The professor, freedom and the court


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The professor, freedom and the court Alexander Meiklejohn and the First Amendment by Paul Henry Gates
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Gates, Paul Henry
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Journalism and Communications thesis, Ph. D   ( lcsh )
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1996.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 270-282).
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University of Florida
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Copyright 1996


Paul Henry Gates, Jr.


As a doctoral student, I considered and rejected a

number of dissertation topics before settling, relatively

late in my program, on the teaching life of Alexander

Meiklejohn. I had brought considerable legal experience to

my studies, so there was little doubt that law would figure

prominently in the dissertation, but I also wanted a strong

historical component. Meiklejohn's name had popped up

frequently in my readings on mass communication in

connection with First Amendment scholarship during the

middle years of the 20th Century. The references were

invariably sketchy, however, and within a few paragraphs, he

was gone.

Not until the next-to-last semester of my coursework

did I really "meet" Meiklejohn. I was planning a career in

academia and was researching a paper on academic

institutions and their teaching missions as part of a course

in Mass Communication Teaching. I was, myself, the product

of a liberal arts college as an undergraduate, so small

liberal arts programs became the focus of my work.

And there was Meiklejohn again. I discovered that he

was not a lawyer, but a philosophy professor who had become

president of Amherst College at the age of 40 and didn't


begin to study law until he "retired" from teaching at the

age of 70. From then on, I immersed myself in Meiklejohn's

books on college teaching and began to see a connection

between his philosophy of education and the First Amendment

interpretation I had seen frequently in other courses.

Meiklejohn held my attention for weeks, and when attention

turned to admiration, I realized I'd found my topic. It is

particularly fitting that the professor who introduced us,

Dr. Julie Dodd, is herself a dedicated teacher. My thanks

only begin to convey my gratitude to Julie for the

opportunity to discover Meiklejohn the man and the


Special thanks are due, of course, to my doctoral

committee, especially my supervisor and mentor, Dr. Bill

Chamberlin, who, though 592 miles away, was always available

to me when I needed editorial guidance and reassurance that

I could actually complete this project.

The other members of my committee, Dr. Bill McKeen, Dr.

John Wright, Prof. Gus Burns and Prof. Laurence Alexander,

each deserve thanks, not only for their work on this

dissertation but for what they added to my UF experience.

Their unique individual contributions to my education made

them ideal committee members, and I thank them for so

readily agreeing to work with me.

Any undertaking of this magnitude also requires a

supportive family, and I have that in abundance in my

parents, Barbara and Paul, who were always keen to hear of

my progress on "that paper." Their encouragement of my

education has not been confined to this most recent

undertaking, however, but goes back some 40 years, and has

added more to my life than they can imagine.

Thanks also go to my good friend and colleague, Matt

Bunker, who was always at the other end of the phone line or

e-mail with a heartening word and a quick answer when I was


With the end now in sight, my deepest thanks go to my

wife, Diane, whose unwavering love, patience and support

from beginning to end made the entire program possible and

kept me going when my own resolve occasionally flagged.



ABSTRACT .. .... viii



Research Question .
Meiklejohn, Academic Freedom and the First
Amendment .
Literature Review .
Methodology .
Outline of the Study .

BROWN AND AMHERST, 1897-1923 .

The Making of a Scholar .
The Roots of Controversy at Amherst .
Meiklejohn and Academic Freedom .
Meiklejohn's Fall From Grace .


Introduction .
Shaping the Experimental College .
Socialism at Madison: A Brief History .
The End of the Experimental College .
Refining Theories of Education .
Why Education? .
Meiklejohn Turns to Adult Education .
Meiklejohn Turns to the Law .

BERKELEY, 1942-1955 .

Introduction .
Meiklejohn and Felix Frankfurter .
Meiklejohn and Holmes: Logic v. Realism
Meiklejohn, the Stromberg Opinion and its
Antecedents .



. 1

. 2

. 3
. 14
. 18
. 20

. 21

. 21
. 37
. 45
. 54

. 62

. 62
. 64
. 71
. .74
. 76

. .01

. 101
. 103
. 109

. 116


Meiklejohn Takes on Chafee--and Vice Versa 128
Meiklejohn's Constitutional Sources .. .138
Why Free Speech? ... 141
Meiklejohn's Limits on Free Speech ...... 145
Meiklejohn and Broadcasting as Lesser Speech 159
Communism, Free Speech and World War II 162
The Harvard Crimson Debate .. 177
Meiklejohn and Chafee's Last Meeting 182


Introduction . 187
Meiklejohn, Black and Douglas 189
Meiklejohn and Douglas ... .205
Meiklejohn's Mark on the Court ......... 213
Politics and the Interpretation of
Meiklejohn229 . .

FOR THE 21st CENTURY ... .231

Introduction . .. 231
Meiklejohn's Contribution ... .235
Back to Education ... 237
Access for Education .. 242
An Affirmative Role for the First Amendment 261
Meiklejohn's Legacy .. 266

REFERENCES . ... 268


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Paul Henry Gates, Jr.

December 1996

Chairman: William F. Chamberlin
Major Department: Journalism and Communications

Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964) believed that the

primary goal of a liberal education was to prepare citizens

to participate in the American form of democratic

government. The philosophy professor and former college

president emphasized that the nation's Founders had intended

that voters retain ultimate control of the government they

had selected to represent them. He also believed that

effective and informed political involvement required an

acquaintance with the best thinkers in such diverse areas as

politics, philosophy, history, economics and law.

Meiklejohn brought the experience of more than 40

years of college teaching to the study of the First

Amendment after retiring from the classroom in 1942. His

academic career included concurrent teaching and

administrative responsibilities at several institutions. He


was a dean at Brown University, president of Amherst

College, director of the Experimental College at the

University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of the San

Francisco School for Social Studies, a second experimental

program he developed for adult students.

Meiklejohn viewed the First Amendment as the primary

means of ensuring that a variety of viewpoints were

represented in the public debate. Although the global

political climate after the Second World War often made his

liberal viewpoints unpopular, he consistently promoted his

belief that freedom of thought and expression on the wide

range of political and social issues faced by society was

the most certain way to preserve the American system of


His views gained considerable support among several

justices of the United States Supreme Court during the 1960s

and his influence is detectable in the Court's opinions in

such landmark cases as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and

Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications


Toward the end of his life, Meiklejohn encouraged

federal and state governments to use the First Amendment to

actively promote the enlargement of the public sphere of

information available to voters, a recommendation that has

considerable currency for a nation preparing to grapple with

the problems and challenges of the 21st Century.


With the 1948 publication of Free Speech and Its

Relation to Self-Government, a philosophical treatise on the

meaning of the First Amendment, Alexander Meiklejohn burst

onto the constitutional scene, seemingly from nowhere, but

espousing a carefully thought-out philosophy of free

expression. Joining an illustrious group of mass

communications thinkers that included Walter Lippmann, A.J.

Leibling and Zechariah Chafee, Jr., Meiklejohn published his

book just as the anti-Communist fervor that followed the

post-war Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was reaching

fever pitch. In a Cold War climate that had many seeing

threats to democracy around every corner, Meiklejohn stepped

into the maelstrom with the view that speech about the

conduct of government should enjoy near-absolute protection.

Meiklejohn, however, was no Young Turk seeking to make

a name for himself with controversial new ideas. Retired

ten years from a 41-year career as a philosophy professor

and college president, Meiklejohn had already spent a

lifetime examining the role of critical thinking in

education and the importance of academic freedom to the

achievement of that goal. At seventy-six, with most of his

contemporaries long gone from the academic scene, Meiklejohn

embarked on yet another career of championing the value of

the dissident voice to a strong democracy. Building on the

experience of philosophical training that stretched back

into the 19th Century, Meiklejohn helped guide the American

Civil Liberties Union, testified before Congress and wrote

and lectured on the First Amendment for another 18 years.

Active and alert, and within two months of his ninety-third

birthday, Meiklejohn was planning a letter to the Board of

Regents about student protests at the University of

California at Berkeley when he died on December 16, 1964.

Meiklejohn, who was not a lawyer, nonetheless

influenced thinking at the United States Supreme Court for

more than 30 years. Free Speech was first cited by the

justices three years after publication, and 16 more times

over the next 32 years. Others of his First Amendment

writings were cited another nine times, and his work was

widely discussed among the justices in several more cases.

Research Ouestion

Meiklejohn's influence at the Court in individual cases

is briefly noted in a vast range of work on freedom of

expression. However, no effort has been made to synthesize

the role his work played in shaping a unified First

Amendment view among some members of the Court. The genesis

of Meiklejohn's First Amendment philosophy as influenced by

the earlier periods of his life, when he wrote at some

length on academic freedom, remains unexplored. Writers

have yet to show how the extension of his teaching career

into the realm of free expression was part of a logical

intellectual evolutionary process.

These gaps in the commentary on Meiklejohn provide the

opportunity to create a more complete picture of his

contributions as a First Amendment theorist through research

on the following questions: How did Meiklejohn's career in

higher education as a professor and administrator influence

his interest in and views on free expression after he

retired? What impact did Meiklejohn's writings have on

First Amendment jurisprudence at the United States Supreme

Court during the years between roughly 1950 and 1980?

The first portion of this study will be limited in

scope to a study of Meiklejohn's involvement with questions

of free expression during his academic career. The second

will focus on the refinement of those views after his

retirement and their more narrow application to the

citizen-government relationship.

Meiklejohn. Academic Freedom and the First Amendment

Meiklejohn's life was one of almost exclusively

academic pursuits. After college he went directly to

graduate school, and after receiving his doctorate, went

into teaching. He taught philosophy from 1897 until his

retirement in 1938, and occasionally thereafter. Even

during his years as Dean of Brown University and President

of Amherst College, he was never far from the classroom,

teaching an undergraduate course in logic at least one

semester each year.


A former student recalled years later that Meiklejohn's

guiding principle as president of Amherst was that "it is

wrong to define the aims of liberal education in terms of

character or good citizenship, or religious faith, or

anything other than the goals of honest inquiry." It was

not that he found the other attributes unworthy, but

believed it most important that education be guided by

intellectual rigor. Following that premise, Meiklejohn

believed that in studying the theories of a particular

discipline, "we must make sure that they come under the

control of intelligence [therefore] in college we

concentrate on the role of critical thought."1

Meiklejohn's doctrine on freedom of expression,

however, was not intended exclusively or even primarily to

protect the freedom of philosophical inquiry. It was,

instead, a political doctrine arising out of political needs

and designed to maintain and foster the freedom of political

inquiry and discussion during a complex period in history

that saw a dramatic shift and realignment of global power.

The remainder of this section of the chapter will

introduce some of the main points made in Meiklejohn's early

writing on the First Amendment. An overview of his First

Amendment philosophy, it will identify the broad themes he

considered most important for the guidance of American

Bixler, Julius Seelye, "Alexander Meiklejohn: the
Making of the Amherst Mind," 47 New England Quarterly 183
(1974). Bixler, a member of the Amherst Class of 1916, was
president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

democracy. Meiklejohn's writings during the last 15 years

of his life developed and amplified these early ideas in

critiques of contemporary Supreme Court decisions and are

examined in detail in Chapter IV.

Meiklejohn's best-known work on the freedom of

expression is Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers

of the People, which appeared in 1960. It consists of two

distinct sections. Part One is, with minor adjustments, the

text of Free Speech, his 1948 book. Part Two is a

collection of speeches, letters and other papers written

between 1948 and 1958.

Meiklejohn viewed the First Amendment as an essential

component of self-government in a democratic system. In

Political Freedom, he wrote that the true meaning of the

"freedom of speech" protected by the First Amendment is

"public speech," which is a political freedom "valid only in

and for a society which is self-governing. It has no

political justification where men are governed without their


Free people, who govern themselves, must not be

protected from hearing any idea on the ground that it is

unwise, unfair or dangerous, Meiklejohn wrote, because it is

they "who must pass judgment upon unwisdom, unfairness or

danger." Preventing "acquaintance with information or

opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism" that is relevant

2 Meiklejohn, Alexander, Political Freedom: The
Constitutional Powers of the People, New York: Harper &
Bros. (1960), 84.

to any public matter they must act on is to impede the

judgment of the body politic. "It is that mutilation of the

thinking process of the community against which the First

Amendment to the Constitution is directed."3

The primary purpose of the First Amendment, according

to Meiklejohn, is to protect public speech about matters of

public interest. "It was written to clear the way for

thinking which serves the general welfare."4 Meiklejohn

opposed any official effort to limit discussion of matters

bearing on the common interests of society or pass judgment

on the value of the ideas expressed. "Any such suppression

of ideas about the common good, the First Amendment condemns

with its absolute disapproval. The freedom of ideas shall

not be abridged."5

Meiklejohn thought the First Amendment's protection

absolute because it serves a critical public need. "Free

men need the truth as they need nothing else."6 However,

the only truth with any value and validity "is that which we

win for ourselves in the give and take of public discussion

and decision. What we think together at any time is, for

us, our truth at that time."7 The First Amendment thus

3 Id. at 27.

4 Id. at 42.

5 Id. at 28.
6 Id. at 59.

7 Id. at 73.

serves as "a device for the sharing of whatever truth has

been won."8

In Meiklejohn's view, the First Amendment both protects

speech absolutely and limits its scope. Both the protection

and the limitation stem from the public's need for truth.

"The guarantee given by the First Amendment is assured

only to speech which bears, directly or indirectly, upon

issues with which voters have to deal--only, therefore, to

the consideration of matters of public interest."9

Meiklejohn was never critical of the slightly vague

nature of the text of the First Amendment, but instead took

the philosopher's logical approach to interpreting the 45

words of the amendment.10 He approached the task of

interpretation from the standpoint of procedural efficiency

for the exchange of ideas about the conduct of government.

Giving the First Amendment a literal reading,

Meiklejohn wrote that the article did not forbid the

abridging of speech, but did forbid the abridging of the

freedom of speech. The freedom of speech, which is

inviolate, he argued, is "freedom of discussion for those

minds" that are engaged in the business of deciding "matters

8 Id. at 75.

9 Id. at 79.

10 U.S. CONST., Art. I, reads, "Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press, or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances."

of public policy." He did not extend similar protection to

"unregulated talkativeness.""

Meiklejohn's interpretation of the First Amendment

clearly leaves many types of expression outside the

absolutely protected area but not completely without

constitutional guarantees. His theory posits that "under

the Constitution, there are two different freedoms of

speech, and, hence, two different guarantees of freedom

rather than only one."12 The first type of freedom is

extended to public discussion of "the common needs of all

the members" of the society, which have a "constitutional

status which no pursuit of an individual purpose can ever

claim."13 It therefore stands alone with full First

Amendment protection.

