things colonial even contributed the emergence of “Lord Jeff” as Amherst’s mascot in the early 20th century.
Now, it’s safe to say that all these attitudes were well represented in the audience listening to Meiklejohn that day. For instance, I wonder what Calvin Coolidge ’95 was thinking. He had been inaugurated the previous March as Warren Harding’s vice-president, been elected to the Amherst board in May, and was a highly visible figure at the centennial.
The previous February, Coolidge had published an anti-immigrant screed in Good Housekeeping magazine that was rife with eugenicist assumptions. “Our country must cease to be regarded as a dumping ground,” he wrote. “There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend . . . . The unassimilated alien child menaces our children, as the alien industrial worker, who has destruction rather than production in mind, menaces our industry . . . . Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.” (And, of course, it would be Coolidge who, a few years later as President, signed the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.)
But one didn’t necessarily have to be a nativist or a eugenicist to be anxious about the future of the Anglo-Saxon dominant culture. Just a few days before Meiklejohn’s speech, the class of 1896 held a banquet to celebrate its 25th reunion. The guests of honor at the event were Coolidge and none other than Jeffrey John Archer Amherst, Viscount Holmesdale, a descendant of Jeffrey Amherst.
The classmate selected to give the dinner speech was Archibald L. Bouton ’96, aka “Dean Bouton,” who was dean of the college of arts and sciences at New York University and who was preoccupied with the issue of how to assimilate the new immigrant groups. In 1919, Bouton had written a pamphlet entitled “The Colleges and Americanism” in which he set forth the idea that American institutions of higher learning had to inculcate values of Americanism in their students.
Bouton’s speech is a paean to Amherst’s role in the great Anglo-Saxon confraternity. Addressing Viscount Holmesdale, he says: “I wish him to know that when he returns to his own country, he may take with him from this Commencement occasion this certain fact—that every one of us whom he sees before him here in this room, and that likewise all those who are gathering in similar ways anywhere at this Centennial season of Amherst College, are to the bottom of our souls believers in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition.”
And then Bouton tells a story about something that the late Amherst philosophy professor Charles Garman ’72 said to him when he was a student. If you have never heard of Garman, he was sort of the Ben DeMott or Austin Sarat of his time: a highly charismatic teacher, mentor to a generation of students, including Coolidge and Bouton. No less a luminary than William James described him as “the greatest teacher” of all the colleges.
Here’s the story Bouton told: “Garman said to me, and said it more than once, that in time to come the frontiers of civilization in America would no longer be in the country of Daniel Boone, or in the far west; but that they would be found in the heart of our great cities. . . . I little dreamed then that my own work would be cast to the extent that it has upon those very frontiers,” addressing what Bouton called “the great educational problem represented by the foreign elements in our population on those frontiers of our city life.”
So, Meiklejohn was speaking to an audience that was preoccupied with the future—and the possible decline—of America’s Anglo-Saxon dominant culture. And in his speech, he carves out a position in opposition both to the racial assumptions of nativism and the cultural assumptions of assimilationism.
He starts by acknowledging the fear of loss. “Men fear that we shall leave the old, established ways, shall lose the spirit of Old New England, of Old Virginia, shall cease to think the thoughts our fathers made.” But the reality of mass immigration and the arrival of new social and ethnic groups in American society required making a fundamental choice. “Do we intend to make our dominance secure? Are we determined to exalt our culture, to make it sovereign over others, to keep them down, to have them in control? Or will we let our culture take its chance on equal terms, without advantage, taking its own in the free play of a great people’s fusing life? Which shall it be—an Anglo-Saxon aristocracy of culture or a Democracy?”
Like Bouton, Meiklejohn draws a comparison to the other great Anglo-Saxon nation, Great Britain, but not to celebrate Amherst’s kinship with it. Rather, he contrasts the path Britain has taken to the one he thinks America should take. Britain is becoming more and more democratic at home, he says, but look how it treats its colonial subjects in the British Empire: with cultural subordination, economic exploitation, and aristocratic contempt. Is that what we want? After all, he points out, “We have already here one people whom we rule, with whom we do not genuinely associate.” He’s talking about Black Americans and the regime of Jim Crow. Remember, this is an era where a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan was becoming a powerful political force in American society, and Meiklejohn is speaking just weeks after the worst single instance of racial violence in 20th-century American history, the Tulsa Race Riot which took place from May 31st to June 1st. “How many more such subject races would we like to have?” he asks.
