“Check Your Banners and Your Membership Cards at the College Gate”

“Check Your Banners and Your Membership Cards at the College Gate”

“Check Your Banners and Your Membership Cards at the College Gate”

The Columbia University campus, along with many other college campuses, has been convulsed in the last few months by slogan-chanting, banner-waving protests.

Thus, I was struck when I ran across an address delivered by Frank Fackenthal, then the president of Columbia, on September 26, 1946, on the occasion of the start of a new academic year. It’s reprinted in The Greater Power and Other Addresses, a collection of speeches from Fackenthal, published in 1949.

(I originally ran across part of the quotation that follows in a letter to the editor from Irving Kushner, published Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2024. Kushner was apparently a first-year student at Columbia that year. But one of my promises to myself and to readers, here at Conversable Economist, is that I don’t pass along quotations without verifying them–and the finding time to track down the speech in the 1949 book took me a while.)

Here is a chunk of Fackenthal’s speech:

You who have reached the age of advanced study will, of course, have opinions, maybe even prejudices; but acceptance in an academic community carries with it the obligation to submit those opinions and those prejudices to examination under the bright light of human thought and experience. If, perchance, your views have been crystallized into slogans held aloft on banners, or are subject to control by allegiance to minor or major pressure groups, check your banners and your membership cards at the college gate. A slogan-decorated banner is alien to academic life, and is in addition an unwieldy, an embarrassing, a distracting thing in a classroom or wherever free discussion is in progress. Time and energy needed for the study of ideas will be wasted in protecting a preconceived notion: a notion, be it admitted, that study may confirm. …

Any young man or woman who makes an application for admission to an American college or university, by that very act agrees, if admitted, to try to develop his faculties, to think independently, to form his own judgments, to gain a sense of values. Without such agreement, his entrance into college is a travesty …

If when you leave the University on Commencement Day, after having submitted yourself to the processes of true academic life, you wish to have back your old banner, claim it, and you can take your place in the body politic with the deep satisfaction of tested and confirmed judgment. Equally deep can be your satisfaction should you decide not to claim it, for you will know that you have the ability and the willingness to face and to evaluate ideas.

I’m personally sympathetic to Fackenthal’s view, but in some ways, I was an old fuddy-duddy even when I was young. When I was in college, without any clear idea of what would come next, I viewed my time as perhaps the one time in my life with a chance to read and study and discuss, in a concentrated way, across a wide range of topics. (Not just economics!) I really wanted to put in the time, to attend the classes and do the readings and write the papers–and to spend additional time chasing down facts and ideas of interest. Of course, I also had time for friends and fun and extracurriculars–but I was there for the curriculars. My chance for academic life was precious to me.

Of course, I knew plenty of other students for whom the extracurriculars of all sorts played a larger role, including some who were politically quite active. They spent substantial time in off-campus political activities from door-knocking to protests, or even took off for a semester or a year to support a cause. But when a group decided to bring its slogans and signs to campus, as sometimes happened, I walked around the gathering. In other settings, from classroom to dining hall to dormitory, I was happy to converse with friends who were protesting about how they perceived their cause. But for me, as for Fackenthal, pressure groups with slogans and banners are fine and appropriate in many public settings, but alien to academic life.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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