The second, and lesser, freedom takes in all other

types of expression, which Meiklejohn called "private

speech." He regarded private speech as personal to the

individual engaged in it, and conceded that the right was

considerable, but outside the purview of the First

Amendment. Meiklejohn likened private speech rights to the

right to life and property and found them similarly

protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

These lesser rights he differentiated from "freedoms" by

describing them as "liberties." Clothed in those terms,

11 Meiklejohn, Political Freedom, at 25-6.

12 Id. at 8.

13 Id. at 55.

Meiklejohn saw protection for speech "not from regulation,

but from undue regulation."14 Without absolute protection,

private speech becomes a relative right that may be abridged

upon a demonstration of a compelling public interest.

Meiklejohn's creation of a bifurcated view of speech

values has received little attention and even rarer

acceptance. The United States Supreme Court has never

resorted to a Fifth Amendment "liberty" construct to protect

speech,15 although it has, of course, "incorporated" the

First Amendment's protections against action by the states

through the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. An

argument could be made, one that Meiklejohn would probably

have accepted as it follows his line of reasoning, that the

"liberty" protected by the original Fifth Amendment Due

Process Clause must also include a guarantee of freedom of

speech separate from and lesser than the First Amendment's


As a whole, however, the Court has fairly consistently

moved in exactly the opposite direction. To be sure,

14 Id. at 37.

15 U.S. CONST., Art. V, reads, in pertinent part, "No
person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law. .
Meiklejohn conceived of a "liberty" as a public
interest secondary in importance to a "freedom." As such,
he would allow regulation of that interest by the government
after established procedures were followed. The Court,
however, has not created such a two-tiered hierarchy of
rights, but has instead established levels of judicial
scrutiny and required varying degrees of evidentiary proof
from governmental entities seeking to enforce regulations
that implicate First Amendment freedoms.

individual justices such as Robert Jackson, Felix

Frankfurter, John Harlan and William Rehnquist, have

maintained that freedom of speech, when employed as a

defense against action by the states, should be less

strictly construed than when the federal government is

involved because of due process requirements.16 This

conception of due process, however, has been attempted only

as a justification for disparate jurisdictional treatment,

and even that argument has not found favor at the Court,

which has unwaveringly maintained that freedom of speech is

to be treated equally at both the state and federal levels.

Meiklejohn lamented this failure to differentiate

substantively between First Amendment speech and speech

protected under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and

Fourteenth Amendments. He disagreed with the Court's

refusal to accord differing substantive values to types of

speech because an interpretation which mandates the

inclusion of all speech under the First Amendment cheapens

the absolute freedom of public speech and leaves it "safe

only from undue abridgment.""17 "Public discussion," he

wrote, "has thus been reduced to the same legal status as

private discussion."18

6See, e.g., the vigorous dissenting opinion of Justice
Jackson in Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 181
17 Meiklejohn, Political Freedom, at 54. (emphasis in
18 Id. at 51.

Although the Court never accepted Meiklejohn's

separation of First and Fifth Amendment speech, he makes a

point that does not depend on that distinction. Different

types of expression serve different purposes and should be

granted different levels of constitutional protection.19 If

we cannot distinguish between speech protected under

different amendments, then we must examine the different

kinds of speech under the protections of the First Amendment

only. The inflexible position that all expression is equal

leads inevitably to either protecting everything absolutely

or relativizing protection under the same standards for all

types of expression.20

Meiklejohn refused to elevate commercial speech to the

level of political speech and extend absolute First

Amendment protection to it. "There are in the theory of the

Constitution, two radically different kinds of utterances.

The constitutional status of a merchant advertising his

wares, of a paid lobbyist fighting for the advantage of his

client, is utterly different from that of a citizen who is

planning for the general welfare."21 This was radically

different from the broad self-fulfillment value of speech,

which also included commercial speech, articulated by

Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, who found "an

individual interest, the need of many men to express their

19 Id. at 37.

20 Id. at 38.

21 Id. at 37.

opinions on matters vital to them" to be the controlling

principle.22 Meiklejohn would lump such comments of

singular interest together with commercial speech and other

forms of private speech and protect them through the Fifth

Amendment only. As he repeatedly stressed throughout his

writings, political speech is of paramount importance and

the value of political expression is primarily to the

audience rather than to the speaker who wishes to utter it,

and freedom of expression springs not from the desire to

speak, but from the need to hear.23 In Meiklejohn's

hierarchy of values, expression merely for its own sake

ranked low, and its sole justification was the support it

provided for higher forms of expression.

Meiklejohn took a dim view of the mass media,

particularly broadcasting, as the prime example of pervasive

commercial speech undeserving of protection at the level of

political speech. As speech unrelated to the business of

self-government, commercial radio fell into Meiklejohn's

broad catch-all category of private speech, that is speech

carried on for the benefit of the speaker. "The radio, as

we now have it," he wrote in 1948, "is not cultivating those

qualities of taste, of reasoned judgment, of integrity, of

loyalty, of mutual understanding upon which the enterprise

of self-government depends. On the contrary, it is a mighty

22 Chafee, Jr., Zechariah, Free Speech in the United
States, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1941), 33.
23 Meiklejohn, Political Freedom, at 24-7.


force for breaking them down."2 Ten years later, he added

that "privately sponsored television has proved to be even

more deadly. [The broadcast media] corrupt both our

morals and our intelligence."25

In keeping with his position that political speech was

foremost among types of expression, Meiklejohn often called

attention to other recognized categories of speech that fell

short of that ideal to justify his two-level system of

protection. Meiklejohn pointed out that all speech is not

in fact treated equally, and that courts have recognized

that some forms are subject to controls ranging from

regulation to outright prohibition. "Thus libels,

blasphemies, attacks upon public morals or private

reputations have been held punishable."26 Meiklejohn

acknowledged that his list was only partial and included

other forms of speech such as incitement to violence and

endangering public safety. He emphasized the breadth of

punishable speech, writing that "this listing of legitimate

legislative abridgments of speech could be continued

indefinitely. Their number is legion."27

While carefully sketching out the categories of speech

he approved of prohibiting, Meiklejohn was unable to draw a

meaningful distinction between pure speech and speech mixed

24 Id. at 87-8.

25 Id. at xvi, 87.

26 Id. at 113.

27 Id.

with action. He ignored the possibility that the

accompanying action might be the dispositive factor in

judging speech instead of a judgment based solely on the

purpose of the expression. "Speech," he wrote, "as a form

of human action, is subject to regulation in exactly the

same way as is walking, or lighting a fire or shooting a

gun. To interpret the First Amendment as forbidding such

regulation is to so misconceive its meaning as to reduce it

to nonsense."28

Meiklejohn rejected the idea of a "balancing test" as

it would apply to First Amendment speech. He reasoned that

any weighing of competing social values would be meaningless

because of the overwhelming importance of First Amendment

speech, which he had limited to speech on public affairs.

The exchange of ideas on topics of political and social

import was speech without equal since it led to an

acquaintance with the information necessary for voters to

make an educated choice at the polls.29 He did, however,

accept such an ad hoc evaluation for lesser forms of speech,

since he believed that not all speech necessarily

contributed to the search for truth.

Literature Review

There is only one study of Meiklejohn that even begins

to approach the status of a biography. A 1981 book, which

excerpts Meiklejohn's major writings, particularly on

28 Id. at 114.

Id. at 19.

academic freedom from the earlier years of his career,

begins with a 47-page biographical sketch.30 That portion

of the book stresses Meiklejohn's teaching career as a

framework for introducing the excerpts from his

teaching-related writings, and is full of detail on the

earliest years of his life, but does not go into any depth

on Meiklejohn's philosophy.

Six dissertations have been written on Meiklejohn.

Three have concentrated heavily on his educational

theories.31 Two others focused on his theoretical concept

of the state.3 The dissertation most closely related to

this study, a 1979 work by Mack Redburn Palmer, touches on

both those areas and adds Meiklejohn's view of law to the

mix. It is a masterful attempt to reconcile some of the

inconsistencies in Meiklejohn's pronouncements and clarify

30 Brown, Cynthia Stokes, Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher
of Freedom, Berkeley, CA: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties
Institute, (1981).
31 Baldwin, Robert H., "A Quest for Unity: An Analysis
of the Educational Theories of Alexander Meiklejohn (Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Pittsburg, 1967); Shantz,
Hermione, "The Social and Educational Theory of Alexander
Meiklejohn (Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University,
1969); Green, James M., "Alexander Meiklejohn: Innovator in
Undergraduate Education (Ph.D. dissertation, University of
Michigan, 1970).
32 Cooper, Charles J., "Alexander Meiklejohn: Absolutes
of Intelligence in Political and Constitutional Theory,"
(Ph.D. dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, 1967); Perry,
Eugene, Alexander Meiklejohn and the Organic Theory of
Democracy," (Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1969).

the positions that had subjected him to heavy criticism

during his lifetime.33

More than 30 years after his death, Meiklejohn is still

enormously popular as a source for law review authors, with

at least 550 citations to his written work in the last 15

years alone. There have been no articles devoted

exclusively to his philosophy in recent years, apart from

brief summaries of his books.

Legal scholars cite Meiklejohn frequently in civil

liberties treatises and occasionally devote short chapter

subsections to summarizing his arguments. Most often

Meiklejohn's views are mentioned by scholars in connection

with specific cases, some of whose written decisions

originally cited him.34 These discussions do not generally

delve into any understanding of Meiklejohn's writings beyond

their immediate application to the cases illustrated.

33 Palmer, Mack R. "The Qualified Absolute: Alexader
Meiklejohn and Freedom of Speech," (Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1979).

SSee, e.g., Krislov, Samuel, The Supreme Court and
Political Freedom, New York: Free Press (1968); Schauer,
Frederick, Free Speech and Its Philosophical Roots," in The
First Amendment: The Legacy of George Mason, T. Daniel
Shumate, ed., Fairfax, VA.: The George Mason University
Press (1985); Ladenson, Robert F., A Philosophy of Free
Expression, Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield (1983); Redish,
Martin H., Freedom of Expression: A Critical Analysis,
Charlottesville, VA.: The Michie Co. (1984); Haiman,
Franklyn S., "Speech Acts" and the First Amendment,
Carbondale, IL.: Southern Illinois University Press (1993);
Graber, Mark A., Transforming Free Speech: The Ambiguous
Legacy of Civil Libertarianism, Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press (1991).

Meiklejohn also often appears in media law texts and

casebooks, again in the company of other legal philosophers,

such as Chafee, with whom he is often paired and compared.35

They are, again, only as comprehensive and analytical as

four- to five-page summaries can be.

Meiklejohn and his views generally appear in chapters

on First Amendment philosophy and comprise but a small

portion of the broad sweep that those chapters make. In

spite of widespread mention in current literature,

Meiklejohn is presented, without exception, as one of

several relatively minor figures from the past. His ideas

are acknowledged as having some application to today's

issues, but are discounted as having never enjoyed broad


Although Meiklejohn's theories were never explicitly

embraced by a majority of the justices, his adherents did

occupy pivotal positions on the Court. His ideas were cited

repeatedly to temper more reactionary views at the Court and

provided a liberal counterweight to McCarthyite sentiments

that were common in the post-war period. As voices from

35 See, e.g., Pember, Don R., Mass Media Law, Dubuque,
IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 5th ed. (1990); Middleton, Kent
R. and Chamberlin, Bill F., The Law of Public Communication,
White Plains, NY: Longman, 3rd ed., (1994); Holsinger, Ralph
L., Media Law, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2nd ed. (1991);
Nelson, Harold L.; Teeter, Dwight L. and LeDuc, Don R., Law
of Mass Communications, Westbury, NY: Foundation Press, 6th
ed., (1989); Carter, T. Barton; Franklin, Marc A. and
Wright, Jay B., The First Amendment and the Fourth Estate,
Westbury, NY: Foundation Press, 5th ed. (1991); Franklin,
Marc A., Mass Media Law, Mineola, NY: Foundation Press, 2nd
ed. (1982).

the political right become increasingly strident in the

mid-1990s, Meiklejohn's moderating influence may hold

valuable lessons for keeping diverse viewpoints in

circulation for the benefit of our ongoing experiment in



In addition to the published writing of Meiklejohn,

this study is based primarily on archival collections

located in four cities across the country. The relatively

few writings about Meiklejohn, which appear most frequently

as eulogies in academic and professional journals, will be

consulted as secondary sources.

The first, and smallest, collection is located at Brown

University in Providence, Rhode Island. In Meiklejohn's

home state, he was a professor and Dean at Brown for 15

years. While the collection of Meiklejohn's personal papers

is small, the archives do contain a wealth of material

concerning his role at the university during the formative

years of his career.

The oldest major collection is held in the archives of

Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Meiklejohn was

president of Amherst for 11 crucial and often controversial

years. Meiklejohn's Amherst materials are contained in 11

boxes of documents.

Two collections are held in Madison, Wisconsin, where

Meiklejohn headed the Experimental College at the University

of Wisconsin for five years. The largest of all, consisting

of 69 boxes, is at the State Historical Society of

Wisconsin. Meiklejohn's widow, Helen, chose the historical

society as the repository for his personal papers in 1969.

Before her own death in 1982, Mrs. Meiklejohn also made a

concerted effort to retrieve her late husband's letters to

his many correspondents and donated them to the historical

society as well. A second collection of 70 boxes, much of

which concerns Meiklejohn only peripherally, deals with the

administrative history of the Experimental College and is

housed in the University of Wisconsin Archives. It is,

however, a rich source of material on the curriculum of the

Experimental College and the practical application of

Meiklejohn's theories. The Experimental College's annual

reports, in particular, give an early glimpse of

Meiklejohn's recognition of the importance of an

understanding of law and the position of the Constitution as

a foundation of government.

The fourth collection is located at the Meiklejohn

Civil Liberties Institute in Berkeley, California, where

Meiklejohn "retired" in 1932. The Institute is a

freestanding private foundation with a small collection best

described as "eclectic," and housed in a converted

single-car garage. The modest three-box collection was

assembled largely from correspondence with private citizens

and other "fans" around the Bay Area who became acquainted

with Meiklejohn through his membership in the Northern


California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in

the 1940s and 1950s.

Outline of the Study

The next two chapters of this study will examine the

development and philosophy of Meiklejohn the educator.

