For most of the past half century, Columbia University has provided endless fodder for news outlets such as ours. Indeed, as Accuracy in Academia discovered, the campus left has veto power over not just the curriculum but extracurricular activities as well.
Actually, left-wing student groups have been active at the crown of the Ivy League for about the past century. What changed is the attitude of the administration there: from indulgence to surrender.
From the turn of the last century to the end of World War II, Columbia practiced peaceful coexistence with the Left but did not hesitate to step in to keep the peace. During that time, Nicholas Murray Butler presided over the Morningside Heights campus with a not always invisible hand.
“The aging President of Columbia refused to concede that the ‘right to be heard’ included the right to chant under his window, ‘Castrate Butler! Castrate Butler!’,” the late Ralph deToledano (Class of ’38) remembered in his autobiographical Lament for a Generation. Later a conservative columnist, deToledano was himself very much a man of the Left at the time.
“A small episode, but pertinent in the context since it has lodged in my memory, also had its effect,” deToledano wrote in Lament. “Lionel Trilling was liked as a teacher and respected as a critic,” deToledano wrote in describing a fixture on the Columbia faculty in his undergraduate years.
“But he took no nonsense from the Communists, was known to associate with an occasional anti-Communist, and did not hail Stalin as a latter day prophet. In retaliation, the YCL [Young Communist League] whispered about him that he was a supporter of Leon Trotsky—in those years a far more derogatory charge than the imputation that a man molested small girls on the subway.”
“One day, I stopped him in a corridor of Hamilton Hall and said brashly, ‘Mr. Trilling, I understand you are a Trotskyite.’ He grinned, looked with mock caution in both directions, put his finger to his lips, and said, ‘Shhh,’ then tiptoed away.” Parenthetically, it should be noted, that Trilling, who once described conservatism as “irritable mental gestures,” was hardly a movement conservative.
The cause that most animated deToledano and his then-far-left leaning compadres in the 1930s was that of the Spanish Civil War, or at least the popular, or rather popular front, characterization of it. “I remember a ‘cause’ party at the penthouse of playwright Clifford Odets, then an active Communist, in which we discussed the first phases of the Spanish war and revolution in general,” deToledano recalled in Lament. “With each drink we bought (the proceeds supposedly earmarked for a Spanish government which needed almost everything except money) the talk became more heroic.”
“Before dusk had fallen—the misty, twinkling dusk of skyscraper New York—these College Shop revolutionaries had decided on the most commanding emplacements for machine guns on University Place, come der Tag.”
When he started working as reporter and examining the facts that underlay the conflict, deToledano began his drift rightward. “The evidence of that dishonesty was all about me,” deToledano recollected. “It tumbles out of the files and the accounts of the Spanish Civil War.”
For example, “In the waning days of the war, American boys shot their political commissars and escaped over the mountains.” By then deToledano realized that Franco may or may not have been a political proxy for the Axis forces that the U. S. went to war against but the Loyalist government the Generalissimo opposed was definitively, as the archives of the Communist International would later show, under the control of the Soviet Union.
“On emerging from college in 1938, I found myself surrounded by Communist writers, thinkers, artists—all living in the same red haze,” deToledano recounted in Lament. “Doubts were somehow mislaid, or were conjured away, in those surroundings of certainty and friendship.”
“The important emotion was one of participation, of motivation.” Does that sound familiar?
Luckily, under Butler, Columbia would not countenance deToledano’s chums’ cocktail party schemes. Few, if any, of Butler’s successors could employ such restraint.
Even General Dwight D. Eisenhower, after winning World War II, could score no signal victories as Columbia’s president. “His emphasis on ‘general education for citizenship’ and the Citizenship Educational Project at Teacher College appeared anti-intellectual to the academics on Morningside Heights,” Travis Beal Jacobs wrote in Eisenhower at Columbia.
“The chief responsibility of our educational institutions is to establish a sharper understanding of the American system, a sharper understanding of its values and a more intense devotion to its fundamental purposes,” General Eisenhower explained.
Arguably, Ike was quite the visionary, at least in his views on education. Unfortunately, the available evidence indicates that his vision never took hold, particularly at Columbia.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.