Sterling M. McMurrin
U.S. Commissioner of Education
On religious allegiance:
“Religion should bring consecration to life and direction to human endeavor, inspire men and women with faith in themselves, dedicate them to high moral purpose, preserve their natural piety in the presence of success, and give them the strength to live through their failures with nobility and face with high courage their supreme tragedies.”
“I do love the Mormon Church. People sometimes find that hard to believe. Here I am, a person who doesn’t fully approve of much the church does, and strongly disapproves of some things, and who thinks that a fair number of its fundamental teachings are
sheer nonsense. It’s hard for them to believe that I can have good will toward the church, but I do. My ancestors chose the church. I was born in it and reared in it. It’s just part of my make-up.”
“I don’t think of churches as being true or false. Churches are good or bad or better or worse, but not true or false. Being a Mormon is simply being part of a family, and even the stray sheep in the family can love it and defend it … While I readily confess to being a heretic–one who doesn’t believe–I frankly resent being called an apostate–one who turns against the church. I am critical of the church, but I’m for it, not against it.”
For more than fifty years, Sterling M. McMurrin faithfully served country, university, and church as one of the preeminent intellectual voices of the twentieth century. From his beginnings as a Mormon educator in Arizona to his position as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Kennedy administration, and from Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah to U.S. Envoy in Iran, he believed that any institution that shapes the values and informs the minds of young men and women bears a special duty to teach high ideals and to live by them.
McMurrin’s life and work, recorded in a series of candid, far-reaching discussions with close friend L. Jackson Newell, reveal an ability to reconcile competing demands of freedom, loyalty, and conscience. In an era of escalating cynicism and alienation, McMurrin believed in a more wholesome way. Despite the despair that still haunts modern society, McMurrin, who lived with uncommon hope for eighty-two years, is an example of what commitment to truth, justice, and integrity means.
“This book is neither biography nor autobiography, though it has characteristics of both,” writes educator Boyer Jarvis. “In a spirit of repartee and friendship, Newell probes, challenges, and constantly draws McMurrin out as he tells the story of his life and reflects upon his wide-ranging ideas and experiences. Rich in insight and humor, this remarkable dialogue captures the sweep and depth of McMurrin’s thought as Newell engages him in discussing his approaches to philosophy, education, and religion.”
“Among the qualities that characterize Sterling McMurrin’s life and mind,” explains L. Jackson Newell, “perhaps the most notable is the freedom with which he has spoken his views on both the sacred and the profane. His intellectual integrity–coupled as it almost always is with his humane instincts and innate fairness–has simultaneously confounded and earned the respect of his critics in established institutions. Thus this former religion instructor and lay leader in the Mormon church, U.S. Commissioner, and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy has been admired and vilified–and frequently envied–by others who have led or served in these institutions.”
L. Jackson Newell, Professor of Higher Education and former dean of Liberal Education at the University of Utah, is currently president of Deep Springs College in California. He is a celebrated teacher and widely published author on the philosophy and history of higher education. His honors include the Joseph Katz Award for distinguished leadership in American higher education and selection as the State of Utah’s first CASE Professor of the Year. He is a Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Utah. With his wife, Linda, he served as editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought from 1982-1987.
Dust jacket design: J. Scott Knudsen
Cover photograph: Richard Howe
Matters of Conscience
Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin on Philosophy, Education, and Religion
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Signature Books / Salt Lake City
To our Children Trudy, Joe, Jim, Laurie, and Melanie and Chris, Jennifer, Eric, and Heather
Each has had an important effect on how we think and all deserve to know we know it.
The introduction and epilogue are based on essays by the author first appearing in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28 (Spring 1995): 1-17, and in Sunstone 19 (Sept. 1996): 10-11.
Dust jacket design by J. Scott Knudsen
∞ Matters of Conscience was printed on acid-free paper and was composed, printed, and bound in the United States.
© 1996 by Signature Books. All rights reserved. Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
McMurrin, Sterling M.
