Memo to Irving Babbitt
Dear Professor Babbitt,
I have, of course, no way of knowing where you are at the moment, but wherever it is, of this I am certain: Socrates is near at hand, eager to discuss questions which both of you insisted were of central importance to the well-being of states and the happiness of men.
Since your death in 1933, the world has been constantly bedeviled by turmoil, crisis, and bloody strife. But I shall not trouble your spirit with a resumé of the generally grim and often horror-striking events of recent decades. Most of them would have distressed, if not sickened you; but they could hardly have surprised you, for most of the catastrophic things that have been happening to today’s world are the end-products of ideologies and philosophies which you opposed with such trenchancy and unrelenting vigor throughout your life.
Your dogged, intensely practical, and Socratic concern for ideas and their consequences was frequently dismissed with condescension or outright contempt by the more fashionable intellectuals of your day. The issues that you raised were just as crucial, and the dangers that you warned us of were every bit as real in your day as in ours. But we were too busy enjoying the refinements of civilization to give much serious thought to the continual sapping of those foundations on which our civilization, or what’s left of it, rests.
Like Socrates, you were primarily concerned with preservation of the good life, caring little or nothing for “gracious living,” and consequently you were both belittled. Your writings, like a great symphony, had too much concentrated power, too much iterative unity of theme, too much dialectical bite and precision for our modernistic tastes. Your expository music was too grave, too centripetal, too severely traditional for our atonal, novelty-hunting souls.
More than thirty-five years ago, you wrote that “it is becoming obvious to every one that the power of Occidental man has run very much ahead of his wisdom. The outlook might be more cheerful if there were any signs that Occidental man is seeking seriously to make up his deficiency on the side of wisdom.” But on the contrary, you asserted, “he is reaching out almost automatically for more and more power. If he succeeds in releasing the stores of energy that are locked up in the atom—and this seems to be the most recent ambition of our physicists—his final exploit may be to blow himself off the planet.”
For some time now, Professor Babbitt, most Americans, along with most of the peoples of the rest of the world, have been hoping that the great powers of this planet might just possibly agree to make a few moves along the lines of purely instinctual, basic animal sanity regarding the nuclear hell which man has created for man. We continue to hope, but ever more faintly with every passing month.
Or, as you also observed back in 1924, “tell the average person that some one is planning to get into wireless communication with Mars, or to shoot a rocket at the moon, and he is all respectful interest and attention at once. Tell him, on the contrary, that he needs, in the interest of his own happiness, to walk in the path of humility and self-control, and he will be indifferent, or even actively resentful.”
At the moment, Professor Babbitt, we supposedly Godly Americans, together with the avowedly Godless Russians, are in brisk competition with Pascal’s infinite spaces. Already we have at least made a stab at blotting out their terrifying silences with the reedy beeps of our interstellar jukeboxes. Even before your day, Modern man was feeling his cosmic oats. Now, he has actually begun to sow them. Already our plans for Mars and Venus have gone way beyond the blueprint stage, and the moon-shots and orbitings of the sun have already started.
And the staggering irony of it all, Professor Babbitt—an irony which is probably destined to relegate hubris, atë, and Nemesis to the nursery playpens—is that we have suddenly decided to set the educational clock back mainly, if not solely, in order to make sure that we are the first to have a so-called space platform, a neo-Archimedean ground, on which to bottom the Holy American Empire of Outer Space.
The danger in this literally overnight awareness of what is wrong with American education—as you were always quick to point out in only slightly different connections—is that we’ll set the clock back just far enough to catch science, but not nearly far enough back to catch the heart’s blood of education, the humanities.
To return, however belatedly and for whatever reasons, to an earlier and sounder educational regimen is an undeniably progressive and forward-looking step. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and American education isn’t going to be rebuilt in one, either. We can change the hands of the clock, solidly entrenched Modernistic dogmas to the contrary, but if the “works” has been missing these many decades, or at least almost hopelessly jimmied (or should we say Deweyed?), there is long, grinding, unexciting work ahead for all of us. It will take at least a generation to repair the damage of the last fifty years.
And speaking of the last fifty years, Professor Babbitt, it is just a little over a half-century ago that your first book was published. And it may interest you to know that this little volume, Literature and the American College, is still very much alive and kicking. Of the hundreds if not thousands of American books on higher education written or reissued in recent years, it is still the wisest, the most searching, and far and away the most relevant and fortifying.
In 1908, for instance, you expressed the fear that we Americans would be betrayed into some educational scheme “that does not distinguish sufficiently between man and an electric dynamo.” In 1962 our fears along these very same lines have reached the proportions of a nightmare.
Your 1908 concern lest the Bachelor of Arts degree be degraded by “the upward push of utilitarianism and kindergarten methods, by the downward push of professionalism and specialization, by the almost irresistible pressure of commercial and industrial influences,” has become a 1962 reality that borders on the scandalous.
