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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Class of 1908 Letter

Paul Williams

Delivered: June 1958

Gentlemen:

By local custom and tradition, I appear before you as the Half-Century Annalist. There is little evidence to indicate that this custom has much support among other colleges of our kind. On the contrary, you could find some testimony to the effect that old men like us — since they can’t readily be swept under the rug — should be retired to the comparative quiet of the right field bleachers. In other words, they should have permission to watch the game but not to talk to the players, or managers. But since this appearance conforms to an honorable tradition and because men of our experience are entitled to have their opinions recorded for posterity, as a footnote for future historians, I shall try to perform this assignment. In so doing, I have read the 50 year letter which was presented when the Class of 1908 was leaving this Hill. That document dated back to 1858 — before the Civil War even started. It contained wise comments on the catastrophic years which had intervened. It ventured a few thoughts for the future, some of which might better have been heeded.

Once that is stated, it must suggest to your minds that, perhaps, some other annalist will stand here, 50 years hence, trying to untangle a few threads of experience from which historians may be able to re-weave the pattern of a tangled past. That spokesman will be talking at a Commencement for the Class of 2008. Does the date startle or shock your mind? Don’t permit it to do so. The processes of a college like Hamilton take time. The changes which the passing of time enforces not only are inevitable; our best guess at this moment is that they are beneficial. Our function, therefore, for the sake of the Hamilton men who will follow us in the year 2008 and thereafter, is to leave a fairly lucid account of things we have experienced. “Know Thyself” is a good motto for our College as well as ourselves. If it enables us also to hand later generations an explanatory word about our own times, it is all to the good.

This calls for a personal word to my classmates of 1908. Gentlemen, we have to concede that the calendar is correct. We left this Chapel 50 years ago. Depending upon our temperaments, we were cocky, uncertain or scared. None of us thought much about where we might be in 1958. Our immediate tasks were to find ways to make a living. In our minds, the future was a long way off and our possible status 50 years thereafter was incomprehensible. We who assemble here today may not be the most fairly representative selection from our Class of 1908. Perhaps we are merely the more durable guys who happened to survive better men. At any rate, here we are. Your suggestions have helped to shape the rest of this document. You have my thanks and compliments for your discernment. The opinions or conclusions expressed, however, are my own and you are hereby absolved from any responsibility therefor.

We may be the more “durable” survivors of our original group. The choice of our class colors freshman year suggests an interesting angle. I will not try to read into them any psychological explanation, or to imply that they reflected any prenatal or even more subversive influences. But the fact remains that we selected red and black. Why? Only the Good Lord knows and I claim no inside information from on high. But wouldn’t a truly modern writer have himself a time with that choice of red and black? Most certainly. Two World Wars and our greatest Depression, would justify black as a symbol. As for red, the current generations which lack our experience, smear every horizon from Moscow to the moon with that horrendous color. Apparently anything even tinged with the color of a simple little bunch of beets from the garden, scares them stiff. In our day the only red we worried about was Colgate’s.
That mention of Colgate recalls a name which can serve as a point of reference for our class — Charles Evans Hughes. He was in the generation ahead of us there but his lifetime overlapped ours. He was Governor of New York State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. His name is brought in here as a sort of bench mark for future surveyors of history.

In his latter years, Mr. Hughes said that the 50 years then ending had been, in his opinion, the most important period of its kind in recorded time. We do not have to argue about the validity of his judgment. Our own recollections must remind us how right he was.
Changes may not necessarily reflect progress, but they have to be considered and in this instance they surely were significant. Consider, for example, development of the internal combustion engine. That noisy, inefficient, unreliable contraption which we first encountered when it began to jeopardize our down-hill coasting in the road, has become one of the most fantastic and pervasive mechanical devices known to man.

Some of you must recall that when the first hardy drivers ventured an ascent of this Hill, they stopped at the foot of it. From the rear axle they unlatched a strong, short piece of painted iron which dragged along the ground behind the car. This was called a sprag and if the engine failed, its function was to brace the car against rolling backward into the ditch.

In the Smithsonian Institute in Washington is a model airplane made from sketches drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the Middle Ages. It has a striking resemblance to The Spirit of St. Louis hanging in the same hall, which Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, in our time. The main difference between da Vinci’s model and Lindbergh’s plane is that Lindbergh’s had a motor which was light in relation to its power and fuel — and would keep working. Planes now cross the Atlantic in less time than it took Columbus to lose sight of his home port, and we have witnessed most of the change.

