All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1968

Commitment, Concern, and Apathy

Allen Wallis is President of the University of Rochester. This article is from his address of September 21, 1967, before the National Con­ference of Christians and Jews in New York City.

One of the special privileges of a university president is the oppor­tunity to hear, or to hear about, a large number of speeches on aca­demic subjects or directed to aca­demic audiences.

Sometimes a group of things has a pattern that is not revealed by any one of the things alone. Thus, an animated sign in Times Square may be interesting or in­formative in ways that would nev­er be suspected by watching just a single one of its bulbs blinking on and off. So also with speeches. A group of speeches on similar occasions (perhaps award din­ners), or a group of speeches by similar speakers (university presi­dents, for example), or a group of speeches to similar audiences (businessmen, possibly), may be far more illuminating than any one speech alone.

An illustration: About a decade ago, I read accounts of nearly a hundred commencement speeches given that June. They were given in different parts of the country by different kinds of speakers at different kinds of institutions. Through all this diversity that is one of the glories of American higher education ran one binding thread to which even the most in­dividualistic commencement speak­ers conformed. Every speaker ad­vised the graduates to be noncon­formists. Some came close to rec­ommending that the Federal gov­ernment establish standards of nonconformity, and that conform­ity to those standards be enforced by the Bureau of Standards or even by a new Bureau of Non-standards.

Had I not surveyed the whole set of speeches, I would not have realized what a group of con­formists — parrots, almost — those commencement speakers were. To conform to his own advice to be a nonconformist, a speaker would have had to urge the graduates to be conformists.

Mischievous Madness

Last spring I noticed an inter­esting similarity among a good many commencement addresses, though I did not document it sta­tistically. Many speakers made the point that the students who have disrupted or attempted to disrupt universities or have focused at­tention on themselves off-campus are only a tiny fraction — under 5 per cent — of all students.

Often this point was accom­panied by criticism of the press for giving disproportionate atten­tion to the tiny minority — an in­teresting approach to journalism, which seems to imply that on the day of a spectacular airplane crash those who were safely on other planes, or not flying at all, should get almost all the space in the newspapers.

One or two speeches that I heard or read last spring did make the valid point about news cov­erage that most of the student events reported had no independ­ent existence in the real world but were only what Daniel Boor­stin has called “pseudo-events.” That is, the events came about only because “someone planned, planted, or incited” them “for the immediate purpose of being re­ported or reproduced,” arranging them “for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media” and measuring their success by how widely they were reported. As President Perkins of Cornell put it, “our communications sys­tems… are sometimes inclined to forget the distinction between distributing news and manufac­turing it.”

Having pointed out that the dis­orderly students are a negligible minority to whom the journalists give too much attention, last spring’s typical commencement speaker proceeded to devote most of his talk to those same students. There was variety in the explana­tions, evaluations, and prognosti­cations offered by the speakers. Nearly every speaker, however, made an assertion to the effect that when all is said and done, it is a fine, noble, inspiring thing that today’s young people are “con­cerned” and “committed,” not “ap­athetic” like earlier generations of students.

I have no doubt that you have all heard this assertion. In fact, I have little doubt that many of you have asserted it yourselves. Even if you have not heard it applied to students, surely you have heard it applied to ministers.

I disagree with that assertion. In fact — to quote from a source particularly appropriate at this National Conference of Christians and Jews, namely the book of the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes, the thirteenth verse of the tenth chapter — this “talk is mischievous madness.” I intend to devote the rest of my time with you this evening to explaining why I dis­agree.

Minor and Major Objections

First, I will dismiss a couple of objections that, while valid, do not seem to me weighty. The first objection is that the assertion is patronizing and belittling. (This is even more true when it is ap­plied to ministers than when it is applied to students.) It is the kind of statement one makes about a child who, being unable to steer his bicycle or even to balance it, destroys a flower bed, knocks down an old lady carrying a bag of eggs, and skins his own knees and elbows. “Isn’t the little tyke cute! He means so well and tries so hard. How admirable that the small fellow is so concerned about his bicycle — so committed to it, too!”

The second insubstantial objec­tion is that it is at best grasping at straws to base hope for a whole generation on a group which is conceded to be a negligible frac­tion of that generation.

