Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 13

The Potential of Higher Education

An undated speech delivered at Oregon State University. Williams apparently intended to use this text as the basis for an essay to be written for publication in Oregon Humanities magazine, circa 1990. Williams died on March 5th of that year.

William Appleman Williams, ca. 1980s.
William Appleman Williams, ca. 1980s.
Image courtesy of the Oregon State University Daily Barometer.

One of the most endearing American traditions maintains that speakers who surface after an evening meal are expected to talk briefly with humor, but not to be cryptic or witty as to disturb the snooze that aids digestion. I promise you nothing except that:

  • 1. I will not invoke the ghosts of Plato and other profound philosophers of higher education;
  • 2. I will not leap off Cape Perpetua in a hang glider on a wild flight to some romantic and utopian campus of perfect bliss; and
  • 3. I will not propose another committee to study the problem.

I intend instead to offer three examples of what can be done, what has been done, to realize the potential of higher education. Having done that, I will venture a few conclusions. How you use such information and related propositions to transform Oregon State into a center of higher education is strictly your responsibility. I am soon long gone.


Various theories have been advanced to prove that Fate (otherwise known as the Human Condition) is determined by geography or geology or gender or native intelligence or this, that; or the other elementary particle. But in truth Fate is decided by how a community of human beings mixes and orders and focuses those variables. Higher education is where those choices and commitments are defined. Now and again the "unwashed" demand a reordering of priorities, but institutions of higher education display an amazing ability to adapt and maintain their position near the top of the pole of power.

In that context, and because you are the beneficiaries of a publicly funded higher education, I assume that you carry in your kit of mental software a reasonably firm floppy disk of the geography of the United States. You know that Pittsburgh is where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge from the north and south to form the Carnegie Golden Triangle and the Mighty Ohio River. You also know that off to the south-southwest is a region of considerable geological wealth and abject social poverty.

What you possibly do not know is that down there in those barren black hills - they make a slash-burned clear-cut in the Oregon Coast Range look like the Garden of Eden - is an institution of higher education. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin with a grant of 50 pounds sterling and named after the Father of Our Country and the Author of the Declaration of Independence.

This center of learning is located in a modest town that first became famous because of a belly-up bar in which some of the bolder residents organized in 1794 what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The citizens so engaged could not only brew and hold their booze (which happened to be rye whiskey), but they were educated. They could read, they could exercise their critical intelligence upon the syntax and logic and facts offered by their ostensible betters in the national capital, and they had the courage of their seriously formed conclusions. They made a fool of Alexander Hamilton when he attempted to cut them down militarily. That forever finished his inane dream of progressing from a British spy (his number was 0-0-7) to the White House and onward to Emperor or Pro-Consul of Mexico and Central America.

Depiction of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
Depiction of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

After that delightful patriotic moment in the full moon, they largely contented themselves with supporting their families and funding the school of higher education that Franklin had founded. Granted, we must unfortunately acknowledge that they defined higher education as a male preserve. But they kept that school open during wars and depressions and concentrated on the education of the sons of working class families.

The fathers and mothers came from the coal mines, the tiny farms in the hollows, the coke pits, the rolling mills, and the dreary assembly lines of the Corning Glass Factory. The parents dedicated themselves to sending their sons to that small center of higher education. They saved their nickels and dimes, even went without booze and new dresses. All that effort informed their sons to honor and seek education. Even girl friends began to read books.

Over the years they built an aesthetically interesting physical plant - halls and dormitories constructed of brick made of local clay. They had an active sports program. Most of it was intramural, but once in a while the varsity would rise up and shock some famous football team. But even that was mostly just for the hell of it. They were there for an education.

Which of course brings us to that naughty subject - the curriculum. Curriculum is a sneaky word. As a wounded veteran of many years in higher education, I generally reach for my surf-fishing gear, a demanding model kit, or a driving, swinging Count Basie record when I hear about another committee appointed to consider the curriculum. It reminds one of non-teaching, non-researching administrators playing at being draftsmen to arrange another set of boxes to stack the table of organization usually to their advantage.

If we are to talk seriously, however, then curriculum involves these fundamental matters:

  • 1. What is the purpose of higher education?
  • 2. Who defines that purpose?
  • 3. How do we achieve the goal?
  • 4. Who pays for the effort?

I will return to those four questions in the context of two other institutions of higher learning, but for the moment let us focus our attention on this small institution in a poor region of our society.

One might assume that the parents who sustained that small center of higher education wanted their sons to receive four years of hard-headed vocational training; that they were desperate to inch their sons out of the mines, the hollows, and the factories. But those mothers and fathers were far too shrewd and knowing to settle for a second-class education. They understood that there were other hollows and other mines and other mindless assembly lines. They wanted their children to move on to some higher ground where they might have a chance to think about - and even change - the terms and conditions of life.

