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Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning

reviewed by William Summerscales - 1976

coverTitle: Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning
Author(s): Carol S. Gruber
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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By the year 1900 the university movement was remolding the structure of American higher education. Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Clark, Chicago, and Stanford had been founded as new university centers in the space of three decades. Meanwhile, a university consciousness was transforming the character of well-established institutions like California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. After three and a half centuries during which the old-time college had been dominant in higher education, new and rapid forces of academic reform produced an institution that was radically different in form, purpose and methods.

Before the Civil War higher degrees were sought in Germany where two hundred Americans had studied before 1850, and several thousand had taken graduate work by the end of the century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century earned doctorates were being conferred in America at an increasing rate: over 100 in 1890, and 250 in 1900. By that same year 150 schools had graduate programs, with almost one third of them leading to the Ph.D. Supporting this development was the formation of fifteen major scholarly societies between 1876 and 1905, each rooted in an academic discipline. Most of them have persisted until today. In addition, seventeen learned journals representing most of the academic disciplines originated between 1876 and the end of the century. The journals stimulated the growth of graduate study and served to establish and determine its scope and quality.

With the emerging university movement came a new kind of professor, no longer selected on the basis of sectarian or geographical considerations. Nor was he simply an instructor who taught elementary courses by the recitation method. He engaged in scholarly research and graduate instruction; he was aware of the emerging identity of his profession; his new status provided ground for raising questions about faculty control over academic concerns and registering criticism about the autocracy of presidents and governing boards. These factors led to the development of a literature of protest in higher education between 1900 and the outbreak of the Great War. As early as 1902 the issues of faculty rights and university control were being written about by John J. Stevenson, William Rainey Harper, John Dewey, and James McKeen Cattell. Incidents of "arrogance and arbitrary, if not usurped power" were recorded in various journals and reports during the period in which the emergence of the university served to augment and concentrate the power of presidents.

Like many other institutions in the nation's life, the university lacked tradition and clear definition, was not subject to centralized control or planning on the part of the federal government, and exhibited conflicting purposes. But it was vigorous, energetic, and growing. Presiding over the enterprise was a new type of academic administrator, whose power and prestige increased at a growth rate similar to that of the institution which he served. It was in this situation that professors sought an association for expression of their own opinions, a journal in which to publicize their own ideas, and a national organization under their own control. The American Association of University Professors, established in 1915, provided these resources, helped codify the principles of academic freedom, and gave to the academic profession in America an organization by means of which violations of academic freedom could be investigated, criticized, and (perhaps) penalized. Because of the pervasive tension between administrators and faculties, the issues that emerged in the founding of AAUP were largely parochial, practical, and internal to the university. Walter Metzger has stated the outcome succinctly, "Academic freedom was the end: Due process, tenure, and establishment of professional competence were regarded as necessary means."

By the time of the founding of AAUP, Europe had been at war for a year. World War I, in a strange fashion, eventually presented American academics with a crisis concerning the meaning of freedom, the role and responsibility of professors, and the purposes of the university. An understanding of that crisis throws light on the academic profession in the twentieth century and serves to clarify the relationship between university and society in America today. Mars and Minerva is a distinct contribution to such an understanding. The juxtaposition of a world war, an emerging university consciousness, and the founding of a national organization of academics was fortuitous. The response of academics in the midst of these circumstances over a brief period of years has been a determining factor in the development of the shape and meaning of American higher education.


Carol S. Gruber has focused on the uses of the higher learning in World War I and reaches startling conclusions about the ways in which the dedication to service led American academics to betray their calling. "When confronted with the challenge of war," writes Dr. Gruber, "American scholars, too, responded to the call of citizenship at the expense of the standards of their profession . . .The problem arose when scholars attempted to merge their professional and patriotic roles and to pretend that intellect could be wedded to the national cause without compromise." (pp. 118-19) These were the same academics who had been sharply critical of the German scholars' support then-own national cause in 1914.