Instead, Meiklejohn proposes an alternative path: “I cast my Anglo-Saxon vote for Pure Democracy.” For him, “Americanization” had to be a genuine two-way street. He understood that in order truly to “assimilate” the new immigrant groups transforming America, the dominant culture would have to let go of too-narrow conceptions of what it meant to be American.
And echoing that famous passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew about having to lose yourself in order to find yourself, he says: “Here in America the peoples of the earth are working out a common destiny in which each group must share, share as it may according to the strength and virtue that its spirit has. And we like all the rest shall lose our separate life in this great venture, shall lose it in trying to find, to make a common life more fair, more free, more true than men have ever seen before.”
What did that mean for Amherst? “First—If we are not to have a racial aristocracy, democracy must have a dwelling place within our colleges. . . . We may not keep ourselves apart either from persons or from cultures not our own. We dare not shut our gates to fellow-citizens nor to their influence. So we must welcome boys of other stocks. And if they do not come, we must go out and bring them in. Our undergraduate life must represent the country which it serves; students must keep it free from any taint of caste or aristocracy.”
By the way, this wasn’t just a vision for the future. This is precisely what Meiklejohn was doing during his years as Amherst’s president. At a time when Harvard and other schools were limiting the admission of Black students and segregating them in separate dormitories, Meiklejohn welcomed them to Amherst. Between 1912 and 1923, fourteen Black students enrolled at Amherst. That may not sound like a lot but in 1921 Amherst had only 500 students and that critical mass of black students represented a high-water mark that, sad to say, would not be equaled until the 1960s. Meiklejohn termed the trend “unusually fortunate.” These students included some of the most distinguished Black alumni in the college’s history such as Charles Hamilton Houston ’15, architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy for school desegregation; William H. Hastie ’25, the first Black federal judge; and Charles R. Drew ’26, the inventor of the blood bank.5
These students certainly experienced some racism in the Amherst community of the time. Although the dorms were integrated, the fraternities were not, and some Black students complained that they were excluded from some extracurricular activities such as the college orchestra. But Meiklejohn took a strong stand against racism in the college community. For example, he insisted that Black students be free to join Amherst’s athletic teams even if their participation meant that other schools would refuse to compete on campus. And when the football coach at Princeton wrote to say that he couldn’t guarantee the safety of Drew when Amherst came to play at Princeton, Meiklejohn replied that if Princeton couldn’t protect the entire team, then Amherst wouldn’t come.
When Harvard president Abbot Lawrence Lowell instituted a Jewish quota at Harvard in the spring of 1922, Meiklejohn gave a talk to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard called “Democracy and Excellence“ in which he said: “Whenever I hear that certain people shall be excluded from excellence, I think it is not right. When I hear that colleges are closing their doors on certain students, I believe that is not right.”
So, it’s clear that, if we can bracket for a minute Meiklejohn’s gendered language (the idea that Amherst could be a college for both men and women was not on his radar screen), he was a champion of “inclusion” and “diversity” long before those words took on their contemporary meaning, and his record during his time at Amherst on this dimension was exemplary—despite opposition from at least some in the alumni body.
For example, in response to Meiklejohn’s comment about the good fortune of attracting Black students, one alumnus, Dewitt C. Morrell, a Brooklyn lawyer and member of the class of 1877, wrote to him in protest: “[I]t is not ‘unusually fortunate’ for Amherst that she has every year three or four Negro students in each class. It is unfortunate for her . . . . However, I can see fast enough that Amherst is going your way.” “P.S.,” Morrell added, “eugenics is coming.”
“Each Man, Each Woman, Each Child Shall Have a Chance at Life”
Meiklejohn’s second prophecy is about “idealism,” and here as well, there is a broader social context underlying his words. The period in the immediate aftermath of World War I was a time of disappointed idealism.6 The war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy ended with the US Senate’s failure to approve the treaty establishing the League of Nations. The war’s end had also sparked a major economic crisis. Unemployment soared to 20 percent even as inflation drove consumer prices 105 percent above their prewar levels, which in turn led to massive social and political conflict. For example, the year 1919 alone witnessed not only a crippling wave of strikes involving more than four million workers, but also the so-called “Red Summer” in which white supremacist terrorism and race riots took place in more than three dozen cities, as well as the Red Scare, which led to the deportation of thousands of immigrant radicals for their political beliefs.7
The social and economic conflict that followed the War provoked a powerful backlash on the part of many Americans, especially in the Anglo-Saxon elite. Remember, Warren Harding’s successful campaign slogan in the 1920 Presidential election was “return to normalcy.” Indeed, in a speech after commencement just two days before Meiklejohn’s address, Harding’s vice-president Calvin Coolidge warned against “relying too much on government action” to relieve the burdens of existence that rest—and must rest—on the individual. “It would be possible to make a privileged class of a few, but that is un-American and foreign to every instinct of our people,” he said. “It is impossible to make a privileged class of everybody.”