Matters of conscience : conversations with Sterling McMurrin on philosophy, education, and religion /
by L. Jackson Newell.
1. McMurrin, Sterling M.–Interviews. 2. Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints–Doctrines. 3. Mormon Church–Doctrines.
4. Philosophy. 5. Education–Philosophy. 6. Religion–Philosophy.
I Newell, L. Jackson. II. Title.
BX8695.M345A3 1996 289.3’092–dc20 [B] 96-18068 CIP
ISBN 1-56085-087-6 (cloth)
Foreword [see below]
Preface [see below]
Introduction [see below]
01 – Growing Up Moss and McMurrin
02 – Education in Utah and California
03 – Friend of Great Teachers
04 – Love and Living
05 – Teacher of Religion
06 – Student of Philosophy
07 – Professor of Philosophy
08 – Heresies and Criticism
09 – Academic Leader
10 – Windows of the World
11 – United States Commissioner of Education
12 – Controviersies in Education
13 – E. E. Ericksen Distinquished Professor
14 – Senior Statesman
15 – At Home in the World
by J. Boyer Jarvis
[p.ix] Jackson Newell has engaged Sterling McMurrin in many remarkable conversations over a number of years, recording and arranging them for us all to enjoy. In doing so, he has made available to the interested reader—and there are many good reasons to be interested—the personal story of one of Utah’s most distinguished native citizens.
This book defies our usual categories. It is neither biography nor autobiography, though it has characteristics of both forms. To be sure, Sterling McMurrin speaks in his own voice and this is a strength. But the typical weakness of the autobiographical form is absent in this work: McMurrin is not in complete control of his own story. In a spirit of genuine repartee and deep friendship, Jack Newell often probes, occasionally challenges, and constantly draws Sterling McMurrin out as he tells the story of his life and reflects upon his wide-ranging experiences.
Rich in insight and humor, this remarkable dialogue captures the sweep and depth of McMurrin’s thought as Newell engages him in revealing and discussing his approaches to philosophy, education, and religion—as well as his perspectives on institutions that have grown up to serve them. This book is as extraordinary in content as it is unusual in form.
Presented in an intertwined, chronological-topical pattern, these conversations bring to life the important positive influence of McMurrin’s parents, and of his maternal and paternal grandparents, in establishing the fundamentally wholesome values and abilities that have been the foundation of his intellectual development and of his career of service to the State of Utah and to the nation.
Beyond his close family ties and his impressive stature as a scholar, three aspects of McMurrin’s adult life are especially noteworthy: (1) his participation in the progress and evolution of the University of Utah over the span of more than half a century; (2) his involvement nationally and internationally as a consultant to educational institutions and major [p.x] corporations, and as a high official of the government of the United States; (3) his unique service to the Mormon church.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Utah in the mid-1930s, Sterling McMurrin was employed by President George Thomas to locate and assemble information regarding the history of the university from its founding in 1850 to its financial crisis during the Great Depression.
After earning his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Southern California and serving there as a full-time faculty member, McMurrin accepted an invitation to return to his alma mater in 1948 as a professor of philosophy. In cooperation with his faculty colleagues in the Department of Philosophy, he established a scintillating series of public lectures on Great Issues in Philosophy that generated intense interest both on the campus and in the community.
As a teacher, McMurrin appealed especially to highly motivated students who were continually impressed by the comprehensiveness of his knowledge and his uncommon ability to present elegantly crafted class lectures entirely without notes.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, Sterling McMurrin was a diligent and effective representative of the university faculty in the academic administration of the University of Utah. Serving successively as dean of the College of Letters and Science, academic vice-president, provost, and dean of the Graduate School, he was a reliable champion of academic freedom, fairness, high standards, and due process.
Professor McMurrin’s unique value to the University of Utah has been acknowledged in many ways. He was the first appointee to the rank of Distinguished Professor in 1964 and first recipient of the coveted Rosenblatt Prize in 1984. In his honor, and through the generosity of others, the University of Utah has endowed the Sterling M. McMurrin Distinguished Visiting Professorship in Liberal Education, the Sterling M. McMurrin Chair in Religious History in the Department of History, and the Sterling M. McMurrin Lectures on Religion in the Obert C. and Grace A. Tanner Humanities Center. In 1988 Obert Tanner and Sterling McMurrin were jointly awarded the first Utah Governor’s Award in the Humanities.