In Mars and Minerva the author draws material from a broad range of sources to sketch a painfully accurate picture of compromise and concession by the men of knowledge who abandoned "the search for truth in favor of the service of power." (p. 253) Included in the indictment are eminent academics like Charles A. Beard, Guy Stanton Ford, Evarts B. Greene, J. Franklin Jameson, Andrew C. McLaughlin, and Frederick Jackson Turner. These, to name a few, were able to participate in the National Board for Historical Service and the government's Committee on Public Information, the latter "an agency that was at once the most centralized and the most far-flung of all the belligerents' propaganda agencies, as well as the most efficient." (p. 139) Finally comes the query, "Were they hypocrites and opportunists, or naive, self-deluded and credulous visionaries?" (p. 255) The question is rhetorical, and the answer is neither single nor crystal clear. Gruber's attempt to formulate the answer has been undertaken with careful historical research and a measured assessment of the influences at work in American intellectual life prior to and during World War I.

Carol S. Gruber is well qualified for the task. Formerly an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University and a Younger Humanist Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1971-72), she is a graduate of Brandeis and Columbia Universities. The research and writing began about ten years ago when Ms. Gruber was research assistant to Professor Richard Hofstadter who sponsored the study as a doctoral dissertation at Columbia in 1968. Having read the unpublished dissertation that year, I can only admire the additional research and careful revision that Carol Gruber has employed to turn a splendid dissertation into an even more valuable contribution to the intellectual history of America during World War I. The book carries the same title as the dissertation; the subtitle, originally "World War I and the Academic Man," has been changed to "World War I and the Uses of the Higher Learning in America," picking up the broader implications that are now emphasized in this volume. Mars and Minerva provides a well-documented critique of the deflection of American higher education from its intellectual purposes to a commitment of talent and resources to the uses of the state during the Great War.

Beginning with a description of the professional and institutional situation of American academics between the turn of the century and World War I, the book then outlines the forces at work in intellectual life between the outbreak of war and the time of American intervention. How did anti-German feelings emerge so readily among academics, many of whom had studied in Germany? What are the cultural and intellectual sources of pro-allied sentiments on the part of American professors? How is it that the ideal of service caught the imagination of social scientists, including historians? Dr. Gruber provides substantial and well-reasoned answers to these and other questions.

The sheer proportion of Americans who studied in Germany in the last century brought a German influence to bear on the developing university movement. German research methods, scientific rigor, and emphasis on freedom of inquiry had impact on the formulation of an American university system. One might have expected that American scholars would reject the Allied view of the war and embrace the interpretation of the Central Powers. "This expectation," writes Gruber, "aside from overlooking the influence of the war's political and diplomatic issues on American scholars, was based on a mistakenly simple view of the influence of Germany on American higher education. What had been involved was a complicated process of interpretation, even misinterpretation, selection, and alteration to adapt the German example to the American environment." (p. 20) The graduate school organization, the instructional techniques, the devices of research, seminar and laboratory methods, academic publications, and professional associations were all brought home by Americans who studied in Germany. The ideal of a "pure learning" untouched by utilitarian demands, the structure of political values, and the underlying commitment to the spiritual unity of an idealist philosophy: These elements were left behind. Moreover, the "Germanization" process was transplanted on institutions with long traditions of the English type of liberal education.

The pro-allied sentiments of American professors and administrators grew out of complementary elements: a view of Germany as an aggressor nation with ambitions that threatened world peace; a growing sense of the desirability of Anglo-American unity for economic and social reasons; the identification of American political, cultural and strategic interests with those of Great Britain.

In addition to these factors, the association of the American university movement with the needs of a democratic and industrializing nation brought about a definition of the function of higher education in terms of service to social needs. American social scientists, including historians, participated in the ideal of service. Nurtured in the Progressive era, the "New History" (so named by James Harvey Robinson) sought, among other emphases, to highlight aspects of the past most relevant to present needs and found legitimacy in being a "useful" science. When the Great War broke out in 1914, the American university, the academic profession, the scholarly disciplines, and a growing professional consciousness were all present in rudimentary form. America's entry into the war on the side of the Western allies and enthusiastic support of the war by academics following intervention conformed with the self-image of most American scholars and with their views of the implications of the conflict for their institutions and their disciplines. Almost without reservation the universities committed their intellectual and physical resources uncritically to the war effort once the U.S. entered.