Chapter II looks at his early years as both teacher and

administrator on the traditional campuses at Brown and

Amherst. He formed his theories on academic freedom during

this time and tried them out, with varying degrees of

success. Chapter III covers Meiklejohn's role in

experimental educational programs at the University of

Wisconsin and in San Francisco. He developed his theories

of freedom more fully here, and put them into actual


The last three chapters of the study are devoted to

Meiklejohn's thinking on the citizen-government

relationship, as specifically guided by the First Amendment.

Chapter IV explores Meiklejohn's interpretation of the First

Amendment, in all its varied facets and stages, to which he

devoted the last two decades of his life. Chapter V

examines the influence of Meiklejohn's theories at the

Supreme Court, where he found both supporters and detractors

among the justices, several of whom counted Meiklejohn among

their close friends. Chapter VI attempts to clarify

Meiklejohn's own brand of absolutism, assess his legacy to

the last years of the 20th Century and suggest some

applications for his ideas in the next century.


The Making of a Scholar

Alexander Meiklejohn's beliefs attracted notice as

early as 1889, when, as valedictorian of the senior class at

Pawtucket(Rhode Island)High School, he argued in favor of

prohibition statutes.' His remarks caught the attention of

the press, which summarized them briefly in a short account

of the graduation ceremony.2 Prohibition had been

controversial in the industrialized, working-class cities of

Rhode Island, but the state had become legally dry in 1887,

joining three of the five other New England states more than

30 years before Prohibition became the law of the land.3

The youngest of eight boys and the only English-born

son of a Scottish textile craftsman, Meiklejohn had been

1 Meiklejohn's handwritten copy of the six-page Apr. 1,
1889 speech is held in the Alexander Meiklejohn Papers,
State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Box 60,
Folder 5. [Hereinafter referred to as Meiklejohn Papers.]

2 Unlabeled clipping, Meiklejohn Papers, Box 60, Folder

3 Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island all were
declared dry between 1870 and 1887. Maine had been the
first state in the country to enact prohibition laws in the
United States in 1851. Brunelle, James E., ed., Maine
Almanac, Augusta, Me.: Guy Gannett Publishing Co. (1978),

raised in a family that prized firmly-held beliefs. An

important feature of Meiklejohn's early home life in

Rochdale, England was the presence of workers who came by to

discuss grievances against the mill managers with his

father, James. The family was a member of the Rochdale

Cooperative, the world's first consumer cooperative

enterprise, which supplied shareholders with coal, food and

clothing at wholesale prices in exchange for a few hours of

labor weekly. As a result, Meiklejohn embraced the

principles of direct control over life's basic necessities

and participation in communal decision-making throughout his


In June 1880, when Alexander was eight years old, the

Meiklejohns were sent to Pawtucket by his father's

employers, where James taught the latest fabric dyeing

techniques to the workers in the company's Rhode Island

mill. At home, money was tight, so the family concentrated

on just a few books, studying the Bible and the poetry of

fellow Scot Robert Burns,5 which helped propel young Alex to

the top of his class in the Pawtucket public schools.

After high school, Meiklejohn enrolled at Brown

University in nearby Providence. He lived at home and,

according to university legend, often made the four-mile

"I'm an American," Script No. 65, Interview broadcast
by NBC on radio station WBZ in Boston, MA on Sunday, Aug.
10, 1941; Meiklejohn Papers, Box 35, Folder 3.

5 Id.

journey to classes on foot.6 An outstanding student,

Meiklejohn was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year.

Slightly built, and of only average height, Meiklejohn was

nevertheless also a versatile athlete and managed to find

time to play with the university's squash, soccer, tennis

and cricket clubs.7 As a graduate student at Brown, he was

also a member of the first intercollegiate ice hockey team,

and is credited in some circles with introducing the flat

puck in place of the round ball previously used in ice polo

following a vacation trip to Canada with the team.8

Meiklejohn, however, was never confident of his historic

role in the game. In 1951, writing in the university's

alumni magazine, Meiklejohn wrote that Harvard may have

played the Canadians first.9 Characteristically, he

neglected to mention that he had been captain of the team.

Meiklejohn, who was usually called Alex, but preferred

Alec, graduated from Brown in 1893 with a degree in

philosophy and stayed on to complete a master's degree two

years later. In 1896, when his mentor, James Seth, left to

join the faculty at Cornell University, Meiklejohn also left

for Ithaca, New York on a hockey scholarship. Completing

his Ph.D. dissertation on Immanuel Kant's theory of

6 "In Memoriam," Brown Daily Herald, Jan. 9, 1965, 6.

7 Id.

8 Evans, A.B., New England Hockey, Andover, MA:
Littleton Press, (1938), 12.

9 "Hockey Pioneers," Brown Alumni Monthly, (Spring
1951), 14-15.

substance0 in 1897, Meiklejohn returned to Brown as an

instructor. He climbed steadily up the academic ladder at

Brown, advancing to assistant professor in 1899, associate

in 1903 and full professor in 1906. In 1901, Meiklejohn

also assumed the responsibilities of the newly-created post

of Dean.1 When Meiklejohn returned from Cornell in 1897,

he was also elected to the Pawtucket School Committee, which

he served until 1903."

Forming Educational Theories

In the classroom, Meiklejohn quickly acquired a

reputation as a tenacious questioner who constantly forced

students to think about their positions. He lectured

infrequently, preferring to pose questions of the students,

then challenging them to justify their responses. This

socratic style of teaching was not common outside of the

newly-established law schools at the turn of the century,

but Meiklejohn saw it as a method of involving the entire

class in the process of evaluating ideas, isolating awkward

or unworkable components, dissecting them and suggesting new

approaches to the problem.13

10 Green, James M., "Alexander Meiklejohn: Innovation in
Undergraduate Education," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of
Michigan, 1970), 59.

11 Bronson, Walter C., History of Brown University,
1764-1914, Providence: Brown University (1914), 481.

12 Letter to Brown classmate Fred Ladd, June 25, 1904.
Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, Berkeley, Box 1,
Folder 8.

13 W. Randolph Burgess, "What Is Truth?" Rights XII
(February 1965), 29.


While his questioning style may have been effective in

class, it bedeviled his critics, particularly when he

continued to use it after leaving academia. He never

pretended to have ready solutions to all the problems he

identified, but viewed his often open-ended questions as

valuable contributions in and of themselves. Both in the

classroom and in discussion of public issues, Meiklejohn

above all intended that his questions inspire intellectual

debate rather than suggest complete answers. He believed

that answers would be discovered by the debaters themselves

as a result of this give-and-take, and answers developed

through that process were learned better than those he could

have suggested or imposed.14

As Dean, Meiklejohn also employed a strategy of letting

students work out their own solution as part of an athletics

reform plan to deal with a problem within one of the

university's teams. As baseball soared in popularity in the

late 19th Century, Brown built a reputation for one of the

most formidable college teams in New England. Athletic

conference rules forbade students who played in professional

leagues during the summer from playing on their college

teams, but competition was stiff and administrators honored

the rule mainly in the breach. Some of Brown's best

players, who had spent the summer of 1902 playing with

professional teams on Cape Cod, returned to Providence and

1Id. at 28.

found themselves disqualified by decree of the Dean.15 The

move negated the team's championship, won the previous

spring, and infuriated some alumni.'6

Meiklejohn pressed on, however, determined to return

Brown athletics to true amateur status. He took his

athletic reform plan another step and persuaded the faculty

to turn over full responsibility for athletic program

compliance to student managers, whom he believed would

succeed. The students did not let their dean down, and

before long, the Brown model of student oversight of

intercollegiate amateur athletics became the standard.

Gradually, Brown's teams returned to the top levels of

competitiveness and attendance at games recovered, then

eclipsed, previous numbers.17

For Meiklejohn, the crisis over how to handle the

university's athletic teams went far beyond the question of

professionalism in college sports. He regarded the issue as

a crucible to test his views on his students' ability to

make sound decisions. Meiklejohn proceeded from the belief

that, handed the authority to supervise athletics and faced

with the responsibility for the programs' eventual success

or failure, students would choose a course of action that

would maintain the university's trust in their abilities.

15 Report of the Dean to the President and Trustees,
1902-1903, Brown University Archives, Providence, RI, 20.
16 The university archives contain seven letters
protesting Meiklejohn's decision.
17 Bronson, History of Brown University, at 484-85.

The Dean had believed that the freedom to run the athletic

programs could not be taught successfully by rigid

enforcement of rules by administrators.18 When student

managers met to establish policy, they chose regulations

that were in the best interests and the teams and the

university and the administration continued its policy of

non-interference. Meiklejohn had decided that the way to

teach freedom was to grant it.

Testing Educational Theories

By 1911, Meiklejohn had acquired a solid regional

reputation as a firm, but popular, administrator and an

effective, but moderate, reformer. His accomplishments at

Brown attracted the attention of the trustees of Amherst

College, several of whom were Brown alumni. Amherst itself

had attracted notice in 1910, when a committee of members of

the Class of 1885 issued a report on the state of the

college. The group, which had formed at their 25th reunion,

believed that standards had slipped over the years and that

their alma mater was being left behind in the wake of

changes in higher education that had been underway since the

late 19th Century.

One of the problems the alumni report identified was

the size of the college, which the committee felt had grown

too big, abetted by low entrance standards. The group also

suggested a return to a rigidly classical curriculum,

elimination of the Bachelor of Science degree, hiring of

18 Id.

new, younger faculty from outside the college and an

emphasis on scholarship.19 When the trustees invited

Meiklejohn to visit Amherst during their search for a new

president, he had already read the report, and although he

"did not know where Amherst was," he admitted to a friend,

his interest was piqued. "Wouldn't you like to get ahold of

a college like that; wouldn't it mean something to make

those ideas clear and make them work?"20

Meiklejohn was offered that chance in May 1912 as

Amherst's eighth president. As rumors of the impending move

spread, letters poured in urging Meiklejohn to accept the

challenge he had identified. The letters were mainly from

his friends in academia, but also from Brown alumni such as

Charles Evans Hughes, Jr., editor of the Harvard Law Review,

who had apparently been one of the first to hear the news.

Another came from the New York Evening Post's city editor, a

Brown classmate and Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother who

pleaded for confirmation of the rumor, that he might scoop

the Amherst graduate who was his counterpart at the New York


19 Report of the Dean to the President and Trustees,
1902-1903, Brown University Archives, Providence, R.I.
20 "Some Addresses Delivered at Amherst College
Commencement Time, 1923," Alumni of Amherst College, 1924,
Amherst College Archives, Amherst, MA, 49.
21 Charles C. Selden to Meiklejohn, May 15, 1912,
Meiklejohn Papers, Box 2, Folder 14.

Amherst College had been founded in 1821 to educate

Protestant clergy.2 By the end of the century, the goal

had become a more general one of educating men. In the 20th

Century, major universities were changing their missions for

the new purpose of creating knowledge, but at Amherst,

Meiklejohn's purpose was to create an environment that would

encourage students to learn how to think. Just what

teaching thinking entailed was not clear to the college

community when the new, 40-year-old president arrived in

October 1912. Over the next 11 years, Meiklejohn would show

them, creating more of an interest in the college than the

trustees could imagine, or endure.

In his inaugural address, Meiklejohn served notice to

the Amherst College community that he would be an activist

president. His intention to make fundamental changes to a

college experience grounded in the classics was explicit:

"To give boys an intellectual grasp on human experience--

this, it seems to me, is the teacher's conception of the

chief function of the liberal college."23

Among the first changes instituted by Meiklejohn were

adjustments to the curriculum. By far the most

controversial was a freshman course called "Social and

Economic Institutions," designed by Meiklejohn to begin

22 Of the 40 members of the Class of 1834, 18 became
Congregational clergymen. Education at Amherst, Gail
Kennedy, ed., New York: Harper and Bros. (1955), 22.
23 Meiklejohn, Alexander, Inaugural Address of the
Eighth President of Amherst College, Oct. 16, 1912, Amherst
College Archives, Amherst, MA.

students' thinking about the foundations of American

society. The course, which was popular with the students,

immediately came under fire from conservative faculty

members for its "vagueness of content and looseness of

method."24 The course weathered the attack and was taught

for many years thereafter.

Another of Meiklejohn's changes was a de-emphasis of

specialized courses. He was not against specialization but

thought it inappropriate for a college curriculum and best

pursued after completion of a liberal college education.

The intellectual road to success is longer and more
roundabout than any other, but they who are strong and
willing for the climbing are brought to higher levels
of achievement than they could possibly have attained
had they gone straight forward in the pathway of quick

Meiklejohn admitted that students needed specialized

vocational training. He simply did not think that the

acquisition of such operational tools was a proper goal of

college. Vocational training provided none of the insight

necessary for informed discussion and decision-making on

basic political issues.

College teachers know that the world must have trained
workmen, skilled operatives, clever buyers and sellers,
efficient directors, resourceful manufacturers, able
lawyers, ministers, physicians and teachers. But it is
equally true that in order to do its own work, the
liberal college must leave the special and technical
training for these trades and professions to be done in

24 Green, James M., "Alexander Meiklejohn: Innovation in
Undergraduate Education," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of
Michigan, 1970), 145-46.
25 Meiklejohn, Alexander, Freedom and the College, New
York: Century Co. (1923), 170.

other schools and by other methods. In a word, the
liberal college does not pretend to give all the kinds
of teaching which a young man of college age may
profitably receive; it does not even claim to give all
the kinds of intellectual training which are worth
giving. It is committed to intellectual training of
the liberal type.26

Meiklejohn also opposed the proliferation of elective

courses listed in college catalogs. This late 19th Century

development was the invention of Charles W. Eliot, president

of Harvard University, and widely emulated among other

educators by the early 20th Century." Eliot, who was in

his day the most significant figure in American higher

education, did not impress Meiklejohn.

In my opinion it seems probable that the most important
fact connected with the development of the elective
system in America is that Charles William Eliot was a
chemist. So far as I know he is the greatest leader in
collegiate policy that America has had. But the modes
of thought of his powerful leadership are predominantly
the mechanical terms of chemical analysis. Those
terms, with all their values and all their limitations,
he for a long time fixed upon the academic thinking of
this country.28

About Eliot's system he added:

In a word, it seems to me that our willingness to allow
students to wander about in the college curriculum is
one of the most characteristic expressions of a certain
intellectual agnosticism, a kind of intellectual

26 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Aim of the Liberal
College", in Fulton, Maurice G., ed., College Life, New
York: Century Co. (1921), 34-35.
27 By 1894, the only required courses at Harvard
University were French or German, English Composition,
physics and chemistry. Pulliam, John D. and Van Patten,
James, History of Education in America, Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice-Hall (6th ed. 1995), 97-98.
28 Meiklejohn, Freedom and the College, at 196.

bankruptcy, into which, in spite of all our wealth of
information, the spirit of the time has fallen.29

Meiklejohn pointed out this hazard because a college

did not have to inevitably fall into the same trap, he said.

