Joseph Tussman (center) with Alec and Helen Meiklejohn, Berkeley 1961. Photo by David Tussman
I was not one of the Experimental College boys. It had shut down before I arrived at the University of Wisconsin, but I had been present, an envious intruder, at the 25th reunion in 1957. I was there as one of the later generation of Meiklejohn students, crashing the party to be in on the tribute. And now, another 25 years later, there was to be a reunion without him; a gathering of remnants, a few surviving faculty and perhaps a hundred Ex-college students, all well aged, assembled now not in the presence but in the memory of Alexander Meiklejohn. Veterans of an educational war, the thinning ranks of those who remember Alec. Beyond them, scattered, the even thinner ranks of those who were there, who could remember when, as president, Meiklejohn had stirred, scandalized, divided Amherst.
I did not meet Meiklejohn until all that was over, until he had turned from the struggle to reshape institutions, had retired in some sort of defeat from administrative responsibility, had become famous for his unbowed gallantry in that great lost cause—educational reform. I met him first when he returned to the university to teach for a few years as a member of the philosophy department before retiring from academic life.
The students’ lack of institutional memory always seems to surprise the old faculty hand, but to the new student what happened the year before he arrived is merely a little known part of ancient history. So, although the Experimental College had run from 1927 to 1932 and I arrived in 1933, I had never heard of it. I had not heard of Meiklejohn either. “Meiklejohn is back!” I remember the word spreading among the older students on the fringes of whose circle I drifted. There was respect, almost awe, in voices usually stridently iconoclastic. So I signed up for an introductory philosophy course he was to teach, sensing that he was a hero, but knowing very little about it. I am struck by how little was conveyed by what gossip there was about the Ex College. It was different, some sort of educational Eden, briefly flourishing before being done in for reasons or villainies I was too innocent to grasp.
He stepped briskly, smiling, into the classroom—lean, eager, complete. That is, he looked then very much as he looked to me for the next quarter of a century. He seemed old then, and he never seemed to age much after that; old but not feeble, evoking all the comments we make when the old don’t act their age. He was lively, cheerful, witty, concentrated, crisp. He was also, although open and friendly, very polite and, I thought, very formal. He brought with him an air of anticipation and excitement.
We were to see Meiklejohn in the classroom, in the conventional academic setting, teaching a course offered by a department. I was not aware of the ironies of the situation. He had been, as we know, an educator—Dean of Brown, President of Amherst, Director of the Experimental College—concerned to create an environment in which teaching and learning would flourish. It is not too much to say that the discrete course, the self-contained class in a subject, the educational institution seen as a loose collection of courses, was the triumphant enemy against which he had always fought. And here he was, at the end of his academic career, enjoying, or condemned to, the transient hospitality of the enemy camp. He had, on equal terms, the freedom of that city. There was a truce. He was not to disturb the university’s peace; he was to teach some course in philosophy—whatever he chose, no doubt—and then, in a few years, he was to retire. I do not think he could have believed very strongly in the significance of what he was doing. But if this is true—as I am now sure that it must have been—we students had no inkling of it. He did not reminisce about the good old days. I do not remember his criticizing the educational system; he did not continue the controversy. He simply taught his courses with zest.
It was a lively class. The mode was discussion of what we were asked to read. He did not explain anything. He smiled a lot, nodded encouragement, listened intently, enjoying it all, welcoming independence, challenging, seldom if ever allowing himself to stand before us as having an idea he was anxious to give us. His enjoyment was contagious and I remember coming into class sullen about the current shape of the universe, warming reluctantly to the discussion, almost cheerful as, at the end of the hour, we streamed down the hill in his lively wake, unwilling to let the argument end.
What was it all about? Why did it mean so much to me? Why, especially since I did not really believe what I thought he meant to say, do I think of it as the turning point of my life?
Wisconsin in the thirties was a progressive, politically alert state proud of its LaFollette tradition. The university was swarming with students from the East who, fleeing or exiled from the seaboard, seemed to land either at Chicago or Madison. Madison in the thirties was, with due allowance, something like Berkeley in the sixties.
These were the early Roosevelt days, and the country was floundering in deep depression. In Europe, Hitler loomed in menace. Nevertheless, the university continued in session. The farmers were still there in the Ag School, scientists (did we know any?) were still in their labs—unperturbed worlds, alien worlds. Most of my older friends were in, or trying to get into, medical school or law school. Not for me. I was repelled by the organic intimacy of the one and frightened by the close-argued, heavy-tomed intricacy of the other. What else was there? Some were edging into the chaotic world of government and economics, but I never seemed to understand what they were doing when they did “research” (I still don’t). John Gaus was making public administration exciting to a generation of solid young men. I did not feel solid. And there was the Department of Economics. A center of intellectual energy, it was home to something called Institutional Economics. Its great figure, John R. Commons, still lived, faded, on the edge of the campus, and homage was paid to Thorstein Veblen. Younger economists wore the halo of commuters to Washington. But for me, as for many, the dominant force in the university was Selig Perlman.
Perlman to those who encountered him in those days was an unforgettable figure. Swarthy, a nose that was a caricature of itself, a high-pitched squeaky voice, an agonizing stutter, a heavy accent enhancing the impeccable English that painfully emerged, his eyes always fixed on an invisible spot on the ceiling as he excitedly roamed the aisles, he fought adamantly against the popular Marxism of the day, fought it on its own ground with devastating effectiveness.
I was a cradle socialist, fairly familiar with Marx, not a bolshevik, virtually represented, I suppose, by Norman Thomas. Perlman was the first adult I met who knew all about it and, incredibly, did not believe in it. I sat in his classes stunned, fascinated, destroyed, robbed bit by bit of my faith, all certainties dissolved, all direction lost.
This is not an attempt to recreate the intellectual ferment of the thirties in a vigorous university. I mention Perlman, as I could mention others, to indicate that Meiklejohn did not appear as a solitary candle in a dim world, a lone mind in a world of clods. The scene was one of vigorous controversy about urgent issues, of powerful assertive teaching. And Meiklejohn, beaten in battle, stripped of his Experimental College, strode into an expectant classroom not quite in the center of things.