Despite a general pro-allied commitment among American scholars, some social scientists like Columbia's anthropologist, Franz Boas, argued in 1914 for a balanced view of the conflict. Boas saw the causes of the war in a combination of "German arrogance, French lust for revenge, English envy, lust for power." Thorstein Veblen's comparison of German and the Western democracies, published in 1915, was so detached as to warrant contradictory conclusions. After intervention, Veblen's work was at the same time banned by the Espionage Act and recommended as good propaganda by the infamous government Committee on Public Information. Among the American professoriate, these men tended to be exceptions. As early as January 1916, Harvard's Josiah Royce at a mass meeting in Boston charged Germany with being the "willful and deliberate enemy of the human race," concluded neutrality was impossible for the reasonable man, and called for a "rupture of all diplomatic relations between our own republic and those foes of mankind . . ." In general, professorial opinion was against the German peace initiative of December 1916. George B. Adams of Yale declared that to end the war before Germany was decisively defeated "would be a crime against humanity." As Gruber states the case, Adams' Anglophile inclinations had him "virtually itching for war" in February 1917, and left him disappointed over President Wilson's diplomatic response to Germany's resumption of submarine warfare.

The typical starting point for professorial argument, even prior to intervention, was a characterization of Germany as a war-like autocracy that must be decisively defeated. University professors in 1916 helped to establish a semisecret organization to promote Anglo-American "understanding" through subtle propaganda, and were active members of the American Rights Committee which promoted prowar sentiment in the United States. Frederick Jackson Turner saw entry into the conflict as a chance to "strengthen our sinews and harden our tissues," thereby enabling America later to play an independent role in world affairs. John Dewey's support of intervention was consistent with his beliefs on collectivism and progressivism; entry into the war would, from his view, hasten desirable and needed social change.

More was involved than individual opinion and commitment on the part of professors. The war had profound impact on organizations and institutions in which professorial ideals and work were carried forward. In 1915 the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure drew up a report in defense of "freedom of thought, of inquiry, of discussion and of teaching." Following intervention, the Committee issued a new statement in its report on academic freedom in wartime with distinct modification of the former position. Dr. Gruber notes that the Nation published a criticism of the new report charging that it "jeopards [sic] the very conception of a university."

It is to the campuses themselves that one must turn for an image that "perfectly illustrates the manner in which American professors compromised their professorial function when they dedicated themselves to serving the state." (p. 242-3) The image is that of the Student Army Training Corps through which the War Department commandeered the American campuses. Universities and colleges lost their academic character and became military training institutes. President Benjamin Ide Wheeler of the University of California was not alone in welcoming military training as a means to provide needed discipline among university and college students. Princeton's president John G. Hibben considered wartime service by his university to be a fulfillment of Princeton's tradition and high privilege—training men for the service of the state. The oath of allegiance to the SATC was, in Hibben's view, "sacramental." By the beginning of the fall semester of 1918 no less than 516 institutions of higher education had signed SATC contracts. When we recall that Great Britain managed to engage in World War I for three years by volunteer enlistment—moving by degrees to conscription and imposing the plan on a selective basis in August 1917-the suddenness and completeness of the American response is revealing. More important, as stated by Dr. Gruber ". . . the absence of a principled objection to the militarization of the campus, particularly by professors, is startling." (p. 251)

Incidentally, the single Teachers College professor mentioned in the book, J. Montgomery Gambrill, comes off fairly well. Asked in late 1917 by the National Board for Historical Service to prepare a syllabus on the war for use by grammar school teachers, Gambrill developed the point that the narrow, nationalistic, and imperialistic outlook of the major powers on both sides needed replacement with a broader conception of world order. The syllabus emphasized that military victory alone would not secure peace, that nationalism and internationalism must be reconciled, that all nations needed economic and military security, that there must be equality of opportunity in world markets and in the development of undeveloped lands. The NBHS found the syllabus "unacceptable."


