The Year Of The Oath is Not Over

In 2014, this weblog reviewed George R. Stewart’s classic work, The Year Of The Oath, a book about the loyalty oath controversy at the University of California, Berkeley.  The faculty won their battle to have the oath removed.  But oaths, pernicious and unconstitutional, still abound in public employment – even for teaching and research positions.

This past week, in one of the less-pleasant small world stories connected with Stewart and his work, another author in another college resigned when he was ordered to sign such an oath – years after he began teaching there.  James Sallis is by coincidence a George R. Stewart scholar who wrote  likely the best essay about Earth Abides for The Boston Globe. Sallis, who also wrote Drive, made into an award-winning movie starring Ryan Gosling; and he’s now written Driven, a sequel.  Sallis is a poet, a novelist, and – until recently – a teacher at Phoenix College in the city of that name.

His work in the classroom drew students from a wide geographic area.  He was an excellent teacher, who knows how to write well, and to sell his writing.  The chance to have this man as a mentor was a great boon to the apprentice wordsmiths.  But the administrators of the College – who Sallis says were professional, and asked him to stay  – said he couldn’t teach without signing.  He chose to follow his conscience, and resigned.  The administrators, when contacted by news organizations passed the buck, in this case to the Arizona legislature who authored the oath long ago.  Even local Arizona media found the entire story incredible.

Fortunately, his act of courage is having a far reach, and may eventually help result in the tossing of the oaths.

Sadly, the Year of the Oath is not yet ended.  Citizens would be well-advised to put their energies into correcting that rather than various red herring issues they seem to focus on.

(Disclaimer:  I refused to sign both the US Army oath – which had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court – and the California Standard Secondary Credential application oath without qualifying statements discussing the oaths’ illegality and unethical qualities.  That meant deferring teaching for a while, until the state oath was tossed out by the State Supreme Court.  As for the army oath – I have the rare distinction, during a time when protesters were trying to shut down the Oakland Army Induction Center, of keeping it open and keeping employees there long after they wanted to leave.)

Charter Day – George R. Stewart’s follow-up to the Year of the Oath

In one of the most egregious events of the time, the University actually granted an honorary degree to one of those who tried to destroy academic freedom in the University. Although Stewart was one of the most distinguished scholars at the University, and one of the best-known because of his histories and novels, he decided to boycott the Charter Day ceremonies as a protest against the granting of the degree to Sidney Ehrman. He also wrote a letter, sent to the University community, explaining his action.

Here is part of the letter.

I do not wish to walk in the same procession with the majority of those Regents,
whose beliefs and actions I abhor, and especially by walking behind them to
accept symbolically the position of inferiority….
I earned my doctorate by hard work and honest scholarship…. I do not believe
that the professors that once granted me that degree…. would wish me to wear
my academic regalia under such circumstances.

Those who think the purpose of a university is to field a football team would not understand his actions. But any good educator or scholar would.

George R. Stewart, THE YEAR OF THE OATH

After several months, the Earth Abides Project weblog is back. The long “vacation” was necessary as this writer wandered for a time, then settled in to a summer of volunteering as a Camp Host in an isolated Forest Service Campground. But the volunteer summer is ending, so there’s time to write more about George R. Stewart.

The last posts were about Stewart’s magnum opus, EARTH ABIDES. This time, we’ll look at the unplanned book which followed EA soon afterward. It’s a classic study of the battle for academic and personal freedom, entitled THE YEAR OF THE OATH.

EARTH ABIDES ends with a fire sweeping through the post-apocalyptic UC Berkeley campus. It was an unexpected but proper introduction to the events that would lead to Stewart’s oath book. A firestorm of an attack on academic freedom, led by three UC Regents – Bank of America’s Lawrence Giannini, the Hearst papers’ John Francis Neylan, and the Bechtel’s lawyer Sidney Ehrman – hit the campus just as EA was being published. In violation of University Regulation 5, the three demanded that all faculty members sign an anti-communist oath. The faculty successfully fought that requirement, but then the anti-communist oath was added to the employment contract. If faculty did not sign, they would be fired.

Several refused to sign, and were fired – most notably, the brilliant Dr. Edward C. Tolman – whose accomplishments were of great importance to science and education. But Stewart decided to join others in battling the oath. “Sign, stay, and fight!” was their motto. Each of those in opposition brought their particular strengths to the battle. Stewart, the distinguished author, wrote a book.

The book, in Stewart’s elegant prose, told the story of the oath and presented the reasons why it was illegal and therefore opposed by the faculty. Stewart had a widespread popularity with the reading public, so the book became a bestseller. It carried the day – Giannini resigned from the Regents threatening to take up vigilante action against freedom.

The oath was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court. Tolman and the others who had been fired were reinstated with back pay. As an act of apology, UC named a building for Tolman.

Stewart paid a price for his part in the battle. His publisher refused to publish OATH. Fortunately, a courageous editor at Doubleday, Howard Cady, convinced his company to publish the book….and, considering the massive sales of the book, that was a good investment by Doubleday.

After OATH, Stewart was wooed by Houghton Mifflin, and left Random House for good.

The book is considered a classic of civil liberties. It’s been reprinted several times, and is often used to encourage others who are fighting for freedom. Stewart had done his job well.

Of course, the attempts to politicize education, and thus weaken, continue unabated. Today there’s everything from “affirmative action” to “diversity” to “sexual harassment” to “terrorism” …. even the “footballization of the American University” … which are too often used to attack the freedom of a particular professor. Stewart would return to this theme in the Era of Movements, in a novel never published.

When THE YEAR OF THE OATH ended, Stewart could again turn to his theme of land and ecology. He began writing a unprecedented novel which readers still debate: Was SHEEP ROCK, Stewart’s attempt to “tell all the things that go to make up a place” a success? Or a brilliant failure?