Nathan Marsh Pusey

Nathan Marsh

American Educator, President of Harvard University

Author Quotes

Our job is to educate free, independent, and vigorous minds capable of analyzing events, of exercising judgment, of distinguishing facts from propaganda, and truth from half-truths and lies, and in the most creative of them at least, of apprehending further reaches of truth. It is also our responsibility to see that these minds are embedded in total persons who will stand with faith and courage, and always, too, in thoughtful concern for others.

The best teacher is not life, but the crystallized and distilled experience of the most sensitive, reflective, and most observant of our human beings, and this experience you will find preserved in our great books and nowhere else.

A university was and is, first of all, an association of scholars. It is their essential function not to produce goods or perform practical services, but simply to keep a life of mind vigorous and functioning among us. Though it is a cardinal article in this basic faith that from this kind of activity, pre-eminently, other kinds of goods now associated with the university are apt to flow, the first justification for it is not this, but simply that mental activity of this sort becomes our full humanity.

The close observer soon discovers that the teacher's task in not to implant facts but to place the subject to be learned in front of the learner and, through sympathy, emotion, imagination, and patience, to awaken in the learner the restless drive for answers and insights which enlarge the personal life and give it meaning.

Again and again throughout history people, misled by mistaken ideas, have rushed on in self-deception to embrace irrational and illusory aims, and have, as a consequence, hideously inflicted what might have been avoidable injury on themselves and others. The temptation to do this is always present. The cloak of civilization is easily rent; repeatedly, decency proves a thin veneer. This being so it has always been and remains a primary responsibility of universities to work to protect individuals and societies against mistaken ideas, to strive always to clarify knowledge and to increase understanding. It is not finally considerations of national safety, health development or even exploration into space which call forth and define the essential nature of the university. It is rather this critical function, and what the university can say to inform succeeding generations of the reach of human potential and what it can do and be to continue to arouse young people to devoted allegiance to humane responsibility.

The revolutionaries who have stirred up these disturbances have always been candid. They have said repeatedly that their aim is to advance The Movement and that where this end is served, anything goes.

America has no need for a race of young people fitted to the same pattern, content to sit back and enjoy what has been called 'a prosperous conformity.' But our country will always have room for imaginative, reasonable, and responsible men and women. And it desperately needs the informed and the truly creative among its young people.

The true liberal education has larger aims than just cramming its students with facts in order to teach them how to earn a living. First, it must help each student to find himself as an individual; then it must help him to lose himself in interests, causes, and ideas larger and more enduring than he.

Education is society's servant but also her tireless critic, for no civilization is ever worthy of worship. Values of crucial importance for human beings are always getting lost, or getting obscured and undervalued, in the workaday world. A complete education has a responsibility to do more than 'serve society.' It has to save us from ourselves.

The true worth of a university is finally to be measured not by the number of its campuses, the variety of its programs, the number of its students nor its ability to be of service to outside interests, but by the number and quality of its advanced scholars, and by the vigor, imaginative boldness, and precision of their individual intellectual endeavors. What is really of consequence is their capacity as a community to take thought for the whole of what man has learned, to keep it known and extend it, to stimulate each other, and-here we come upon a very special educational function of the university-to train their own, a growing number of successors who will be no less committed to scholarship or less quick of intellect than themselves.

I am not speaking here of students who are sincerely concerned about the war [in Vietnam] or who choose to participate in orderly protests for whatever reason, but rather only of a small group of overeager young in evidence on many campuses in recent years who feel they have a special calling to redeem society.

There is now in America? a new, huge, mundane entity that has perhaps become even more dangerous for higher learning than either [Church or State]. This is the world without spirit, the world of the ordinary, the circumscribed, narrowly material world of men which drains most of our energies into its service and will not, unless it is made to do so, yield final meaning beyond its own superficial self.

I wish I might assure you we have now left this kind of difficulty behind, but it may well be we have not. Perhaps the most objectionable feature of such disturbances is the sheer wastage of time they occasion with no ascertainable offsetting educational or other kind of benefit. But beyond this, I find it painful to accept in Harvard men either such behavior or the reasons now being given by some of their contemporaries in justification of it.

