Monday, May 26, 2014

Fear of Oaths at the Tercentary

I happened to be reading (don't even ask) a special section of the Boston Herald Traveler published in 1936 in honor of Harvard's three hundredth birthday. President James Bryant Conant wrote a short piece, as did various other luminaries, about the state and future of higher education. What worried him? Waning public confidence in higher learning (plus ├ža change), and a requirement that college teachers take a superficially benign oath.
This is admittedly a time of trouble and depression, but it is also a time of peril for the universities of the world, a time when the friends of these institutions must rally to their support. Look at what has happened in Germany, see to what state their great and free centers of learning have been reduced. Count the distinguished men who once occupied the chairs in her ancient academies and mark how few remain today. Liberty is the life blood of those who are in quest of the truth, and liberty has vanished. So in Russia it vanished nearly a generation ago. In these countries the advancement of science is permitted but within strict bounds; a free inquiry on any subject is, to say the least, hazardous.
Even in our Commonwealth here I am sorry to say we have seen the first step taken in the same direction--the enactment of a Teachers' Oath Law. No issue of patriotism is here involved; the issue is between those who have confidence in the learned world and those who fail to understand it and hence distrust it, dislike it, and would eventually curb it. The present law is perhaps as innocuous as such a law could be but it is a straw showing the way the wind is blowing. The havoc of the gale in other lands make me feel that those who value our universities should now come forward.
The Teachers Oath Law was passed in 1936 and read, in part, as follows:
"Every citizen of the United States entering service . . . as professor, instructor or teacher at any college, university, teachers' college, or public or private school, in the commonwealth shall, before entering upon the discharge of his duties, take and subscribe to . . . the following oath or affirmation: -- `I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the position of . . . according to the best of my ability.' . . . No professor, instructor or teacher who is a citizen of the United States shall be permitted to enter upon his duties within the commonwealth unless and until such oath or affirmation shall have been so subscribed . . .. Whoever violates such oath or affirmation so far as it relates to the support of the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the commonwealth, shall be punished by fine of not more than one thousand dollars."
A Massachusetts court seems to to have ruled the law unconstitutional in 1966 or 1967, and I presume it hasn't bothered anyone since then. The specific finding was that the second part of the oath, the "best of my ability" part, was unconstitutionally vague and served no reasonable public interest. Unable to determine whether the legislature would have passed the oath to uphold the US and state constitutions without the second clause, the court threw out the entire law.

I nodded my head at several parts of this story.

First, for all the talk about a crisis in higher education, indeed an upheaval of unprecedented dimensions, it is good to remember that there have been other crises, crises in which great university systems have been destroyed for political purposes. That is not to argue for complacency -- our current crises may well be real enough. But we should be precise and analytical about our crises, expecting some courageous leadership where it is called for, but not running around like headless chickens just because the world is changing in some way that threatens the status quo.

Second, it can't be emphasized enough that "Liberty is the life blood of those who are in quest of the truth." So every quarrel about shutting down a commencement speaker, or demurring on trigger warnings, or pushing back against legislative control of academic curricula is a skirmish in the battle for the right to pursue the truth freely, and to teach it as one sees it.

Third, of course, is Conant's deep suspicion of oaths, even oaths requiring college teachers to affirm wholly innocuous things. I don't think anyone would label Conant a deluded paranoid, and yet he found the Teachers Oath "a straw showing the way the wind is blowing." Perhaps his way of thinking explains my antipathy to the honor affirmation the Harvard faculty voted for students. I find this new culture of affirmation odious, even though, as has been argued, the thing students are being asked to affirm is nothing but an essential principle of membership in the academic community. So it was, Conant thought, with the Teachers Oath, and he objected anyway. The Harvard faculty was eager to vote in the oath, without even understanding whether what was being voted was actually a requirement, or what would happen to a student who refused. The students (at least the ones invited to address the faculty, there seems to have been no plebiscite) were eager to be required to take the oath. Who is teaching the importance of liberty, as Conant publicly did? The academy no longer need fear the legislature; our problems lie elsewhere, as Walt Kelly warned: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."


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