And yet, in his speech, Meiklejohn sets out a concept of idealism that can be viewed almost as a direct response to Coolidge, one that views the economic tensions and social conflicts in American life as a kind of starting point for a new vision of a more egalitarian society. He describes the kind of idealism that Amherst and America need this way:
“Each man, each woman, each child shall have a chance at life; they shall not be denied the full and free expression of themselves if we can help them to attain it. Men’s lives are thwarted, stunted, twisted, throttled, killed by circumstances of every sort. That is our failure, even more than theirs. We will not have it so. Each life shall be what it might be, what may be made of it, what under favoring circumstances, it may become. Such is our aim.”
This view has echoes of an idea introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber at the turn-of-the-century: his concept of “life chances” or Lebenschancen. It is the idea that in a market-based capitalist society, individual opportunity—not only occupation and income but also education and cultural capital, even one’s subjective sense of possibility in one’s life—are all profoundly shaped by an individual’s social and economic class position. In other words, social class is the primary form of inequality that shapes the life chances of individuals.
Meiklejohn’s comments about idealism are, in effect, a not-so-veiled attack on the laissez-faire individualism that was the conventional wisdom of so many in the elite at the time and that featured in Coolidge’s address a few days before. “What does it mean to give to men a chance?” he asks. “Is it to stand aside; is it to say that they are free to roam when all men know that chains have bound them fast? No, it is more than that. It means that men shall not be bound by chains, whether their own or forged by other men. It means that every man shall have a genuine chance at taking the ways of life that lie before him.”
“And so I think that in the coming century, Idealism will mean, not simply letting others be themselves, but acting that each shall be himself.”
Meiklejohn says that he is not speaking “for any special scheme of social betterment.” Rather, as an educator, he is speaking for a view of higher education—and, in particular, a liberal arts education—as a powerful means for expanding people’s life chances that should be widely available to people across the society. And he envisions Amherst as a leader in the fulfillment of that aspiration for what he terms “general national education.” “. . . In all genuine meanings of the term, we are a people’s college, and shall continue so to be. And we must share more deeply in the broader work of making younger people ready for their living.”
Typically, this part of Meiklejohn’s speech is interpreted as a plea for Amherst graduates to enter and help shape the teaching profession in higher education (and, of course, many of them did). But I think there is something deeper and more interesting going on here. To understand what Meiklejohn means by “making young people ready for their living,” let’s take a step back to the time when Amherst’s leaders were considering what kind of president the college needed in 1912. Here, a key figure is Dwight Morrow—Amherst class of ’95, corporate lawyer, partner at J.P. Morgan who helped rebuild the global financial system after World War I, classmate of Calvin Coolidge and member of the Amherst kitchen cabinet that helped him win the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1920. In 1916, Morrow was elected a life trustee and his biographer Harold Nicolson describes him as “the first of the trustees to support Meiklejohn” and “the last to oppose him.”8
In 1912, Morrow was the extremely active head of the New York alumni association. Some alumni even wanted him to be Amherst’s president, but he declined. He did, however, write a letter to alumni about the kind of president Amherst needed. And, by now, we should not be surprised that the person to whom he looked in his memory for wisdom was—you guessed it—old Professor Garman.
“I feel strongly,” Morrow wrote, “that Professor Garman shortly before his death put it about right when he said that during the first period of Amherst’s history it had been its main function to train ministers; that during the second period which is about ending it had been its main function to train professional men other than ministers; that during its next period it would probably be its principal function to give an all-round training to men who would take a large part in the business affairs of the nation.”
But that didn’t mean that an Amherst education should become somehow narrowly vocational. What Garman really meant, according to Morrow, was that Amherst need to educate its students to address “the big problems that are being worked out in social reform through our business organizations . . . in the continual struggle which any enlightened state is making for the social betterment of its members.”