You may not believe me, Professor Babbitt, but your not exactly earth-shaking contention that “money and enthusiasm, excellent as these things are, will not take the place of vigorous reflection” in solving the educational problems of our time would strike most contemporary educators as being either meaningless or perversely iconoclastic.
And when you told us in 1908 that you were highly skeptical of an age “that hopes to accomplish its main ends by the appointment of committees, and has developed, in lieu of real communion among men, nearly every form of gregariousness,” you could hardly have foreseen that by 1962 nearly all of us, in our togetherness, would be largely living our lives by, through, and for committees.
But of all the wise and humane things you had to say about the higher learning in America more than a half-century ago, it is your criticism of scholarship and the Ph.D. degree (in the humanities) that most urgently cries out for attention today. Recent disclosures of all the ghostwriting going on in this area of “scholarship” aside—the doctoral mill, as it operates in the field of the Liberal Arts, anyway, has become as pernicious and almost as meaningless as the teacher-certification mill operated by the professional educationalists. When your colleague, Professor Muensterberg, declared that “no one ought to teach in a college who has not taken his doctor’s degree,” you observed that his opinion was held by many Americans, too, and “hence the fetish worship of the doctor’s degree on the part of certain college presidents.”
Today, that qualifying “certain” gives your observation a positively antediluvian ring. By comparison with present-day idolatry of the doctorate, primitive totem-worship was remarkably enlightened and sophisticated.
I’m afraid that you spoke far more loudly for our time than for yours, Professor Babbitt, when you wrote: “I have known first-class men . . . who have been literally driven away in disgust by the present  requirements for the Ph.D. I have known others who have accepted these requirements, but in bitterness of spirit. The wail of the dilettante who lacks backbone to acquire the philological discipline we can afford to neglect. The case is more serious, however, when the student humanistically inclined is likewise repelled from a career of literary teaching by the barbed-wire entanglements with which our philologists have obstructed its entrance.”
Beowulf, I regret to report, still lords it over Homer and Virgil, and German still lords it over Latin, in what is coming more and more to be referred to as the physiological discipline of the Ph.D. degree in English. You declared in 1908 that “one can scarcely contemplate the German theses, as they pour by hundreds into a large library, without a sort of intellectual nausea.” Today, the dingy German thesis has given way to the dreary American dissertation; and your provocation to retch has become our pretext to rejoice, or at least point with pride.
In most other matters, however, it should please you to learn that your criticisms of American education in 1908 have all at once become our criticisms in 1962, the only difference being that your rational, humane, and discriminating reflections have become our panicky, self-righteous wails and angry, wildly aimed blasts.
You staunchly opposed, with calm, critical incisiveness, the fallacies of so-called Progressive Education. Today, it has become quite fashionable to go around muttering that our elementary and secondary schools are prepared to do just about anything for our children except provide them with a basic education—a solid grounding in English, mathematics, history, science, and foreign languages. You courageously fought Dr. Eliot’s elective system, and chided college presidents—many of whom even in your day were quite obviously afflicted with edifice complexes—for being far more interested in making their institutions bigger rather than better, and in raising money rather than standards. We, at long last and in large numbers, have begun to worry about our huge state-supported universities, which are fast becoming educational bazaars by day and country clubs by night.
You saw the desperate need for the uncommon man of character and intelligence—Jefferson’s natural aristocrat; we are trying grimly to get the common man off our backs, and Ortega’s mass-man out of our pockets. You attacked Baconian utilitarianism and Rousseauistic sentimentalism, singly and in their many unholy combinations. We have seen our cultural and intellectual life practically taken over lock, stock, and picture-tube by the latter-day Boys in Gray of Madison Avenue. You never ceased exposing the sources of the corrupting influences in our modern world. We have spent billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives in a war against totalitarianism that still goes on.
You preached humility, restraint, and measure. We have long been immersed in what Mauriac has called the rivers of fire—libido sciendi, libido sentiendi, and libido dominandi.
“Man’s peculiar blindness,” you once wrote, “arises from the fact that he does not wish to be limited in his dominant desire, whatever that may be. He wishes to be free to pursue his folly, as Erasmus would say, and finally discovers the limits established in the nature of things by the somewhat painful process of colliding with them.”
It may very well turn out, Professor Babbitt, that whom the moralists could not advise (and I am thinking of those in the great tradition, like yourself, Erasmus, and Socrates), the physicists have almost persuaded. Tragically enough, out of the depths of our modern pride and conceit, we have all too long been ignoring the one lesson you so unremittingly tried to teach us—that the best place to fight a war is in a book, and that the best time to do it is before the bombs and missiles start falling.
John Abbot Clark
P. S. I trust, Professor Babbitt, that it will please, and perhaps even amuse, your shade to learn that Harvard, in her own quite characteristic way, and, as always, in her own good time, has seen fit to honor your memory by the creation of a new chair, the Irving Babbitt Professorship of Comparative Literature.
Posted: January 14, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.