A college could escape the fashionable system that he felt

was undermining the colleges' mission, "But I do not believe

that this result can be achieved without a radical reversal

of the college curriculum."30

Meiklejohn's "radical reversal" had begun with the

"Social and Economic Institutions" course, and continued

with his efforts to break the hold of the classics by

introducing additional concepts of modern thought through

courses in the fields of sociology, psychology, economics,

history and the natural sciences. Opposition to courses

that called into question the religious foundation of

education had been common in the late 19th Century, as

exemplified by the furor that accompanied John Fiske's

attempt to teach Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species at

Harvard University in 1860.31 A similar attitude prevailed

at Amherst well into the 20th Century, where most of the

faculty were older men who were themselves graduates of

SId. at 178.

30 Id. at 188.

31 Gabel, Gerhard, Nineteenth Century Religious
Teachings at Private Colleges and Universities, Trumbull,
Conn.: F.E. King and Sons, (1925), 132-34.

Amherst and adherents of the college's Calvinist


One of Meiklejohn's major efforts at reform, and one of

his major defeats, was his suggestion that Amherst's

four-year college course emphasize the humanities and be

divided into two parts.33 Most strikingly, Meiklejohn's

proposal cut back considerably on courses in religion and

the classics, accelerating the trend that had already been

objected to by the Class of 1885. Although change was

already underway, a classical education was still the

typical academic foundation of small, private,

church-affiliated colleges.

Meiklejohn called the first two years' curriculum, a

rigidly defined collection of readings in philosophy,

history, economics and social science, the "junior college."

The second half of the bifurcated curriculum narrowed the

subject matter considerably. The coursework in the "senior

college" would not be limited to a single subject or become

technical or specialized but rather would rely on the

individual student's background and interests to form

connections with broader issues by drawing on the first two

years' readings in the humanities. The "senior college"

would end with a comprehensive test, based on the student's

3Id. at 158.

33 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "How Shall We Teach?", Message
to the Board of Trustees, September 1919. Amherst College
Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 8, Folder 4.

own work and drawing its questions from the issues he had

examined in his own studies.34

Underlying Meiklejohn's educational plan was a

philosophy of human freedom based on enlightened choice. In

contrast with the traditional Bible-based approach to human

nature, the humanistic view espoused by Meiklejohn was

threatening to the old order. The humanities, as the new

type of curriculum came to be known, were studied in the

context of actual human social experience. Described as a

"vital and dynamic element in general education which must

be concerned with modern subjects,"35 a humanities

curriculum has four purposes: "[it] broadens learning,

stimulates imagination, kindles sympathy and inspires a

sense of human dignity."3

Meiklejohn was a fervent believer in the approach to

education contained in his proposal. He seemed aware that

the plan was a radical one but thought that it was worth

taking a chance and that a small college like Amherst was

the place to try it:

The real question as to such a plan is not "Is it
desirable?", but "Can it be made to work?" And
the question is not one to be evaded. But my own
conviction is very strong that the thing can be
done. I am certain that it ought to be tried. It
is better to see what can be accomplished along

34 Id.

35 Beesley, Patricia, The Revival of the Humanities in
America, New York: Columbia University Press (1940), 49.

6 Green, Theodore M., The Meaning of the Humanities,
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (1938), 42.

such a line than to wait ignobly for someone else
to make the attempt.37

The trustees, however, were not ready for such a

departure from what they perceived as a reasonably

progressive and modern curriculum that had been honed over

the previous 20 years or so and updated by the inclusion of

modern history courses.38 The trustees were especially

irritated by the fact that the proposal was accompanied by

Meiklejohn's assertion that even failure of his curriculum

to produce graduates capable of analytical thought was

preferable to not having even made the attempt: "A death

like that would be a noble ending, the sort of thing from

which many splendid enterprises have sprung.""39 Here was a

fundamental difference between Meiklejohn and the trustees.

For Meiklejohn, educational progress was continual

evolution, an ongoing experiment; for Amherst's trustees and

older alumni, education was a tradition deeply connected to

the past. A rapidly changing technological society was

insufficient reason to change; perhaps even a reason to

proceed ever more slowly and cautiously.'" The trustees did

37 Meiklejohn, Alexander, The Liberal College, Boston:
Marshall Jones Co., (1920), 161. The Liberal College is a
collection of Meiklejohn's essays and speeches published by
Amherst as part of the college's 100th anniversary
38 Id. at 160.

39 Id. at 161.

40 Brown, Cynthia Stokes, Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher
of Freedom, Berkeley, Calif.: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties
Institute (1981), 16,19.

manage to block Meiklejohn's plans for restructuring the

curriculum into the two-part program he envisioned.

However, he had sufficient support on the board to

establish, one or two at a time, most of the humanities

courses he wanted.

If Amherst was resistant to change, other colleges and

universities were not. From modest beginnings at Columbia

University as early as 1919, humanities-based curricula were

adopted by at least 11 colleges and universities between the

late 1920s and mid-1940s.41

Fifteen years after Meiklejohn's 1923 departure,

Amherst itself began to take steps toward strengthening the

humanities curriculum that Meiklejohn had begun. In 1938,

the seven-member Amherst Faculty Committee on Long-Range

Policy reported, "It is the function of the liberal college

to require at least an intelligent consideration of a few

fields of knowledge which the College, by the fact of its

teaching them, has marked as significant."42

41 Shoemaker, Francis, Aesthetic Experience and the
Humanities, New York: Columbia University Press (1943),
155-89. Humanities-oriented curricula adopted between the
late 1920s and the time of the Second World War: Stephens
College (1928); Scripps College (1928); Antioch College
(1930); Johns Hopkins University (1930); University of
Chicago (1931), under Meiklejohn's friend, Robert M.
Hutchins; University of Michigan (1932); University of
Minnesota (1932); Stanford University (1935); Princeton
University (1936); Columbia University (1937), under Jacques
Barzun; Mills College (1943).
42 Communication to the Curriculum Committee, Nov. 11,
1938. The report was signed by professors Ralph A. Beebe
and George B. Funnell. Amherst College Archives, Amherst,

By the mid-1940s, Meiklejohn's goal of a two-part,

humanities-oriented college curriculum at Amherst was a

reality, although the terminology was slightly different.

The "lower college" was designed as partly remedial and as a

general foundation for the last two years in the "upper

college." "These (lower college) courses should be both so

distributed and so related to one another that by the end of

the sophomore year the students will have accomplished two

things: they will have a common body of knowledge in each of

the three great fields of the curriculum43 and each will

have been able to make a significant beginning in work

preparatory to a major [and] to be able to conclude

work for that major during the last two years."" Major

requirements had also become more rigorous, increasing from

three to five year-long courses in the field.45

The Roots of Controversy at Amherst

Not all of the efforts to change the curriculum and the

controversies they engendered were of Meiklejohn's doing. A

deep philosophical split over the curriculum was evident

several months before Meiklejohn accepted the trustees'

offer of the presidency. Spurred by the 1910 report of the

Class of 1885, the debate over the future of the college

continued in the pages of the new alumni magazine.

43 Mathematics and Natural Sciences; Social Studies and
Philosophy; and Languages, Literature and the Arts.

44 Kennedy, Education at Amherst, 39.

45 Id. at 37.

Frederick J.E. Woodbridge, dean of the graduate faculty at

Columbia University, staked out one side's position in the

first issue. He attacked as spurious the theory that

education should foster the service or character ideal,

repudiated the concept of moral indoctrination and spoke out

plainly for intellectual values. The college experience

should be "the process of educating the emotions to act

rationally," he wrote46 He was bitterly challenged as

"un-Christian" in the next issue by Cornelius H. Patton,

Class of 1883, who wrote, "I have always understood that

Amherst stood for a spiritual philosophy as against mere


Agreement between the two alumni factions with the

original point in the 1910 report of the Class of 1885 that

something should be done to raise the level of teaching and

study obscured the fundamental issue of the future direction

of the college. The Woodbridge-Patton dispute, however,

illustrated the size of the gulf between the two groups.

Without some semblance of unity, any chance of realizing the

goal of an improved college was impossible. Meiklejohn was

perhaps doomed to fail even before he arrived.

As the trustees began to evaluate candidates for

president, the faculty communicated its feelings to the

board. Its brief message indicated that they preferred

George D. Olds, a senior mathematics professor who had been

46 1 Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, (October 1911), 21.

41 Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, (January 1912), 56.

on the faculty for more than 20 years.48 Losing sight of

the wishes of several of the groups within the college

community by concentrating exclusively on the need to

replace the retiring president, the trustees selected

Meiklejohn, antagonized the faculty and alienated a good

portion of the college's alumni who sympathized with Patton.

Meiklejohn did enjoy victories during his tenure such

as a more than doubling of the college's endowment, but

ultimately even one of his successes became a weapon to be

used against him. Meiklejohn had identified a gulf in

social science study between Europe, especially Great

Britain, and the United States and thought the differences

would create opportunities for discussion. Meiklejohn

instituted the practice of visiting lecturers and other

short-term appointments to bring distinguished scholars to

campus,49 a tradition that is followed to this day. One of

the first visiting scholars was R. H. Tawney, a British

labor historian with leftist leanings who arrived in the

spring of 1920. Other Meiklejohn-recruited lecturers who

spent several weeks to several months at Amherst were poet

William Butler Yeats, historian Charles Beard and labor

48 Letter to the Board of Trustees, Mar. 14, 1912,
Papers of President Julius Seelye, Amherst College Archives,
Amherst, MA., Box 4, Folder 1.

4Letter to the Board of Trustees, Oct. 2, 1919,
announcing plans to bring economist Ernest Baker to campus.
Amherst College Archives, Amhert, MA. Box 11, Folder 7.

economist Harold J. Laski.50 In the same vein, during the

last few months of his tenure, Meiklejohn was working to

create endowments to fund additional visiting lecturers in

literature, physics and philosophy.51

Meiklejohn created friction between campus factions by

attempting to alter the content of courses and classroom

methods, imposing texts and testing requirements. These

maneuvers fostered resentment among senior faculty members

who uniformly viewed the moves as encroachments into their

academic freedom.52 Although Meiklejohn had been successful

in recruiting new faculty, most of Amherst's faculty had

been hired and tenured long before his inauguration. Even

some of the new faculty chafed under Meiklejohn's methods.

Future four-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost,

who had been hired by Meiklejohn in 1916, quit the faculty

in 1920 because of conflicts with the president, though he

50 Lipset, Seymour M. and Riesman, David, Education and
Politics at Harvard, Berkeley: Carnegie Commission on Higher
Education (1975), 140. Laski's appointment was a particular
source of rancor for Calvin Coolidge (Amherst 1895) because
of Laski's support of the 1919 Boston police strike. As
governor, Coolidge had broken the strike, a stand that was
at least partly responsible for his elevation to
vice-presidential candidate on the successful 1920
Republican ticket.
51 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Measure of a College," 12
Amherst Graduate's Quarterly, (February 1923), 90.
52 Partial letter to the Board of Trustees, Apr. 6,
1921, Amherst College Archives, Amherst, MA.

returned after Meiklejohn left.53 Chief among Frost's

complaints was Meiklejohn's attempt to reduce the number of

poetry courses offered by the English Department.54

A serious public squabble during Meiklejohn's tenure

has generally been interpreted in a manner that has put him

on the unpopular side of a patriotic issue. In late 1916,

when the First World War had been raging in Europe for more

than two years and the United States' April 1917 entry into

the conflict was only months away, Massachusetts Lt. Gov.

and Amherst alumnus Calvin Coolidge came to speak to a

"preparedness" group on campus." In keeping with his

position that all sides of issues be discussed, Meiklejohn

insisted that the anti-war point of view be represented at

the meeting as well. Alumni were outraged that Meiklejohn

remained completely neutral, but his position did not have

the feared effect of promoting unpatriotic sentiment on

campus.56 Meiklejohn also counseled his students to stay in

school as long as possible. When war was declared, however,

he told them they were obliged to serve when called.

53 Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1924,
1931, 1937 and 1943. The Amherst College library, which was
built shortly after Frost died in 1963, is named in his

s4 Robert Frost to the Board of Trustees, letter of
resignation, May 11, 1920, Amherst College Archives,
Amherst, MA.
55 "Lt. Gov. Tours Central Mass. Colleges," Springfield
Union, Nov. 14, 1916, 8.
56 Minutes, meeting of the Board of Trustees, Jan. 10,
1917, Amherst College Archives, Amherst, MA.

The policy of the Secretary of War seems to me
fundamentally right. All men within military age
should be classified as subject to call and the War
Department should be empowered to assign each man or
each group of men to the work in which they can be of
greatest service. Students should remain in college,
just as other men should remain in their employment
until the call to other service comes. Education is
vitally important but, like other important things, it
must and will give way so far as necessary in the
present emergency. All that men in charge of education
demand is that the interests involved be really
considered. In my judgment, the fewer the limitations
placed upon the discretion of the War Department, the
better will be the outcome.57

Far from being unpatriotic, Meiklejohn had spoken and

written on his position well before Coolidge's visit,

maintaining that serious study was a patriotic activity and

stressing the importance of education and the role of the

college in the war effort and beyond. In an address to the

Academy of Political Science on May 18, 1916, Meiklejohn

said that the United States' hope for military success as

well as integration of national life "lies in the

development of a Mind." He also argued that the mental

discipline needed for a soldier could be taught in liberal

arts colleges as well as in military schools.58

After the war, the college's attention focused on

athletics, and again, Meiklejohn was in the thick of the

57 Undated typewritten draft memo, Meiklejohn Papers,
Box 33, Folder 4. This short message, double-spaced and
edited in pencil, was probably written at about the time of
the November 1916 meeting. It appears to be a version
prepared for Meiklejohn to deliver orally, since it is
unfolded and his personal correspondence was not typed.
58 Meiklejohn's remarks were published as "A
Schoolmaster's View of Compulsory Military Training," in IV
School and Society 79 (July 1, 1916), 9-14.

fray. At first, the problem was the same as it had been at

Brown: students played on professional teams during the

summer and returned to college teams during the school year.