The trustees ended up appointing Meiklejohn. But much as was the case with his views about immigration and assimilation, Meiklejohn’s brought a broader perspective to the challenge that Morrow articulated. I think Meiklejohn understood that in order to truly address “the big problems that are being worked out in social reform” or to make young people “ready for their living” in the mass industrial society that was taking shape in the 1920s, you couldn’t rely on the perspective of business or business leaders alone.
I think this was partly due to Meiklejohn’s class background. He was born in 1872, in Rochdale, England, the youngest of eight sons of a Scottish color designer in the Lancashire textile industry. His family were members of the Rochdale Cooperative, an early consumer cooperative founded in 1844 that was rooted in the ideals of Robert Owen, the Shakers, and the Chartists, and other utopian socialist communities of the mid-nineteenth century. By the late-nineteenth century, the Rochdale Cooperative had become an active center for working class debate and discussion about social reform in England. So, Meiklejohn was born into a milieu in which the latest ideas of John Ruskin, William Morris, and British liberal prime minister William Gladstone would have been topics of frequent discussion.
In 1880, the family emigrated to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where his father pursued opportunities in the local textile industry. Meiklejohn was the only one of his siblings to attend college—at Brown, which at the time had a large proportion of what, in today’s parlance, we would call “first-generation” college students of modest means (wealthy students in Providence were more likely to go to Harvard or Yale). Nearly half the student body was on financial aid. And many worked part-time jobs. While Dean of Students at Brown, Meiklejohn adamantly defended the need to admit poor students.
Many of Meiklejohn’s initiatives at Amherst were designed to broaden students’ perspectives about the social and economic conditions of the society in which they lived. Take, for example, what was probably the most important curricular innovation of Meiklejohn’s time at Amherst: the development of a year-long required course for all students in freshman year called “Introduction to Social and Economic Institutions.” In describing the concept of the course Meiklejohn wrote: “Its purpose, whatever form it may take, will be to serve as an introduction to the humanistic sciences. We wish if possible to make students, at the very beginning of the college course, aware of the moral, social and economic scheme [of] the society of which they are members.”
Meiklejohn recruited economist Walton Hamilton from the University of Chicago to design and teach the course. He was joined later by Walter Stewart from the University of Michigan (who had been a student of Thorstein Veblen at Missouri). Both Hamilton and Stewart were leaders in the new field of institutional economics which, unlike neoclassical economics, focused on the intersections between economics, sociology, and law and featured detailed empirical research over economic theory.9
Hamilton described the course as using “social scientific methods to illuminate the major moral and philosophical issues of modern industrial society. . . . The overarching goal was to help students develop a general perspective on twentieth-century American civilization as a synthetic whole.” Years later, Francis B. Randall ’52, a member of the humanities faculty at Sarah Lawrence, would call it “the most famous college course in America.”
In parallel to the social and economic institutions course, Meiklejohn brought leading social scientists to Amherst over the course of his tenure. Veblen was a frequent visitor. The British historian and Christian socialist R.H. Tawney was a visiting professor in the 1919-1920 academic year. Other visiting faculty included the English political theorist Harold Laski who was a lecturer at Harvard at the time and an outspoken supporter of the Boston police strike (the breaking of which fueled Coolidge’s political rise), and the American economic historian Charles Beard.
But Meiklejohn didn’t stop there in broadening the boundaries of what it meant to make young people “ready for their living” and to prepare them to address “the big problems that are being worked out in social reform,” For instance, how many of you know—I certainly didn’t—that it was a thing in the early 20th century for governments and private businesses to recruit students from elite colleges as strikebreakers? Harvard students, for example, had patrolled the streets of Boston during the police strike of 1919. At Amherst, however, Meiklejohn consistently refused requests for students to help break strikes—from Governor Cox, Coolidge’s successor, and from the superintendent of the Connecticut River Division of the Boston and Maine Railroad.
Meiklejohn also kept close touch with developments in Great Britain and on a trip to Europe in the summer of 1919 visited Ruskin Hall at Oxford to learn about the “university tutorial class” movement which offered liberal education courses to working people. On his return, he launched a program he called the “labor college” to teach classes to textile workers from Holyoke and Springfield.10 He described it as “an expression of the belief that a liberal education should be available to all who feel the need of it.” The students were drawn primarily from the Holyoke Central Labor Union, a textile workers affiliate of the American Federation of Labor; the initial professors were Hamilton and recent graduate John Gaus ’15 who had returned to Amherst as a professor. Eventually other faculty from Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke also participated. By 1923, there were more than sixty such schools in various locations around the country.
