Reeducation and the Decline of
the American Dons
IN THE spring of 1943, prior to the commencement of the reeducation program, Wendell Willkie published an impassioned plea for supporting the liberal arts in modern America. “Clearly in a technological age like ours, a great deal of training is necessary, ” he wrote. However, he argued, no technical skill could be considered “true education.” Willkie, who was to a large degree the spiritual mentor of POW reeducation, declared that the “onrush of what we call modern civilization has obscured this essential truth that enduring national greatness was not the result of technical proficiency but the result of what we call the liberal arts … to know for the sheer joy of understanding; to speculate, to analyze, to compare, and to imagine.” Willkie maintained that the most ominous threat to American freedom was not the military might of an outside enemy, but the demotion of a liberal arts education from necessity to indulgence.
People—some of them in very high places—have openly disparaged the liberal arts. You are told that they are of little help to a man in earning his living or in making a contribution to his fellow men. The thing to do, you are told, is to get trained: learn an occupation: make yourself proficient in some trade or profession. Of course, this advice is sound as far as it goes. But the inference, and sometimes the outright declaration that frequently follows it, strikes at the very roots of our society. The liberal arts, we are told, are luxuries. … They are mere decorations upon the sterner pattern of life which must be lived in action and by the application of skills. When such arguments gain acceptance then it is the end of us as a civilized nation. 1
Overspecialization, the emphasis on technical skills, and the subsequent trivialization of the liberal arts, Willkie continued, were un-American traits, imports of the “German university.” He argued that German influences on the American academic system “encouraged the sacrifice of methods that make for wide intelligence to those which are concerned only with highly specialized knowledge; it has held that the subject is more important than the student; that knowledge is more important than