My more serious objection to claiming that today’s activist stu­dents and ministers are concerned and committed, rather than apa­thetic, is summarized in two lines of a poem by Thomas Hood:

Evil is wrought by want of Thought

As well as want of Heart.

The problems about which the activist students and ministers believe themselves to be concerned and committed are war, poverty, injustice, and limitations of free­dom. These are problems about which others have been and are concerned, to the amelioration of which others have been and are committed. No sure paths to uni­versal peace, prosperity, justice, and freedom have been discovered. But a large amount of informa­tion, analysis, experience, and wis­dom about these problems has been accumulated and recorded through the ages.

Rush Rhees Library, on the George Eastman Quadrangle at the University of Rochester, bears on either side of its main portals two inscriptions from which gen­erations of students have drawn inspiration. The inscription to the left of the library doors reads:

Here is the history of human ig­norance, error, superstition, folly, war, and waste, recorded by human intelligence for the admonition of wiser ages still to come.

The other inscription reads:

Here is the history of man’s hun­ger for truth, goodness, and beauty, leading him slowly on through flesh to spirit, from bondage to freedom, from war to peace.

Inside that library, as inside thousands of libraries all over America, much can be learned about ignorance, error, supersti­tion, folly, war, and waste; and much can be learned about truth, goodness, beauty, the human spir­it, freedom, and peace.

There are, to be sure, important things that cannot be learned in libraries, or elsewhere in univer­sities. Some of them can be learned only on battlefields, in hospitals, in slums, in artists’ studios, in factories, banks, and stores, or from the experience of life itself; and some important truths cannot be grasped at all in youth. But in our libraries and elsewhere in our colleges and universities much knowledge and wisdom can be acquired that is not likely to be acquired elsewhere.

Problems Merit More Study

War, poverty, injustice, and lim­itations of freedom are enor­mously complex problems. Yet the history of the past decade, the past generation, the past century, and longer shows that progress has occurred on all these problems — not uninterrupted progress, per­haps; not sufficient progress, sure­ly; but enough progress over long enough periods to demonstrate that it can happen.

That social change can occur is far more obvious than that man can bring about social change, or guide it in desirable directions. There is a great chasm, often overlooked, between demonstrating that things can change and dem­onstrating that things can be changed. The weather is a good example; we all know it can change, but we all know that so far it cannot be changed. Even if it were proved that things can be changed, we would be a long way from proving that we can change things in desirable ways, or even that we can specify what changes would be desirable.

But we are not totally ignorant and helpless: The social sciences, especially economies, do contain bodies of tested knowledge that are substantial, even though in­adequate for what we would like to accomplish. There is much to be learned from the social and behavioral sciences, from history, and from philosophy that will en­hance the effectiveness of anyone concerned about social problems and committed to their ameliora­tion. Certainly there is far more to be learned than can be assim­ilated in the four years of college. A person truly concerned about social problems and committed to improving society would, if he were so fortunate as to attend college, devote all his time and all his energy during those years to utilizing the college’s academic resources — preparing himself to make his most effective contribu­tion. Jose Ortega has made the point in these words:

It is easy to say and even to think that you are resolved upon some­thing; but it is extremely difficult to be resolved in the true sense.

For this means resolving upon all the things which are necessary as intermediate steps; it means, for one thing, providing [y] ourselves with the qualities that are requisite for the undertaking. Anything short of this is no real resolution, it is simply wishing…. It is not so easy to maintain that sort of fire which is both critical and creative, that in­candescence so supplied with thermal energy that it will not be cooled when the two coldest things in the world come to lodge within it: cool logic and an iron will. The vulgar, false, impotent sort of passion shrinks in terror from the proximity of reflec­tive thought, for it senses that at such a chilly contact it will be frozen out of existence.. High creative passion… is fire supported with the constancy of clear understanding and a calm will.

What passes for commitment and concern too often is simply ignorance and arrogance, aggra­vated by apathy. Student activists have opportunities to study and to learn, yet they are too apa­thetic toward their responsibilities to humanity to make the personal effort and sacrifice necessary to take full advantage of their op­portunities. Their contribution to social problems too often will be like the contribution of those who cared for George Washington in his final illness, and are said to have bled him to death with leeches.