There is more, much more, in this book which provides the depiction of academia in wartime through a nice grasp of sources, careful documentation, keen observation of critical detail, and cogent summary of events. In addition to demonstrating what a seductively misleading influence the ideal of service turned out to be for higher education during the Great War, Dr. Gruber has also shown the considerable threat posed to academic freedom by the crisis. Despite public formulations, the academic profession generally lacked commitment to the principle of academic freedom and allowed it to be bent to immediate pressures.

In the chapter, "Academic Freedom Under Fire," special emphasis is given to the case of Columbia's Professor James McKeen Cattell. The Cat tell case received briefer treatment in the Gruber dissertation, grew to a lengthy article for the AAUP Bulletin of Autumn 1972, and is now considerably expanded. Having luckily completed my own researches in the Columbia University Archives a few days before the student rebellion of April 1968 (after which episode the Archives were unavailable for months) I remain intrigued by a chronological problem of the Gruber research. In a footnote of the dissertation Ms. Gruber reported her reliance "on the Seligman and Cattell Papers of the Columbia University Special Collection . . ." and went on to say, "Unfortunately the Columbia University Archives, which doubtless contains [sic] much otherwise unavailable material on the administration's role in the episode, were closed to me." Since the dissertation was defended for a degree in 1968, Dr. Gruber is obviously referring to a period extending back some months prior to the inaccessibility of the Archives after April 23, 1968. I was in and out of those archives two or three times a week from February 1967 until April 1968. How is it possible that the research assistant of an eminent Columbia professor could not gain access that same year? The Columbia University Archives in Low Memorial Library are cited among the manuscript sources of the selected bibliography of the book, in addition to Columbia University Annual Reports 1917-20. Neither the dissertation nor the book cites another valuable source on the Columbia situation. I refer to the Minutes of the Trustees, Vols. XXXI to XLII for the years 1910-11 to 1921-22. Curiously, Gruber's reading of the Annual Reports seemingly began with 1917.

I raise the point because it seems to me that a reading of the Annual Reports from the time of Butler's elevation to the presidency of Columbia in 1902, and an appraisal of letters in the archives is necessary to assess what was transpiring at Columbia before the war. The war provided the ultimate opportunity for Cattell's dismissal. But the erosion of respect for a professor of national reputation and assaults on Cattell's tenure at Columbia were, however, initiated in the spring of 1913 by the Trustees' Committee on Education. One gains some sense of the arrogance and arbitrariness of the Trustees in a letter of May 7, 1913 addressed to President Butler. Members of the Trustees' Committee were unanimous at that time in their decision to dismiss Cattell; the only question had to do with the form of the letter by which the professor would receive the news. "I put this in the shape of a question," wrote one of the Trustees to Butler, "as you are somewhat better acquainted with Professor Cattell and can best judge whether the shorter or the longer form is the best one to follow. The surgical result is, of course, exactly the same whether an axe or a Samurai sword is used."1

The raising of these minutiae of research and interpretation relates to Dr. Gruber's insistence on positing responsibility at Columbia, for example, on faculty initiative in supporting Butler's autocratic position against freedom of utterance, (p. 199) The facts are that faculty members came to Cattell's defense on several occasions when the president and trustees were seeking to oust him between 1913 and 1917. The role of the faculty at Columbia in 1917 was not so much one of taking partial initiative in behalf of President Butler's widely known antipathy to Cattell, nor were they supportive of efforts by the Trustees to exercise authoritative rule. Rather, faculty behavior was marked by organizational confusion, institutional impotence, and political naivete. Had the professors been politically astute, appropriately organized in a University Council, and aware of issues outside their own academic interests, the professorial response to the crisis at Columbia might have taken a different course.

