• U.S.

Education: How to Live Dangerously

4 minute read

Speaking of the president of Brown University, Dean McGeorge Bundy of Harvard University once remarked: “We all go to school under Henry Wriston.” Last week, when Brown’s Wriston, 65, announced that he would soon retire, he was in fact announcing the departure of one of U.S. higher education’s top elder statesmen.

Over the last 20 years few voices have been raised with more authority or listened to with more respect than Henry Merritt Wriston’s. Sometimes it seemed the voice of a scolding gadfly bent on stirring up the fuddy-duddies, but always it was the voice of a man who could accept only the first-rate. He lashed out at timid colleagues who bowed to political pressures (“Universities must frankly accept the responsibility for tolerating error, lest in misevaluation, in ignorance, prejudice, or timidity, they mistake truth for error and extinguish some new light in the darkness”) and at those who lowered standards to increase enrollments in the shoddy belief that “the customer is always right.” By its very nature, said he, a university must live dangerously. “Abandon the most fatuous and debilitating slogan that ever misguided a generation. Give up security as an ideal . . . If you insist on being cheated, buy gold bricks or perpetual motion machines. They are a lot sounder than security.”

New Adventure. A graduate of Wesleyan University (Connecticut), and a Ph.D. (in history) from Harvard, Wriston went to Brown in 1937 after serving for twelve years as president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis. Since then, his burly figure ensconced in his colonial office, he has doubled Brown’s endowment to $24 million, raised its enrollment to 3,500. He built the Metcalf Research Laboratory, set up a new infirmary and health center. But more important, he all but revolutionized the life of the bright undergraduate. “The great mistake in American education from kindergarten through graduate school,” said he. “has been an underestimation of the capacity of students . . . The minds of freshmen need to be awakened to a new adventure.”

The adventurers selected have now abandoned the old curriculum and thrown away their textbooks (“Most are hardly worth reading,” said Wriston). Instead of taking surveys, they follow some great theme, e.g., the concept of liberty, the development of the individual, the relation of the individual to God. Their science includes the works of Darwin, Pavlov and Von Helmholtz; their languages cover Voltaire, Dante and Cervantes. The emphasis is on “analyzing, not on memorizing.”

Best Model. As is the case with most administrators, blunt Henry Wriston can be a tough taskmaster (said one subordinate: “He’s fine to work for—if you’re in New York and he’s in Providence”). But he commands a loyalty that arises out of his own bearish zest for life. He can hum the top jukebox tunes, reel off the current baseball statistics, expound on anything from carpentry to chrysanthemums. He has wired his summer house for sound, once constructed an improved record-player spindle that was promptly adopted by a manufacturer. He has been president of both the Association of American Universities and the Association of American Colleges. Last year the now famous Wriston report on the reorganization of the Foreign Service was adopted by the State Department.

Over the years, however, Wriston has had other preoccupations. “There is,” he once declared, “more preaching about the evils of capitalism, of profits, of exploitation, than of the beauty of holiness.” The concern of the church and the liberal arts college should be primarily with the individual, the basis for all good societies, “the core of Jesus’ teaching . . . The problem with which He wrestled was the age-old problem, the purification of the mind and heart of man.” For preachers and teachers alike, says Methodist Wriston, there could be no better “guide and model.”

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