Again, Meiklejohn insisted that they were not eligible, and

again, the alumni howled. Meiklejohn also refused to hire

full-time professional coaches, instead pressing faculty

members into unpaid service and using part-timers from the

town. As a result, he was blamed directly for Amherst's

athletic decline.59 The issue came to a head at the

November 1922 Alumni Council meeting, at which the group

voted to send a message to Meiklejohn asking that he respond

to a question, not so different than might be asked at some

athletic powerhouses today: How are we to measure the worth

of Amherst if not in the generally recognized currency of

athletic prowess?

Meiklejohn answered politely, but characteristically:

When you look at our team on the field you will see
college students playing football, not football players
attending college in order to play. You must
make up your team fairly and generously; you must play
to win; and then the victory will take care of itself.
If you win, you win. If you don't win somebody else
does. I don't know what more can be said.6

Meiklejohn's article on the subject of collegiate

athletics in the Atlantic Monthly put a national slant on

the problem that was debated in its pages for months. In

his article, the president followed the theme that he had

59 Malone, John E., "Ups and Downs on the Playing
Fields," Massachusettts College Athletics (Summer 1922), 33.

6Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Measure of a College," 12
Amherst Graduates' Quarterly (February 1923), 88.

developed at Brown. He reiterated his belief that sports,

responsibly organized and supervised, were an integral part

of education whose benefits inured primarily to the student

and not the college.

I believe in college education, but I do not believe in
furthering it by the abuse of the play of students. My
observation is that when the attempt is made we spoil
not only the play but the education.61

In his private correspondence, however, Meiklejohn was far

less circumspect. In response to a letter congratulating

him on the position he staked out in the Atlantic article,

he showed his impatience with the issue with a touch of

pique, writing, ". much of the alumni interpretation of

our situation is dull and stupid."62

Meiklejohn might have had a similar response to alumni

criticism of some of his visiting lecturers, especially the

British labor historian R. H. Tawney, who some suspected of

being a socialist. Indeed, he was, and Meiklejohn's embrace

of some of his views caused him to be tarred with the same

brush. For one thing, Meiklejohn organized classes for

members of labor unions in Holyoke and Springfield to the

south, in the mills along the Connecticut River.

Ironically, the unions distrusted the well-spoken

61Meiklejohn, Alexander, "What Are College Games For?"
30 Atlantic Monthly (November 1922), 671.

62 Meiklejohn to Ephraim Emerton, Nov. 13, 1922, Amherst
College Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 10, Folder 13.

"professor," in the belief that the college would try to

inculcate capitalist values in the classroom.63

Conservative alumni had some difficulty with

Meiklejohn's commitment to exposing students to divergent

views on a variety of issues. The fathers of many of

Meiklejohn's students were wealthy capitalists who had sent

their sons to Amherst for safekeeping and polishing, not for

encouragement in questioning the foundations of capitalism.

Such critical thinking is often uncomfortable for those who

are criticized.

During the period of anti-socialist hysteria, an

alumnus asked Meiklejohn, "Would you have a bolshevik as a

professor?" The president's response, "I'd have anyone if

he were a good teacher," only served to increase


One writer noted that, "One of the awkward results of

the years of liberal thought in Amherst College was that it

frequently made the sons of upper and middle class families

zealous to liberate those whom their fathers exploited."65

Meiklejohn and Academic Freedom

In contrast to the relatively infrequent but

high-profile events involving questions of academic freedom

63 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Measure of a College,"
12 Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, (February 1923), 90.
64 Julius Seelye Bixler (Amherst 1916), "The Meiklejohn
Affair," 25 Amherst (Spring 1973), 3.
65 Price, Lucien, Prophet Unawares: The Romance of an
Idea, New York: Century Co. (1924), 35-36.

that agitated alumni and were debated in the pages of

Amherst Graduates' Quarterly during the last half of his

tenure, Meiklejohn struggled largely unnoticed for most of

his tenure at Amherst with the more fundamental problem of

justifying the importance of academic freedom. Issues

involving academic freedom bubbled up periodically, but

usually as only part of another more gripping controversy,

such as socialists lecturing on campus, and was a constant

source of tension between Meiklejohn and the trustees. The

debate over the nature and extent of academic freedom was

conducted mainly out of public view in the pages of academic

administrators' journals, where Meiklejohn championed his

belief in unfettered classroom discussion from nearly the

beginning of his presidency.

Meiklejohn believed that the goal of a liberal

education was an agile mind, one that was able to analyze

often conflicting points of view and apply them to current

social and political problems. He believed that type of

academic experience required the freedom to explore ideas

and assumed that all points of view would be presented in

the classroom for evaluation by the student. Exclusion or

imposition of any point of view by college trustees or other

officials foreclosed the possibility of academic freedom and

was fatal to the process of education.

Meiklejohn's first mention of academic freedom at

Amherst appeared in his commencement remarks in 1914. The

speech was never published and probably did not circulate


far beyond the college community. In it, Meiklejohn lauded

academic freedom in the form of support for criticism of a

point of view guided by intellect. One sentence in

particular indicated clearly what the president had in mind

as Amherst's model teaching style and foreshadowed his

position on the matter for the rest of his academic career:

Ideas do not live and flourish when transplanted from
the soil of active search and opposition from which
they spring to that of passive unquestioning
acceptance. They soon lose their vigor and fade

The 1915 annual meeting of the Association of American

Colleges, less than three years into Meiklejohn's

presidency, marked the beginning of his plunge into the

contentious arena of debate over the nature and extent of

academic freedom. The first few years at Amherst had seen

no ferment on campus over academic freedom, as Meiklejohn

had done little to upset the status quo. The issue was not

a new one for academia, however, and in 1915 had been

wrestled with for at least 25 years, loosely tracking the

ebb and flow of the American labor movement that provided

much of the material for study in economics classes.67 In

1915, anarchy as preached by labor leaders was one of the

major evils perceived by the establishment to be threatening

the nation. Anarchist Emma Goldman had toured the nation

6 Unpublished speech (baccalaureate address), Amherst
College, June 21, 1914, 3. Meiklejohn Papers, Box 1, Folder

67 Ericson, P.A., Economics: An Educational History,
Hartford, Conn.: Trimount Press (1951), 66.

earlier in the decade and drawn a large crowd in New York

City in 1914 at a rally with Bill Haywood of the

International Workers of the World. At the rally, Goldman

denounced government accommodation of business interests and

advocated unionization and workers' control of the means of

production. Many of Goldman's supporters, fretted the New

York Times, were "men of education and culture of that

class of 'intellectuals' to which Miss Goldman looks so

hopefully. ""

Left-wing politics and academic freedom came up at the

Association of American College's meeting when formal

discussion turned to a report on administrative control of

classroom teaching submitted by a committee of the

Association of University Professors. The report, as

Meiklejohn described it, was primarily a litany of examples

of abuses of academic freedom from colleges and universities

around the country. The complaints ranged from inconvenient

scheduling and assignment to undesirable courses to denial

of tenure and dismissal on the basis of professors'

memberships and activities outside of class. Meiklejohn had

nominally been a member of the committee that drafted the

report, but had refused to sign the final product.

Meiklejohn believed that discussion of infractions of

academic freedom was futile and ineffective in helping to

preserve those freedoms unless faculties and administrations

68 New York Times, Mar. 29, 1914, 2, quoted in May,
Henry F., The End of American Innocence, New York: Alfred A.
Knopf (1959), 302.

understood what academic freedom was and why it was

important to the educational process and not just individual

faculty members. He regarded administrative meddling that

impinged on professors' freedoms as the enemy.69 In

Meiklejohn's analysis, the enemy was not an administration

that held to a conservative institutional viewpoint but an

administration that used its authority to wield that

viewpoint against a faculty by controlling classroom

activities through intimidation. One point the report made

that Meiklejohn did approve of was its recommendation that

faculty members be granted veto power to block

administration efforts to dismiss fellow professors on the

basis of unpopular views.

Meiklejohn said that the report, which approached the

issue of academic freedom from the standpoint of faculty

reappointment and dismissal, rather than course content, was

simply an attempt to protect faculty jobs rather than deal

with the underlying issue of protecting freedom for

students' benefit.m The report, Meiklejohn conceded, was

strongly protective of faculty rights to free speech but was

too narrow and did not do enough to protect the educational


69 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Tenure of Office and Academic
Freedom," Proceedings of the Association of American
Colleges, (April 1916) 182, 183. Meiklejohn's references to
and characterization of the AAUP report in the text of this
speech is the only published evidence of the content of that

0Id. at 184.

Even if Meiklejohn had agreed that concern with faculty

rights was of primary importance in the area of academic

freedom, the hiring process was a far easier way for

administrators to control a faculty than the painful

spectacle of dismissals, he said. He reminded the

convention that if the report's authors presupposed a

sinister attack on academic freedom by administrators, as he

believed they had, they had missed the point by focusing on

the security of existing faculty. He told them that if an

administration were truly bent on ferreting out potential

troublemakers, the better way to handle the matter quietly

would be to ask others about them during the hiring process

and ask the candidates directly during private interviews.

That, he said, would avoid the public clamor surrounding a

later dismissal.71

Meiklejohn had risked fanning the flames that could

destroy academic freedom by not only alluding to but

actually publicly outlining a clandestine method of

discriminating and selecting faculty with a conservative,

institutionally approved view on political and social

issues. He did so, though, to question the propriety of

point-of-view examination, its uses and abuses and its

relative weight in the faculty hiring process. The best

approach, Meiklejohn said, would be before hiring to settle

the question of whether a professor's views on subjects such

71 Id.

as socialism and labor reform movements are within the

proper scope of consideration by the administration.

Meiklejohn also took exception to another issue raised

in the report that, on its face, appeared to come down on

the side of faculty free speech. The report had expressed

concern that administrators would sacrifice academic freedom

to preserve financial support from wealthy alumni.

Meiklejohn took the report's authors to task for their

placement of faculty and administration in opposition to

each other over sources of financial support of the

institution. He chided them for falling prey to the

assumption that administrators would try to prohibit

discussion of controversial topics to avoid alienating

donors and protect the school's financial welfare.

Meiklejohn's solution to the potential conflict between

gifts and academic freedom was charmingly simple, if naive:

if it were truly believed that college administrators were

being bought off, the only honest answer to the dilemma

would be to not accept gifts. If administrators were

reluctant to turn down donations that had strings attached,

he saw no future for academic freedom.7

Meiklejohn tempered his drastic recommendation that

administrators eschew gifts, which must have shocked some

members of the audience, by imploring administrators to

avoid an overdependence on donations by reducing capital

spending. He urged that they be satisfied with the moderate

72 Id. at 185.

amount of funds available from existing endowments. He

asked them to resist the temptation to grow, which required

dependence on more money from outside the college to build

buildings, buy equipment and meet bigger payrolls. He urged

them to fix their attention on the things that were already

within their power such as quality of instruction, which

could be met from present budgets, if spending on the

physical plant were reduced. When spending was brought

under control so that obligations could be met from existing

funds, Meiklejohn said, pressure from interest groups

outside the college would be eliminated and there would be

no question about academic freedom.7

At the meeting Meiklejohn also took issue with the view

of another attendee that limitation of classroom discussion

of matters beyond reasonable controversy was proper.7

Rather than attempt to define what might be reasonable and

what might not be, Meiklejohn discussed the issue in terms

of people, not topics. On one hand, Meiklejohn admitted

that it would not make sense to discuss matters that are

unreasonable. But, he worried, how would that be

determined? He saw attempts to influence the topics that

could be handled by presumably intelligent teachers as

unjustifiable interference. Meiklejohn's educational goal

of developing critical thinking skills depended on a ready

pool of varying opinion. In his view, attempts to limit the

SId. at 185-87.

4 Meiklejohn, "Tenure of Office," at 180.

field of inquiry doomed his stated purpose of education.

There could be no middle ground; there could be but one test

for whether or not a matter were within the limits of

reasonable controversy: whatever reasonable people might be

in disagreement about is a matter of reasonable


During the discussion of what viewpoints were

acceptable for study, there was an assertion that it was not

fair to students to introduce them to problems that required

complex thinking. Meiklejohn handled the situation deftly

and eloquently:

As against this I protest that the one essentially
unfair procedure of an intellectual institution is to
represent to a student that he is being honestly and
fully introduced into the realm of thinking when he is
in reality being led by the nose to some fixed and
determined conclusion which, for some reason or other,
it is regarded as important for him to believe.7

In the spring of 1917, more than a year after the

conference, Meiklejohn received a letter from the president

of Cornell University, writing as the new president of the

American Association of University Professors,

congratulating him on his stand against the report's

conclusions.7 Archival materials contain no response from

colleagues, either favorable or unfavorable, from the

1915-16 period, however.



SLetter to Meiklejohn from Frank Thilly, Mar. 17,
1917, Amherst College Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 6, Folder

The gist of Meiklejohn's remarks at the Association

meeting were later contained in an Atlantic Monthly article

published in early 1918.7 His decision to air his views in

a popular magazine only added to the tensions with the

Amherst trustees," but his argument struck a chord with at

least one professor outside the Amherst College community.

Among the admirers of Meiklejohn's views was a professor

from Topeka who apparently wrote to describe difficulties he

and his colleagues were encountering with officials at

Washburn University. In response, Meiklejohn wrote: "I am

sorry to hear that you are engaged in a discussion of

academic freedom on your campus because that usually means

trouble is around."80

Meikleiohn's Fall From Grace

For the first seven or eight years at Amherst, the

trustees were willing to support Meiklejohn against the

criticism of alumni, but eventually they perceived that the

academic reputation of the college was declining among

78 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Freedom of the College,"
121 Atlantic Monthly (January 1918), 83.

9 George Plimpton to Meiklejohn, Mar. 4, 1918. "Your
recent publication is causing an erosion of support among
our members." Amherst College Archives, Box 28, Folder 1.
Plimpton, who was a personal friend of Meiklejohn, was also
chairman of the college's board of trustees from 1910-1926.

80 Meiklejohn to S.G. Hefelbower, Feb. 25, 1920, Amherst
College Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 6, Folder 9.

alumni and members of the public.81 They also became

uncomfortable with the scrutiny of the national press into

the continuing debates over college policies, and a majority

of the trustees decided they could no longer support

Meiklejohn and what they perceived as his more radical


The situation reached a critical point in late 1922

when two significant internal investigations were concluded

at about the same time, and taken together, their findings

did not augur well for the Meiklejohn administration. The

first investigation looked at Meiklejohn's finances and the

second, at faculty appointments.