As a summer lecturer and moderator for the Aspen Institute in the Humanities at Aspen, Colorado, beginning in the mid-1950s, McMurrin became acquainted with a great many officers of major corporations, labor unions, foundations, educational institutions, and state and federal governments. As a consequence of some of those encounters, McMurrin was invited to serve as a consultant for IBM and AT&T, as a trustee of [p.xi] the Carnegie Foundation, as a consultant to the Fund for the Advancement of Education, and as an adviser to the Princeton University Department of Philosophy.
In 1961 McMurrin was appointed to serve as United States Commissioner of Education in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. During the two years of his leadership in the U.S. Office of Education, he was in the forefront of federal efforts to assist the progress of integration in public schools across America. He addressed the need for better preparation of school teachers and greater rewards for their service, particularly in problem-plagued inner-city schools. He worked constructively with members of Congress, with other officials in various federal departments and agencies, and with representatives of the major national organizations concerned with education.
After leaving his position as U.S. Commissioner of Education and returning to the faculty of the University of Utah, McMurrin continued to serve the federal government in a number of special assignments related to workers’ training and science and technology. For several years he was a consultant to the Committee for Economic Development (CED) and produced a series of reports on the importance of education for the economic well-being of the nation.
Sterling McMurrin’s lifelong interest in religion is evidenced by his first employment. After completing his M.A. degree at the University of Utah, he was appointed a high school seminary teacher for the Mormon church, which led to his appointment as director of the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Arizona from 1943 to 1945.
The importance of his service to the Mormon church, however, does not rest upon his performance as an employee of its educational program or as a holder of any ecclesiastical position. That importance grows out of his solidly grounded writings about the philosophical and theological foundations of Mormonism, as well as his highly creditable commentaries on the Mormon church through the years in response to frequent inquiries from reporters for national and international news media. While his comments to the media are on the public record, he also at times has supported the church in important ways that were, and will remain, confidential.
As a leading scholar in the field of philosophy, McMurrin continues to be widely sought as a lecturer. He has spoken at nearly a hundred universities and colleges from coast to coast and around the world. He was associated with Obert C. Tanner in establishing the world-renowned Tanner Lectures on Human Values.
Since their first meeting in the mid-1930s as students at the University [p.xii] of Utah, Sterling and Natalie, his wife for nearly sixty years, have been devoted companions. Together they have reared five children with whom they maintain strong ties of love and loyalty. They now enjoy the bountiful harvest of their productive lives of study and service to their family, to their community, and to their nation.
by L. Jackson Newell
[p.xiii] Enviably free. Among the qualities that characterize Sterling McMurrin’s life and mind, perhaps the most notable is the freedom with which he has spoken his views on both the sacred and the profane. His intellectual integrity—coupled as it almost always is with his humane instincts and innate fairness—has simultaneously confounded and earned the respect of his critics in established institutions. It has also delighted his many friends in Utah, the nation, and around the world.
Spending his life in the service of three institutions—religion, government, and education—Sterling McMurrin has not only retained his independent judgment, but his observations on these institutions have become at once starker and more understanding through the years. Thus, this former religion instructor and lay leader in the Mormon church, United States Commissioner of Education, and Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah has been admired and vilified—and frequently envied—by others who have led or served in these institutions.
It is no secret that Sterling McMurrin has few equals as a conversationalist and teller of stories. It is not surprising, therefore, that David Catron, then director of the University of Utah Press, and Dr. Stephen Hess, director of Media Services, approached the two of us in 1984 about the possibility of doing a book to be called Conversations with Sterling McMurrin. The press had recently published its successful Conversations with Wallace Stegner (1983; 2nd ed., 1990), and Carton and Hess thought we might do a similar volume. Across eight months Stegner and Richard Etulain had engaged in ten two-hour conversations and then published their well-known and respected book in less than three years.