What he offered us was the figure of Socrates. That is an interesting selection from among the possible offerings to the young facing a time of troubles. What thirst could Socrates slake? Of course the man sentenced to death by the Athenians on the charge of subversion, of misleading the young, must be with us on the side of the angels. That he refused the invitation to escape the death penalty out of respect for the law that had so unfairly condemned him, out of commitment to the city, was a troubling complication. We were being introduced to the loyal questioner when it seemed obvious that questioning was called for and loyalty was suspect—a fault not a virtue. No, Socrates was not an unflawed hero. He did go, with dignity, into that dark night. But his reasons!
Nor was it easy to accept the Socratic profession of ignorance. It takes time to realize that life is lived in a deep fog lit fitfully by the glitter of illusions, and we thought that he must have known what he denied that he knew, and found his denial affected, insincere.
And even the questioning! How many generations of students have thought that Thrasymachus, the unabashed realist, is merely tricked into silence, outwitted but not fairly refuted. And poor Eurthyphro, rushing off, in an early civil-rights case, to report his father for mistreating a slave, waylaid by Socrates and drawn into a diversionary argument about whether the gods love what is right because it is right or whether their loving something makes it right—about whether, as we might put it, public opinion is the measure of rightness. When the injustice is so obvious why must we be stopped to question? There is a kind of impatience with Socrates; in a mood of practical urgency we brush aside the Socratic web and rush into the pit, muttering at Socrates for trying to delay us. Question, yes—but what about action!
So, Meiklejohn brought Socrates to class and introduced him to us. Avoid the unexamined life! Matthew Arnold, offering culture in a Socratic mood to his busy world, wryly reports the criticism: “Death, sin, cruelty stalk among us, filling their maws with innocence and youth, and me in the midst of the general tribulation, handing out my pouncet-box.” Well, I have come to love Socrates, but it may not have been love at first sight.
Meiklejohn also brought us, newly published, his book, What Does America Mean? To reread it after almost half a century is a bittersweet experience. Ideas long appropriated appear like forgotten old friends, evoking a flood of sharp images, the passions, the doubts, the agonies of youth. To remember Alexander Meiklejohn is to re-examine oneself, to painfully recall the ways of self-defeat, to retrace journeys, to feel the mind begin to stir again over questions never answered but somehow put aside.
What Does American Mean?, deeply characteristic as it is, has a special quality of intimacy almost unique among his writings. This is due, I think, to its being written for his college students. It is not condescending, but it has that special unguarded quality of working classroom discourse; it is a teacher’s working revelation. It has an air of vulnerability, and now, as then, I feel protective about it. I don’t think I want everyone to read it; I would recommend it to only a few of my friends. I do not want to hear what Callicles has to say about it, nor the scoffing of Thrasymachus. I shrink from the burden of defending it, although it is all true:
We are spirits as well as bodies; we have obligations and commitments as well as interests and desires; significance is more than satisfaction; excellence is more than happiness. The pervasive human tragedy is the self-defeat in which the higher is confused with, betrayed to, the lower…Every attempt I make to describe the “doctrine” strikes me as a hopeless caricature. It is, I think, the most personally revealing of Meiklejohn’s books, the unshaken base from which he, all his life, conducted his sorties against the materialism he detested.
How did we take all this? In a way, I think, that seemed a part of Meiklejohn’s special fate. Generally, we loved where he came out, but we could not accept or understand the philosophy that led him there. Spirit? Whatever is, is solid. We were, on the whole, confident materialists. We felt in our bones that interests were real and obligations snares for the unwary, part of a pernicious ideological superstructure. Happiness made sense. Excellence? Quite all right if it contributed to happiness; but preferable even if it did not?
We overlooked his philosophical oddities because he warmed us by his criticism of the society we lived in, of exploitation, by his scornful rejection of the marketplace as the center of life, of selling as a human transaction, of the competitive success that destroys us. He seemed a prophet crying in the marketplace. He thrilled with sympathy for the notion of a people undertaking, together, to plan for justice and for beauty, with scorn for the idea that each should simply seek his own good. He laughed—and it comforted us—at the idea that the business of America was business. Oddly enough, I cannot remember ever really thinking of him as a socialist or, if the thought crossed my mind, taking it seriously as having anything to do with the core of Alexander Meiklejohn. The issue was deeper; he was an idealist.
As I have said, we found the talk about spirit and obligation to be unreal, something to be treated with polite skepticism. (Perhaps I should not speak of “we” so casually. There were some young Meiklejohnians who eagerly adopted the language of “spirit,” but I thought, I must confess, that they simply didn’t understand anything. Sometimes “we” shrinks to “I.” ) But there was another point about which we fought with impolite vigor. What Does America Mean? The very title was an irritation. What do you mean, “What Does America Mean?” A country doesn’t mean anything! It is just spread out there, sometimes where it shouldn’t be. It has just grown. Individuals have interests and purposes, Americans have them like everyone else. But “America” is a seething mass of individuals, special interests, classes; it has no special purpose of its own, no unifying, transcending common purpose uniting its diverse members. Years later a classmate unmet for decades shouted in greeting across a room, “common purpose!” and it all came flooding back—the excited class, Meiklejohn smiling, nodding, not arguing as we raged against political piety and superstition. Common purpose, indeed!
It was a great stumbling block. Individuals and their interests seemed real enough. Radical enlightenment expressed itself in the view that classes were even more real. It did not seem strange to assert that Jones was a member of the working class whether he realized it or not. It was a fact about him. He needed to be brought to see that he had interests he was not aware of, that he shared a common class destiny, a common purpose—something given by the situation, not chosen, to which he could, if morally asleep, be oblivious, but which, if he awoke, gave his life significance…It is obvious that the movement from individual to class consciousness has something in common with a movement from individual to community consciousness. But the awareness of class conflict, of class war, made it difficult to assume a unity that transcended the class struggle. Classes seemed real; the broader “community” did not.
I should say, rather, that the broader community seemed real enough to Meiklejohn but not to some of his devoted followers. And it made him an easy target. Who, after all, was talking about the political community, the state, those days? Not the phalanx of left intellectuals; not the individualistic liberal. Fascists? Simple-minded patriots? Oblivious of his bedfellows, Alexander Meiklejohn? Obligations, duty, the general will—clearly the language of the enemy. And we could not cure our Master of his habit of using that language. We had to try to defend him. He seemed to be attracted to dangerous ideas.