Meiklejohn's finances were more of a public relations

disaster than a true scandal, and there was no indication of

any wrongdoing. The first investigation found that

Meiklejohn had wildly overspent his household budget, which

was funded by the trustees, and for some time the deficits

had been made up out of the pockets of individual members of

81 George Plimpton to Meiklejohn, Apr. 18, 1920,
"members are uncomfortable with questions about what is
happening at the College." Amherst College Archives,
Amherst, MA, Box 28, Folder 1.
82 In 1921, Plimpton informed Meiklejohn that he had
lost most of his support on the Board of Trustees.
Meiklejohn is said to have replied, "Then under the
circumstances it might be wise for the board to resign."
Donald Ramsey, "Old Amherst Sells Its Soul," Labor (date and
page unknown). From a partial tearsheet in the Meiklejohn
Papers, Box 40, Folder 4.

the board. As Robert Frost bluntly put it, "He didn't pay

his bills."8

Evidence seems to point to the second of the two

reports as being as much the product of an intensive

lobbying effort by older faculty opposed to Meiklejohn's

handling of a faculty promotion than of any real wrongdoing

on Meiklejohn's part.8 Much of the controversy involved

conflict between the older faculty who had been trained as

ministers and European-trained PhDs. Amherst had obviously

gone through wrenching changes from 1912 to 1922 during

Meiklejohn's tenure. Revision of the curriculum and

visiting socialist scholars were among the most prominent of

those changes. The newly popular humanistic approach to

academics in American colleges and universities created

friction and resentment among those who clung to the

literalistic and often Bible-based elements of the 19th

Century belief in education as indoctrination.

The primary thrust of the faculty appointment

investigation centered around Meiklejohn's role in promoting

a young instructor he believed held great promise. After

the president received approval from the trustees for his

plan, however, the senior faculty charged that he hadn't

fully represented the depth of their opposition to the

SQuoted by Julius Seelye Bixler, (Amherst 1916), in
"The Meiklejohn Affair," 25 Amherst, Spring 1973, 4. The
article re-evaluates the last months of Meiklejohn's tenure
on the 50th anniversary of his departure.
8Id. at 5.

promotion. They charged that he put his own judgment first

and in effect gave himself sole decisionmaking power over

faculty affairs.85

The report also charged Meiklejohn with administrative

incompetence. One complaint charged him with failure to

mediate disputes among the faculty effectively. His

opponents also claimed that he had not helped to improve the

college's financial condition, pointing to his departure for

Europe just as a major capital campaign was getting underway

in connection with the college's 1921 centennial. There may

have been some truth to the latter charge, as Meiklejohn saw

himself as Amherst's intellectual leader only, preferring to

leave the squiring of wealthy benefactors around campus to


By the beginning of Commencement Week 1923, what little

trustee support Meiklejohn had enjoyed for the last few

years had eroded. On the day before commencement, he was

informed that the trustees had decided to ask him to

relinquish his administrative position. At the same time,

the board expressed its desire that he remain on the

faculty, suggesting that he stay on as professor of logic

and metaphysics. Meiklejohn, however, decided that he

couldn't turn over administrative authority to someone else

and also remain on the faculty, because to do so would both

cripple curricular reform and control classroom discussions.

85 Id.

86 Id.

In the wee hours of the following morning, Tuesday, June 19,

1923, he resigned as both president and professor.87

By forcing Meiklejohn's resignation, the trustees had

hoped that harmony would be restored to campus, but that was

not to be. At commencement, 12 seniors and one master's

candidate refused their diplomas." Six members of the

29-member faculty announced their resignations, and within

weeks three more also left.89 Older members of the faculty

were mollified, however, when the trustees named Olds, now

almost seventy years old, to be the next president.

In the weeks that followed, as Meiklejohn and his

family packed their things and prepared to leave for New

York City, expressions of support appeared in both the mail

and the press. Former President of the United States

Woodrow Wilson, who had been president of Princeton from

1902-1910, wrote Meiklejohn to assure him of "the utter

contempt that all thinking men must entertain for the

benighted trustees of the college you are leaving and to

which they have now given so fatal a wound."90 Although

Wilson had left Princeton more than a dozen years earlier

under different circumstances, the former president saw a

87 Id. at 6.

a "Turmoil at Amherst Commencement," Springfield
Republican, May 26, 1923, 8.
89 "Nine Faculty Resignations at Amherst," Springfield
Republican, June 29, 1923, 6.

SLetter to Meiklejohn, June 25, 1923, Amherst College
Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 10, Folder 2.

similarity when he wrote again two weeks later: "I had,

myself, the unhappy experience of having to deal with one of

the most ignorant and prejudiced groups in the country, and

am saddened by the every thought of the present situation of

my alma mater."91

Other comments from friends in academia focused on what

they now perceived as Amherst's newly restored reputation,

formed during the Meiklejohn years. Roscoe Pound, then dean

of Harvard Law School, was quoted by a friend:

Amherst has sent us regularly, for the past five
or six years, a little group of men who have stood
absolutely at the head of the Law School. Their
prominence has been all out of proportion to their
numbers. How the miracle has been wrought, I
don't know, but they are sending us men who know
how to think.9

Praise for Meiklejohn's accomplishment in the press

were only a bit less complimentary. Walter Lippmann wrote

that Amherst under Meiklejohn "produced as remarkable a

student body as I have ever encountered."93 Felix

Frankfurter, also a law professor at Harvard, made a similar

assessment: "For several years it has been generally assumed

that a recent Amherst graduate might be expected to display

91 Letter to Meiklejohn, July 5, 1923, Amherst College
Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 10, Folder 2.
92 Sperry, Willard L., letter to Meiklejohn, July 2,
1923, Amherst College Archives, Amherst, MA, Box 10, Folder

3 Lippmann, Walter, "The Fall of President Meiklejohn,"
New York World, June 24, 1923, 3.

an unusual measure of intellectual vigor, of personal and

moral distinction.""

Nor was Meiklejohn's impact on education soon

forgotten. Robert M. Hutchins, who assumed the presidency

of the University of Chicago a few years after Meiklejohn

left Amherst once noted, "The Meiklejohn men up and down the

country are readily identifiable. This is not because they

agree but because they think."95

Meiklejohn decided that he needed a chance to think

more himself, and rented an apartment in New York City as a

base from which to write and lecture. His wife, debilitated

from an undiagnosed illness, sailed for Italy, her parents'

homeland, with her elderly mother and seven-year-old


Meiklejohn immediately set about assembling some of the

speeches and essays he had written while at Amherst and

published them in late 1923 as Freedom and the College. He

also lectured to large audiences in New York City's most

famous fora, including Carnegie Hall. Lecture fees and

freelance writing for popular magazines were the main

sources of income for Meiklejohn for the next two years. An

article that Meiklejohn wrote for Century magazine on his

education theories so captivated its editor, Glenn Frank,

94 Frankfurter, Felix, "An Open Letter to Dwight
Morrow," The New Republic (July 25, 1923), 221. Morrow was
Meiklejohn's chief antagonist on Amherst's Board of

95 Quoted by Harold Taylor in "The Art of Making People
Think," New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1957, 20.

that he set up a committee to examine the possibility of

establishing a new college to implement them.6 Later that

year, Roscoe Pound considered, but ultimately declined, the

presidency of the University of Wisconsin. The search

committee next approached Frank, who accepted. Even before

he took office, the former editor offered Meiklejohn a

professorship, setting the stage for the next step in

Meiklejohn's long career in forming and testing educational


W Meiklejohn, Alexander, "A New College, Notes on the
Next Step in Higher Education," 109 Century (January 1925),



At Amherst College, Alexander Meiklejohn had attempted

to implement his ideas about what a college education should

be by trying to impose his theories on a college community

that was nearly 100 years old. Amherst's Congregationalist

traditions did not yield easily to reformist theories of

education, however, and eventually the college's trustees

had bowed to pressure from a powerful group of alumni and

senior faculty and forced Meiklejohn to resign the


Although it was a grave disappointment, Meiklejohn's

failure to shape the Amherst curriculum to fit his vision of

education did not dissuade him from continuing to pursue his

goal of creating a humanities-based college program. From

his new base in New York City, Meiklejohn began to

formulate a college curriculum based on the Great Books. In

March 1924, some eight months after arriving in the city

from Amherst, Meiklejohn previewed his curriculum in a

speech to the American Library Association.' After making

additional refinements, Meiklejohn traveled to Connecticut

the following year and presented his college course plan to

a conference of educators.2 The plan Meiklejohn described

in both speeches called for a curricular tabula rasa for the

new program, not a group of courses that would be revamped

piecemeal or adjusted to fit an existing academic framework.

President-elect Glenn Frank's offer of a professorship

at the University of Wisconsin earlier that year was

attractive, but Meiklejohn did not accept immediately. His

wife, Nannine, had died of cancer in February 1925, leaving

him with four children--the oldest still in high school. At

53, such a move would be a major undertaking, and one that

Meiklejohn was reluctant to assume, so he declined the


Just after New Year's 1926, Frank wrote to Meiklejohn

again with the information that convinced him to accept and

set the course for the next phase of the professor's life.

Frank had secured the approval of the University's governors

for the establishment of an experimental program and a

commitment of financial support, if Meiklejohn would agree

1 Titled "The Return to the Book," the address was
reprinted in American Ideas About Adult Education, 1710-
1951, C. Hartley Grattan, ed., New York: Columbia University
Press (1959), 124-28.

2 Titled "The College of the Future," Meiklejohn's 1925
address was reprinted in The Intercollegiate Parley on
American College Education, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan
University Press (1926), 11-13.

to direct it.3 Within two months, Meiklejohn and his

children were in Madison, and he was teaching a philosophy

course while planning the program that would be known as the

Experimental College. Finally, Meiklejohn had what had

eluded him at Amherst--a free hand to design, from the

ground up, an educational program that reflected what he

conceived as the ideal college curriculum.

Shaping the Experimental College

The faculty and administration of the University's

College of Letters and Science gave Meiklejohn and his staff

considerable latitude in the basic structure of the

Experimental College. Apart from a requirement that

students be permitted to take one course elsewhere in the

university each year (to satisfy university-wide language

requirements) there were no other impositions from outside

the College. Even grade requirements were eliminated,

except for the one grade given at the end of the two-year

program. This grade was recorded for all credits at the

College and, if satisfactory, allowed students to complete

their last two years at Madison.4

In place of traditional courses and subjects, one

common curriculum was developed with a general theme for

3 Glenn Frank to Meiklejohn, Jan. 3, 1926, Meiklejohn
Papers, Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, Box 13,
Folder 19.

4 Annual Report of the Experimental College, 1928, xii,
Experimental College Collection, University of Wisconsin
Archives, Madison.

each of the two years. There were, of course, no electives.

The first year's study revolved around a core of readings,

talks and discussion of the civilization of fifth century

B.C. Athens. The reading list included philosophers such as

Aristotle, Plutarch and Plato, historians including

Herodotus and Thucydides, the plays of Sophocles and the

political writings of the statesman Pericles. Toward the

end of the year, each student studied one aspect of Greek

life of his choosing in depth, picking from philosophy,

economics, art, religion, science, literature, law and


In the second year, the class studied American society

and institutions beginning just after ratification of the

Bill of Rights. Broad topics included science, literature,

politics and philosophy. The contrasts between Athenian and

American society formed the foundation of discussions and

served as a starting point for a social scientific study

conducted by each student of his home state or region.

Readings included Other People's Money and How the Banks Use

It, by Louis D. Brandeis and The Acquisitive Society, by

Meiklejohn's friend, R.H. Tawney.6

Meiklejohn also brought with him the "Social and

Economic Institutions" course that he had developed at

Amherst and made it part of the second-year curriculum. The

5 Id. at 8-10.

6 Id. at 14-6.

course included a study of the American judicial system and

had been taught at Amherst primarily by economics professor

Walton Hamilton. Meiklejohn was, by his own admission, a

legal neophyte at the time, and recalled years later that

the law segment of the course had been Hamilton's idea.

According to Meiklejohn, Hamilton arrived at his office one

day and announced:

I don't think I want to teach much about economics
anymore. I think I can get more for myself and my
students if I study the Supreme Court. I just
wanted to find out if you had any objections. I
was a thoroughly uneducated young person and
didn't know what he was talking about. But of
course, it came from "Hammy" so it was alright and
I encouraged him to go on. But at the same time I
got the suggestion too that it was desirable to
study the Supreme Court justices and I think that
was the beginning of my start. But I didn't do
much with it myself for quite a number of years.7

Though an insignificant part of Meiklejohn's Amherst

experience, Hamilton's success in folding law into the

institutions course was quickly grasped by Meiklejohn, and

he was moving to expand the use of law studies in the

curriculum in his final months at Amherst. Describing

himself as an "observer only" in the field,8 he had hired a

lawyer, Thomas Reed Powell, to teach, not a traditional law

course, but a course in law for seniors, just before he was

asked to resign by the trustees. Powell declined his

7 "The Supreme Court as History," Side 1, Reel 2,
(undated audio tape) Center for the Study of Democratic
Institutions, Santa Barbara, Calif.
8 -

appointment when Meiklejohn was forced out, and plans for

law study at Amherst were derailed.9

Although Meiklejohn had still not had any exposure to

law as an academic discipline by the time he arrived in

Madison, his brief encounter at Amherst had apparently

convinced him of its value. In his design of the

Experimental College curriculum, law occupied a prominent

place in the second year of study. Though Meiklejohn would

come to disagree strongly with him, Zechariah Chafee, Jr.'s

Free Speech in the United States, was prominent on the

reading list. The Collected Legal Papers of Oliver Wendell

Holmes, Jr. and Mr. Justice Holmes and the Constitution, by

Felix Frankfurter, were also on the list.10 For the Spring

Term, 1932, the last for the Experimental College,

Meiklejohn also included a selection of 12 cases for study

and discussion." The dozen chosen, obscure business cases

from the previous 20 years, are not constitutionally

significant, but appear to have been selected more for their

9 Wofford, Harris, ed. Embers of the World:
Conversations with Scott Buchanan, Santa Barbara, Calif.:
Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (1970), 47.
10 Memo headed "Readings for Law," Aug. 8, 1927,
University of Wisconsin Archives, Experimental College
Collection, Madison, Box 40 Folder 7.

