A Commencement Address delivered at Ripon College by Ariel Durant, 1970


I wish to speak to you briefly in defense of civilization; to summarize the challenges that now endanger it in America; and to tell you simply what I would do about them if I had the power.

I define civilization as social order promoting cultural creation. It begins with force generating order; it progresses with knowledge and education generating reason; it matures in sensitivity generating beauty in action, speech and form. It becomes a delicate structure of traditions, customs, morals, manners and laws; of commercial facilities and industrial skills; of sciences, letters, creeds, philosophies, and arts. It is not transmitted with flesh and blood, with genes or chromosomes; it has to be acquired anew by each generation through capacity to teach and willingness to learn.

Civilization is a cooperative product, and many peoples have contributed to the heritage that constitutes it. So the Hindus gave us our Arabic numerals, the Phoenicians gave us our alphabet, the Jews gave us the Ten Commandments, the Greeks gave us philosophy, the Romans gave us law, the early Christians gave us a moral ideal, the English gave us respect for individual freedom, the French gave us the refining participation of women in the privileges and amenities of life. We are the inheritors of a costly, complex and fragile legacy.

It takes centuries to create a civilization, and only a generation or a year to destroy it. It took France a thousand years to grow from Clovis to Montaigne; it took England 800 years from Alfred to Shakespeare. But it took the Mongols only a decade to destroy the high civilization of medieval Baghdad; it may take the hydrogen bomb only a day to turn our major cities into rubble and dust; it may take only a generation for Western civilization to disintegrate under the storm of challenges that envelops it today.

You know those challenges; they are in every newspaper and magazine, in every mouth, almost in every thought. I shall hastily summarize them, and then I shall face the inevitable and reasonable question: What would I do about them if I had power?

First of the challenges to civilization is the deterioration of our environment through the rapid use of minerals and fuels of the soil; through the transformation of our inner cities into soul-destroing, crime-breeding ghettos of the poor; through the pollution of our waters by industrial and human wastes, of our air by our industries and our cars, of our food and drink by insecticides, detergents, or chemical additives; and the disfigurement of our surroundings by unregulated building or the discarded products of our labor or our recreation. We have been fouling our own nest.

The deterioration of our population through the reckless multiplication of its quantity and the repeated dilution of its quality. We breed faster than we plant, and we breed from the bottom of the intellectual scale while prudent parentage relatively sterilizes the top.

The Industrial Revolution has ended the role of the family as the unit of economic production, and has thereby removed the economic basis of parental authority and family discipline.

The Scientific Revolution has weakened supernatural belief, and has rapidly reduced the influence of religion as a source of moral instruction and social order.

Our universities are in turmoil. The angry student resents courses that do not prepare him for successful functioning in a changing society, or that ignore the role of ethnic minorities in our political and cultural history. He suffers from the absorption of teachers in private research, and the domination of that research by the needs of the army and the navy. He began by admiring science for its methods and its miracles; he ends by distrusting science as mechanizing life and industry, and as subjecting itself to a military-industrial complex that dominates the citizen, the teacher, the economy, and the government.

The growth of wealth and cities and population, the lessening of moral restraints, the increased facilities offered to economic dishonesty and sexual promiscuity, have coarsened our manners, our morals, our language, our literature, and our arts, and threaten the very soul of civilization.

The denial of education and a decent family life to our black people in the South has created, by their migration to the North, a race problem more intense and dangerous than at any time in our century.

Crime has increased along with cities, science, and industry. Industry gives new tools to the criminal; the automobile makes his escape easier; court decisions make his conviction harder; and indiscriminate imprisonment makes murderers out of petty thieves.

Our economic system, so excellent in productivity and in spreading the comforts of life, has the defect of repeatedly concentrating wealth to a point that encourages discontent and class war.