Hence they wanted their sons to learn Shakespeare and James Madison and the Whiskey Rebellion, as well as accounting and the repetitive chemistry of Corning glassware. They understood that one needs to learn how to think straight about the political economy, as well as to keep the sand flux at the right temperature.

Perhaps a bit under the influence of the local rye, one father put it this way.

"Hell, if you don't have too many kids, you can make a decent living with a high school education. But that ain't enough. The job ain't life, and you got no say in the world. I want my kid to get educated so he can make sense out of life and have somethin' to do beside slopping booze and makin' more babies when he comes off the line."

If you have that hope - that dream - then you want a faculty that is not content to teach marketplace skills. A vision firmly embedded in the soul creates a tradition. And hence all students were required to take four years of literature, history, and philosophy - and two years of political theory and political economy.

The faculty accepted the responsibility of engaging the students in the classroom and maintaining a dialogue with the larger community. Once a week a teacher from the humanities or the sciences was required to give a public lecture of substance, care, and consequence. The meeting place was a bit smaller than Milam Auditorium at Oregon State, and unless you came early, you had to stand along the walls or sit in the stairwells. What began at 8 usually went on to 11.

Afterwards there was always one or another wine party involving students, faculty, and townspeople. Such events usually began with a bawdy toast to Benjamin Franklin, went on for hours, and ended with a salute to the Whiskey Rebellion. Of course it was a bit romantic. But it was nevertheless an example of the potential of higher education. Oh, yes, as a footnote: despite the time they wasted on history, literature, philosophy, and political economy, most graduates did move on to the higher ground.


This is somewhat risky because it is a composite and because it challenges the certainties of most civilian academics. I am going to review the higher education provided by a small midwestern military school which in its junior college program was dedicated to producing graduates who were accepted by first-rate civilian universities, as well as the service academies, and then proceed to a discussion of the philosophy and the curriculum of the United States Naval Academy.

I can criticize these particular forms of higher education better than most of you; and in other times and other places I have done so with considerable verve and passion. On the other hand, I think that we can learn some important things from an examination of the higher education of at least a part of the military.

We may as well begin by confronting the charge that this is all romantic twaddle. By which I mean the paradoxical concept of "an officer and a gentleman." I am sure that most of you are thinking (if not sneering, sniggling, or giggling) about the recent movie by the same name. Of course you remember: the one in which a young man, having been taught the True Way by a very tough Black drill sergeant, honors his defloration of a working class woman by carrying her away from the factory assembly line to happiness as the wife of a prospective carrier fighter pilot. All on the jump seat of a Honda motor bike.

As you stroke your certainties about all of that, allow me to remind you of a few disturbing realities. First, Naval officers formed the only serious opposition within the services to dropping the nuclear bombs on Japan. The Senior Office Afloat put it this way: "There are certain things that gentlemen do not do." It will simply not wash to explain that remark as a preemptive attack on the threatening superiority of the Air Force. The Admiral who spoke those words had observed, as an Ensign, the tortures inflicted upon Philippine Revolutionaries by Marine, Army, and Naval forces between 1899 and 1903. He was appalled, and his diary bears eloquent testimony to the proposition that there are certain things that gentlemen do not do.

Second, if you consider the proposition dispassionately, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a gentleman. Consider the possibility that being a gentleman involves more than wearing a cravat and spats and reading The New Yorker. The challenge also engages your mind and conscience to think ahead about the probable consequences of your actions and accepting responsibility for that behavior. Sometimes that means saying "Yes;" other times that means saying "No." Perhaps the Right, as well as the Left, could do with a few more gentlemen.

Third, let us agree, at least provisionally, that Kemper Military School and Annapolis can best be discussed as superior establishments of higher vocational training. That leads us back to the issues of curriculum and pedagogy. In my experience (1939-1944), Kemper and Annapolis were dedicated to producing that strange creature called "an officer of the line and a gentleman." There is an almost unbearable - and perhaps unresolvable - tension between those two objectives. If you will pardon my language: how do you educate a young man to be at once a son-of-a-bitch and a very nice guy? Grant all that, but for the moment let us agree that there we have a working definition of the potential of higher education.

Reality becomes more complicated more quickly than you may think. The ultimate function of an officer of the line is to inform and lead a ship in combat. Combat is usefully defined as people shooting at you with intent to kill. Hence an officer of the line must be able to go down to the engine room and find a malfunction that has escaped the attention of his engineering crew. He must be able to find the position of his ship under the most difficult circumstances. He must be able to maneuver the ship during heavy weather or while under attack, and in the meantime choose and hit the most troublesome targets. He must be able to save the ship and its human cargo if it is damaged. Even under the most difficult circumstances, therefore, he must be able to supervise damage repair and in general keep the ship afloat.

