21st October 2009
Last week I wrote about Amy Buller, her book 'Darkness over Germany' and the foundation of Cumberland Lodge in 1947, as an alternative college or university.
The first principal of Cumberland Lodge was Sir Walter Moberly, previously Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Chairman of the University Grants Committee and the author of a book published in 1949, 'The Crisis in the University'.
His views, which he said were not only his own but representative of a group of similarly minded people, are interesting as an example of British conservative Christian thinkers, who believed that the world was in crisis, due to a lack of religious faith and respect for tradition, especially among young people. This had been especially apparent in Nazi Germany (so they believed), but the same problems affected not just Germany, but the whole Western world, including Great Britain.
Although the focus was different, there are clear similarities between his thinking and Amy Buller’s book 'Darkness over Germany'. As Walter James wrote in his history of Amy Buller and the foundation of Cumberland Lodge, although her book was about Germany, it reflected the sense that:
“Nazism was the outward manifestation of a sickness with which the entire West had been infected. This view was widely shared among Christian thinkers in the 1930s.”
Although this was a minority point of view at the time and not shared by most people in Britain, it does appear to have influenced a number of British senior officers and administrators in occupied Germany after the war and helps to explain the curious mixture of sympathy and arrogance that is apparent in some of their words and actions (See for example previous posts on this blog on Field-Marshal Montgomery as Military Governor of the British Zone). On the one hand a grave concern that, had circumstances been different, what happened in Nazi Germany could equally have happened in Britain and on the other hand, a view that because these threats to civilisation had been (so they believed) successfully resisted in Britain, it was now the responsibility of British people to convert the heathen and help people in other nations, especially the Germans, share the unquestioned strengths and benefits of British moral, religious, political and cultural traditions.
Here are some extracts from Walter Moberly's book ‘The Crisis in the University':
“The crisis in the university reflects the crisis in the world and its pervading sense of insecurity.”
“The veneer of civilisation had proved to be amazingly thin. Beneath it has been revealed, not only the ape and the tiger, but what is far worse – perverted and satanic man.”
In Moberley’s view, the real trouble lay “in the powerless of the individual in the face of mass society”. The impact of Western civilisation on Africa had been disintegrating, but now so-called civilised communities were suffering from the same problems:
“Apart from any conscious intention or propaganda, [Western civilisation] destroys the foundation of belief, custom and sentiment on which primitive life is built. Unless it also brings some new world picture and way of life to replace that which is in ruins, it leaves behind it devastation. But nemesis has followed. To-day the ‘civilized’ communities are suffering from a similar devastation. Over a large part of Europe and Asia binding convictions are lacking and there is confusion, bewilderment and discord. The whole complex of traditional belief, habit and sentiment, on which convictions are founded, has collapsed. All over the world indeed the cake of custom is broken, the old gods are dethroned and none have taken their places. Mentally and spiritually, most persons to-day are ‘dis-placed persons’.”
Despite relative economic decline after the war, Britain could still provide leadership for the rest of the world. In material resources, Great Britain was “no longer quite in the front rank” but “a full share of leadership in the realm of ideas is still open to us…. We have learned in modern times to criticize ourselves … We may still be shocked by the barbaric gospels of others; but is not all that is positive in our way of life and moral codes simply a relic of an old hierarchical order in which we have ourselves ceased effectively to believe? For ceremonial occasions, no doubt, we still have a Church as we still have a King, but neither has much to do the realities of power.”
“Much of the world is looking to this country for moral leadership with an expectancy which we have disappointed, but have not yet forfeited. It does not seem fantastic to suggest that the fate of civilization in the next period may hang on the question whether this country can rise to its moral opportunity.”
If this was his diagnosis of the global problem, the universities had, in his view, failed to show the moral and cultural leadership they should, resulting in apathetic students with no clear convictions or sense of purpose. “The universities are not now discharging their former cultural task.” This was apparent in both Britain and Germany:
“This process has been going on for a long time. But, in the last few years, it has been accentuated by the moral collapse of the German universities under the Nazi regime. Of no universities had the intellectual prestige been higher; during the last century they had been a model to the world. Yet when the stress came, with certain honourable exceptions among individuals, they showed little resistance, less indeed than the Churches. They failed to repel doctrines morally monstrous and intellectually despicable…. No doubt certain weaknesses in the German make-up contributed to this collapse, but to ascribe it solely to a double dose of original sin in the German people is unconvincing. It seems to have been due in large measure to the fact that the German universities had no independent standards of value of which they felt themselves the guardians and which they held with sufficient conviction and tenacity to stand up against the torrent. But, British teachers cannot help asking themselves, ‘Is this not also our own case? If we were subjected to a like pressure, are we confident that our own standards of value are too coherent and assured to be obliterated? Are we sure that we too should not succumb?’ They do not find it easy to answer with the ringing confidence they would wish.”
“The cultural failure of the universities is seen in the students. In recent years large numbers of these have been apathetic and have had neither wide interests nor compelling convictions”
“Whatever the cause, the university to-day lives and moves and has its being in a moral and cultural fog.”
In the final chapter at the end of the book ‘Taking Stock’, he summarised his argument that the solution to the “age of crisis” was not to abandon established traditions, but to reinvigorate and reinforce them:
- “We are living in an age of exceptional crisis.
- A decision in the Kremlin or the White House may revolutionize the lives of millions of peasants in Central Europe
- The issue depends chiefly on the human factor
- The beliefs which govern men’s actions are in flux
- The old communal convictions concerning good and evil have broken up. A deep uncertainty about goals and obligations pervades all classes and all levels of culture. Our society has lost direction.
- The clue to reconstruction is to be found within our own tradition
- For Western civilization at least, and notably for Great Britain, reconstruction is to be achieved, not by abandoning our tradition, but by rediscovering and reinvigorating it.”
His conclusion and perhaps surprisingly enlightened solution (for a conservative thinker) to these problems was:
Free discussion: “All inhibition of discussion of the burning issues of the day must be removed, for any attitude towards them is preferable to apathy and drift.… Communication and debate must be unconstrained.”
But there were limits to neutrality and some basic values had to be reaffirmed, such as “a passion for truth” “a delicate precision in analysis” “a willingness to learn from all quarters” and “freedom of utterance”.
Sir Walter Moberly, The Crisis in the University ( London: SCM Press Ltd, 1949)
Walter James, A Short Account of Amy Buller and the Founding of St. Catherine’s, Cumberland Lodge, (Privately printed, 1979)