Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The University's Civilizing Force

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The University's Civilizing Force

Article excerpt

A university can be looked at in more than one way. Sometimes I like to think of how Washington University serves two important functions: first, to preserve civilization, and second, to enhance civilization through progress. I shall discuss each in turn.

Most of the time we take our civilization for granted. We expect to be able to travel where we please, to have food when hungry, to be safe in our homes, and to be treated fairly or, if not, to bring complaints before an impartial judge. We talk with whom we want, when we want and always without fear.

All of these boons seem our natural rights. Then we open the pages of our newspapers or turn on our television sets and see what happens when civilization breaks down. Starvation and sickness, terror and filth, suffering and death are epidemic. People are murdering each other for revenge and even for sport. We are horrified. We ask ourselves, can these people be humans, like us? Have they laughed and loved, provided for their families and enjoyed their children?

We know in our hearts that they have; they are like us. Perhaps we remember the famous passage from John Donne:

No man is an Island, entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main;

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were. . . .

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind;

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

We are suddenly forced to see a side of our species that we would rather forget. We learn what people do to each other when hate and fear are loose on the land and the normal restraints of civilized behavior have evaporated. People in Bosnia and Rwanda are human just like us. They share with us the same behavioral repertoire. Given the right circumstances, there go we, and who can say if we would be the aggressors or the victims.

Civilization needs preserving; we all have a stake in doing so. The task is never-ending, for children are not born civilized, not our own or anyone else's. Each new child has to go through the learning period in the family and then in school and finally, for those with the talent to be the leaders of tomorrow, in college. …

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