McMurrin and I had been good friends before commencing this project, but I looked forward to getting to know his life and thought more intimately. I gradually discovered the full scope of his extraordinary experiences, and learned that no question posed to him is answered without lively detail. Nor is any discussion brief. We began by approaching [p.xiv] his life and thought chronologically; at the end of ten conversations, we had not yet gotten him through graduate school.
We conversed in Sterling’s office in the early stages, but increasingly we worked at the McMurrins’ home in Salt Lake City, and eventually even at their cabin on Kolob Plateau overlooking Zion National Park. At the beginning of each two-hour session, we set the tape recorder in motion and invariably continued for two hours—pausing only to turn or replace the audio cartridge. We had each tape transcribed promptly, and the written record grew steadily. Within a year it was clear that we had commenced a massive oral history project from which I would extract a book. Before we finished our formal conversations, we had engaged in nearly fifty two-hour recorded sessions, spanning eight years. The transcripts of these conversations constitute a stack in my study more than sixteen inches thick. This record will eventually be deposited with the McMurrin Collection in the archives of the University of Utah’s Marriott Library.
As the years and our conversations progressed, three things stood out. First, the precision of Sterling’s memory: I began as a skeptic, wondering how he could remember the details of a 1952 correspondence with Henry Eyring, or the names of people deep in his past who had played only passing roles in his experience. Early on I resolved to verify some of these details by going through his official papers to read documents or letters to which he made reference. I learned that his memory is astonishingly accurate. I continued to check historical details to ensure the accuracy of this volume, but I rarely needed to make corrections.
Second, as our conversations evolved from one year to the next, so did my understanding of the forces that have shaped Sterling’s ideas. As I gained greater insight concerning what questions to ask and where to probe, our explorations together went deeper and reached higher. If we had produced this book in two or three years, as originally hoped, it would have lacked much of the richness and texture I believe it now possesses.
Third, unlike many prominent citizens in their senior years, Sterling McMurrin has not become cautious about what he says or protective of his own work. Autobiographies, for instance, often get thinner as publication dates draw nearer—their authors paring back what they say to cloak their pasts in finery and mask their relationships with niceties. In contrast, Sterling has never ducked my most probing questions, nor exerted the slightest pressure on me to temper my editing of our manuscript or slant its substance in one direction or another.
[p.xv] What we have here, then, is a work of uncommon candor; the essence of a long and earnest conversation. I have extracted from the full record of our discussions those passages that are most pertinent to the interests of the general reader. While I have taken responsibility for content selection, we have worked together to refine the text. To illuminate the origins and evolution of McMurrin’s thought, the fifteen chapters that follow are generally organized in chronological sequence.
This book, of course, is not the first place that conversations with Sterling McMurrin have been captured and presented to the public. Blake Ostler interviewed McMurrin concerning his views on history and philosophy for the Seventh East Press—an independent student newspaper at Brigham Young University—which appeared in the 11 January 1983 issue. The printing of that interview precipitated a crackdown on unofficial student newspapers by the BYU administration, and the closing of the Seventh East Press that spring. A description of the incident, together with an expanded version of the interview, appeared in the spring 1984 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
More recently, Sterling and I engaged in a ninety-minute televised conversation aired on KUED-TV in 1989, and in a two-hour plenary session conversation at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City in August 1993. Laurie DiPadova Stocks interviewed McMurrin in a sequel to this conversation at the 1994 Sunstone Symposium. Both Sunstone events were aired live on KCPX-FM Radio.