Fair enough, you say: Annapolis and Kemper as sophisticated vocational training. But an officer of the line must also lead a community of diverse human beings. He must be at once the Mayor, the City Manager, and the Senior Senator dealing with the larger world. If your Chief Bosun's Mate or your Chief Gunner's Mate or your Cook or your Chief Quartermaster need a certain piece of gear, and it is beyond routine acquisition because a damaged aircraft carrier is in port, then do you or do you not turn your back and let them steal the item that is crucial to the welfare of your ship? And how do you play Ann Landers: what do you say to a man who has survived Beach Red One at Iwo Jima when he comes to you about a "Dear John" letter? Particularly when you are 24, and he is 47. Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn the Annapolis graduates find corporations a piece of cake.

So, like it or not, we are back to curriculum and pedagogy. How do you prepare a young man to be at once an officer of the line and a gentleman? We all know the question has never been asked at Oregon State. Not to worry, let us return to Kemper and Annapolis.

Those institutions of sophisticated vocational training did their best through a heavy emphasis on the liberal arts. At Kemper, for example, you knew you were at one of the perennial top ten military prep schools in the country. You could go for West Point. But you also had to take history and literature and political economy and philosophy. And if you chose, you could also go for architecture.

Kemper Military School.
Kemper Military School.
Image courtesy of Rob Stinnett.

At Kemper they introduced young males to literature in a most imaginative manner. The first six weeks were spent reading the trash of your choice: pulp fiction from the local drug stores - say cowboy stories or science fiction, or even The Police Gazette. Three magazines per week. The catch was that you had to write ten pages of critical evaluation on each magazine each week. You might try that one yourself if you get bored with television. Or even try it on Dallas, or other shows too numerous to name. Finally, and I do mean finally, the teacher assigned Hamlet, and we were all ecstatic.

That was rather high-powered and imaginative stuff, but the record of Annapolis was not all that shabby. We middies candidly called Annapolis a Trade School or the Navy's Home for Wayward Boys. It was good training for a professor: never underestimate the intelligence of an undergraduate.

For the moment forget the talk about "an officer and a gentlemen." From its inception under the left-liberal politician and historian George Bancroft, the Naval Academy sought influence in the public arena. Thus it emphasized the liberal arts along with seamanship, navigation, high pressure-high temperature thermodynamics, and all those other subjects dear to the heart of engineers. The most obvious example is Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. Judge him as you choose (I offer a resounding NO), but he did know history, and he could write.

Every week, every day, for three years at Annapolis I studied history, philosophy, literature, and political economy. James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence were assigned reading. Heavens, I even wrote a report on Karl Marx that earned a 3.9.

United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

So I do suggest to you in all seriousness that if you want a sophisticated, consequential Trade School, then you might consider the value of a strong dose of the liberal arts. After all, the graduates of Annapolis have written more books than the graduates of Oregon State: in fiction, in public philosophy, in fantasy, and in pure science. A university is not defined by a few "centers of excellence." A university is either an integrated institution of higher education or it is a collection of Mr. Goodwrench service stations.


This one is less complicated, even fun and exciting: the potential of higher education realized as a world-class, public, and co-educational university. This example has produced, or employed, great leaders in agriculture, forestry, biochemistry, geology, and mathematics. It has also produced, or hired, great leaders in literature, political theory, philosophy, political economy, history, law, and music. As a result, it has informed the thinking and action of the people of the United States for at least a century.

The usual way to define and discuss this center of higher education is to talk about the Wisconsin Idea. That is an evocative and revealing idiom, but it cannot be fully appreciated until we have explored the initial strategy of the public and again discussed curriculum and pedagogy.

Perhaps you will remember that the Morrill Act of 1862 mandated the investment of public wealth for the endowment of at least one center of higher education in every state. The most thoughtful and prudent citizens of the various states, realizing that knowledge is a matter of integration rather than separation and specialization, created one such center of higher education. Wisconsin was graced with such citizens. They also had the intelligence and moxie to place their university in the state capital, where they, their elected representatives, and their children could observe the interaction between knowledge and the conduct of public affairs.