Now, some alumni worried that such initiatives were “communistic.” Which brings me back to “silent Cal” who is, of course, most famous for his aphorism “the chief business of the American people is business.” Earlier that very month, he had published an attack on the influence of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society at America’s women’s colleges so dyspeptic that Amity Shlaes (Coolidge’s recent hagiographic biographer) wonders whether he even wrote it himself. (But, if he didn’t, who did? We’ll come back to this later!). It’s title: “Enemies of the Republic,” with the grabby tagline: “Are the ‘Reds’ Stalking Our College Women?”11
But if Meiklejohn was some kind of Christian Socialist, he was no Marxist. Rather, he was a neo-Kantian idealist and criticized what he took to be the materialist perspective of both the cheerleaders of America’s new business class and the Marxist radicals.12 What he cared about was the impact of social and economic factors on an individual’s sense of personhood, their ability to develop their own sense of individuality and personal freedom. In his 1935 book, What Does America Mean?, Meiklejohn would write: “To be a materialist is to think of men, to deal with them, in external terms, as if they were ‘things.’. . . But, as against this—or in addition to it—we must deal with ourselves and our fellows in the active, creative terms of the spirit. We, who are persons, must deal with our fellows as if they, too, were persons. In the proper sense of the term, we need a new idealism.” Fostering that idealism was the role of liberal education.
What interests me the most in all these initiatives of Meiklejohn is the way they anticipated a fundamental assumption at the foundation of what would become, more than a decade later, the New Deal: that in order to have democratic control of an industrial capitalist economy, society needed to empower a variety of institutions—labor unions, cooperatives, government regulatory agencies, and the like—so that they could serve as a countervailing power to the power of big business.
Some of the professors that Meiklejohn appointed and the students they taught went on to play important roles in the development of the social welfare state in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Hamilton and Stewart, for instance, both resigned in protest after Meiklejohn’s forced resignation in 1923 (Stewart was actually offered the presidency but declined). Hamilton went on to help found The Brookings Institution, was a member of the National Recovery Administration Board during the New Deal, and eventually ended up at Yale Law School. Stewart became director of research and statistics at the Federal Reserve and, eventually, chairman of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Among their students at Amherst were:
- Morris Copeland ’17. At Amherst, he switched from philosophy to economics, became a professor of economics at Michigan and Cornell, and was a leader in the improvement of government statistical services during the New Deal.
- Carter Goodrich ’18. A student of Robert Frost, he switched from poetry to economics (according to his children, he claimed he was the subject of Frost’s poem, “The Runaway”). He later taught economics at Amherst, Michigan, and Columbia and chaired the governing body of the International Labor Organization during World War II.
- Paul Raushenbush ’20. The son of liberal Protestant theologian Walter Raushenbush, he married the daughter of Louis Brandeis, taught with Meiklejohn in the Experimental College at Wisconsin, was instrumental in drafting that state’s unemployment compensation law in 1932 (which would later become the model for federal unemployment compensation), and directed the Unemployment Compensation Department of the State of Wisconsin.
All this, it is fair to say, was a legacy of Meiklejohn’s commitment to an “idealism” that provided “each man, each woman, each child . . . a chance at life,” to support “the full and free expression of themselves if we can help them to attain it.”
“We Have Become Too Shrewd in Recent Years”
Meiklejohn’s third and final prophecy has to do with “faith.” He starts by reminding us of the uncertainty and the sense of dissatisfaction in American society at the time of Amherst’s founding: the euphoria of the Revolution worn off, religious orthodoxy in decline. We all know that Amherst was founded, in part, as an orthodox Calvinist reaction to the Unitarianism that held sway at Harvard. Meiklejohn reminds us that the title of the sermon delivered at the foundation of the Amherst Charity Institution in 1820 was entitled “A Plea for a Miserable World”!
Then, he draws a parallel to the uncertainty and cynicism in America after World War I. In some respects, this is the most personal of Meiklejohn’s three prophecies and, perhaps because it is, also the least clear. I don’t think we can underestimate the negative impact of World War I on Meiklejohn’s project at Amherst. In the first flush of national enthusiasm for the war, he had tried—and failed—to insulate the college community from the spirit of nationalism and jingoism accompanying the US war effort. He avoided as long as he could the introduction of military subjects to the curriculum but eventually gave in to the reorientation of education to support the war effort—at the cost to his own curricular reforms. For example, the new War Issues course completely displaced Social and Economic Institutions as the core of Amherst’s curriculum. The decline in the number of students at Amherst during the war also meant that instead of replacing faculty through attrition, he had to force certain senior faculty members to resign which only exacerbated his conflicts with the faculty.