Today there appear to be a rather large number of people who are frightened because of the freedom American education enjoys. [. . .] Americanism does not mean enforced and circumscribed belief; it cannot mean this. We know that free men are developed not by indoctrination but only by that superlative kind of gifted teaching which can engender fresh thought and living concern.

If there are students who seriously believe this, then it seems to me they have missed the main point of college-or indeed of being alive, and that we are in for trouble.

We stand ready now as in times of emergency in the past to work with the Federal Government in the nation's interest? But we move into the relationship on guard and wary, filled with suspicion, ready to be helpful where we can, but at the same time eager to concede nothing to our more powerful partner. We fear that at some future time our new associate may begin to make demands upon us inconsistent with the true character of an independent university. When that time comes-perhaps we should anticipate, when those repeated times come-we wish to be able, and we firmly intend to say no.

In an earlier period it was necessary to point out the threat to the university presented by both Church and State, and to develop a theoretical justification that would keep it free from the control of either. We have been well alerted to these dangers. But is it not time now to hammer out a fresh justification for the university in modern society that will give it a new sense of direction, and at the same time to save it from excessive preoccupation with the ordinary in life and from idolatrous service of economic activity?

What we have been trying to say all along in answer to their repeated attacks, however, is that anything does not go here. For example, not the right to interfere with the free movement of other people, nor the use of force, coercion and threats to try to have one's way. Reason and civility, persuasion and respect for differences of opinion-these hard-won conditions for civilized discourse have their honored place among us. And must have. And will have. It is not surprising if the revolutionaries do not agree, but unfortunately, as an indication of the difficulty of our present situation, I must report that not all faculty even yet concur in this resolve.

In my judgment there is little likelihood that the current disturbances and ills which plague college and university campuses can be helped by new legislation at the local, state or federal levels. I have believed strongly-and nothing that has happened at Harvard in recent weeks has caused me to change my opinion-that a correction for our manifold present difficulties can only come from within the academic communities themselves. Let me hasten to agree, however, with what I take to be the view of many concerned people outside the universities, that a correction is clearly overdue.

In my judgment, there is one thing Harvard men must be agreed about. This is the recognition that truth is not something easily identifiable or simply stated, and that this being so, those other qualities for which we all care so much-integrity, concern, and courage-these qualities make serious demands for understanding upon us all.

It would be a sorry thing if in resisting totalitarianism we were to follow the counsels of the frightened and adopt its methods.

Not long ago, I was disturbed to read a newspaper report of a student's speech which maintained that today's college senior views his education simply as a means toward 'a better paying job? more security? social positions.'

On many campuses for long periods of time learning has almost ceased; and research if it has moved at all, has only limped along. Serious intellectual work cannot be accomplished in a violent revolutionary atmosphere. We need serious intellectual work. And we need those serious people-happily there are still many-who have not lost their faith and interest in this kind of activity and want to get on with the job. In the offing too are the new generations of young people waiting and needing to learn. In the light of these considerations the one unblinkable conclusion, which I take it I share with you, is that the turmoil and violence on our campuses must stop.

One gets a picture of this kind from the publications they pass about among themselves on various campuses. For them campus conflicts such as the one we recently experienced [over the presence of recruiters from Dow Chemical, makers of napalm used in Vietnam] are seen as so many battles in a great revolutionary war they hope and fondly imagine is already taking shape.

Again people are looking for scapegoats. But this time the attack comes not from the outside but from within, from extremist splinter groups of the New Left made up of students and—I am sorry to acknowledge—also of some faculty who would like to see our colleges and universities denigrated, maligned and even shut down. They insinuate, distort, accuse, their aim being not to identify and correct real abuses, but always rather by crying alarm intentionally to arouse and inflame passions in order to build support for “non-negotiable demands.” Clearly the old McCarthy technique is at work again…. It is more difficult to maintain a realistic sense of human limitation, to refuse to become frustrated and angry; to analyze, to assess, to seek to understand and explain; to determine to be adult and fair; and thus to work patiently to improve while refusing to succumb to either cynicism or hopelessness. It is the long way around, but it is the civilized way, and the only way for those [who] have come truly to understand the role of humane learning.

Author Picture
First Name
Nathan Marsh
Last Name
Birth Date
Death Date

American Educator, President of Harvard University