A Loyalty Oath for Scholars

I swear by Socrates the thinker, by Horace Mann, by Truth, by Mark Hopkins’ log, and by all the doctors of philosophy, born and to be born, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out the tenor of this oath. To remember: that I have to my benefit learned from many teachers of different subjects, and was once a student who could retain under one skull the facts of both Physics and Poetry; that I am now a member of a Faculty as well as of a Department, and of the Republic of Learning, larger and more lasting than all Faculties and Departments; that I am bound to honor my fellow scholar as a brother always, and especially when I do not understand the nature of his work; that a student under my care owes his first allegiance to himself and not to my specialty; and must not be burdened with my work as if he followed no other and had contracted no obligation under heaven but that of satisfying my requirements.

It shall be unto me as law that in conversation with students or colleagues, I shall never by word or look imply scorn for any intellectual enterprise foreign to mine, viz.: if a man of science, I shall not dismiss the humanities as “vague, inspirational subjects”; and if a humanist, I shall not despise openly nor in my heart the natural sciences as “mechanical.” More, in all my waking moments I shall judge every person, known or unknown, for what he individually is or seems, and refrain from classing or judging him by his vocation, and inferring the unknown from the half-perceived.

In whatsoever houses I enter I shall try to leave a better impression of scholarship than that which I find on arriving, by behaving in a manner equally free of dogmatism and of false humility. I shall sustain this impression by endeavoring, as opportunity offers, to emulate the doctor, the lawyer and the engineer in their refusal to give free information, advice, lectures, books and editorial help to those who can well afford to pay for this. I shall on the contrary help in all ways without thought of reward those who seek learning and can offer in exchange only the display of their natural gifts. I will use my knowledge to help all according to their means, native or acquired, but will not let sympathy with mere striving, nor fear of disappointing high hopes, nor response to subtle flattery, seduce me into passing false judgment on work done, or into bearing false witness to qualities or defects noted. While sanity remains and I write letters of recommendation, my geese shall not be swans; nor shall fear of statistics make me camouflage an excess of swans as geese. Rather shall the proportion follow the facts, and in my turn I shall remember that a well-recommended and deserving man with recorded and patent drawbacks is a fact of nature easily verified by gazing at a mirror.

Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I forever gain reputation among all men for myself and my art. But if I transgress it and forswear myself, may the opposite and even a deanship befall me.

Hippocrates, Jr.

“A Loyalty Oath for Scholars” was published by the The American Scholar in the Summer of 1951. It is reproduced here with permission of the author, who in June 1955 was named Dean of Graduate Faculties at Columbia University.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial