THE PHI BETA KAPPA ORATION,
BY CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS,
AN important, though not very prominent, feature in this oration was Mr. Adams's satirical allusion to the proneness of men to forget or despise the teachings of experience. However well merited any general censure in this regard is, the orator had no occasion to complain for himself; the earnest attention his thoughts received and the general commendation afterwards given to them proving well enough that, if precepts are more eagerly inculcated by younger men, from no lips do they fall with a deeper impression than from those of the venerable statesman.
The following is a summary of his recommendations to the managers of the College.
"It seems to me that there is a want which ought before long to be supplied everywhere, and especially here. I refer to the arrangement of a class of preliminary studies especially adapted to the preparation of the young men to take an efficient part in the treatment of difficult questions connected with the management of public affairs." For granted, what is so often urged, that to obtain place one must generally blunt all nice sensibility, indeed, must lose much of his spirit of independence, by sacrificing honest convictions to the demands of party; granted that the populace often prefer a superficial pretender (without capacity, acquirement, or character, and possessing only sagacity in pandering to the inclination of the hour) to a man of integrity and knowledge, - it does not on these accounts follow that no young man who aspires to a high standard of excellence should venture into public life. If the republic is now suffering from maladministration, the fault is theirs (if such a class there be) who, while having the wisdom and the character to guide her aright, decline to develop their qualities more palpably to the public eye. "There is such a thing as being so fastidious about means as never to be able to reach a practical end. There may likewise be a form of conditional sluggishness which covers an aversion to the labors and obligations incident to successful exertion under the guise of want of opportunity." It is beyond dispute that under no other government is so full and free opportunity given to all usefully to develop every natural and acquired power they may possess, "as in none is there a more ready inclination on the part of the public to appreciate both services and character."
One important caution there is, however. Let no young man limit his hopes of usefulness to the obtaining of office. Office is indeed "vantage and commanding ground," and therefore to be desired and sought for with reasonable zeal; but the ruinous effects of an exclusive struggle to gain it have been advertised forever in the life of Lord Bacon.
In what, then, should consist the training for public life, which our universities do not now furnish, but which would aid young men, animated by an ardent wish, to have an honorable part in the determination of great questions of law, government, and social science, and not incapacitated by an inordinate longing for place? "The preparation for action which I should desire would have in view chiefly two fields of usefulness to the nation. . . . . One of these is in the direction of the periodical press; the other is that of public speaking with effect."
The important mission of our newspapers and magazines is to bring before the great body of the people the best ideas known concerning pressing practical questions. The editors themselves rarely have time for much research and reflection, but they are eager to get the opinions of men of acknowledged weight. What the country needs is the presence of a large class of thoughtful and able advisers, who, like Mr. Woolsey (lately President of Yale College, "our foremost rival in good works") shall raise the tone of the public press on questions of "morals and politics, law and government." "The rudiments of an education such a class should be taught at this University." The foundation of learning being well laid, it may be added that "the chief instrument to gain complete success must be the power to write with knowledge, with clearness, and with force."
Oratory is the other field of usefulness, in training for which our places of education are wanting. The mere faculty of expressing one's thoughts with facility and grace is not uncommon among us; but behind and above all this there are certain conditions, indispensable to the making of the real orator, consisting, as the treatment of this subject by Cicero has admirably shown, in a general and detailed acquaintance with all departments of knowledge. To satisfy these conditions, by commencing the training here and marking out a distinct practical road for the student to follow afterward, should be a function of this University. At present nothing of the kind is attempted. "The idea seems to prevail that an orator, like a poet, is born, not made; whilst the fact is clear, that a real orator is the most artificial product of human education."
"The momentous and ever-expanding problems presented by the social and political movements of the time" open to the coming generation a field for action wider and more varied than any it has been the fortune of human benefactors in the past ever to tread; and besides the primary duty of solving these problems there will always be need to counteract the "specious and superficial sophistry of the half-fledged demagogues of the hour." It is therefore at once a "dictate of prudence and a precept of patriotism," to guide aspiring youth so that they may adequately grapple with the difficulties before them, and show themselves in all respects to be "exalted models, both able and willing to prove what it truly is to constitute a state." That from some source men well qualified for this purpose will come is the fond belief of Americans and the hope of every Utopian dreamer. "Blessed indeed will be the alma mater who shall be able to cry out, 'These are my sons!' Sad will be her reproach if she should find them emanate from any inferior source."