Looking back, it seems to me that I was not converted to anything by What Does America Mean? When I remember being shaken it is by Perlman and his persistent argument. To lose one’s socialist faith is one thing; to embrace idealism was quite another matter, and I was not prepared to do that. But the special quality of the situation was that we loved Meiklejohn, loved the quality of his human sympathy and social perception, the hard integrity of his mind and wit, but viewed with suspicion, even embarrassment, the idealistic philosophy he seemed to believe in. I believed in Meiklejohn, but not in what Meiklejohn believed in.
So it is odd to reread it after all these years. The philosophy which seemed to me then to be so unsubstantial now seems to have the irresistible weight of common sense. The argument does not seem new; it is somehow heavier, right. But to my chagrin, the fervor of my accord with the criticism of the marketplace and all that seems to have abated a bit. How can the student, the disciple of Alexander Meiklejohn, explain the depressing drift into reasonableness of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal? The god that failed, to be sure, but is that really enough? And why, unlike years ago, when I read, “We must take the social order in our hands and set it right,” do I shy like a frightened horse or shudder like Burke presented with an interesting new proposal? I will, of course, postpone any attempt to answer these depressingly interesting questions…
So there was the figure of Socrates, and there was What Does America Mean? There was also a faint expectation of philosophical conflict in the air. Max Carl Otto was a popular figure in the university—an exponent of a variety of pragmatism, a follower of James and Dewey. Since Meiklejohn was an idealist the stage was set for a Wisconsin variation on Harvard’s earlier James-Royce encounter. It did not quite come off. I had always liked William James and had, therefore, tried to study Dewey and was disposed to be a pragmatist. I was also prepared to like Otto, who was iconoclastic about the gods and derisive about Kant and that sort of thing. But Otto tended, I thought, to ridicule what he disagreed with and was quite unfair in his characterization of Meiklejohn. At any rate, there was no great feast of argument between them. Still, I tried to show Meiklejohn that he and Dewey really agreed about everything. He smiled and shook his head; I didn’t convince him.
In my last year at the University of Wisconsin, I was still at loose ends, and Meiklejohn suggested that I take up graduate work in philosophy. That, he said, meant either Harvard or Berkeley. Since his home was now in Berkeley, I did not consider Harvard and one fall day in 1937 I trudged up the hill to the house, about a half-mile from the Berkeley campus, that was to be Meiklejohn’s home for the next quarter of a century.
I was rescued from the miseries of life as a graduate student in philosophy by World War II, but not before I had endured some four years of it, living most of the time within a few blocks of the Meiklejohn home on La Loma. His chief activity during that period was in connection with the San Francisco School of Social Studies, which he founded and struggled to maintain. It was a venture in adult education, something very close to Meiklejohn’s heart. I was drawn in to the edge of the work of the school, asked to teach several classes. There was a lively faculty group. Meiklejohn took a hand, Helen (Mrs. Meiklejohn) was enthusiastically engaged, John Powell from the Experimental College faculty acted as director (was director I should say, but John never seemed quite like a director to me), and there was the sparkling team of Hogan and Cohen. And several others I never got to know very well. John Powell has written interesting accounts of the school. I did not witness the throes of its creation, nor was I there when, during the war, it closed its doors.
It was an attempt to create an institution within which a persistent effort to develop the political and social understanding necessary for the life of a democratic citizen could be sustained. It was not concerned with credit towards a degree, nor with vocational retooling or promotion nor even with cultivating the enjoyment of leisure. It was to be a place for adults to study their common concerns as members of the polis. “School,” I suppose, is the inevitable name, although it is a name laden with doom. But we seem to have no better name for what, in any case, we hardly have at all. Still, there is a not unreasonable dream that adult members of a democratic community will, as a normal part of their lives, read and gather to discuss materials out of which a common understanding will grow, a school that need never come to an end, a habit from which there is no graduation, a community made by taking thought together…Amherst, Wisconsin, San Francisco—a story with the same golden thread. Not, this time, on a green New England college campus, not in an enclave by the shore of a lake on a middle-western university campus, but in a part of an office building in downtown San Francisco or in the rooms of a Santa Rosa Junior College in their deserted evenings.
My memory of those days, little as I trust it, is of a Meiklejohn slightly withdrawn from the battle. He was in it, and his presence was clearly indispensable, but he was more like Moses raising his arms over the battlefield than like the commander in the field. A bit remote; a good part of his mind otherwise occupied. That, at least, is my impression; although I’m sure it understates the degree of his devotion to the school, to adult education.
He was also engaged with the American Civil Liberties Union. I had not yet awakened to the delights of constitutional law and I wondered why he was so interested in something as unimportant as civil liberties. The Northern California branch was in a running dispute with the national office about the inclusion of Communists on the ACLU board—something like that. Meiklejohn, of course, argued against the exclusion of Communists—as he was also to argue brilliantly against the exclusion of Communists from university faculties. But apart from this particular controversy, his concern with civil liberties and with the ACLU was deep and persistent. And it had that odd quality I have already mentioned. Civil libertarians hailed him as their champion; few have matched his enlightened passion about the First Amendment, his defense of freedom of speech. But, of course, while they loved where he came out they did not, generally, understand or agree with how he got there. Most thought of civil liberties as belonging to individuals “against” the state. Meiklejohn thought of them as the powers of citizens implied by their public function (a point I hope to make clearer when I speak of Free Speech). Puzzled by his reasons, enthusiastic about his conclusions. Even, perhaps, forgiven his reasons for the sake of his conclusions…
Eventually, there were consequences. Meiklejohn always insisted on the crucial distinction between the powers or civil liberties of the citizen as ruler and the civil rights of the citizen as subject. He considered the ACLU as primarily dedicated to the former, to the protection of the integrity of the mind of the sovereign people. In the end, if I may pass lightly over intervening years, he became increasingly unhappy with the tendency of the ACLU to move away from his conception of its proper role. Finally, he withdrew from the ACLU. He withdrew quietly. He did not, he told me, want to resign with a public statement of disagreement. But, with disappointment and regret, he left the organization he had cared for for so many years. In the sixties I had actually joined the ACLU and was, for a time, on the board of the Berkeley branch. I left in a huff, in disgust, over what I thought was the ACLU’s utter failure to understand academic freedom and its stupid tolerance of disorder on the campus. I felt quite Meiklejohnian, but I must stop short of tarring him by association.
