From Encyclopedia Brunoniana
Alexander Meiklejohn, philosopher, dean, advocate of free speech
The following entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright ©1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.
Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964), professor of philosophy and dean of the college, was born in Rochdale, England, on February 1, 1872. He moved with his family to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight. He was the youngest of eight sons, and his family pooled its resources to provide him with a college education. He graduated from Brown in 1893. In his senior year, undecided whether to be a philosopher or a professional athlete, he went to President E. Benjamin Andrews for advice. Andrews’ advice, as reported by Thomas G. Corcoran ’18, was, “A Scot has to love either whiskey or philosophy. Since you don’t love whiskey, your decision is made for you.”
Meiklejohn proceeded to take up philosophy. He earned his master’s degree in philosophy at Brown under the Scottish James Seth in 1895 and followed Seth to Cornell to earn his Ph.D. in 1897. He became instructor in philosophy at Brown in 1897 and was promoted to assistant professor in 1899. He was promoted to professor of logic and metaphysics in 1903. In 1901 he became the second Dean of the University, succeeding Winslow Upton, who had served in that capacity for fewer than two years.
As dean until 1912 he was involved with discipline, athletics, and social life. He was the first to publish the scholastic standings of the fraternities and to challenge them to improve. Meiklejohn had strong views on attendance. While he felt that some flexibility should be allowed for superior students, he thought that the whole class was best served when the professor addressed students who had all heard the previous lectures and that the better students stimulated the class. As a senior, he had written an opinion for a Brown Daily Herald survey on the regulations governing absence from class, recommending that any student who exceeded six unexcused absences be immediately expelled, noting that this system would drive out the “loafer,” and “open the way for the only true system of university recitations – complete and unrestrained freedom of attendance.”
In 1904 he had an opportunity to demonstrate standing by a principle. The members of the previous year’s championship baseball team had engaged in “summer ball” for pay and their eligibility to play college ball was in question. If the College should bar the whole team from playing, there would be little hope of a successful season. It fell to Meiklejohn to speak at a meeting of students and stand firmly by the unpopular premise that the honor of the University rested on refusing to postpone the enforcement of a rule at a time when to do so would be to its advantage.
In 1913 he became president of Amherst College. The Brown Club of New York held a reception for Meiklejohn on his election and celebrated with a song sung to the music of “Old Black Joe.”
His career at Amherst ended ten years later with his forced resignation. His downfall was brought about by a variety of reasons: his innovative ideas regarding curriculum and teaching methods, his opposition to the emphasis on athletics, his bringing in of younger faculty members which offended the older ones, and his extravagance in running the president’s residence with six servants. The editor of The Amherst Student wrote, “Dr. Meiklejohn was not a business administrator. He was not always tactful to standpatters. ... He gave his students a knowledge of life that few other students obtain. ... He taught them to examine for the truth, not to accept tradition in its place. ... The President was called everything from a bolshevik to a pacifist, by men who announced in the same breath that they were liberal.” When he resigned in 1923, eight faculty members left and thirteen students refused their diplomas. In his final Commencement address at Amherst, he bid farewell with these words, “I shall try to be decent to you as I have been in the past, as you have been in the past to me. I differ from most of you on most of the issues of life, and I’m going to keep it up.”
He was offered the presidencies of other colleges, but went to the University of Wisconsin, where with some former colleagues and students he started the University’s Experimental College in 1928. The College had no formal classes and the curriculum stressed an in-depth study of a single topic at a time, devoting the first year to the civilization of Greece and the second to the civilization of England. The experimental college inspired its students, but was an administrative failure and ended in 1932. Meiklejohn continued to teach at Wisconsin until 1938. After that he became involved in adult education in San Francisco through the School of Social Studies.
He was an advocate of free speech. His writings included The Liberal College in 1920, Freedom and the College in 1923, The Experimental College in 1930, Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government in 1948, and Political Freedom; the Constitutional Powers of the People in 1960, He was a long-time member of the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1945 he was a United States delegate to the charter meeting of USESCO in London. He was honored by lectureships named for him at Brown and at the University of Wisconsin. He was able to come east to hear Justice William O. Douglas deliver the first Meiklejohn lecture at Brown in 1963. The American Association of University Professors established the annual award of the Alexander Meiklejohn Freedom Award. He once told President Keeney that he considered the Rosenberger Medal which he was awarded in 1959 the highest honor of his life. On December 6, 1963, he received from President Lyndon B. Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for which he had been selected by President John F. Kennedy. He died in Berkeley, California, on December 17, 1964, at the age of 92.
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