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Education and Democracy

The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872–1964

Adam R. Nelson

Publication Year: 2001

"Intellectual biography at its best. Nelson has presented us with the whole Meiklejohn, warts and all." —E. David Cronon, coauthor of The University of Wisconsin: A History -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- This is the definitive biography of Alexander Meiklejohn, one of the most important and controversial educators and civil libertarians of the twentieth century. A charismatic teacher and philosopher with extrordinarily high expectations for democratic self-government in the United States, Meiklejohn was both beloved and reviled during his long life. Brilliant and dedicated, he could also be stubborn and arrogant, and his passion for his own ideals led to frequent clashes with prominent and powerful critics. The son of reform-minded, working-class immigrants from Scotland, Meiklejohn rejected the spiritually agnostic and politically instrumentalist philosophies of his Progressive-Era contemporaries, many of whom, he argued, simply took democracy for granted. As dean of Brown University at the outset of the twentieth century, he lamented the disintegration of the old classical curriculum and questioned the rising influence of amoral science in modern higher education. He served as president of Amherst College during the culturally turbulent years of World War I, a director of the famous Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and as a delegate to UNESCO after World War II. An outspoken defender of the First Amendment during the McCarthy era, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. "Alexander Meiklejohn was a self-proclaimed idealist living in an increasingly pragmatic age, and his central question remains essential today: How can education teach citizens to be free?" "A splendid piece of work. It is a fascinating character study of an extraordinary figure in American intellectual and educational history. Nelson presents a very balanced portrait of the man, his strengths and weaknesses."—Charles W. Anderson, author of Prescribing the Life of the Mind Adam R. Nelson is assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. Previously a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, he is currently working on a history of internationalism in American higher education.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Preface: Meiklejohn, Socrates, and the Paradox of Democratic Education

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pp. xi-xvi

He is at his desk. He is surrounded with his numerous correspondence. He puts down his pen. He seems to want to. He waits for you to speak, intently and anxiously, almost with childlike breathlessness. And you go on. His words, short phrases of his understanding, a nod of his head, a sensitive, sympathetic smile. A kindly air of appreciative intent always on his countenance. He sometimes suggests a word of his outlook, but stops if you manifest the slightest reac-...

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pp. xvii

Biographies tell as much about the relationships their subjects cultivated as they tell about their individual subjects themselves. Alexander Meiklejohn had many friends and many enemies, each of whom influenced his activities and his beliefs in different ways, both great and small. My job as a biographer has been to discover,describe, and ultimately interpret the relative importance of Meiklejohn’s many relationships. As a writer, researcher, and scholar, I, too, have relied...

PROVIDENCE, 1872–1911

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1. “A Voyage across the Atlantic” and “Kant’s Ethics,” 1872–1899

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pp. 3-32

In the spring of 1869, James and Elizabeth Meiklejohn moved with their seven sons from Glasgow, Scotland, to Rochdale, England. Ever since his childhood in the early 1840s, James Meiklejohn had worked as a color designer in the textile mills surrounding Glasgow, Barrhead, and Paisley, but the possibility of higher wages and better working conditions eventually lured him and his large family south. The town of Rochdale, located ten miles north of Manchester in the rolling hills of...

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2. “College Education and the Moral Ideal,” 1900–1911

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pp. 33-58

As an assistant professor and handsome bachelor in his late twenties, Meiklejohn was all that an up-and-coming academic professional could be at the turn of the century. Well educated and gainfully employed, he earned a salary that was almost as high as his six brothers’ annual wages combined. Certainly, he had come a longway from his working-class childhood in Pawtucket, but he had not forgotten his roots. After graduate school, he moved back into his parents’...

AMHERST, 1912–1924

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3. “The College as Critic,” 1912–1919

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pp. 61-96

On October 16, 1912, Amherst celebrated Meiklejohn’s inauguration as the eighth president of the college. “The day,”wrote the editors of the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, “was ideal for the inaugural procession—the sky bright with sun, the trees glorious with color, and the air mild and balmy, with just enough tang of autumn coolness to make it bracing.” A procession of college and university representatives, brilliantly bedecked in full academic regalia, marched en-...