So, in those pre-war years Meiklejohn was busy with the San Francisco School of Social Studies, with the ACLU, and with what seemed to me to be a booming social life. He and Helen had many friends on the faculty and in the area, and visitors from the East were always dropping in. Lunches, teas, dinners, social evenings seemed to besiege the carefully protected mornings in the study. The study in which, at that time, he was writing Education Between Two Worlds.
Education Between Two Worlds is a sustained, impassioned attack on the competitive individualism which he calls “protestant capitalism,” or when he warms up, “Anglo-Saxon protestant capitalism.” Not exactly, for Meiklejohn, a newly discovered villain. In fact, from start to finish, grappling with life as a teacher, what seems to unmask itself everywhere as the enemy is, on the one hand, the adamant assertion of the private or “selfish” interest—however enlightened the self—as the proper aim of all action, and the companion view that on the intellectual plane the mind was to rest content with “the way it seems to me” as the final view of things, polished with the politeness of a tolerance for the regrettably different views of other minds. We each have desires; we each have opinions; and if we have good manners we can live with the unavoidable conflicts without the futile struggle to impose a common “good” on the teeming world of desire, or a common “truth” on the mad and blind world of opinion. Some such view, encountered everywhere, was, to Meiklejohn, the denial of the possibility of human fellowship and human sanity, a rejection of Jesus and Socrates.
The book has a dramatic form. Something has broken down and we need to rebuild, but we stand baffled amidst the rubble. Surprising studies of key figures trace the story: Comenius, the frustrated hero of the old religious order; Locke, the destructive compromiser; Matthew Arnold, the yearning victim; Rousseau, the incoherent prophet of a new order. The individual studies are gems in themselves, fresh, perceptive, controversial interpretations; made, as they are put together, to carry the story line. The story is really simple, stark, central. The old religious order with God, and the conception of men as his children, a human family under a single moral law—that conception of the world is shattered, gone, not really believed in. And even when not explicitly renounced, we have learned to put religion to one side, to separate it from the prudential world, banish it to a private realm. And, generally, the church has been replaced by the state as the central public institution. The public school, under the aegis of the state, has become our chief teacher. Can it, how can it, what can it, teach? The intellectual basis of the old order is gone; we are left with the competitive individualism of an essentially warring world, fundamentally inadequate; we seem not to have developed the understanding that would do for the state what religion had done for the church…We are, as Arnold mourned, between two worlds—one dead, the other powerless to be born…
I must pause over the relation of Meiklejohn to religion. It must have seemed to me that anyone who was “idealistic,” who spoke of duty and obligation, of brotherhood, of unity, was religious. Meiklejohn even looked a bit clerical; he had bishops and rabbis among his friends; he spoke lovingly of the culture of Burns and the Bible; he wrote tenderly of Comenius. And yet…he was not a churchgoer, he was not pious, he was not devout. He did not believe the religious story in the terms in which it was told, and he did not pretend he did, or act as if he did, or ever use a religious prop to support an argument, or ever wrap anything in religious mystery. Risking all sorts of misunderstanding I will assert that in all the years I knew him he was absolutely unreligious. Unreligious. “Atheist” does not describe it, since what we usually think of as atheism is merely a form of fundamentalism; and to deny the literal truth of a parable is as misguided as to affirm it. His position, made explicit in Education Between Two Worlds, is that some deep intuitions were once expressed in religious form and language, but the religious form now no longer serves them; that these still-valid insights need to find adequate expression—“political” (in a proper sense) rather than religious.
The difficulty with this analysis is that it is both undeniable and unpalatable. Religion has become for us an essentially private matter; church and state have become “separate;” and the state, moving into the space left by the shrinking church, has become the instrument through which we seek the public good. Through which, especially, we seek to educate. At the same time, we can hardly be said to have a view of the “state” which would lead us to trust it with the care and nurture of the soul. We would need to think better of the state. But that “thinking better of the state” seemed almost to be the distinctive mark of the enemy—of the authoritarians or totalitarians against whose exaltation of the state we were being driven to a defiant affirmation of “individualism.” Meiklejohn seemed all too willing to think sympathetically about the state, about government which, more deeply understood, might be made a worthy servant of the community’s aspirations. But he was swimming against the tide. The liberal mind found “pluralism” more safely congenial; conservatives, when not drifting into a libertarian folly, wanted, at least, to shrink the public sector. Government, however much we depended upon it, was in disrepute; education, therefore, in serious disarray.
I read parts of Education Between Two Worlds in manuscript, but I was not able, at that time, to get a sense of the work as a whole. I agreed with the formulation of the problem. A long section in which Meiklejohn dealt with Dewey seemed to me to be right, but to be too polemical and somehow not very satisfactory. I found it hard to disagree with what Meiklejohn offered as the way out, but I also felt unmoved by it, and a bit let down. I suppose I expected, as a friend of mine said, that he would pull a rabbit out of the hat, and I didn’t see a rabbit—although I don’t suppose I would have recognized one if it had been—as perhaps it was—produced. But I was a bit preoccupied with exams and the approaching war. I was an isolationist in those days, reluctant, as we were saying, to pull the chestnuts of the British Empire out of the fire, horrified by Hitler, appalled by the power of the Axis, raised on the futility of war, the injustice of Versailles—a stranger to the culture of guns. Meiklejohn was not an isolationist, but I cannot remember arguing with him. When, some months before Pearl Harbor, I was drafted, Meiklejohn said only, “You will not want to miss the formative experience of your generation.” I was startled by the unexpected remark, but it seemed to make sense; and in any case, Pearl Harbor overrode doubts.
Sometime in 1942, just out of OCS, I had a few days in the New York area and went to Annapolis for a day to visit Meiklejohn who was spending some time as a friendly observer at St. John’s College. It was the only glimpse I had of him on a small, eastern college campus, and I don’t think I ever saw him happier and more at home. It was also the first glimpse I ever had of that lovely world. Meiklejohn belonged there, as, I suppose, he did not belong in Madison, as he did not belong in San Francisco, as he really did not belong in Berkeley. When the roll is called, it will be Meiklejohn of Amherst. It was that day, I think, that he told me of his visit to Woodrow Wilson, still in the White House. “Ah Meiklejohn,” sitting up in his sickbed the Scot president of Princeton greeted the Scot president of Amherst, “When I get out of here we must start a college together!”
That day at St. John’s remains in memory. Green, quiet, sunny. Meiklejohn smiling, loitering at the tennis courts, alert at the back of a classroom, jesting with Scott Buchanan about something Scott was brooding over. A Meiklejohn absorbed, springy-stepped, happy, in a world he knew to the core and loved.
