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The Inaugural Address

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin
Sixth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
June 7, 1909

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin

My first duty is to express my appreciation of the honor conferred on me by election to the presidency of this great Institute and my thanks to those representative citizens who have so warmly and so gracefully bidden me welcome to the inspiring task that lies before me. The task, as has been suggested, is no easy one, and I should be oppressed by my inability to cope with it, did I not feel strong in the loyal and enthusiastic support of the Faculty and the alumni, indeed of all who have the welfare of the Institute at heart.

Now on an occasion such as this I might perhaps be expected to say something as to the policy of the Institute and the plans for its future development, in so far as I have any influence on the formation of such a policy and such plans. I refrain from doing this, however, if for no other reason than that I recognize that promise and performance are often somewhat different things, and I do not wish to invite any inconvenient comparisons in the future. All that seems necessary to do is to assure you that I shall do my best, and that, as I heartily approve of the broad lines of the policy that has been established by my very distinguished predecessors, any marked departure from that policy will not be due to my initiative.

As, however, I am necessarily somewhat of a stranger to you, it seems not inappropriate that I should give some indication of my creed as an educator, and so reveal the ideal that I should like to see made real in this Institute. The creed has, at any rate, the merit of brevity. It can easily be stated for present purposes in three or four articles.

I. The first article is one that is common to almost every modern creed, and is to the effect that the end of education is to fit men to deal with the affairs of life honestly, intelligently and efficiently. That, like many another commonplace in creeds, is one that is almost deliberately ignored in much of common practice. It should be applied thoughtfully and rigorously as a test of every element in the scheme of your educational system. We must try to fit man for life, and for life that is as abundant and complete as possible. We must have due regard to professional skill, but especially in such an Institute as this must we avoid the danger of supposing that we have to think only of a man's professional equipment. Clearly, no man can be merely an engineer or an architect or a professor. He owes other duties to society that are in no sense inferior. In the relations of domestic life or in the larger family of a city or a State he must constantly move and act. In these spheres, powers must be exercised that may require cultivation and training just as much as any others, and, if a student has not brought them up to a reasonable standard of excellence, then, whatever be his professional skill, he is no more than an ill-educated man.

II. My second article is that, in the higher education of a large and increasing section of the community, science should play a very prominent, if not a leading, part. Many a fierce battle has been waged during the operation of scene shifting in the great theatre of education. Those who were schooled exclusively in the "older learning" had it so long their own way that they come naturally to regard themselves as Levites in charge of the ark of culture and to look upon any criticism as an unwarrantable intrusion not worthy of their serious attention. However, in due time the champions of modern literature and humanism became strong enough to issue a challenge, and in the fight that ensued many a hard blow had already been struck, when the fray was complicated by the advent of a somewhat ragged army with "modern science" on its banner. The noise and din of the battle have well-nigh died away by this time, although occasionally a belated combatant fires a shot or shouts derision at an enemy, real or imagined. In general, however, it has come to be recognized as absurd to set up a claim to the monopoly of culture, if I may be permitted to use that much-abused word widely for breadth and openness of mind and sanity of judgment. Native capacities and tastes vary enormously, and culture may be reached by many roads. Admitting this quite frankly, I repeat that science should play a very important part in the education of a large and increasing section of the community. In saying this, I am not now thinking of the specialist, to whom science is a necessity of his profession. I am thinking, rather, of any one who is to take an active and intelligent part in the world of affairs today, whether in business or in public life. Science has already profoundly changed the conditions of our life, and it may not be so very long until its method and its spirit permeate our modes of business and of government. It must even now be very difficult for a man who has not acquired the scientific habit of mind by serious scientific study to free himself entirely from mediævalism and be a really modern man. For we have to remember that "not only is our daily life shaped by science, not only does the prosperity of millions depend upon it, but our whole theory of life is being profoundly influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the general conceptions that science has forced upon us."

Apart from this it is scarcely necessary to emphasize the claims of science in an Institute like this which devotes so large a share of its attention to the training of men to deal successfully with those great problems of production and distribution which the energy of a great industrial nation makes of paramount importance. Today it is common knowledge that those are mainly scientific problems, although half a century ago, when this Institute was founded, it was only the far-seeing that had any glimpse of this, and very few among these that had any adequate conception of the mighty change that science would effect in the industrial problems of the world. Where such matters are concerned, energy, courage and doggedness are no longer enough as they once were to win the fight. With science they profit nothing, and are no more availing by themselves than is the dauntless courage of the savage in the face of a modern gun.

The quickness with which the different nations grasped this vital fact might be used as a touchstone of their intelligence, and it is almost pathetic to observe the bewilderment of some of them who are just awakening to the knowledge that they must even now face a new heaven and a new earth. Massachusetts may congratulate itself on having been amongst the first to foresee the change, but I hope that this will not induce any disposition to rest and be thankful for the wisdom of our forefathers. Here it cannot be necessary to remind you that the terrible battle of competition between men and between nations is no passing phenomenon. It does not depend on conditions that are transitory, but, on the contrary, on those that are permanent and that must always make for keener competition. The only chance of survival is resolutely to throw away all weapons except the best (i.e., the most scientific), and the only hope for long life is not merely to be strong and well armed, but to be able to keep in that condition. For this end we must train our young men with a view to the future, and, as no one can foresee what a generation will bring about, our only hope of safety is to imbue them thoroughly with those fundamental principles of science and its applications that are permanent and that can be put to any need that may arise, and not to take up too much time over those details of the professional practice of today that may not improbably be antiquated tomorrow.

III. Next we should constantly bear in mind that science and culture must be combined; i.e., the two must go hand in hand, science being studied and taught in such a way as to make for that broad and liberal outlook on the world that is the mark of a really cultured man. I hope that it is not necessary to stop to argue with any one who thinks that science is quite incompetent to the task, for such a survival of mediævalism must surely be very rare today. I take it that the root of culture, in any worthy sense of that term, is the possession of an ideal broad enough to form the basis for a sane criticism of life. What study is most conducive to this end is a question on which there is sure to be much difference of opinion, but I suspect that the subject-matter of the study is far from the most important element in the problem. We have only to think of the unpromising materials from which our forefathers often derived such real culture to be confirmed in this suspicion, and to lean towards the opinion that it is the how rather than the what of study that makes for culture. If this be true, then it is vastly important, for it enables us to solve one of the most difficult questions that presents itself in education. We cannot indulge in high-flown schemes of general culture, for here, as everywhere else, the avenue to success is limitation. The practical question is, How to limit? The plausible and the popular solution is that a man should be guided by his aptitudes, and by what those aptitudes should determine,—his special calling in life. Here I believe that, for once, the plausible and the popular is entirely right. It seems to me obvious that a man should try to keep closely to what will be most useful to him in life, the only qualification—and of course it is an important one—being that the adjective "useful" must not be construed in any narrow sense. It is owing to the qualification that it appears absurd to allow almost complete freedom of choice to a mere youth, whose outlook on life is not wide enough to suggest the wisest choice. I see no reason, however, why a man should spend his time in so-called "useless" studies for the sake of mental discipline and culture if he can gain these excellent things in studies that are more "useful" in his calling, no more than I see why a business man should not take his exercise in walking towards his office rather than in some other direction. There may, of course, be several roads to his office, and it may be that the shortest is not the best, for it may bring him there out of breath or otherwise so disabled that he is unfit for business for half the morning. Especially, when he is new to the city, will he profit enormously by the companionship of an accomplished man who can direct his attention to the real attractions of the way. It is, of course, highly important to have men that can do this well, and so at the Institute and other similar places we must have men of high rank and wide outlook who can keep the highest ideals constantly before the student. They must be men who can command the respect not only of the students, but of the whole community in which they live,—men such as are to be found at the best Technical Institutes in Paris and Berlin, who neither in their international reputation as men of science nor in the esteem in which they are held locally nor in the emoluments of their office are one whit behind those in the more ancient seats of learning.