11 Meiklejohn, Alexander, The Experimental College, New
York: Harper Brothers (1932), Appendix IV, student
assignments, Jan. 11-16, 1932.


symbolic value of the power of big business and the role it

played in pre-Depression American life.12

With the major components of Meiklejohn's "Athens-

America" curriculum in place as Meiklejohn directed, the

College opened in the fall of 1927 with a class of 119.13

The program was run by a faculty of 12, including

Meiklejohn, who had hand-picked them. Three of the faculty,

or advisers as they were called, were ex-Amherst faculty.14

The advisers were constituted as a group of equals not

distinguished by academic rank and often taught in two-man

teams. In the classroom, students met with advisers in

groups of about 12, but attendance was not enforced to allow

for assessment of the students' self-discipline and

capabilities for self-motivation and direction.

Meiklejohn had hoped that the Experimental College

would appeal to a broad cross-section of students that would

mirror the larger University student body. A representative

student body was important because as an experiment,

application of the results to the university as a whole and

students generally was vital to the success of the project.

12 The cases chosen included: German Alliance Ins. Co.
v. Hale, 219 U.S. 307 (1910); Charles A. Ramsay Co. v.
Associated Bill Posters, 260 U.S. 501 (1922); A.B. Small Co.
v. American Sugar Refining Co., 267 U.S. 233 (1924).

13 Meiklejohn to Glenn Frank, Sept. 22, 1927, University
of Wisconsin Archives, Experimental College Collection,
Madison, Box 6, Folder 4.
14 Faculty contracts for 1927-28, dated July 1927,
University of Wisconsin Archives, Experimental College
Collection, Madison, Box 2, Folders 3 and 4.


Just before the Experimental College opened, he outlined his

hopes in a regional magazine:

We wish to experiment on the general run of
students. It seems to me that the vital social
question in American education today is not, "How
well can we do with specially qualified groups of
students?" but rather, "Can our young people as a
whole be liberally educated?" Must we accept the
aristocratic division of people into two classes,
one of which can be trained to understand while
the other is doomed by its own incapacity to
remain forever outside the field of intelligence?
Our scheme of government, our scheme of
morals, our scheme of social relations, is built,
or thinks itself built, upon the view that all
normal persons are capable of understanding. And
the schools of such a societal scheme are pledged
to develop that understanding if it can be done
our primary task is that of taking all types
of young people and discovering their powers.1
The Experimental College attracted a highly capable

student body, but one that did not track the demographics of

the University. Unfortunately for Meiklejohn's experiment,

the student body the Experimental College attracted was not

the "general run of students" that he needed to test the

validity of his educational theories. The students who

enrolled were better students, and more diverse, than the

average University student. Experimental College students

were from larger cities and towns, were more likely to be

from out-of-state and had higher college entrance

examination scores. They were also more frequently of

Jewish background, a statistic that increased during the

life of the program and later caused such concern that it

contributed indirectly to the downfall of the College.

15 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Wisconsin's Experimental
College," Survey Graphic, (June 1927), 269-70.

During the first year, Jewish students comprised about 20

percent of the student body; by the last year, that

proportion had risen to about 40 percent. In the regular

university, between 10 and 15 percent were thought to be


Even worse, to some minds, were the politics of some of

the advisers and Meiklejohn himself. Meiklejohn used one of

socialist labor historian R. H. Tawney's books in the

curriculum, and his connection with Tawney was well known as

a result of the Amherst controversies earlier in the decade.

His belief in co-operative ownership went back even further,

to his childhood. But Meiklejohn himself provoked political

conservatives in Madison shortly after arriving in 1927 when

he became a national vice-president of the League for

Industrial Democracy, an educational association formed in

1905 to promote the study of socialism in colleges and

universities. At least four of Meiklejohn's 11 faculty at

the Experimental College were also active in socialist

politics. Classics professor Walter Agard had been

president of the Amherst chapter of the League, when it was

still called the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, and was

still a member. Lucien Koch came from now-defunct

Commonwealth College in Arkansas, a socialist college

established to train the working class in politics, and

16 Bureau of Guidance and Research, University of
Wisconsin, Report on the Experimental College, 1932, 20.
University of Wisconsin Archives, Madison, Wisconsin.

returned there after the Experimental College closed. Two

others ran for city office on the Socialist ticket.'7

Socialism at Madison: A Brief History

Socialist thought and academic freedom had gone hand in

hand at the University of Wisconsin for nearly 40 years, and

although academic freedom had always triumphed over

conservative challenges, it had been given a rough time

along the way. The first controversy on the subject began

shortly after Charles Kendall Adams arrived in Madison from

Cornell University as the new president of the University in

1892. He immediately recruited Richard T. Ely, a political

economist from Johns Hopkins. Ely gradually abandoned

traditional laissez-faire doctrine and began to approach

economics as a means of improving human welfare.18 Within a

year, his speeches and other activities attracted the

attention of Oliver Wells, the state Superintendent of

Public Instruction and a member of the Board of Regents.

Wells became increasingly perturbed and convinced that Ely

was using his position to foment labor unrest in Wisconsin.

Unable to convince the Regents, he aired his charges in a

letter to The Nation, which claimed that Ely had assisted

union organizers and threatened to boycott a nonunion

17 Brown, Cynthia Stokes, Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher
of Freedom, Berkeley: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute
(1981), 31-2.
18 Bowen, Ivan, An Informal History of Activist Thought
at Madison, Madison: Wing Press (1975), 16.

printing plant in Madison."1 A three-day hearing convened

on August 20 failed to substantiate the charges and resulted

in a report by the Regents which held "Whatever may be the

limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that

the great state University of Wisconsin should ever

encourage that continual sifting and winnowing by which

alone the truth can be found."20

However ringing that rhetoric, it did not mark the end

of criticism of professors on the grounds of unorthodox

political beliefs. After weathering his own problem, Ely

persuaded a young sociologist, Edward A. Ross, to join the

faculty in 1906. Ross was no stranger to controversy and

had already lost one faculty job due to the unpopularity of

his social views. He had been dismissed from Stanford

University in 1900 after a series of speeches in which he

had supported Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V.

Debs, the Pullman strikers and the free coinage of silver.

When he publicly advocated an end to immigration from Japan,

by military force if necessary, he was forced to resign by

Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of the founder of the


Ross first ran into serious trouble at Wisconsin on the

eve of a visit to Madison by anarchist Emma Goldman in early

19 Wells, Oliver, "The College Anarchist," The Nation,
July 12, 1894, 27.

0 Quoted in Bowen, An Informal History, at 39.

21Id. at 59.

1910. A local woman had been stopped by police who found

her tearing down posters announcing Goldman's visit. Ross

mentioned the incident in one of his classes, stating his

opposition to anarchism and his support of free speech. He

also announced the time and location of Goldman's lecture,

which started a firestorm of protest in the local press.22

Later that year he again enraged the populace and raised

conservative hackles by arranging a lecture on education by

Parker Sercombe, better known at the time for his advocacy

of free love. Ross was censured, but a vigorous defense by

University president Charles Van Hise saved his job. The

Class of 1910 presented a plaque bearing the "untrammeled

inquiry" quotation as a class gift to the University in the

wake of the Ross affair. It was not accepted by the

University until 1912, and then was put into storage until

the class finally prevailed over the administration and it

was placed on the east portico wall of Bascomb Hall in

1915.23 Ross was named president of the American Civil

Liberties Union in the 1940s and became a friend of

Meiklejohn's. In 1927, Meiklejohn had been appointed one of

65 national committee members of the ACLU, a post he held

for the rest of his life.

Freedom of student speech, rather than faculty speech,

became an issue in the 1920s when the Regents issued a

statement of unqualified support for discussion of diverse

22 Id. at 63.

3Id. at 66-71.

viewpoints in the classroom, but put the use of university

facilities for student-arranged speakers under the control

of the president and the board. President Edward A. Birge,

a biologist, allowed a 1921 talk sponsored by the Social

Science Club by communist William Z. Foster in a university

auditorium, but refused the use of a room by sponsors of

radical socialist Scott Nearing later that year. The effect

of vigorous protests of that decision by student speech

advocates carried over into 1922 when author Upton Sinclair

came to campus to visit his student son and deliver a


The End of the Experimental College

In addition to concern over the political sympathies of

some faculty members and the disproportionate size of the

Jewish contingent at the College, economics also hit the

Experimental College hard. The October 1929 stock market

crash occurred just two months into the College's third year

and threw all the other problems Meiklejohn and the College

were dealing with into stark relief. The following year,

the University doubled its tuition to offset investment

losses in the endowment portfolio, which exacerbated an

already declining rate of enrollment. The 119 students who

joined the College the first year proved to be the most in

the College's brief history. The next year's class dropped

sharply to 92, then to 79 in the third year. The fourth

24 Id. at 84.

year saw 74 new students enroll and only 70 began the

program in the fifth and final year.25

By 1930, the original hands-off approach of the

university toward the Experimental College had begun to

erode. George C. Sellery, Dean of the College of Letters

and Science and nominally Meiklejohn's direct superior,

began to insist on final exams in each of the College's

courses in return for his continued support. The advisers

of the Experimental College refused to alter the program.

Regular departmental faculty discovered that their salaries

were often lower than those of the advisers at the

Experimental College, where the budget came directly from

the president's office and was disbursed by Meiklejohn

alone. Sellery viewed this as an encroachment on his

territory.26 In early 1932, the College issued a report

asking for permission to expand the program, including a

recommendation that a group begin studying implementation of

the experiment for juniors and seniors. In April, the

Letters and Science faculty responded with a recommendation

that the freshman class for the Experimental College be

expanded to 200, almost double Meiklejohn's planned cap of

125, and that half the coursework each year be outside the

25 Unidentified handwritten memo headed "Enrollment,"
Box 40, Folder 2, University of Wisconsin Archives,
Experimental College Collection, Madison.

26 Brown, Alexander Meiklejohn: Teacher of Freedom, at

Experimental College. Again, the advisers rejected the


President Frank never came to Meiklejohn's defense,

realizing that he and the Experimental College had no broad-

based support within the University.8 New proposals for

the College's program drawn up by the advisers were referred

by the university administration to a newly created

committee. Members of the committee were never appointed

and the proposals were never acted upon. With plans for the

1932-1933 school year stalled, the Experimental College was

closed down in June 1932.

Once again, Meiklejohn, now sixty, was offered a chance

to stay on at the University as a part-time professor of

philosophy, and this time he accepted. That summer, the

Meiklejohns moved to Berkeley, California, and returned to

Madison for the fall semester each year until he "retired"

in 1938.29

Refining Theories of Education

The closing of the Experimental College did little to

dampen Meiklejohn's enthusiasm for the continuation of his

experiments in education. Taking a breather from the

stresses of academic administration, he began work on the

question of how to extend education to those whom he felt

needed it most. Gradually, he came to believe that those

27 Id. at 34.

28 Id. at 35.

SId. at 35.

outside the traditional college setting had both the ability

and the need for a liberal education. The task he set for

himself was to devise a plan of how to deliver it.

While still at the Experimental College, Meiklejohn had

been riled by the suggestion of Lehigh University Dean Max

McConn that 98 percent of young people could benefit only

from vocational and trade school teaching. Furthermore,

McConn estimated that only a quarter of the remaining two

percent were qualified to attend a scholar's institution.

Such suggestions struck directly at the heart of

Meiklejohn's educational philosophy, which he restated


[Dean McConn] is ready to say that 99.5 percent of
our youth may be put aside as we set up the
agencies of higher liberal education. I am saying
that nobody knows as yet to how many minds liberal
teaching may profitably be extended. As I
understand the democratic program in education I
am eager to go on with it. Instead of
limiting their opportunities of higher liberal
education to two percent of our youth, I want to
find out how nearly we can attain to making them
available to all.3

Meiklejohn never abandoned that position. If anything,

it hardened and became more pointed as the years went by.

More than 30 years later, on his last visit to Amherst in

September 1960, a reporter for the campus magazine quoted

him on his views on who should go to college. "I don't

believe in the concept that some people are unfit for

30 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Who Should Go to College?"
New Republic, Jan. 16, 1929, 319.

college education; college education should be so contrived

that it's fit for everybody."31

As he continued to refine his educational theories,

Meiklejohn's work became associated with a school of thought

in the 1930s that believed that a national consensus about

common political and social ideals was fading. The notion

that citizens should have a common base of understanding had

previously been championed in the late 19th Century by

educational innovators such as Irving Babbit and Albert Jay

Nock.3 Meiklejohn, working independently, shared a belief

with Robert Maynard Hutchins that the continued success of

the American system of government rests on the assumption

that citizens have an equal capacity for understanding

political issues that affect their daily lives.

Meiklejohn and Hutchins had met on a panel at a

conference on problems in education sometime in the early

1930s. The educators, who immediately found themselves in

agreement on the need to make college the place to learn

about the nation's political and social foundations,

continued their discussion on their return train trip to

Chicago. The two men identified the demise of shared values

and belief in abstract principles as the likely culprits.33

31 The Amherst Student, Oct. 31, 1960, 1, Amherst
College Archives, Amherst, Mass.
32 Rimmer, T. Walter, Innovators in Education, 1860-
1895, Philadelphia: Watson Street Publishers (1931), 206-14;

3Robert M. Hutchins to Meiklejohn, April 17 (no year,
ca. 1931), Meiklejohn Papers, Box 15, Folder 20.

They blamed educators such as William James and John Dewey

and judges such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who preached

the doctrines of pragmatism and legal realism, respectively.

They denounced those viewpoints as leading to the pervasive

belief that only expediency counts.

Much later, Meiklejohn assailed Dewey's pragmatism in

his 1942 book, Education Between Two Worlds.4 He denounced

Dewey for his earlier overemphasis of individuality and

liberty as justifications for achievement of self-

satisfaction without regard to society at large.35 In human

relations, Meiklejohn wrote, Dewey's pragmatism led people

to "ask not only 'Is it right?' but also 'Does it pay?'"3

Eventually, Meiklejohn concluded, "Does it pay?" became the

only question and materialism and love of self led people to

turn away from a sense of community that was harmful to


As an early proponent of legal realism, Holmes had

taken much the same approach as Dewey in his 1881 book, The

Common Law.38 As historian Edward A. Purcell, Jr. described

Holmes' belief, "Practical expedients necessitated by the

34 Meiklejohn, Alexander, Education Between Two Worlds,
New York: Harper and Bros. (1942).

35 Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems, Denver:
Henry Holt and Co., (1927).