After the war I returned to Berkeley and soon settled into teaching at the university. Meiklejohn was there on La Loma. The San Francisco School of Social Studies was gone. Education Between Two Worlds had been quietly received by the world. And Meiklejohn was launching his career as expounder of the meaning of the First Amendment. Berkeley had lost its bucolic air and seemed quite in the center of things. We were excited about big issues—the United Nations, the bomb, hopes for peace and a new order, growing tensions with Russia as the cold war developed, Senator McCarthy and the hunt for subversives…Against this background, the great dramatic episode for the university, and for Meiklejohn, was the faculty loyalty oath fight of 1949-1950.
It was a bitter, heartbreaking fight, and in spite of some ultimate judicial triumph and the vindication and recall of the non-signers, in spite, even, of the amazing persistence of a determined but divided faculty, the feeling I now have as I try to recapture the memories of those days is a deep sense of defeat—a defeat which tormented me even then and from which I have probably never really recovered.
Faculty members were required to sign a statement disavowing membership in (or belief in the principles of) the Communist party, as a condition of continuing employment. There were, of course, all sorts of issues, motives, pressures, questions, variations in formulation, but I think a crude formulation which ignores vanished contextual subtleties will serve best: Should a Communist be allowed to teach in the university?
There was a simple common sense view that Communists did not believe in democracy, would destroy it if they could, and that it made no sense to give them the chance to undermine the democratic educational system. (How do you convince the man in the street that you should hire your enemy to corrupt your children?) At the level of academic, not “man in the street,” or the “people out in the state” common sense, the view was that an acknowledged Communist had a disciplined commitment to a dogma as interpreted by the party, expressed as the party-line, and was not, therefore, committed to the free pursuit of truth, did not have the open-mindedness essential to the community of scholars. The regents, in requiring the disclaimer, were standing on popular ground. Nevertheless, the faculty found itself drawn into a bitter prolonged fight.
In a simpler world, one of our respected colleagues would have simply announced, truly, that he was a member of the Party, that he believed its program was best for America, that he wanted to continue his scholarly work and teaching, that he could not take the oath without lying and he wouldn’t do that, and that he didn’t see why he should be fired. Alas, no one stepped forward to give us a concrete case to fight about. We were not to know, made it a point of honor not to try to find out, if there were real live Communist party members on the faculty. The matter was to be fought out on “principle.”
But what principle? Many, if not most, thought that a dedicated Communist was as unfit to teach as a dedicated Fascist, as (a bit sotto voce) a dedicated Catholic (the pope, infallibility and all that…), as in fact a “dedicated” anything—if the dedication was to anything but the unbiased pursuit of truth. And in any case the faculty in its “practical” mood (an amusing madness that sometimes seizes it) did not think a defense of Communists would sell in the provinces. So that the basic question, involving the difficulties of the relation between commitment and truth or between passion and cognition, was avoided so far as was possible. Instead, we retreated to such things as: party membership involves guilt by association; actions are punishable, not beliefs; oaths are silly and don’t work because liars take them routinely; singling out a group like professors was discriminatory and insulting; the regents had no business meddling with hiring and firing which were governed by faculty procedures; “academic freedom” was being violated; and so on. Early in the struggle, tragically, I thought, the faculty—the Academic Senate—abandoning the heartland, formally endorsed the regent’s anti-Communist policy—while the fight continued on a variety of the other grounds.
Meiklejohn had published the clearest defense of the position of the Communist teacher and scholar in the university world. If the person was otherwise qualified, the fact that he believed in communism and joined the party was an exercise of judgment and a matter of intellectual freedom—not a ground for disqualification. Beyond the question of “rights,” he also argued the educational advisability of having convinced communists in the educational institution. And, of course, he was highly sensitive to the procedural matters that lie at the heart of academic freedom. It was a brilliant argument, and I agreed (and still agree) with it completely.
During the long struggle, Meiklejohn felt himself to be in a delicate position. He cared passionately about the issue and thought it was the most significant crisis of the modern American university. He had close friends on the faculty, yet he was not a member of the university; it was his battle, but he could not take a direct part in it. The leader of the embattled faculty, of those who fought against the oath requirement, was Edward Tolman; shy, courageous, sensitive, intelligent, a man of utter integrity. Tolman lived on La Loma also, his home just across the way from Meiklejohn’s. They were old friends. Tolman was a scientist, a psychologist, and not a constitutional or political theorist. He did not formulate the issues or elaborate defenses of abstract positions. He acted out of a sense of responsibility for more vulnerable colleagues, out of an instinct for freedom and decency as well as a conviction that there was something improper about the demand for an oath, for a disclaimer of belief. Close as he was to Meiklejohn, I do not think he found his ideas, his theories, congenial. Nor did many who were taking part in the fight. Meiklejohn was, after all, the spokesman for the “absolutist” position, the defender of the right of Communists to teach. That was a position that, as I said, was abandoned by the Academic Senate which, after endorsing the regents anti-Communist policy, could no longer continue the fight on those grounds. But the play ran on, without Hamlet, for a bitter year—the grounds of opposition constantly narrowing as the faculty, involved heavily in negotiation, lost one piece of ground after another.
Meiklejohn, uninvolved in the day to day struggle, not a party to deals and concessions, had no need to change his position or to drop the main issue. He continued to follow the battle closely. I, and others, dropped in frequently to discuss the situation with him. He was especially concerned about the position of the left-wing junior faculty members, not by this time, it must be said, the center of the faculty’s general concern. Meiklejohn seldom asked me to do anything, but once, as I was going off to some meeting to plan the next move, he asked me to raise a question about the general indifference to the fate of a young “radical.” I intended, because he asked me, to do so. But I found that when the moment came I shrank from doing it. I was being practical that week, and I could not bring myself to do something so quixotic. I still remember the bitter taste of failing to do one of the few things Meiklejohn ever asked me to do.
So, throughout the oath fight, Meiklejohn was on the sidelines, never inciting others to fight, sympathetic, clear headed and at times, I think, almost heartsick. Perhaps not heartsick; he was used to being with a losing minority and never seemed to lose his verve. And always, he was surprisingly realistic. Above all, in all the turmoil he never seemed to lose sight of the fundamental issues, never seemed to lose his appreciation of the quality of human action. Had he been on the faculty, I cannot imagine him signing the oath.
