Chambers: Higher Education & Despair

Book Cover 1What led Whittaker Chambers to become a communist? His university education was one source, not because it taught him communism per se, but because it offered nothing to believe in. Faced with a choice between nihilism and communism, he chose the latter. Here’s an excerpt from my new book that I hope you will find enlightening with respect to the decline of higher education.

Chambers chose to attend Columbia University, close enough to home that he could save money by staying there his freshman year. “When I entered,” he explained, “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.”

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?

He entered Columbia in the fall of 1920. Already damaged from his upbringing, having viewed the less seemly aspects of life in D.C. and New Orleans, and contemplating the social and economic crises that resulted from the recent Great War, now known as World War I, Chambers was soon to be 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. The problem 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 crisis 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 Columbia University. 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.

Columbia was, he declared, “a citadel of the mind swaying in the vertigo of a civilization changing (without admitting it) the basis of its faith from a two thousand-year-old Christian culture to the new secular and scientific culture.” Whereas the Christian culture “placed God at the center of man’s hope,” the new secular faith, which was “exclusively rational and scientific,” replaced God with Man.

This was not indoctrination into communism, at least not explicitly. “No member of the Columbia faculty ever consciously guided me toward Communism,” he stated. “Columbia did not teach me Communism. It taught me despair.” That despair opened the door for the communist solution.

Searching for meaning in life, Chambers found that his university education provided only despair. Only much later did he finally come to realize that true meaning is found only in God, to Whom he eventually surrendered his will.