K. Scott Wong, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of History and Public Affairs

“America is the first country and society that has ever attempted to put as many as 30 to 40 percent of each age group into higher education. This is a national decision, rooted deep in our history and our philosophy and our conception of the precepts of American life. It is out of this that the problem of numbers has come, and it is out of this dedication to it that I think we’re going to find ways of meeting it.” –John E. Sawyer ’39

It is remarkable that this conversation took place right before a watershed period in American history that would bring significant changes to our society, changes that are still unfolding today. Both Sawyer and Ransom readily acknowledge the changes wrought by the Second World War, and they both defend the cause of a liberal arts education in the face of increasing post-war professionalism.

When this interview was recorded, President Kennedy had already been assassinated and the Beatles had come to the U.S., but there was no way Sawyer and Ransom could have imagined the transformative events that would take place later that decade that rocked both of their campuses and the rest of the world: the ravages of the war in Vietnam and the subsequent anti-war movement, the height of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the women’s movement, the student movement and its demands for educational reform, and substantial changes in American immigration policies.

All of these events and larger social movements had lasting influences on what people believed the “American Dream” could be and should be. While our civic discourse had always paid lip service to the core ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” it took until the ’60s for these ideals to begin to reach fruition. President Sawyer would act decisively to abolish the fraternity system, increase minority enrollments, increase the number of women and minorities on the staff and faculty, and even cancel the last two weeks of classes in 1970 in protest against the American bombing of Cambodia. And yet we as a society, and our campus in particular, are still grappling with these issues—the role of a liberal arts education in the face of the power of “big money,” the goal of diversifying our campus in terms of students, faculty and staff, many of whom come from a wider range of countries and backgrounds than ever before—all the while keeping true to the goal of nurturing an informed and compassionate citizenry.

Return to full article: What Sawyer Said