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4. “To Whom Are We Responsible?” 1920–1924

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pp. 97-130

In January of 1920, Meiklejohn traveled to Boston to address the members of the Harvard Liberal Club. His speech reiterated many of the themes he had introduced eight years earlier in his inaugural address at Amherst, particularly his idea that a truly liberal college should set itself apart from mainstream society as a haven for cultural, intellectual, and moral criticism. Several prominent liberals heard Meiklejohn’s presentation, including William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., the noted labor activist and elderly...

MADISON, 1925–1932

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5. “A New College with a New Idea,” 1925–1928

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pp. 133-164

In January of 1925, Meiklejohn’s long-awaited article, “A New College: Notes on a Next Step in Higher Education,” appeared in Century magazine. “What can be said,” he asked, “in favor of the establishment of a New College? I find a desire for it, a belief in it, from one side of the country to the other. It is active in the minds of many of the best teachers and many of the best students in our colleges.”1 Indeed, by the mid-1920s, the spirit of reform was alive and well in American higher ed-...

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6. “A Most Lamentable Comedy,” 1929–1932

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pp. 165-196

When the school year opened in the fall of 1929, students at the University of Wisconsin enjoyed the best of un-dergraduate life. Not only were they attending an internationally acclaimed research university, but they also reveled in almost unprecedented economic prosperity. They could, if they wanted, leave their dormitories and walk—or, better yet, drive—a short distance to anyone of four movie theaters in Madison where, for fifteen cents, they could...

BERKELEY, 1933–1947

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7. “Adult Education: A Fresh Start,” 1933–1940

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pp. 199-232

In the spring of 1933, Meiklejohn took a sabbatical from teaching and moved to Berkeley. While retaining a half-time appointment in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin, he rented a large house in the hills near the campus of the University of Cali-fornia. There, surrounded by pines and palms and cooled by a steady bay breeze, he found a relaxing and hospitable work environment. “Life here is very pleasant,” he wrote to Glenn Frank. “The university crowd is very...

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8. “A Reply to John Dewey,” 1941–1947

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pp. 233-260

In October of 1941, after a relaxing summer of tennis and swimming at Windy Gates, Roger Baldwin’s family estate on Martha’s Vineyard, Meiklejohn published a short article in a rather obscure journal called the North Central Association Quarterly.1 His title,“Higher Education in a Democracy,” was disarmingly nondescriptgiven the complexity of his argument. Reflecting on the cultural and intellectual implications of the growing war in Europe, he asserted that the...

BERKELEY, 1948–1964

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9. “What Does the First Amendment Mean?” 1948–1954

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pp. 263-295

In january of 1945, the House Un-American Activities Committee became a permanent standing committee in Congress. A year later, Attorney General Tom Clark announced the infiltration of a“sinister and deep-seated plot on the part of Communists, ideologists, andsmall groups of radicals” to overthrow the U.S. government by force. It was in the midst of this increasingly tense postwar atmosphere that Meiklejohn drafted a short article on the importance of free speech in the twen-...

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10. “The Faith of a Free Man,” 1955–1964

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pp. 296-328

Meiklejohn’s European tour coincided with a series of important political events in the United States, foremost among them the Army-McCarthy hearings, which exposed on national television the arrogance, irresponsibility, and perhaps even drunkenness of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In November of 1954, the Senate condemned McCarthy, asserting that his reckless investigations of unproven subversion threatened “to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to...

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Afterword: Education and the Democratic Ideal—The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn

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pp. 329-336

In the days and weeks following Meiklejohn’s death, obituariesran in virtually every major newspaper in the country.1 “The death of Alexander Meiklejohn, at the age of ninety-two, robs the country of a national resource—a figure almost uniquely symbolic of its libertarian tradition,” the Washington Post eulogized. “This ramrod-straight, sparse, spectacled philosopher was at once a scholar and polemicist, a man of learning and a champion of freedom. An implacable foe of every restraint...


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pp. 337-390

Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading

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pp. 391-402


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pp. 403-416

E-ISBN-13: 9780299171438
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299171407

Publication Year: 2001