Without going into all the mechanical developments of the automotive era we may properly consider some of the economic, social and political changes which is engendered. In this connection Henry Ford’s name may be cited. He was one of the first to conceive the relationship of mass production to a mass market. This involved what was then a paradox: high wages to workmen, to enable them to buy the products which they made. He horrified his industrial contemporaries when he announced his minimum wage of $5 a day. Later it enabled him to make money by selling a car for $200. He was a stubborn and rather stupid man who befouled himself with anti-Semitism and other crackpot notions. But he did have one big idea — a cheap car for the people.

That single, fixed idea has changed the face of the United States in our time and the lives of its people. A recent report claimed that one person in every eight employed in this country owes his job to the automotive industry. The estimate may not be so far fetched when you consider how many work in the petroleum industry; in the construction of highways and the related industries; in the building of suburban developments which now plaster the county for better or worse; in such seemingly unrelated items as cross-country furniture vans and refrigerator trucks loaded with milk from Vernon to New York City or lettuce from California.
Whether you like these changes or not doesn’t matter. They have come about in our time and we have been affected by them. But that is not the whole story by any means. The complex of enterprises which is labeled “communication” is more fantastic in many respects than the gas engine. As students at Hamilton we read by the light of oil lamps. Old Peter Kelly lighted the few oil-burners along our campus paths. Telephones were scarce, motion pictures were almost unknown to us; radio, television and the whole field of electronics weren’t even visible gleams in their inventors’ eyes. But we have seen all these come to pass and being fairly reasonable men, we hesitate to place limits on what the future may bring forth.

A recital of this kind might be taken to mean that we have merely been idle spectators, bemused by marvels beyond our ken. Any such conclusion would be wrong. While we yield proper respect to the scientists and engineers who have been so busy with our environment, we known enough to maintain that they have no monopoly on human knowledge or any ability to prescribe a better life for the word’s people. Every time we pick up a newspaper we are reminded that the human race doesn’t operate by push buttons. The “bugs” which plague all mechanical devices have their counterpart in the age-old questions of how human beings are going to get along together. As of now, for example: Russia and the United States. Or Communism vs. our concept of individual responsibility and free enterprise.

At this point a bit of recollection may be helpful. When we were in high school, about 1900, a good many would be advisers kept telling us that a bright boy’s future lay in the engineer-civil or electrical. Lots of them thought that sounded good — and wound up selling bonds in the booming lunacy of the 1920s and running WPA projects in the 1930s. This is no attempt to make invidious comparisons between the objectives of highly specialized training and the vague generalities of liberal arts. But the fact remains that we who had the benefit of Hamilton’s background may have been able to take the bad with the good more adaptably than was the case with our more technical contemporaries.

That brings up a matter of immediate interest to which the American people are now giving almost feverish attention, namely, the whole subject of education. The argument includes everything from pre-school kids to the Ph.D’s. In the educational field experts currently are a dime a dozen and our unsanctified opinions probably will not cause a ripple on the wide waters of doctoral dispute.
But for the record, it is proper to say that members of our class acknowledge and cherish the benefits of the discipline which they acquired on this campus. Many spokesmen for the current crop of educationalists think discipline is a dirty word. No student, from the days of rompers through college, should be required to do anything. Any restraint might cramp his style or impair his personality or keep him from expressing himself. The general idea nowadays seems to be to let Junior have his own way and hope for the best. Meanwhile, any innocent bystander had better be on guard. In New York City recently, two were killed by shotguns in the hands of undisciplined high school hoodlums.

Self-expression which is now so much praised, is a skill worth having and we had quite a lot of training for it in our time here. Do you remember our Chapel “decs”?... “Speaking of conservatism George William Curtis once said…” But we didn’t roam around the campus or recitation rooms trying to express ourselves, according to our own bright ideas. We had to begin with Mandeville in speaking, and work up through diagramming sentences. And any time that our originality didn’t make sense “Hank” White or “Prexy” Stryker would cut us down to size — but fast. Or the sophomores would. According to modern dogma, that must have had a depressing effect upon our ego or our id or something. I choose to regard it as salutary experience.

Really and truly, when I have been talking to my more recent friends or acquaintances and have told them what we were required to study, they think that I am fooling. The idea of being obliged to translate Greek, Latin, French and German leaves them flabbergasted. On top of that, required courses in mathematics and sciences — along with proof that we could swim, before receiving a diploma – shocks them. “You don’t mean it! Oh, NO! they couldn’t have made you do all of that stuff.”

But, of course, “they” did. They, meaning the curriculum of Hamilton College and including the professors, did precisely that. I am not trying to prove that the rigorous requirements which were imposed on us, are eternally correct. I am saying that in our case they worked out pretty well. As a footnote, it is interesting to observe now that some of our new-fangled educators are trying to revive the atmosphere of discipline in which we lived and learned.