As to the substance and argument of Mars and Minerva, I have one reservation. Dr. Gruber has concentrated legitimately on the uses of the higher learning in World War I. By this very concentration she has overlooked countervailing influences to the "betrayal," has written and argued as though the faculty is the "higher learning" (where is the responsibility of students, presidents, trustees?), and has failed to emphasize that if academic freedom is to be meaningful in any era it must derive from and be supportive of intellectual freedom in the broader society. The justifiable criticism of professors that interlines the book suggests at the end a somewhat idealized conception of what may be expected from academics simply because they are academics. "If we are to level the charge of betrayal against them," says Gruber, "it must be less for their response to the war and its issues, which was ultimately a matter of political judgment, than for their conception of the demands the war made on them as men of knowledge" (p. 254, italics mine) Is it possible that we really expect "men of knowledge" to be exempt from the general unreliability of human nature, to escape what is characteristic of all human relations, that they are neither good nor evil but a mixture of both?

Universities are human institutions and there is no doubt that they failed the rest of society at a crucial juncture during the Great War. Not only was there no shelter for the ideals of free speech, social justice, and international sympathy but also there was an absence of critical insight and judgment concerning the atavistic emotions the war released.

During World War I it was not in the university establishment but by other educative institutions that occasional, incisive diagnosis of society's wartime syndrome was articulated. The editors of The Dial took a public stand in 1915 against a series of promilitary books that fostered emotional rather than rational understanding of prospective American policy. Doctor Norman Thomas, then pastor of East Harlem Presbyterian Church, addressed a gathering on the campus of Teachers College, Columbia University in February 1917 and declared it was ridiculous to think the nation could further democracy by fighting Germany, that war is "wrong, brutal, criminal." In the spring and summer of 1917 while Columbia University conferred degrees on military leaders of the Allied cause and the Saturday Evening Post railed against pacifists and other persons of antiwar sentiment as "scum of the melting pot," a few critical and antimilitaristic voices were heard. Randolph Bourne, James Oppenheim, Theodore Dreiser, and Leo Stein were editorializing in The Seven Arts, criticizing the country's lack of moral judgment and insisting that participation in the war would impoverish the American promise. That The Seven Arts soon became a casualty of patriotic fervor does not obviate the brief outspoken criticism of men who saw their journal as a vehicle of popular education.

Meanwhile, on some campuses, students expressed opposition to war through the efforts of the Anti-Militarism League. In late February 1917, a magazine, War?, published by the League and containing articles against intervention and military training by Columbia students was on sale in the university bookstore. In a questionnaire circulated among 712 students, 68 percent registered opposition to going to war in order to protect Americans in the war zone. As late as March 1917, student pacifists were distributing antiwar propaganda at a mass meeting called to seek the formation of an officer training program on the Columbia campus.2 After the peremptory dismissal of Professor J. McKeen Cattell, five hundred students gathered on the steps of Low Library on October 10, 1917 to voice their protest over the action of trustees and president.3 Some evidence exists then that protest to the war was heard both on and off the campus.


Perhaps the larger lesson that can be drawn from Mars and Minerva is that the academic profession, since early in the century, has supported a view of academic freedom too closely concentrated on their own legitimate interests in tenure and has too often disregarded the issues of freedom in the larger society. Dr. Gruber's judgment that professors should follow truth rather than seek power is unexceptionable, but the institutions of higher education grow in the soil of the society and the quest for freedom and truth must reach beyond the campus for the sake of universities and for the larger society that they serve.

As this review is being written, the U. S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities reports on current uses of the higher learning by arms of the government. The reports reveal that the Central Intelligence Agency is currently using "several hundred" administrators, professors, and graduate students at more than a hundred colleges and universities and that agents of Army intelligence have monitored classes at New York University and attended speeches at most major universities in New York City. Despite the fact that they pose no threat to academic tenure or promotion, such activities disparage the broader meanings of academic freedom.

Carol Gruber is currently at work on a study of the impact of World War II on American higher learning. The clear profit of understanding from reading her first book leads me to look forward to the next one and to hope that someone with her competence and skill may soon provide a similar study on the intellectual attitudes of academics during the tragic American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Those years, too, are part of our intellectual legacy.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 78 Number 1, 1976, p. 125-132
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1243, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:30:52 PM

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