This experience of fighting a losing battle against the mass mobilization of American society might explain why Meiklejohn centers his third prophecy in a critique of the new disciplines of mass persuasion that received such a big boost from the war. His keyword for the sensibility that he is arguing against: a kind of too-easy “cleverness.”
In words that I believe resonate uncannily in our own time, he says: “This lack of faith appears today most clearly in our cleverness. We have become too shrewd in recent years. We trust too much in management, in propaganda, in administration. We moderns threaten to become past-masters in the art of telling truthful lies, of doing deeds of justice by which our pockets shall be filled. We know too well the tricks of using for our ends both men and truth.”
Again, I wonder: what was Meiklejohn’s audience thinking? For instance: Bruce Barton, class of ’07, secretary of the executive committee for the centennial gift, author of the official campaign booklet, and about the purest example of 1920s-era cleverness that one could imagine. Barton was one of the “B”s in the New York City advertising firm BBDO and Coolidge’s political spinmeister, called in to soften his image after his handling of the Boston police strike (in part by portraying him as what one historian terms “an ethnic and racial gatekeeper for white America”).13 He would go on to spell out his own faith in his 1925 best-seller, The Man Who Nobody Knows which portrays Jesus as the consummate business executive. The historian Jackson Lears describes him as a “doubting high priest of prosperity” who “strained to find a religious vocabulary for business success.”
But what is the new faith to replace the false faith of cleverness? Meiklejohn doesn’t really spell it out. I think part of the reason may be that, for Meiklejohn, the new faith is embodied in the habits of mind nurtured by liberal education itself—in other words, in all that he believed in and stood for, all that he was trying to do at Amherst.
According to his biographer Adam Nelson, Meiklejohn spent his entire career exploring how liberal education could create a more just and equitable democracy. Nelson draws a contrast between Meiklejohn and another great early-20th-century educational innovator: John Dewey. Like Dewey, Meiklejohn believed deeply in democracy. But unlike Dewey, he did not believe that democracy was inborn in human nature or somehow intrinsic to the objective methods of modern science. Rather, he believed that people had to learn how to be democratic through critical intelligence and ethical understanding, which could develop only through the guidance of a liberal education.
In this respect, a liberal college was, as Meiklejohn put it in one of his essays, “an institution dedicated to moral instruction by democratic means.” And to play this role, it had to be a place apart from the society of which it was a part, a refuge for cultural inquiry and criticism—not necessarily at odds with its culture but in critical tension with it.
The key to those liberal habits of mind, he says, is to choose confidence over fear, complexity over over-simplification. “Men lose their poise in days like these, grow frightened by events which they themselves cannot control, take desperate means to save the situation by a single stroke; are willing just this once to put their faith aside, to save for all future time. And colleges must tell them, what the ages have to tell, that single strokes do not save worlds, except for single moments. And if the faith is sacrificed today, it will cost more to win it back tomorrow. Here is, it seems to me, the deepest task of liberal colleges—to put the parties in their proper place and keep them there.”
It is, I think, a plea for complexity of thought over simplistic, self-interested, narrowly “ideological” answers and solutions.
Meiklejohn’s Prophecies in Retrospect
Who knows what the alumni in the audience that day—the Coolidges, Morrows, Boutons, and Bartons—took from Meiklejohn’s address? At least some of them got it. Charles Burnett ’95, professor of psychology at Colby and a close friend of Morrow, wrote to him in the weeks after the centennial celebration: “The address was brilliant. Should Amherst lose the services of this man, it seems to me, from the outside—that this loss can be no small one . . . . I am moved by the qualities of his centenary address, which show him to be a man of insight and culture that no college—other things being equal—can easily spare.”
Two years later, he was out. In retrospect, we can see all the ways that Meiklejohn contributed to his own demise. He was, perhaps, a better prophet than president; a visionary, not an administrator. For all his championing of democracy and debate, he could be thin-skinned and autocratic. According to Nelson, “in his single-minded effort to make Amherst a more liberal and democratic institution, he ran roughshod over principles of toleration, representation, and consent.” Or as Lippman put it: “He was lots of Woodrow Wilson and none of Lloyd George.” He fundamentally transformed the Amherst faculty—but at the cost of losing the support of the majority.