More than a decade later, during the student unrest, the so-called free speech movement, Meiklejohn was still on the sidelines, living a bit more quietly on La Loma. He was, of course, deeply interested in what was going on, and many of the student leaders found their way to his home. And I would drop in frequently while he was lingering over the paper and breakfast and bring him up to date with what I thought was going on. (I was moving steadily from young turk to old guard.) He was, by this time the grand old man of free speech. And it was assumed that he would be in sympathy with a movement that unfurled the flag of free speech—a movement of students in a university which was large and impersonal and generally criticized as being indifferent to the educational fate of its undergraduates. Meiklejohn liked students and he listened to them and understood them. But while in the faculty oath fight he had provided active intellectual support for the position opposed to that of the regents, on the “free speech movement” he was, I believe, publicly silent. His position, as I remember it: in so far as students were objecting to a fragmented undergraduate education, he agreed that much of undergraduate education was a shambles. He did not think that students knew how to remedy the situation and did not think that student participation in the running of the institution made any sense. This may perhaps surprise some who misunderstood his deep sympathy for students. But educational matters were, in fact, a very small part of the student revolt in any case.
As for the so-called free speech issue—the right of students to pursue their politics on campus—Meiklejohn’s position was clear. Students had no “right,” not even a First Amendment right, to engage in political activity on campus. “The issue,” he once said to me, “should not be put in terms of rights. It is entirely one of educational policy. If in the judgment of the university authorities it is conducive to the educational purposes of the university to permit political activity, then it should permit it; if not, not.” I do not think that, as an administrator, he would have compromised on this fundamental point. So, while sympathetic to the students, he did not agree with their position. On the other hand, it would have been very difficult for him to come to the aid of an administration whose exercise of its authority he regarded as an educational disgrace. So, he listened to everyone, nodded, asked gentle questions, did not argue, did not incite, did not make public declarations. In private, he was as close to bitterness as I had ever seen him.
When we think of his first 70 years, it is Meiklejohn the educator. For the two decades after that he is, of course, Meiklejohn of the First Amendment. Even earlier he had been interested in law and the Constitution. I remember being surprised, at Wisconsin, by his defense of the Supreme Court against Roosevelt’s attack; a packed auditorium, Meiklejohn cheerfully taking the unpopular side. A single sentence of his floats intact out of memory’s haze: “It was a greater mind than Justice Holmes’ that said ‘Only the Permanent changes!'” Meiklejohn had been close to Walton Hamilton and Malcolm Sharp, two great teachers of the Constitution, and had seen the fertility of the Constitution and law as teaching material. And, of course, there was his long involvement with the ACLU. But it was with the publication of Free Speech in 1948 that he emerged as a great interpreter of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is, as every lawyer knows, a complicated and treacherous swamp—a simple statement overlaid by a thick and perplexing gloss. A modern landmark was the work of Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., who had mitigated the apparently unqualified character of “no law abridging the freedom of speech” by adding, to put it crudely, “except when there is a clear and present danger” of something or other…How clear, how present, how great a danger of what to what are questions that have engaged a great deal of legal ingenuity. The upshot is that there is to be no abridging of the freedom of speech except, of course, to avoid “danger,” and history and practice have worked out details. It has been worked out in such a way, moreover, that, on the whole, we do not complain of too little freedom of speech. To take “no law” as actually meaning “no law” is an affront to our practical sense, hopelessly “absolute;” and Holmes and clear and present danger have set it right.
Meiklejohn, if I may dare to oversimplify, did two things. He narrowed the scope of the First Amendment by reading “freedom of speech” to mean the freedom of political speech; and, thus narrowed, gave it a preferred position among forms of communication. So that government may not abridge the freedom of political discussion, even on the ground that the government thinks the discussion is dangerous; “non-political” speech—commercial speech, for example—does not enjoy that degree of protection and may be, as are other activities, governed by “due process of law.” In short, one kind of speech is given more protection and the other kinds of speech are given less protection.
This interpretation—narrowing and deepening the First Amendment’s protection—is supported by a rather surprising move. I remember the day I first heard it. Professor Jacobus tenBroek and I were sitting in Meiklejohn’s study while he read to us an argument against the power of congressional committees to probe the political beliefs of citizens. As the issue had been put, there were said to be three branches of government, each with its necessary powers, and, posed against these, the private individual with his desire to express himself and his desire for privacy—a private desire which must give way to public necessity. But, Meiklejohn pointed out, there are really four branches of government—the fourth branch being the electorate, a branch of government with special functions to perform and with powers that must be protected if that function is to be properly performed. Each citizen is a member of the electorate and in that capacity has the powers of a public office, quite apart from his private interests and rights. The First Amendment, Meiklejohn argued, should be read not as referring to the private right of expression, but as a statement of the powers of the electorate and the assurance that these powers—assembly, speech, publication—are not to be interfered with by another, an inferior, branch of the government. The amendment is the fundamental guarantee of the political power of the people, acting as the electorate, a power so fundamental as to be properly taken as, relatively, absolute. To thus relate the meaning of the First Amendment to the theory of self-government through the fourth branch is, I think, a stunning stroke of genius.
Free Speech, reissued with some added papers as Political Freedom, is probably the presently most readable of Meiklejohn’s books. And it has some characteristic Meiklejohnian features. It is both crisply written and full of passion—as usual; it is also, as usual, immoderate and defiantly iconoclastic; it is an analysis, but it is also an attack. It is an attack on a great popular hero and a related attack on the great popular principle for which the hero is honored as creator—on Justice Holmes and on “clear and present danger.”