36 Meiklejohn, Education Between Two Worlds, at 66.


38 Holmes, Jr., Oliver Wendell, The Common Law, Boston:
Little, Brown (1881).


needs and conflicts of human society were much more central

to the development of law than were any logical

propositions."39 Purcell also wrote that Holmes believed

moral principles formed no basis for law, which was only

"the incidence of the public force through the

instrumentality of the courts."40

Hutchins, a Yale law graduate and former dean of the

Law School who had become president of the University of

Chicago in 1929 at the age of 30, believed in educated

opinion achieved through disciplined thinking. Informed

opinion, he said, brings a depth of understanding not found

in opinion based on prejudice and immediate circumstance,

and develops distinct standards of good and bad that are not

possible to convey through pragmatism.41

Meiklejohn also believed in Hutchins' view of education

as society's savior, but he was much more specific about how

to achieve that goal. To Meiklejohn, a thorough education

would require a complete knowledge of the fundamentals of

democracy. He feared that without a radical transformation

of educational policy that would incorporate the study of

the philosophical underpinnings of American society,

ignorance would guide political and social decisions in the

39 Purcell, Jr., Edward A., "American Jurisprudence
Between the Wars: Legal Realism and the Crisis of Democratic
Theory," 75 American Historical Review 424,426 (1969).
40 Id.

41 Traub, Percival E., "Hutchins of Chicago," in
Colleges and Universities in the Great Depression, Lewis
Bennett, ed., St. Louis: Hart Bros. Press (1952), 49-51.

future. The study of the accumulated wisdom of human

thought would create an awareness of those foundations and

spur further study of the student's own place in that

philosophical tradition, Meiklejohn maintained, leading to

more sound political choices.'z

Both Meiklejohn and Hutchins urged curricular revisions

that emphasized the study of the Great Books, which they

identified as a collection of literature from history's most

prominent thinkers. They agreed that the set would be one

of about 100 volumes.43 They held that an individual could

not understand social criticism nor forge a coherent plan of

social action without them. As Dean of the Yale Law School,

Hutchins had abolished the case study method and at Chicago,

railed against the direct study of social problems as the

best way to prepare students to deal with them in later

life. Hutchins said that the best education "is a thorough

knowledge of the moral and political wisdom accumulated

through our intellectual history."44

Meiklejohn put a similar idea more specifically when he

described his concept of education for intelligent

participation in public life as a study of the basic

42 Meiklejohn, Alexander, What Does America Mean?, New
York: W.W. Norton (1935), 236.

43 Robert M. Hutchins to Meiklejohn, July 14, 1935,
Meiklejohn Papers, Box 15, Folder 20.

44 Hutchins, Robert M., "The Colleges and Public
Service," XXIV Bulletin of the Association of American
Colleges 33,35 (1938).

assumptions of the American style of government and social

order. The future of the country, he wrote

rests upon the issue as to whether or not we can
find ways of setting up over against our material
activity an intellectual and moral and aesthetic
insight, free enough and powerful enough to direct
it whither we will that it shall go.45

Hutchins believed that if students understood great

literature they would not only be able to understand the

need to contribute to societal improvement, but that their

appetite would be whetted to do so. They would be able to

contribute more than a simple operational response to a

problem they were faced with. The intellectual power they

had developed through study would let them fashion new

solutions to the new problems that a complex society


I shall not be attentive when you tell me that the
plan of general education I am about to present is
remote from real life, that real life is in
constant flux and change, and that education must
be in constant flux and change as well. I do not
deny that all things are in change we are so
impressed with scientific and technological
progress that we assume similar progress in every
field. .. Our erroneous notion of progress has
thrown the classics and the liberal arts out of
the curriculum, overemphasized the empirical
sciences, and made education the servant of any
contemporary movements in society, no matter how

Hutchins, who stirred up a string of controversies at

Chicago, including the abolition of intercollegiate

45 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Educational Leadership in
America," Harper's Magazine, CLX (1930), 447.

Hutchins, Robert M., Higher Learning in America, New
Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press (1936), 64-5.


football, still managed a 22-year tenure as president of the

university from 1929 to 1951. However, he was never able to

implement his Great Books curriculum in the face of

organized faculty opposition.47 Hutchins was a trustee at

St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1950s'8

where Meiklejohn confidant and Amherst alumnus Scott

Buchanan and colleague Stringfellow Barr established a Great

Books program in 1937. Meiklejohn also served as a

consultant to the St. John's administration and for many

years spent a month each year on campus as both teacher and


Why Education?

To Meiklejohn's way of thinking, a lack of acquaintance

with ideas leads to a debilitating fear of change and the

unknown born of that ignorance and a resultant inability to

make wise political choices. He was fond of saying, "to be

afraid of any idea is to be unfit for self-government."50

47 Traub, Hutchins of Chicago, at 57.

48 St. John's College Bulletins, 1953-1959, St. John's
College Library, Annapolis, Maryland.

49 Correspondence between Meiklejohn and Buchanan is
voluminous on the Great Books as well as other issues facing
St. John's College. Meiklejohn Papers, Box 6, Folders 16-
50 Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the
Judiciary, Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. 84th
Congress, 2nd Sess., Nov. 14, 1955, 14. The quotation was
also attributed to Meiklejohn several years earlier in the
Communist newspaper Weekly People, vol. LIX, No. 33, Nov.
12, 1949, 4, and appears in many publications attributed to
him in a variety of contexts.


The concept of American government as a self-governing

democracy was a central organizing concept for Meiklejohn.

Through the power to vote, provided for in Article I,

Section 2 of the Constitution, Meiklejohn defined the people

as "electors" who selected representative government to do

their bidding.51 He characterized the American citizen as

both sovereign and subject, responsible for creating the

government that would act on his behalf in his and fellow

citizens' best interests. In a self-governing society,

Meiklejohn believed, participation is equivalent to

leadership. As equals in the political process, everyone

who participates in governing by voting is by definition

taking part in the leadership of the nation.52 Leadership

demands that the governors make the best choices, requiring

the ability to not only think, but think well, for decisions

were being made for the whole society. For support,

Meiklejohn drew heavily on Rousseau's concept of sovereignty

as a collective entity represented by itself.53 Meiklejohn

knew that not all who made up the sovereign could govern and

acknowledged that not everyone could hold high elective

office, but insisted that everyone should be able to make an

intelligent choice about who eventually does. In fact, the

51 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Freedom to Hear and Freedom
to Judge," 10 Lawyers' Guild Review 26 (Spring 1950).
52 Id. at 29.

53 Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, trans.
Willmoore Kendall, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. (1954), 33-34.

very success of democracy was dependent on success in civic

education, he wrote.54

Meiklejohn's sense of responsibility to society went

well beyond any concept of self-interest. That self-

interest might be served by intelligent political decision-

making was little more than an unintended consequence in his

view, for the same decision was affecting the lives of all

other members of the society as well. From that larger

sphere of responsibility, Meiklejohn drew a considerably

more stringent view of the need for intelligence as applied

to political and social questions. Meiklejohn did not

believe that freedom was a given, but that it required

attention and hard work in order to preserve it. Part of

that hard work was becoming sufficiently acquainted with

democratic government to help direct it. That conception of

the people's relationship with the government led him to

observe that since "freedom depends upon intelligence,

intelligence is therefore a duty,"55 infusing the political

and social life of all Americans of voting age with a sense

of obligation.

Meiklejohn's linkage of duty and education for the

common good of the social group first appeared in public

through his speeches and writings in the 1930s but actually

54 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Teacher, Teach Thyself," 2
Adult Education Journal (July 1943), 128.

55 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Crisis in American
Institutions," Harris Lecutures, Northwestern University,
Chicago, 1934, Lecture No. 5, p.3, Meiklejohn Papers, Box
35, Folder 1.

dated from at least as far back as his years as dean at

Brown. Then, as now, the question of cutting classes loomed

large. Meiklejohn favored restricting the number of

unexcused absences, but not out of concern that the student

would miss valuable material. Rather he feared that the

absence of the better students, who perhaps did not need to

attend class as regularly as others, would diminish the

learning experience of the entire class. In one of his last

reports as dean, he argued for tight restrictions on

skipping class: "My own feeling is that for the sake of the

common weal, we must restrict the freedom of the individual

and especially we must limit the good student whose goodness

makes him valuable to us."56

Meiklejohn took that duty to learn a step further,

adding the idea that there was a duty to learn the American

way, in his 1942 book, Education Between Two Worlds.

Learning the American way, however, did not mean learning

only the American viewpoint. For Meiklejohn, a significant

part of the American system of government was its tolerance

of alternative viewpoints. Meiklejohn thought that

democracy would be served best by exposing students to

several ways of looking at government. By evaluating the

individual merits of each and posing questions that required

students to support their positions, he thought he could

56 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Report of the Dean of the
University," in Annual Report of the President to the
Corporation of Brown University, 1911, Providence, R.I.:
Brown University, 1911, 34-5.

illustrate the important lesson of tolerance of dissent and

reinforce the point that democracy is anti-authoritarian.

The language he chose to make that point, however, "the

purpose of all teaching is to express the cultural authority

of the group by which the teaching is given,"57 drew the

wrath of New York University professor Sidney Hook, a long-

time antagonist. In his review of the book in The Nation,

Hook described Meiklejohn's treatise on education as a "Mein

Kampf," a stinging indictment, especially coming at the

zenith of Nazi Germany's success.58 It was perhaps that

allusion that also led Charles J. Cooper, in his 1967

dissertation, to describe Meiklejohn as an "educational


In 1943, Meiklejohn's formulation of education for

collective action resulting from collective will for the

common good was certainly not seen as resourceful self-help.

Conservatives such as Hook were quick to interpret state

action as totalitarianism, overlooking Meiklejohn's

description of the state as an amalgamation of its citizens

making decisions for themselves, rather than having

decisions imposed on them. In Hook's eyes, Meiklejohn's

combination of education and duty bespoke an unbending

57 Meiklejohn, Education Between Two Worlds, at 91.

58 Hook, Sidney, "Education for the New Order," The
Nation, Feb. 27, 1943, 312.

59 Cooper, Charles J., Alexander Meiklejohn: Absolutes
of Intelligence in Political and Constitutional Theory,
(Ph.D. dissertation., Bryn Mawr College, 1967), 56.

authoritarianism that was suspected of prescribing a

particular educational agenda. Fortunately, Hook wrote,

that plan had been "shipwrecked in the processes of

democracy. "60

In describing his hierarchy of citizens' rights and

obligations, Meiklejohn highlights the contradictions

between the state and individual rights and blames the

widely accepted theories of John Locke for the frictions

between them. Central to the resolution of the problem,

Meiklejohn believed, was a rejection of the concept of

natural law.

Locke drew a strict distinction between the state and

the people, regarding them as separate entities. He based

that view on the idea that government is strictly a human

invention, while people were divine creations. As creatures

of God, Locke taught that the rights of man were also handed

down by God, and put into effect via reason, another divine

gift, while the rights of the manmade state were whatever

man decided to endow it with. Thus, in any conflict between

them, man's rights can claim superiority over the needs of

the state, which represents the larger community.61 It was

here that Meiklejohn saw the tyranny of the Lockean

approach. Meiklejohn said Locke's analysis allowed the

unfettered pursuit of trade and life in general as part of a

60 Hook, at 312.

61 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, Peter
Laslett, ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1988),

laissez-faire attitude toward man's striving for material

things for personal enjoyment. For Meiklejohn, it was a

short step to a similar attitude toward education, which,

without supervision, would also be directed toward selfish


Meiklejohn denied the two-tiered assignment of rights

based on whether they were held by man or the state. He

viewed both the state and individual rights as created by

the people, and not God. Meiklejohn refused to place man's

rights above the state's, claiming that they only existed at

the sufferance of the state, and were co-equal with the

state's own rights.

The Constitution does not mention a king, or any
superior authority. All authority there is
in the Constitution belongs to the people
except as the people give it to someone else .
there is no mention of God in the document. This
is a purely political document6

Meiklejohn found authority for his position in the

writings of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques

Rousseau. Rousseau believed that society was antecedent to

any rights, and since society was a human invention, so were

the rights that could not but flow from it. The social

contract of Rousseau's book of the same name was not to

protect individual rights, but to enable people to live as

part of a community. The contract was a contribution by

6 Meiklejohn, Education Between Two Worlds, at 132-34.

6 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "Liberty and Loyalty,"
American Friends Society Conference, San Francisco, 1952,
Meiklejohn Papers, Box 37, Folder 2.

"each of us [to] the common pool, and under the sovereign

control of the general will, his person and all his


Meiklejohn's blending of social, political and

educational theory illustrated his belief in the symbiotic

relationship of society, government and education. As equal

participants in government in their role as electors-and

governors, citizens acted in service to society by

responding to its needs. Not the least of those needs is

intelligent decision-making, so Meiklejohn believed that a

plan to ensure that citizens understood their role and the

issues facing democracy was appropriate and necessary.

Meiklejohn made liberal use of the other of Rousseau's

major writings in the formation of his educational theory.

He argued that freedom of thought in education is an

important social value, in that it allowed a wide-ranging

exploration of competing ideas. In Education Between Two

Worlds, Meiklejohn argued against teaching for its own sake

and education without direction as pointless intellectual

exercise. Freedom of education without control of some sort

by some authority would accomplish nothing that would be

useful to citizen-governors.

No student of education has provided more
carefully than did Rousseau in Emile, for the
deliberate guidance of the life of a growing

6 Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, trans.
Willmoore Kendall, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. (1954), 20.

individual, so that it may conform to the
authoritative will of society.65

A few pages later, Meiklejohn re-emphasized his view of

the importance of freedom in education wielded for the

benefit of society, again invoking the central point of


As we teach a young person it is not enough to
teach him to "be himself." We must teach him to
"be himself in an organized society." To
comprehend the mingling of individual freedom and
social authority which that statement intends
is the task to which Rousseau has summoned

Secure in his belief that education was vital to a

successful democracy, Meiklejohn looked again toward the

type of institution that would let him continue his mission

of "teaching for intelligence," his term for teaching

critical thinking.67 He was dedicated to keeping the Great

Books approach he had begun to work out at the Experimental

College and continue his interest in law as a means of

social understanding.

Meikleiohn Turns to Adult Education

When Meiklejohn arrived in California in 1932, at the

age of sixty, he wasn't looking toward retirement, but

toward another way to implement his vision of what education

65 Meiklejohn, Education Between Two Worlds, at 75.

SId. at 95.

67 Meiklejohn, Alexander, "The Teaching of Self-
Government," 1956-57. Unpublished manuscript, p. 11.
Meiklejohn Papers, Box 38, Folder 1. The manuscript was
designed as a guide to establishing a program of adult

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