And yet, after Meiklejohn’s resignation in 1923, the New Republic wrote: “No one will deny that the educational development of Amherst College under President Meiklejohn was one of the greatest public significance. No other college in America has exhibited in comparable degree the intellectual life which has been stirring in Amherst during President Meiklejohn’s regime.”
The question for us today, of course, is: how has Amherst done, how is it doing, in terms of Meiklejohn’s three prophecies? Have we fulfilled his “hopes and wills, desires and yearnings for the common weal in coming days”? Or, perhaps a tougher question: are Meiklejohn’s prophecies still relevant, still meaningful, to the Amherst and America of today?
Let me conclude with three thoughts. First, in terms of bringing together a student body that reflects the genuine diversity of American society, I think we would all agree that the College has opened up to students of every social, racial, and ethnic group—not to mention both (and multiple) genders—in ways that even a visionary like Meiklejohn never dreamed of. Although he could not imagine women as full members of the Amherst community, the decision to admit women (championed by another Amherst visionary president, my teacher Bill Ward) was wholly in the spirit of Meiklejohn’s prophecy. And today, at a time, when Amherst is once again pushing the boundaries of socio-economic and racial diversity thanks to the leadership of President Martin and her predecessor Tony Marx, it is important to remind ourselves that this is nothing new. Rather, it is part of an Amherst tradition that is at least a century old.
But we should avoid complacency—and, in particular, complacency of two types that are directly relevant to Meiklejohn’s second and third prophecies. When it comes to the question, for instance, of whether higher education in our society today is fulfilling its role of broadly maximizing people’s life chances, Amherst’s diversity can’t hide the fact that the answer is, pretty definitively, “no.” Amherst exists in a national educational system that even as it has broadly expanded access to higher education, is one of the most unequal and hierarchical in the world and increasingly so. At every level, the amount of money and resources invested in students at elite institutions such as Amherst is multiples of what is invested in students at other institutions. In the words of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, “A shrinking minority of students get a boutique college experience. Then there’s everybody else.” Which raises the question: is Amherst anything more—do we aspire to be anything more—than an extremely fortunate and privileged “college on the hill,” an island of diversity and opportunity in the midst of an increasingly unequal higher-education system?
In this respect, I was very happy to see President Martin address this question squarely in her September 2020 article for the educational non-profit The Hechinger Report, which is a forthright plea for renewed public investment in public higher education not only at research universities but also at our nation’s network of community colleges. It is an example very much in the spirit of Meiklejohn: Amherst taking the lead to champion higher education, in general, and liberal-arts education, in particular, at a time when both are targets of a concerted ideological attack.
Finally, what exactly is our faith in liberal education today? How do we articulate it and, more important, how do we practice it? I have no doubt that Amherst, at its best, educates its students in the complexity of thought that is at the center of Meiklejohn’s conception of liberal education. But we also have to acknowledge that, in many respects, Amherst and American higher education as a whole has moved considerably away from what Meiklejohn would recognize as the purpose of liberal education.
When seen against the trends in American higher education in the 20th and 21st centuries, Meiklejohn was something of a counter-revolutionary and, whatever one thinks of his vision, the fact is, the revolutionaries won. Does anyone believe in educational prophets anymore? Or that a liberal education is, in essence, a moral education?
Let one example stand for the whole. Meiklejohn was a relentless opponent of the elective system, introduced by Charles William Eliot at Harvard, which he saw as a betrayal of the critical intellectual purposes of modern liberal education. “. . . It seems to me that our willingness to allow students to wander about in the college curriculum is one of the most characteristic expressions of a certain intellectual agnosticism, a kind of intellectual bankruptcy, into which, in spite of all our wealth of information, the spirit of the time has fallen.”
And yet, in the end, the elective system, the open curriculum, has won out—including at Amherst. One doesn’t have to be an advocate of some kind return to a core curriculum—I am not—to wonder what will form the new kinds of commonality and unity that Meiklejohn called for in his centennial address? How can Amherst create a common intellectual experience for its students in a way that makes their intellectual and personal growth intelligible to each other?
Or consider this thought experiment: what would be the equivalent today—in our own time of growing social and economic inequality, deep questioning about the persistence of systemic racism, and doubts and fears about the future of American democracy—of the required Social and Economic Institutions course that Meiklejohn created during his tenure?
Which brings me to my conclusion. It is deeply ironic given all his conflicts with the old-guard professoriate, but Meiklejohn ends his centennial address with a paean to the Amherst faculty. “The course of study and the ways of teaching,” he says, “must be determined by the teachers, must be for them expressions of themselves. Nothing is gained by imposition from without.”