An illustration of an important failure to understand social phe­nomena is found in the explana­tions widely given for the current turmoil among a few of our Negro fellow-citizens. A common expla­nation is that it is due to despera­tion at their sad circumstances. Often it is even implied that their circumstances are worsening. In fact, of course, their circumstances have been improving for a quarter of a century at a rate which no one but a wishful-thinker would have ventured to predict 25 years ago.

Furthermore, improvement is a more likely cause of such turmoil than is desperation. On this point, Eric Hoffer wrote more than 15 years ago:

Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when con­ditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed. De Tocque­ville in his researches into the state of society in France before the revo­lution was struck by the discovery that “in no one of the periods which have followed the Revolution of 1789 has the national prosperity of France augmented more rapidly than it did in the twenty years preceding that event.” He is forced to conclude that “the French found their position the more intolerable the better it be­came.”… It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.

I trust that it is not necessary for me to point out that I am not suggesting that Negroes are suffi­ciently well-off, or that nothing should be done for them, any more than a physician who asserts that a diagnosis is incorrect needs to point out that he admits the pa­tient’s illness and favors treating it if there is a suitable treatment. An erroneous diagnosis, in social as in medical matters, can lead to treatment that is worse than use­less.

Legislated Unemployment

An example of the evil that “can be wrought by want of thought” is the minimum wage law, which is as anti-Negro in its effects as its advocates are pro-Negro in their intentions. Very few workers in the United Statesare affected by our minimum wage laws. A disproportionately large number of the few who are af­fected are Negroes. Some of the Negroes who are affected are re­ceiving higher wages than they otherwise would. Many, however, are unemployed because of the minimum wage laws.

Among the effects of minimum wage laws that are harmful to Negroes is a tendency to induce an artificial degree of automation, thereby transferring employment from, for example, low-paid ele­vator operators to the high-paid engineers and craftsmen who make, install, and maintain auto­matic elevators. In some cases, minimum wages force up product prices, inducing consumers to shift some of their purchasing away from those products, thereby re­ducing employment. As a matter of fact, some economists have pointed out that properly designed maximum limits to wages would be more helpful to Negroes than minima, because maxima could in­duce whites to leave the regulated employment.

Even those who support mini­mum wage laws in a mistaken belief that they help the poor seem to have a vague, uneasy feeling that their argument has limita­tions. Otherwise, why do they not urge a minimum wage of, say, $3 per hour? Surely they cannot believe that at $1.50 per hour—about $3,000 per year — a man could support a family of even average size in New York City, or that $6,000 per year would lead to dec­adent luxury. Perhaps they sense that at a $3 minimum too many incomes would be not $6,000 but zero.

Self-Interest Serves Others, Too

Economists who have studied discrimination have concluded generally that the greater the de­gree to which an economy is gov­erned by pecuniary motives alone, the better off will be those who are discriminated against. Armen Alchian and Reuben Kessel con­clude that “strong, unrestrained profit incentives serve the inter­ests of the relatively unpopular, unorthodox, and individualistic members of society,” and they re­mark that there is “an inconsist­ency in the views of those who argue that profit incentives bring out the worst in people and at the same time believe that discrimina­tion in terms of race, creed, or color is socially undesirable.”

Many will find this conclusion so repugnant that they will simply refuse to think about it enough to risk finding truth in it. To those who are curious about the analysis, I will offer a hint.

People’s motives are both pecu­niary and nonpecuniary. Pecu­niary motives are satisfied in a simple way, by money, and money is all alike. Nonpecuniary motives include what we call taste and preference when we approve, or discrimination and prejudice when we disapprove. A man who is not motivated by purely pecuniary considerations may hire a beau­tiful secretary instead of an ugly one who is an equally good worker and gets the same wage. That would show taste. He may also hire a white secretary instead of a Negro who is her equal. That would show discrimination.

To the extent that the employer is susceptible to pecuniary consid­erations, the nonpreferred worker can tempt him by a lower wage rate, or by greater efficiency, and thus gain employment. Then the employer finds his unit costs lower than his competitors’. Being now in a position to increase his total profit by tempting customers away from his competitors by offering the customers a share of the sav­ing in unit costs, and being a man governed by pecuniary motives, he does so. With the increased busi­ness, he employs more people, nat­urally looking to the nonpreferred group for them.

