The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 25, 2014

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The “Higher” Education of Whittaker Chambers: Columbia University, Nihilism, and Despair
K. Alan Snyder - 04/23/08

Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography, Witness, is a classic: a revealing sociological study of a damaged home life; a political science course in why a person would want to become a communist; a nonfiction novel of poignant scenes detailing a man’s Lazarus-like rebirth into the world of free men and his agonizing decision to become an informer on those who once were his compatriots; and, perhaps above all, a prophetic voice with respect to the fate of Western Civilization. Yet those years in which Chambers made his decision for communism are not complete in this volume. He gives us a semblance of what life was like for him at Columbia University before he withdrew and devoted himself to his new political faith, but it is not a fully satisfying account of how his higher education might have influenced him toward his new life.

Perhaps that is why he attempted to offer a more in-depth analysis in his posthumously published work Cold Friday. His friend, Duncan Norton-Taylor, who served as editor of the book, had to cobble it together from fragments of writing—some typed, some handwritten—found in cartons in Chambers’s basement. Chambers had worked on the book for years, but had never been able to complete it. “There were a number of reasons why he never finished,” Norton-Taylor explained. “He was . . . trying to inquire into the meaning of history, but was continuously fascinated and distracted by its spasms during the years 1951–1961. He was not a codifier—he was too deeply implicated in humanity.”[1]

In Witness, Chambers covers his college experience over a span of merely four pages, and not everything contained in those pages deals with Columbia specifically. He chose instead to focus on his attempt to be a poet, a goal he ultimately abandoned. The best Witness offers about the years he spent at Columbia is a two-sentence summary: “When I entered, I was a conservative in my view of life and politics, and I was undergoing a religious experience. By the time I left, entirely by my own choice, I was no longer a conservative and I had no religion.”[2] It is a statement that begs for more. How did this happen, precisely? What exact role did Columbia play in this dramatic turnabout? Who and what were the influences on Chambers at this time in his life? Cold Friday fills in the gaps.

The Collegiate Intellectual

He entered Columbia in the fall of 1920. Already damaged from his upbringing in a cold, dysfunctional family, having viewed the less seemly aspects of life as a day laborer in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, and contemplating the social and economic crises that resulted from World War I, Chambers was firmly convinced that the world was on the brink of catastrophe. He referred to it later, when he could explain it better, as a fault line. As with a physical earthquake, so also society was cracking under pressures and stresses that would ultimately lead to a cataclysmic upheaval.

He audited economics courses, seeking the answer to the cause and the cure of the crises he perceived in society. The professors never, in his view, really got around to addressing these points. “Then, one day, Professor Whoever He Was moved in on that subject.” Chambers eagerly anticipated a scholarly answer; instead the professor quoted a British economist who theorized that the business cycle was caused by sun spots. “Even a college man sometimes knows a hawk from a handsaw,” Chambers sardonically mused. He never returned to an economics class, but commented that the British theorist’s “sun-spotted finger . . . pointed me toward the Left.”[3]

The problem, he observed, was that most people did not understand what was happening; therefore, neither did they have a solution. During his time at Columbia, he sought to figure out the nature of the crises and to discover the solution. In the end, the university did not provide the answer.

In effect, I was asking: Please tell me what our civilization means in terms of God and man, for I cannot make head or tail of it.
It was very much as if I had gone to a madhouse and said, cap in hand: Please explain to me the principles of sanity and sane living. Again, this is entirely without any special animadversions upon ColumbiaUniversity. Exactly the same thing would have been true, in one degree or another, if I had gone to any other of the top secular universities in the country. Nor would the colleges have been at fault. Their failure merely mirrored a much greater disaster which was the failure of Western civilization itself.[4]
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