Today, we are a witnessing a generational transformation of the Amherst faculty. As far as I can tell, these new hires represent an extraordinary group of teachers and scholars. I look forward to seeing how they renew Amherst in the spirit of Alexander Meiklejohn a century ago. To Amherst’s continuing benefit and—let’s hope—to America’s.
1. For those interested in the details, I urge you to read “The ‘Meiklejohn Affair’ Revisited: Amherst and the World in the Early Twentieth Century,” by Tulane historian Rick Teichgraeber ’71 in the recently published Bicentennial anthology Amherst in the World.
2. According to Teichgraeber, Arthur Curtis James ’89 and seven members of the Pratt family were responsible for more than 25 percent of the centennial gift—which helps explain why it was raised so quickly.
3. I remember reading The Decline of the WASP by Peter Schrag ’53 in an American Studies seminar.
4. Although I note that Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently tried to resurrect the term “Anglo-Saxon” in her aborted plan for an American First Caucus in the Congress.
5. A key figure in the influx of Black students at Amherst in the teens and ’20s was William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson ’92 who taught at Dunbar High School in Washington DC. Dunbar was an excellent all-Black high school that by the 1920s graduated more college-bound students than any school in the District of Columbia and was so respected that Amherst would accept any student recommended by the Dunbar administration without the student having to take an entrance examination. According to Harold Wade, author of Black Men at Amherst, Jackson “was largely responsible for the Golden Age of Dunbar High School” and “actively recruited the top students in the school for Amherst and other institutions in New England.” In subsequent years, however, the number of Black students at Amherst declined precipitously. In the 1930s, only 5 Blacks graduated from Amherst. Between 1939 and 1947, none did.
6. The disillusion and moral confusion of the period is perhaps best captured by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s conclusion to his first novel This Side of Paradise, published in March 1920 and an instant best-seller which made Fitzgerald’s reputation. At the end of the book, the protagonist Amory Blaine reflects on “a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
7. At least some of Amherst’s alumni were directly involved in the social conflicts of the time. For instance, trustee Arthur Curtis James, who was responsible for a major portion of the centennial gift, was the largest shareholder in the Phelps Dodge Corporation, which was notorious for its anti-union tactics. In June 1917, Phelps-Dodge crushed a strike at its mine in Bisbee, Arizona, by conspiring with the local county sheriff to seize by force of arms some 1,300 striking workers, most of them immigrants, and transport them several hundred miles away from Bisbee, leaving them in an abandoned New Mexico desert town without food, clothing, or funds—and event that would go down in American history as the Bisbee Deportation. Although a federal commission found the action “wholly illegal” and 21 Phelps- Dodge executives were prosecuted, the charges were eventually thrown out by an 8-1 Supreme Court decision finding that only the states, not the federal government, had the authority to punish kidnapping and violations of freedom of movement.
8. Just the previous September, Morrow had been lightly wounded by shattered glass in his office at J.P. Morgan on Wall Street after a bomb (most likely set by anarchists) exploded outside, killing 38 people and severely wounding more than a hundred.
9. In this respect, one might say that “Introduction to Social and Economic Institutions” anticipated Amherst’s current department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought.
10. By the way, Dwight Morrow personally funded the initiative.
11. In the article, Coolidge attacks prominent Wellesley College professors Vita Scudder (Smith ’84, professor of English literature, and a well-known Christian socialist) and Mary Calkins (professor of philosophy, who had voted for Eugene Debs for President). He also quotes “Miss Freda Kirchway” of Barnard (she would later go on to become the editor of The Nation) who, at an ISS meeting, “made a hit when she contradicted a Williams boy, who averred that undergraduates knew little about Socialism. ‘You can’t go through Barnard without knowing the principles of Socialism,’ she declared.” But not to worry: as one of the sub-heads of the article reassures: “Smith Seems Sane.”
12. Like many of his generation, Meiklejohn was looking for a middle ground between what he viewed as the outmoded religious values of Christian dogma and the “value-free” empiricism of modern science. In his view, Kant’s greatest contribution to modern philosophy was his reconstruction of a universal ethics accessible to every individual by the transcendental power of practical reason. In this respect, Kantian idealism functioned as a modern, secular substitute for divine inspiration in a scientific world.
13. Although I have no actual evidence for it, my educated guess is that it was probably Barton who ghostwrote those dyspeptic articles that Coolidge was publishing in 1921.