At this point let us quote the dictionary to define the term we are talking about, discipline. Its first meaning is: “Strict and regular mental or moral training.” That we had here, in good measure. We must keep in mind that when we were undergraduates the course of study at Hamilton and similar colleges had been aimed at producing ministers, teachers, lawyers, and doctors. The complications of our times are revealed by the fact that colleges now see fit to train atomic scientists and psychiatrists. Maybe we were better off when we had never heard of them.

But to make that as a serious statement would be to deny many of higher education’s basic functions. Among them is the principle that an educated man should and must be able to adapt himself to changes which accompany the growth and development of civilization. Time has no use for the “stand pat” mentality. If it is more important today to study Russian rather than Greek, we should be among the first to acknowledge it.

In that connection and from our own experience of the past 50 turbulent years, we are entitled to share the gratification and pride of other Hamilton men in the ability of our College to maintain a respected place in the world. Hamilton has not been static during the past half-century. On the contrary, it occupies a place of leadership in its field which has general respect. If it had not changed it would have long since become out of date and obsolete. It is a much better college now than it was when we were students. For that progress we are pleased and grateful.

As I see it now, even in retrospect, the main objective of the training which we had here was to show each of us how to take care of himself, in a much simpler world. Not at the expense of his fellowman but with a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind.” The letters of my classmates who have replied to questions about the value of our formal training support our belief that it was good. Furthermore, they reveal a similar belief that it must continue to adapt itself to the future requirements of society, which cannot even be foreseen at this time.

My classmates’ letters have several points of emphasis. They mention a man’s “assuming responsibility” in his community or in world affairs, for his own good as well as that of others. They refer to “world peace,” not as a generality, but as an urgent necessity for survival of the civilization which we have known. They are not too much concerned about incidental or day-to-day developments. More thoughtfully, they seek the underlying “trends” which shape events for newspaper headlines. In other words, members of 1908 have recalled the past, to see how its lessons may shape our country’s future.

It is quite true that our class produced no atomic scientist; no designer of a ballistic missile; no inventor of an IBM calculator; nor any promoter of the Sam Insull type, which ran wild in the crazy financing of the 1920s.That lack of prominence among us may be good or bad, according to individual judgement. When we regard the wasteful folly which atomic warfare has imposed upon mankind there is reason to be discouraged at the outlook. If so, we may take comfort in this thought:

After all, it was the minds of trained men which dreamed up the IBM thing. If it develops ‘bugs’ the same men have to find and correct them. The thing can’t run itself. You always have to call the ‘trouble-shooter’.

So, whether you speak of electronics, or calculators, or of Walter Reuther’s negotiations with the automotive industry, or of our crises in international relations, somewhere you must make room for men of good judgment and experience. They are the saving grace of a world that could kill itself, without their influence.

We did not originate the theory of universal, compulsory education. We do happen to know that all boys’ brains are not equal, no matter what test are applied at a particular time. In its various records of our class listed 70 members. Of those, I think 41 were graduated. That was quite a “fall out,” mainly for scholastic reasons. Even for us who survive there is no way to tell that we had better brains than those who dropped out. All we can testify to is that it was a rugged – but fair – process of elimination. Anyone who takes a candid look at the world today must conclude that we need more, rather than less, elimination, to ensure the fullest educational opportunities for our country’s better minds.

And so when we confront the conflicting claims and pressures of different theories of education which now confuse many Americans, we as survivors of a rough period in the world’s history, are justified in asserting our belief in some simple things we learned here, so long ago. The eternal verity of arithmetic; the value of being able to express ourselves, by spoken or written word; the respect for faith as it may be recorded in the Talmud, the bible or the Koran. In other words, our own convictions make us tolerant of others.

Sentiment interferes with reason in trying to appraise other impressions with which we left this Hill. For one thing, since we left this Chapel on that far off day in 1908, this class has never been brought together. That was a long time ago and the dispersion began the moment when we walked down those front steps. Nor will we ever meet again, in person.

That thought need not make us sad. It reminds me that we have changed since we used to sing to Carissima that “we still will be thy boys.” We are not boys any more. Whatever Carissima may have tried to do for us, was practically finished when we left her care. Since then we have been pretty much on our own, trying – as men – to work out in practical terms, the lessons which we learned here on this Hill, at our Mother’s keen. Our Carissima.

Our comfort, our satisfaction – and perhaps our joy – resides in our belief that 50 years from now, anno domini 2008, our successors will be taking part in similar proceedings here. To those successors we tender our most faithful and hopeful respects, and to you, my friends – the symbol and password of our times – “Bye, now!”