Sterling McMurrin joins me in acknowledging the many individuals who have helped with the birthing of this book. David Catron and Stephen Hess, as noted above, broached the idea and were instrumental in getting us started. (Since their initial push, changes at the university press, both in personnel and editorial emphasis, convinced Sterling and me to pursue publication with Signature Books.) Janice Crellin skillfully transcribed most of our recorded conversations and assembled a working index for them. Marilyn Damron White invested hundreds of hours transcribing our more recent conversations, organizing the mass of material, and inveigling the computer to accept a seemingly endless string of editing refinements as McMurrin and I labored to eliminate overlapping segments and fill gaps in the flow of our original conversations. During the early years of this project, Ann Blanchard and Jacqueline Jacobsen were our respective assistants at the University of Utah. Each provided valuable support as we proceeded—often shifting other appointments or arranging our busy schedules so as to keep us going. As McMurrin and I moved on to other roles at the university, Jackie and Ann continued to encourage our progress with this work.
[p.xvi] Many able people read chapters of this book in manuscript form and offered helpful observations for their improvement. They include Lowell L. Bennion, Joyce and Kenneth McDermott, Anthony W. Morgan, Linda K. Newell, Thomas D. Pederson, Katherine C. Reynolds, Karen I. Spear, David J. Sperry, and a number of my graduate students.
Five individuals read the entire manuscript and made especially valuable contributions to the final edition: Lavina Fielding Anderson, J. Boyer Jarvis, Trudy McMurrin, Laurie DiPadova Stocks, and Marilyn Damron White. This book has benefited greatly from their keen interest, candid suggestions, and seasoned passion for words and ideas. I take full responsibility for any remaining flaws in the work.
Our most heartfelt thanks go to Natalie Cotterel McMurrin and Linda King Newell, who often indulged us as we pursued this project and unfailingly encouraged us to carry on. Their positive influence is evident throughout our conversations.
Sterling Moss McMurrin:
A Philosopher in Action
by L. Jackson Newell
[p.xvii] Sterling M. McMurrin, a man of letters, has spent most of his life in the world of affairs. A distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Utah for four decades, he held key academic leadership positions at this university both before and after his service as United States Commissioner of Education under President John F. Kennedy. I offer here an overview of Sterling McMurrin’s life so that the reader will have a context for understanding our extended conversation in subsequent chapters.
McMurrin’s paternal grandfather, Joseph W. McMurrin, was a noted Mormon orator and one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy, a lifelong appointment in the Mormon hierarchy ranked just after the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He was at the height of his powers in the late 1920s when McMurrin was growing up. It was something of a shock to Sterling as a child, then, when his father told him of his solemn and decorous grandfather’s 1885 gun battle with a deputy federal marshal in Salt Lake City.
Polygamy was still officially sanctioned and practiced by the Mormons at that time, and federal officers were pursuing the church’s leaders. McMurrin’s grandfather was then a bodyguard for the Mormon church president, John Taylor, who was in hiding. President Taylor was meeting secretly with his top assistants in Salt Lake City’s Social Hall when Deputy U.S. Marshal Henry F. Collin appeared outside, prepared to make the arrest of his career. He encountered Joseph McMurrin, not for the first time, and their tempers flared. The two reached for their sidearms. McMurrin took three slugs and nearly died. Collin escaped unscathed; but fearing mob retaliation, he took refuge at the Fort Douglas army post on the east side of Salt Lake City (see entries for November 28, December 2, and December 8, 1885, in Journal History of the LDS church, microfilm, Marriott Library, University of Utah). [p.xviii] This incident, which reverberated in Utah’s consciousness for decades, became a matter of national concern. Anticipating a Mormon uprising, the federal government strengthened its garrison at Fort Douglas.
Sterling McMurrin reflected recently on the impact this family revelation had on him as a small child: “From a kid’s perspective, it’s a story about a federal marshal trying to kill your grandfather because of his religion.” He continued with a chuckle, “This tends to give you certain impressions about both the government and your religion.”
This story provides a key to understanding McMurrin’s eventful career: he served institutions—religious, governmental, and educational—in many ways, but especially by keeping his eyes on, and giving voice to, their essential values. He has always placed his hope in liberal education and his trust in individual freedom.
Now in his eighties, Utah’s E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and History, Emeritus, has retired from the university, but not from his habits of thinking and writing… nor from practical effort.