Unfortunately for this first em­ployer of the nonpreferred work­ers, but fortunately for them, the other employers eventually find that they must hire nonpreferred workers or see their businesses wither away. The resulting com­petition from other employers bids up the wages of the nonpreferred, and eventually the first employer no longer has an advantage. When things settle down in the industry, the nonpreferred group will have more jobs and higher wages; the consumers will be paying no more and perhaps a little less; and the employers’ profits will be about the same as before, though they will have suffered temporary financial penalties to the extent that they delayed in hiring the nonpre­ferred.

The other employers do, how­ever, have a way to protect them­selves against the first employer’s starting all this. They can get a law passed setting a minimum wage, so that the nonpreferred workers are not allowed to offer the first employer a pecuniary in­centive to hire them. In that case, the first employer will be guided by nonpecuniary considerations in deciding which workers to hire. He might still hire the nonpre­ferred, motivated by charity, tol­erance, or his opinions about so­cial welfare; but if it were usual for people to behave that way, the whole problem of discrimina­tion would not have come up.

At any rate, anyone committed and concerned about the welfare of minority groups is exceedingly irresponsible if he is not thor­oughly familiar with this kind of analysis, and with much, much more. Otherwise, with the best of intentions, he is likely to find himself in the same category as those who applied leeches to George Washington. Having mis­calculated the effect of the mini­mum wage laws, he will advocate them in good faith. Then when he sees the Negro unemployment that results, he will diagnose its cause incorrectly, and quite prob­ably advocate remedies for it that cause still further harm.

The Role of Education

Universities constitute our greatest resource in the age-long struggle for peace, prosperity, justice, and freedom. Their proper and effective use is in accumulat­ing knowledge and wisdom and passing it on. Those who are truly concerned about their fellow man, and truly committed to reform­ing society, will devote their years in college to study and reflection, just as the budding physician de­votes his time in medical school to study instead of to answering ambulance calls.

A business executive cannot cope with the problems of his company with anything less than the best and most advanced edu­cation, nor without years of ap­prenticeship and constant re-education and study. A physicist cannot make contributions that are meaningful and worthwhile without prolonged dedication to research, study, and training at the highest levels of current knowledge. It takes eight to ten years of education before the medical internist is prepared to open his own office.

Yet, the problems of business, the mysteries of the nucleus, and the ailments of the body are sim­ple when compared to the prob­lems of war, poverty, injustice, and limitations of freedom.

If there are to be activists and others who purport to have an­swers to social problems, let them spend at least as much time and effort in learning what man al-ready knows and has already tried as do those who would be execu­tives or physicists or physicians.

The activists are the students who are truly apathetic. It is among the students so often called apathetic that we find those who are truly concerned and truly com­mitted. It is to this great major­ity of truly concerned and truly committed students, of whom the public rarely hears during their college years — unquestionably the finest people (as well as the braini­est) that we have ever had in our colleges — that we may confidently look for future leaders who have, in Ortega’s words, “high creative passion… with the constancy of clear understanding and a calm will.”


Sources of Quotations

Daniel Boorstin (1962), The Image, p. 11.

Thomas Hood (1845), The Lady’s Dream, line 95.

John R. Slater (1930), Inscrip­tions for Rush Rhees Library, East­man Quadrangle, University of Rochester.

Jose Ortega y Gasset (1930), Mission of the University, pages 40-41. Eric Hoffer (1951), The Tine Be­lievers, section 22.

Armen A. Alchian and Reuben A. Kessel (1962), “Competition, Monop­oly, and the Pursuit of Money,” in Aspects of Labor Economics, A Re­port of the National Bureau of Eco­nomic Research, pages 174 and 175.

Some References on the Economics of Discrimination

Gary S. Becker (1957), The Eco­nomics of Discrimination.

Alchian and Kessel (1962), see under quotations.

Milton Friedman (1962), “Capital‑

ism and Discrimination,” Chap. 7 in his Capitalism and Freedom.

Harold Demsetz (1965), “Minori­ties in the Market Place,” North Carolina Law Review.