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Traditional education: Brown and Amherst, 1897-1923
Experimental education: Madison and San Francisco, 1927-1942
Meiklejohon's developing interest in law: Berkeley, 1942-1955
Meiklejohon's theories and the Supreme Court
Meiklejohon extended: Legacy and lessons for the 21st century
THE PROFESSOR, FREEDOM AND THE COURT:
ALEXANDER MEIKLEJOHN AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT
PAUL HENRY GATES, JR.
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
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
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . .. ... iii
ABSTRACT . . . .. .... viii
I INTRODUCTION . . . .
Research Question . .
Meiklejohn, Academic Freedom and the First
Amendment . . . .
Literature Review . . .
Methodology . . . .
Outline of the Study . . .
II TRADITIONAL EDUCATION:
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 . .
III EXPERIMENTAL EDUCATION:
MADISON AND SAN FRANCISCO, 1927-1942
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 . .
IV MEIKLEJOHN'S DEVELOPING INTEREST IN LAW:
BERKELEY, 1942-1955 . . .
Introduction . . . .
Meiklejohn and Felix Frankfurter . .
Meiklejohn and Holmes: Logic v. Realism
Meiklejohn, the Stromberg Opinion and its
Antecedents . . . .
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
V MEIKLEJOHN'S THEORIES AND THE SUPREME COURT 187
Introduction . . . . 187
Meiklejohn, Black and Douglas . . 189
Meiklejohn and Douglas . . ... .205
Meiklejohn's Mark on the Court ......... 213
Politics and the Interpretation of
Meiklejohn229 . . . . .
VI MEIKLEJOHN EXTENDED: LEGACY AND LESSONS
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
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . ... 281
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
THE PROFESSOR, FREEDOM AND THE COURT:
ALEXANDER MEIKLEJOHN AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Paul Henry Gates, Jr.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
BROWN AND AMHERST, 1897-1923
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.
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.
8 Evans, A.B., New England Hockey, Andover, MA:
Littleton Press, (1938), 12.
9 "Hockey Pioneers," Brown Alumni Monthly, (Spring
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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),
MADISON AND SAN FRANCISCO, 1927-1942
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,
4 Annual Report of the Experimental College, 1928, xii,
Experimental College Collection, University of Wisconsin
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.
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
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"
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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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