Those decisions produced several benefits. The first was psychological: intangible, I suppose, and certainly unquantifiable, but nevertheless powerfully effective. The capitol building was placed upon a finely rounded hill, and thus was there for all to see. A bit later the university was centered upon an equally symmetrical rise that was more than a bit higher. From one you can see the other. The vista bespeaks and dramatizes the relationship between knowledge and power. The politicians can keep an eye on the university, and the faculty and students enjoy a fine vantage point from which to observe the mysterious ways that politicians choose to honor the common welfare. Parents and other citizens can watch and reflect upon both communities in the space of a half-hour's walk.

Second, and in a way that reminds me of the parents of southwestern Pennsylvania and neighboring West Virginia, those fathers and mothers - and other adults of Wisconsin - wanted value for their labor and commitment. Of course they expected the children to be taught how to flop out of the nest and fly away, fly away, fly away. To be blunt, they wanted the fledglings to learn the skills that would enable them to get jobs or to start their own businesses.

But third, and beyond that, they wanted the children to learn how the world really works, and so to learn about which values make life more meaningful. The parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of Wisconsin had learned the hard and painful way about the truth of ruthless lumber companies, rapacious railroads, greedy flour millers, meat packers who befouled their product, false advertisements, indifferent or corrupt politicians, and irresponsible real estate agents. They had been skinned by placing their trust where there was no reciprocal trust, and they wanted their children to protect themselves without becoming cynical while learning how to create a better community. They wanted their children to be taught how to be perceptive, shrewd, angry, compassionate, and consequential citizens of the commonwealth. And so, over the years, the curriculum and the pedagogy integrated job skills with a sense of civic responsibility. The catalyst which produced that product was the liberal arts.

Of course it worked both ways. To be awarded a Ph. D. in history at Wisconsin, one was required to earn a Master's degree outside one's specialty. Undergraduates were required to do political theory as well as geology, science as well as history, and literature as well as biochemistry. We can sum it up by noting that three successive presidents of the university were a renowned agriculturalist, a renowned biochemist, and a renowned historian.

I am not going to presume upon your intelligence or patience to offer you even a thumbnail history of how Robert LaFollette integrated the capitol and the university and the citizens to create a commitment to the commonwealth. I will suggest to you, however, that it had less to do with the Idea of Progress than with a commitment to the idea that people can make their own history.

That is the potential of higher education: a commitment to the proposition that the citizens can be encouraged and energized to make their own history that honors the idea and ideal of a commonwealth. That cannot be done without the liberal arts. Remember what the father of a student at that little school down in the hollows said: "the job ain't life."


Go back to the proposition offered by that sophisticated Trade School: "There are certain things that gentlemen do not do." How do we resolve the paradox of an officer and a gentleman? I suggest that we go on to say that there are certain things that a citizen must do.

Let us face the truth that higher education is meaningful only if it concerns itself with the health of the commonwealth. Literature is as important as forestry. Political economy is as important as chemistry or market analysis. Political theory is as important as biochemistry. Philosophy is as important as pharmacy. It is even possible that history is as important as mathematics.

Or, if you prefer, consider the relationship between higher education and athletics. Think about physical exercise in these ways: as play, as sport, or as on-the-job training for a profession that attracts money from those who need to find some substitute for the lack of commonwealth. We are back to that little school in the hollows where athletics was largely play and sport.

Having been something of a jock, I say with delight that basketball or golf or squash considered as play or sport are a delightful part of life. But I refuse to define higher education, even in part, as on-the-job training for life in terms of those occupations. I remind you of the remark attributed to Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.

"If adults are going to play a child's game for money, then they better play it perfectly. And if you do that it becomes a bore."

We are in danger of reifying higher education into a job description for a society that makes Orwell's 1984 look like a paradise. We will not have the excuse of having been subjected to a domestic or foreign demonic power. We will have no focus for our sense of doom. For we will have abandoned the human condition of our volition or indifference. As T. S. Eliot remarked many years ago, we will go out with a whimper instead of a bang.

Poets are generally unpopular with the archbishops of contemporary higher education. Poets ask naughty questions in precise language. Poets invoke images of a better world. Poets offer answers that challenge the status quo. But then most of the rest of us do not know that a poet lived until after he or she died. That is what Eliot meant about going out with a whimper instead of a bang.

But poems are a kind of second coming that can inform our lives. Unless we honor and struggle to realize the potential of higher education, then the poets will have died in vain. If we do not honor and realize the potential of higher education, then we will prove Weldon Kees to have been a prophet.

Men we once honored share a crooked eye.
We can do nothing more than mourn.
The girls we loved will marry them, and die....
They speak of honor, yet they lie:
All their certificates of truth are torn.
The girls we loved will marry them, and die....

Their promise fades like powder in the sky,
Their fanfares issue from a sour horn.
Men we once honored share a crooked eye;
The girls we loved will marry them, and die.