DEALING WITH FREEDOM
VIRGINIA L. CLOSE
IN THE FALL OF 1945, when I first met Professor John M. Mecklin, he was seventy-one years old; he had retired a few years earlier after twenty years of teaching sociology at the College. That he was one of our distinguished professors had been impressed on me, then a new member of the Circulation Desk staff. He came to the Library regularly, with his briefcase, his shock of snow-white hair, and his habit of starting a conversation before he reached the Circulation Desk, which at that time extended out into the corridor so that we could see, and be seen, up and down its entire length. He was quite deaf and wore a hearing aid so our conversations --which sometimes became quite personal -- could be heard by all. I recall his interest in books about fishing; but about the same time his autobiographical My Quest for Freedom 1 was published.
This book tells us many things about the College -- for us today, the historical College. With our emphasis on the contemporary, many events and persons of the past are unknown; in the same way the history of the College -- why it is the institution it is -- is not known as well as it might be. What do we know factually of the College's tradition of regard for freedom of expression and ideas, respect for diverse opinions, which presidents and faculty members of the past have stood up for and made part of the College's heritage? Examples of events involving these things can be found throughout the years, but this brief article mentions only those of the 1920s and 1930s. Diligent students can delve more deeply and investigate other sources.
In his autobiography Professor Mecklin describes his experience both at Lafayette College where he was accused of 'disturbing young men's minds' 2 and at the University of Pittsburgh at the time of the strike of 1919 in the iron and steel mills. Here he took a stand against the industrial feudalism of the factory city and found himself in difficulties with the university authorities. About this same time he was offered a position teaching sociology at Dartmouth, though the president, Ernest Martin Hopkins, had been warned he was 'a president baiter' and 'a rabble-rouser.' 3 Professor Mecklin found the offer appealing for two reasons. One was 'the hope that . . . I could have security and complete freedom in my teaching. The second was that . . . I was becoming more and more interested in the problem of social freedom. I had ready for publication a rather ambitious book on social ethics. I felt that my training in history and philosophy would be most valuable assets provided, of course, I was given the freedom to approach social problems in my own way.' 4 Mr. Hopkins gave him that freedom. In Chapter VII, 'The End of the Quest,' Professor Mecklin wrote:
The problem of freedom at Dartmouth I found quite baffling in its complexities. Were the freedoms I found embedded in student mores and practiced in the classroom the logical development of the earlier traditions of the college? How were these freedoms related to President Tucker, the creator of modern Dartmouth? How was the freedom of the classroom related to that of the campus? After all, were these freedoms essentially different from the negative laissez-faire freedom of our capitalist society that I had rejected?
All these varied queries, clamoring for answer, tended to narrow down to one ultimate question: Are there moral responsibilities that go along with freedom and if so what? Are these moral responsibilities purely individual or are they corporate? How is the individual phase of freedom related to the corporate and institutional? Can the individual sense of responsibility be effective without institutional sanctions? It is obvious that these queries can not be answered intelligently without a word on the history of Dartmouth liberalism. 5
Then, for several pages Professor Mecklin discusses the origins of Dartmouth liberalism and what he terms Dartmouth's debt to President William Jewett Tucker. This section on Dartmouth needs to be read in its entirety.
Ralph Nading Hill in The College on the Hill tells Professor Mecklin's story in concise fashion and notes that Mecklin was 'increasingly fascinated' by William Jewett Tucker's writings, speeches, and chapel talks. 'He found the great President's heritage of freedom Dartmouth's most precious possession. . . . . What had happened to Dr. Tucker's religious humanism which had been the bulwark of his devotion to freedom? Was laissez-faire freedom enough, either for a vigorous economic or a vital intellectual society? Was not a creative and purposeful freedom possible?' Hill continues:
At first he had been taken a little aback by the easy complacency of his Dartmouth students, most of them from well-to-do suburban families. . . . He need not have worried. Long before he had run his Dartmouth course he had become a legendary figure on the campus.... Thomas W. Braden, 1940, spoke for them all: John Moffatt Mecklin at his retirement was. . . .the most important single influence on student thinking. 6
Other stories of the Hopkins years, which could be pursued by any student, can be found in The College on the Hill as well as in Charles E. Widmayer's biography, Hopkins of Dartmouth. 7 Accustomed as we are now to the Orozco murals, we sometimes forget the controversy they aroused in the 1930s. Mr. Widmayer quotes President Hopkins as saying: 'There is nothing of which I know in regard to College policies or College actions which has ever aroused the bitterness of controversy or made the College the recipient of vitriolic comment that these murals have.' But continued Mr. Widmayer [President Hopkins] 'stuck to his guns and, without making any claim to being an art critic, he defended Orozco as artist and man, protected his freedom to paint as he saw fit, and asserted the educational value of the mural project.'8
We know Budd Schulberg now as the author of What Makes Sammy Run and other books. But in 1935-1936 he was editor of The Dartmouth and as Mr. Widmayer notes 'went far afield as a protagonist of radical social change and as an active supporter, over a prolonged period, of the workmen who were on strike at the Proctor quarries, in Proctor, Vermont.' 9 The index to The Dartmouth in Special Collections will trace the articles on the strike. Mr. Hopkins stood up for freedom of the student press though as Hopkins of Dartmouth points out this was done sometimes with 'heroic self-restraint.' 10 On page 223 Mr. Widmayer comments that 'The freedom Mr. Hopkins was willing to give student editors was not based on any confidence in their ability to make mature use of it.' He then continues on pages 223-224 to elaborate on this theme; it is interesting reading.
There are other incidents and larger events that will document a study of the regard for freedom of expression and respect for differing opinions at the College. Hill's book mentions some, but the repository of the records of the College and information about it is Special Collections. Specific happenings or general themes can be investigated. For example, what has changed, and how, over the years as the institution has become larger, more complicated, and more diverse not only in the composition of its student body but also in its faculty and administration? The material awaits the researcher.
1. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945).
2. Ralph Nading Hill, The College on the Hill: A Dartmouth Chronicle (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth Publications [1965, c1964]), I57.
3. Mecklin, p. 201.
4. Mecklin, p. 213.
5. Mecklin, p. 217ff.
6. Hill, pp. 158, 159.
7. Charles E. Widmayer, Hopkins of Dartmouth: The Story of Ernest Martin Hopkins and His Presidency of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.: Published by Dartmouth College through The University Press of New England, 1977).
8. Widtnayer, p. 180.
9. Widmayer, pp. 220-221.
10. Widmayer, p. 221.
Last Updated: 4/19/17