Our youth tend to lose faith in the integrity and efficiency of our institutions, to drop out from the processes and amenities of civilization, and to lend themselves to student violence and revolutionary dreams. They reject the past as irrelevant in a hectically changing world, and repudiate the wisdom of age as geared to a vanished scene. Finally they take to narcotics to escape the responsibilities of adult life; and we, who must entrust the future to them, stand sipping our alcohol in a paralysis of wonder and fear as to what our undisciplined and unmoored children will do with our heritage.

So much for the challenges; now what shall we do about them? In proposing remedial measures we must keep within the limits of human nature, and within the capacity of a democratic government. Mindful of these limits, I offer suggestions not for a Utopia but for a better America.

  • Every state and county should include a Bureau of Environmental Care, empowered to check pollution at its source.
  • Parentage should be made a privilege of fitness, and not a right of irresponsibility or carelessness. A right should be defined as a private freedom consistent with public good. Birth control information should be given to every family. Abortion should be legalized. We may rely upon the natural desire for offspring to keep our population up to a figure necessary for national security.
  • The unity of the family and the authority of the parents should be strengthened by enforcing their responsibility for the actions of their dependent children.
  • The Church might regain its moral force if it put less emphasis upon creed and more upon conduct. The Ten Commandments, applied resolutely to our living problems, would be an excellent platform for any synagogue; and the ethics of Christ could be the daily gospel of every Christian church, requiring not literal, but sincerely progressive fulfillment.
  • Education should be provided to fit every student for employment in a technological economy; but education in the humanities should be equally stressed for the understanding of values, graces, and ends. Proposals for high school, college, or university reform should be submitted to a board of which the elected president of each student class should be a voting member. Any student who interferes with the operation of a school should be dismissed. To counter the deterioration of our television programs I would recommend the establishment of a United States Broadcasting Company financed by the Government but directed by our universities, the National Academy of Science, and the National Academy of Arts and Letters.
  • Education in morality – which I should define as the conscientious cooperation of the individual with the community – should be a major course in every year of schooling. The intelligent youth will not take his morals from his inferiors, nor will he take his vocabulary from the privy, the street corner, or the saloon. Some check must be put to our moral permissiveness; some censorship must be resumed over publication, broadcasting, and the theater. I know that this is a dangerous course, but there should be a limit to the dissemination of degradation.
  • Racial integration should require for all groups equality of educational, economic, and political opportunity.
  • I believe that the extension of education and the reduction of poverty, will reduce – though it will not end – crime. Temporary insanity should no longer be accepted as an excuse for crime. Prisons should be replaced by state farms designed to teach some rehabilitating trade.
  • I believe that our economic system, with its progressive mixture of capitalism and socialism, of free enterprise and the welfare state, is better than either the unregulated capitalism of my youth or an authoritarian communist regime.
  • Obviously, I prefer reform to revolution. If there anything clear in history it is that violent revolution multiplies chaos, disseminates destitution, and passes through the excesses of freedom to a dictatorship by an oppressive minority. Revolution is a master that devours both its parents and its children. Less alluring, but less costly, are those processes of reform, by persistent education and gradual public acceptance, which have achieved so many beneficent changes in our century.

As I think over this discourse, I fear that I have stressed too heavily the problems that face us and our children. I am not without hope and I do not forget the marvels that man, poor stumbling man, has achieved in science, religion, literature, art, even in statesmanship and sanctity. Our government is subject to most of the frailties of that human nature which all of us – radical as well as conservative, young as well as old, poor as well as rich – share alike; but it is still flexible enough to hear and implement proposals that have stood the tests of criticism and trial.

We shall meet our challenges if we can bring to bear upon them the united force of mature counsels and young ideas. The young must learn to listen as well as to speak; they must make room, in their concept of America, for that steady middle class, and those men and women of middle age, that carry most of the burdens of life and government. And we elders must recognize that the wild initiatives of the young have spurred remedial action in administrative chambers and legislative halls. Perhaps our national vitality depends upon a continuing tension between youth and age, whereby innovation meets tradition, and the ardor of experiment fuses with the coolness of experience.

Let our sons and daughters be heard when they open their hearts. Though suffering repeated violence and chaos, civilization will survive the unstable flux of our time.