Holmes is surely one of the most popular of American legal giants, and to attack him is to ask for trouble. But Meiklejohn finds the combination of hard-headed “realism” or cynicism eked out by sheer sentimentality an example of the quality of mind that marks the failure of education. So with some preliminary gestures of respect he launches a powerful attack on the mind of Holmes. But, of course, the worshipers of Holmes will simply set their dented idol back on its feet and continue the idolatry. And, as I have indicated, he rejects the position that the meaning of the First Amendment is adequately expressed by the view that there is a personal right (a natural right?) of free expression limited only by the need to avert a clear and present danger. But his own position involves a rejection of competitive individualism and a troublesome view of the state that seems both innocent and dangerous. Clear and present danger seems good enough to many warriors in the civil liberties struggle. To reject it is impractical, but it is nice to have someone around (like Meiklejohn) to take an “absolutist” position that, dangerous or not, freedom of speech should never be abridged. So, without being understood, Meiklejohn was hailed as the great First Amendment absolutist—stirring, but, as a philosopher, naturally a bit idealistic…
Meiklejohn’s central preoccupation during the last decades of his life was with the First Amendment and with the claims upon his time and attention flowing from his stature as the defender of the absolute right of freedom of speech. In this connection I must speak of a month-long session held at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. The Center had been established and was presided over by Robert M. Hutchins who, after a brief and stormy time with the Ford Foundation went off to create a serious non-academic intellectual center. A month, one summer, was to be devoted entirely to a consideration of the First Amendment and, in addition to the resident members of the Center, a number of others were invited—Meiklejohn, of course, and Harry Kalven of the University of Chicago Law school, and I, among them.
It was an interesting ramble through some of the thickets in that field of constitutional law. Meiklejohn’s ideas had been published, so they were part of the background, familiar to us. We went through a number of papers without unusual enthusiasm. I took up four days with the first presentation I ever made of what, some years later, was to be developed and published as Government and the Mind. Kalven, full of wit and knowledge, was, I think, the star of the show. Lots of indecisive meandering, mostly enjoyable. Meiklejohn sat there quiet and attentive, saying very little but, as usual, everyone seemed to be speaking primarily to him, vying to impress him. His ideas, as I said, were familiar and, on this occasion, not being presented as having to be argued for. I remember only a growing sense of regret that the negative form of the First Amendment might obscure the possible responsibility of government for cultivating and enhancing the life of the public mind. But on the whole, the conference left matters about where they had been. What else should one expect?
What was memorable to me about that month with Meiklejohn at Santa Barbara was not the free speech discussion; it was education. Assembled there, almost accidentally, were some of the leading figures in the modern history of American higher education. There was Hutchins of the University of Chicago; there were Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr of St. John’s; there was Meiklejohn of Amherst and Wisconsin. (The missing voice was Dewey’s, perhaps, but Dewey [or his followers in the stronghold of the Teacher's College] had never really hurled himself against the formidable institutional structure of the American college or university.) Hutchins was an impressive figure. He presided with intelligence, grace, courtesy, and beyond presiding, he had a mind of his own. He worked hard, still getting to his desk by five or so every morning, winding up a fair day’s work by 10AM. He had lived at the center of conversation and argument for years, had heard everything, read widely, listened patiently, assimilating what came to him to a strong structure of convictions. Striking, courtly, formidable. He was, as I said, trying to create a new kind of intellectual center, beyond the gates of the university. He was devoted to the attempt, but the Center did not, I think, live up to his hopes. Still, it was a gallant attempt and Hutchins seemed relatively untouched by the bitter infighting that swirled around him—small stuff, no doubt, compared with what he had endured in his attempts to launch and protect his college at the University of Chicago. What little I knew of the Chicago enterprise I did not find terribly congenial. I did not like its metaphysical basis, and I had resented Hutchins’ articulate visibility. He had, as spokesman for reform in higher education, stood in the place I thought should have been Meiklejohn’s. I thought the Experimental College was a better idea than the Chicago plan, that Meiklejohn had a deeper mind than Hutchins’, that Hutchins had a better public-relations flair…But all that was long ago. Both shared a common experience of defeat in the educational wars, and the relation between the two of them was warm and friendly. It was a delight to see them at the same long table.
And there was Scott Buchanan. He was one of the permanent members of the Center and, to my mind, one of the most powerful and interesting influences there—learned, broodingly thoughtful, a ranging irreverent imagination, a patient gentle wit. His presence was, I thought, comforting and reassuring to Hutchins. Scott had been an undergraduate at Amherst during Meiklejohn’s presidency and Meiklejohn always remembered that when he was “fired” from the presidency, Scott had said to him, “You have been Socrates; now it is time for you to be Plato.” Buchanan sketches part of his own intellectual history in the introduction to Poetry and Mathematics, but I don’t remember him telling the story of St. John’s in detail. Meiklejohn was close to St. John’s as he was never close to Chicago, although he had reservations about the conception of liberal education as defined by the trivium and the quadrivium. Still, St. John’s was the embodiment of a serious conception, and Meiklejohn enjoyed his times in friendly residence there. Buchanan and Barr had left St. John’s some time before this meeting in Santa Barbara. Scott mentioned wryly that when he wrote the description of the program in the first catalogue he thought it would be changed every year; he had not expected it to become a bible. Buchanan was close to Meiklejohn and close to Hutchins and, as we sat there, the only one of the three whose institutional efforts still had a concrete expression. The Experimental College was gone; Chicago had dismantled the college after Hutchins had left; but St. John’s, abandoned by Buchanan and Barr, had survived, still living, I think, on Scott’s inspiration. But they were all retired from the struggle, assembled now to discuss the problems of intellectual freedom under the First Amendment.
In those two post-war decades Meiklejohn lived, as I have said, on the edge of the campus, with many faculty friends but nevertheless at arm’s length from the university. He often appeared on campus. Every Friday a group of a dozen or so faculty from different departments met for lunch in a room in the faculty club. Meiklejohn was a member of this group and often on Friday I would walk down the hill with him to the club. It was a relaxed, loud, jesting lunch—the pursuit of truth adjourned for the moment—seldom serious, gossipy, full of confident self-assertion. Meiklejohn sat there, well- liked, one of the group, joining in laughter but seldom evoking it, quiet and observant, not in the least interfering with the unabashed display of unharnessed faculty wit. But I would wonder what he thought of it all, coming down from his study in anticipation of intellectual fellowship, a foray into the world that was essentially hostile to all he believed in about college education—hard-headed successful scholars, teachers of disciplines, rugged individualists of the mind, personally very friendly, but professionally hostile to almost everything Meiklejohn as an educator had always stood for—not only hostile toward but triumphant over…Meiklejohn the teacher in the midst of the successful professoriate. It could really only be a luncheon truce although the group, I think, was unaware of how deeply he was at odds with them; they were professors; he was an educational reformer—enemies by nature. Strangely, of all the years of talk I remember only one exchange: “Alec, its amazing that at ninety you can polish off that strawberry ice cream? How do you do it?” “Oh,” came the reply, “I’ve always followed a rule: anything I want, but never a second helping.”