We need such broad men as professors on our staff for the reason that I have indicated and because of the incalculable value of breadth of view and freedom from prejudice to the leader in engineering and industrial pursuits. But there are other reasons than these. It is true that the first and obvious duty of such an Institute as this is to train men for certain professions, and particularly for those professions in which science plays a leading part. It should, however, do more than this. It should take its share in the great work of getting the nation imbued with the scientific spirit. For this purpose the schools of applied science are strategic points of the highest value. If you can show people the "practical" value of science (in the narrow sense of that ill-used adjective), if you can demonstrate that it makes for healthier and fuller life, for greater prosperity and greater happiness, then you will have some chance of directing their attention to its other aspects. And this suggests another purpose that the Institute should serve. It should train men to extend to the bounds of knowledge, not only in the applications of science to industry, but in any direction in which they see opportunity of extending them. I believe that association with "practical" studies is one of the best things even for the so-called unpractical man, who intends to deal mainly with the most abstract researches. Galileo made telescopes, Newton learned practical mechanics, Leibnitz invented machines, Kelvin laid cables. And so it should cause no surprise that, when we bear in mind the size of this Institute and take account of the youthfulness of its graduates (remembering that only a small proportion of them have yet passed middle life), we find that its alumni have contributed a full share of pure scientific work of the first rank in astronomy, in chemistry, in biology, and in other departments of learning. I hope that it will always be so; but, to make this possible, a continuance of front rank men on our staff is a necessity of our being.

But of course there are other things than studies to be considered. Above all, we must preserve in our students the freshness and vigor of youth, and see to it with all care that their natural powers of initiative are improved, and not checked by our training. Outside the class-room we can do this best by encouraging a rational system of athletics and a rational social life. In Xenophon we were told that "to ride horseback and to speak the truth" were considered the two essentials in the education of a Persian gentleman, and I can well believe that many more elaborate modern systems of education are much less liberal. Fortunately, it is now becoming generally recognized that a sound body is the basis of a sound mind and of sound morals, and that men play the game of life better for what they learn in manly contests manfully conducted. It is of course deplorable, if true, that the cult of mere athleticism seems to be eating like a canker into the college life of this country just as of some older ones, but there is comparatively little danger of this abuse of a thing so intrinsically good in an Institute of Technology. Here, however, we need opportunities not only for athletics properly conducted, but for a healthy social life among the students. Success in practical life is clearly not dependent wholly or even mainly on knowledge, unless you see the term so widely as to include the knowledge of men and of the world. It is common experience here, as in the older world, that the men who make the greatest mark are often those that were quite unhonored in the schools. At Oxford or at Cambridge they pursued "a little learning and probably much more boating," but, whatever their shortcomings in the class-room, they received a wholesome and a manly training from the other influences that were brought to bear in their social life. A great and learned cardinal of the Catholic Church (that Church which has been so rich in men with profound human insight) said that, if he had to choose between sending a young man to a university which made no provision for social life among its students, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects,—if he had to choose between such a university and one that had no professor or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together three or four years,—if he had to determine which of the two would be the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which would send out men the better fitted for their secular duties, which would produce the better public men, men whose names would descend with honor to posterity, he would have no hesitation in giving the preference to that university which simply did nothing. Well, clearly we cannot make architects and engineers by doing nothing. Work, and hard work, too, must always be the leading feature of a technical institute; but I see not the slightest reason why we should not have all the advantages of a rational social life among the students and work as hard as ever. Work is perhaps the one thing needful to check those abuses of the social side of college life which no one who speaks with any real knowledge can fail to recognize as all too common. In social matters, tradition is all-powerful, and we are fortunate above all else at the Institute in having a tradition that is thoroughly wholesome. There is a tradition of seriousness of purpose and hard work, and there is little or no tendency to set up a wall of caste which is not an inconspicuous feature in the college life of the older world and may perhaps be observed even here, and which, if allowed to stand, is a menace to true citizenship and true democracy.

Well, the recital of my creed is done. I have come to Massachusetts a stranger; but I scarcely feel like one, so warmly have I been welcomed on every side. I recognize, of course, that this is not a personal matter (or I should not mention it here), but that the welcome represents the good will of the community to the great Institute of which we are all thinking today. I have had many opportunities elsewhere of learning of its national and international reputation, and I feel sure that it needs no appeal from me to arouse this State to a sense of its value, for public as well as for private service. Born in a period of unexampled national struggle, it has been by a process of continuous struggle that it has made for itself a unique position. It is impossible to know its history and not be stirred by admiration for the greatness of soul of its founders and for the pertinacity and courage of those who have worked so steadily and so unobtrusively in the intervening years to maintain its great traditions and compel respect for it. Rogers who planned it, and Governor Andrew who so warmly befriended it and who insisted so strongly that it should be started out on a broad gauge, were no ordinary men; and it is because I believe that the spirit of such men still lives in the community that I have every confidence that it will not now be allowed to languish through any narrow and unworthy view of its purpose and destiny.

Technology Review 11, July 1909, pp. 328-334.

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