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“Please check your banner and membership card at the university gate.”

by xyonent
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Columbia’s campus, like many others, has been rocked by slogan-chanting, banner-waving protests in recent months, so I was struck when I stumbled across a speech given by then-Columbia President Frank Fackenthal on September 26, 1946, to mark the beginning of a new semester. Great Power and other speeches, A collection of Fackenthal’s speeches published in 1949.

(I first came across this excerpt in a letter to the editor by Irving Kushner: The Wall Street JournalMarch 5, 2024. Apparently Kushner was a freshman at Columbia that year. But one of my promises to myself and my readers here at The Conversable Economist is not to pass off quotes without verifying them, and it took me a while to track down the speech that appeared in the 1949 book.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Fackenthal’s speech.

You who have reached the age of advanced study will of course have opinions and even prejudices. But acceptance into the academic community carries with it the obligation to examine those opinions and prejudices in the bright light of human thought and experience. If your opinions are crystallized in slogans on banners or controlled by loyalty to small or large pressure groups, check the banners and membership cards at the gates of your university. Banners decorated with slogans are foreign to academic life and, moreover, are awkward, embarrassing and distracting in classrooms and other places where free discussion is taking place. The time and energy required for the study of ideas is wasted in defending preconceived ideas, which you are forced to admit may be confirmed by research. …

A young person who applies for admission to an American college or university agrees, by that very act, that if admitted, he will strive to develop his faculties, to think independently, to form his own judgment, and to acquire his own values. Without such an agreement, admission to a college or university is a farce…

When you leave the university on graduation day, after you have committed yourself to the process of true academic life, if you want the old flag back, claim it, and you will take your place in the polity with the deep satisfaction of a judgement that has been tested and confirmed. If you decide not to claim it, you will have the same deep satisfaction, for you will know that you are able and willing to confront and evaluate ideas.

I personally sympathize with Fackenthal’s views, but in some ways I’ve been an old stubborn guy since I was young. In college, not knowing exactly what was going to happen next, I saw my time as the only time in my life where I would have the chance to intensively read, study, and discuss a wide range of topics (not just economics!). I really wanted to take my time, attend classes, read, write papers, and also spend time chasing interesting facts and ideas. Of course, I had time for friends, play, and extracurricular activities, but I was there for the curriculum. For me, the opportunity to live an academic life was precious.

Of course, I know many other students for whom all kinds of extracurricular activities play a larger role. Some of them were quite politically active. They spent a lot of time on off-campus political activities, from door-to-door canvassing to protests, or even took a semester or a year off to support a cause. But when a group decided to bring slogans and placards to campus, as happened every now and then, I walked around the gathering. In other settings, from classrooms to cafeterias to dorms, I happily had conversations with friends who were protesting about how they perceived their cause. But for me, and for Fackenthal, pressure groups with slogans and banners, while perfectly appropriate in many public places, are foreign to academic life.

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