I had long been restless about the nature of lower-division education and when I returned to teach at Berkeley in 1963 I began an effort to establish a version of the Experimental College on the Berkeley campus. The program did not go into operation until 1965 and Meiklejohn was not there to see it, but I had discussed my plan with him before he died. It was, as I said, based on what I understood, or perhaps fantasized, of the Wisconsin experiment; but I was hesitant to discuss it in detail with Meiklejohn or to involve him in it in any way. I felt that there was something presumptuous in my trying to do what he had done, and I did not want to ask his approval or involve him in criticism. But I told him about it and about the progress of the enterprise as it made its way through the obstacle course of committee approval. He listened patiently. He made no suggestions; I don’t think he even asked any questions. He was, now that I think of it, utterly unexcited by the prospect. I was, and I knew it, and he knew it, no Alexander Meiklejohn. He could have stopped me with a word, but he did not utter it, so I went ahead stubbornly. At one point he asked, firmly, that I not call it the Experimental College. But by that time there was a budget line for an Experimental Collegiate Program (not a title of my choosing) and the program became known as the Experimental Program—close enough to make me uneasy. It did not occur to me then, but he must have had deep misgivings. It does occur to me now, but I am far from regretting the adventure—part of which I have recounted in Experiment at Berkeley and A Venture in Educational Reform . Nothing remains of it at Berkeley, but oddly enough there is a program at the University of Wisconsin that claims lineal descent from the original Experimental College.
Meiklejohn continued the pattern of life he had established until the end. The intensity of his social life abated; his daily walks in the hills were a bit less brisk; he lingered a bit longer over his breakfast coffee, chatting leisurely with me when I dropped in to see him on my way to the campus, less anxious to get to his study to write. He told me one day, a bit upset, that he was having trouble writing—that he seemed to be writing in circles. He allowed me to dissuade him from publishing a short review that I thought was uncharacteristically personal in its polemics. And then, one day, neatly, without fuss, he took a deep breath and died.
How can I describe the special quality of Meiklejohn’s presence? Beyond the crisp alertness, the sense that everything was being enjoyed, that every moment was a special occasion, beyond the flashing wit, the friendly invitation to combat, the unpretentious formality, the encouraging smile that seemed to tempt everyone into putting his best foot forward or to live for a while on tiptoe. Most deeply I think it was a matter of awareness, a consciousness of significance, the sense that the world contained more things than one ordinarily supposed. Meiklejohn seemed to see more. Some of his responses—a smile of appreciation, a quick flare of indignation—came unexpectedly, so that you became aware, at least, that you were missing something. I remember an experience I had in a plane while a movie was being shown on a screen. I watched idly, not wearing the headset for sound. I saw lips moving, arms waving; it was strange and dull. But once in a while those around me burst into laughter, and I realized that I was missing something that was going on before my uncomprehending eyes. They were aware of something that was there that made the situation comic; I was blind, or deaf, to it. Meiklejohn always seemed to be tuned in to a richer world—one in which more things were going on than met the ordinary casual eye. In his contagious presence you became aware of stories, plots, dramas you would not have noticed on your own and which, when you left his presence, seemed to fade out of mind, persisting only like the memory of a dream. As his student, evoking the aid of his memory, I do not find myself asking, “what would Meiklejohn say,” but rather, “what am I missing that Meiklejohn would see?”
As for “what would Meiklejohn say?” I must say something about how he said things. In a classroom, or in the midst of a group engaged in discussion, he said, in fact, very little. It is not that he would not take part in the exchange; but what he said always had the quality of an intervention. A question, a quick short sentence. I cannot remember him making anything like a sustained argument, or pressing a point, or loosing a barrage of words. His interventions were often startling and would send the discussion off on a fresh tack or recall it from a diversion; but they were brief, friendly, good humored, often witty. The unit of discourse was, for him, the single short sentence set off by an encouraging nod, a smile, or even a defiant thrust of the chin.
But his speeches were quite another matter. I heard him speak in public many times, but I do not remember him ever speaking extemporaneously. He read what he had to say; it was prepared in advance. He read well, as such things went, but he did not make it up as he went along. And it was quite a different Meiklejohn. I was often shocked by it; it did not seem in character. Or rather it was, since he spoke often enough, another side of his character. He was nervous beforehand and he began calmly enough, but soon his voice rang out, he almost shouted—sometimes did—and there was very little diffidence at the heart of the argument. Full of fervor, full even of denunciation, hurling gauntlets all over the place. I hasten to add that this was not always the case. There were short graceful speeches, often of a ceremonial type, done gently and elegantly, also written out. But I mostly remember the Meiklejohn fighting speech, and it was far removed from the conversational Meiklejohn. He was well received, enjoyed, admired in his oratorical role, but it was the side of him I liked least. I was uneasy, I think, at the change in the familiar voice, the almost strident insistence of tone. Perhaps I was simply unfamiliar with the vanishing tradition of oratory. Still…Once, after one of his longer speeches, I remarked that I thought that it had ended anticlimactically, that I had noticed this about several of his speeches—a considerable letdown toward the end. “Of course,” he said, “of course. I have an obligation to return the listener to the condition in which I found him.” A characteristically surprising remark evoking the image of Meiklejohn taking his passengers on a wild roller-coaster ride, tapering off at the end, smiling and straightening their ties as they file out, handing their destinies, like transfers, back into their own hands.
Remembering Alexander Meiklejohn! It is unlikely that there will be a seventy-fifth reunion of the Experimental College. Soon enough there will be no one left who will remember the lifting of the spirits at the sight of his spare figure briskly entering the room. I am filled with a regret that he would laugh at. Have I not heard of mortality? Are we to be concerned about the persistence of fame? The accidents upon which that rests? Meiklejohn was a great man and, I admit, I do not want him to join the anonymous ranks of forgotten great men. Every generation must have them—men who stand out among their contemporaries by virtue of character, integrity, intelligence, vitality, who leave a deep mark on those whose lives they have touched and then are known no more, who have not left a permanent monument behind to reinvoke their presence. They are the fresh incarnations of the great human archetypes, as Alexander Meiklejohn was a great incarnation of the type of which Socrates was also an instance—the teacher who seems never to be off duty.
“Remembering Alexander Meiklejohn” originally appeared in Liberal Educator (Winter 1984) and was reprinted in The Burden of Office, Talonbooks (1989)