Origins and Ideas
The third of four sons, Sterling Moss McMurrin was born in Woods Cross, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City, in 1914. His McMurrin grandfather was, in those years, a man of great stature in the Mormon hierarchy, a defender of the new faith. The McMurrin clan was very much a part of Utah’s cultural and religious elite. Sterling’s father, Joseph Jr., was a school teacher and probation officer, but Sterling characterized him as “a misplaced university professor.” He loved good books, entertained diverse ideas and had his son reading Plato, Darwin, and Dante as a youth. He, himself, pursued a lifelong passion to reconcile the claims of reason and religion.
McMurrin described his mother, Gertrude Moss McMurrin, as “completely open-minded and approachable, a person whose company I always delighted in.” She hailed from ranch country, though hardly from humble circumstances. Her father, William Moss, was co-founder and general manager of the Deseret Land and Live Stock Company, one of the largest and most successful ranching operations in the Great Basin. The Mosses were educated, practical people seasoned in the rough-and-tumble of frontier agriculture and business. A cattle baron who was also president of a bank in northern Utah, “Bill Moss was in charge wherever he went,” his grandson recalls. “People stood back as he walked along the street.”
McMurrin describes himself as growing up “half ranch kid, half city [p.xix] kid.” At age nine he began wrangling horses for his Grandfather Moss, and two summers later he was pulling his own weight among the ranch hands of the far-flung cattle and sheep operation. He returned home each autumn—not when school started but after the cattle and sheep were brought down from their summer ranges in the high country.
From his early teens, McMurrin was completely at home with ranch hands, physical labor, and practical challenges, just as he was with books, ideas, and Utah’s privileged class. His boyhood experience was both physically and intellectually robust. “I think it is true,” he reflects, “that I grew up with an essentially critical, but not cynical, approach to the world.”
Although McMurrin continued to work for the Deseret Live Stock Company each summer, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was fourteen, and he attended and graduated from Manual Arts High School. Asthma attacks threatened his health during his first year at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He returned, therefore, to the drier climate of his native state, where he enrolled at the University of Utah in the autumn of 1933. George Thomas, by then University of Utah president for twelve years, appointed him to work on a history of the university. Stimulated by Professor E. E. Ericksen, among others, McMurrin took his bachelor’s degree in history and political science in 1936 and his master’s in philosophy in 1937.
Sterling met Natalie Barbara Cotterel in the University of Utah library when they were both undergraduates. He was immediately taken with her, and they courted one another for several years. She converted to Mormonism, and church apostle David O. McKay married them in the Salt Lake temple on June 8, 1938. They have five children. Natalie has been central to Sterling’s life and work for more than half a century.
During the seven years following receipt of his master’s degree, McMurrin taught in the Mormon church’s seminary and institute system, which has provided religious education for high school and college students as an adjunct to their secular studies since the 1930s. Students flocked to him, astonished by his theological knowledge and intellectual daring. His former seminary supervisor, Lynn Bennion, remembers McMurrin’s classroom atmosphere: “No theological claim was too sacred to be challenged, and no idea was too wild to merit consideration. At the same time Sterling knew more about Mormon theology, and the whole history of Christianity, than anyone in our system, before or since” (conversation on October 22, 1987). J. Boyer Jarvis, a student of McMurrin’s at the University of Arizona, has remarked to the same effect.
[p.xx] McMurrin’s experience as a teacher in the Utah, Idaho, and Arizona seminaries led to his appointment as director of the LDS Institute of Religion across the street from the University of Arizona. While McMurrin’s intellectual courage brought him increasingly into conflict with his ecclesiastical superiors, he began investing his summers in further graduate study in philosophy and religion at the University of Southern California. His escape from the tightening institutional church environment was in the making.
Approaching thirty, McMurrin took a leave from his educational position with the LDS church and devoted himself to full-time doctoral study at USC. He received his Ph.D. in May 1946. The preface to his dissertation—which explored the relationship between positivism and normative value judgments—revealed more than such documents ordinarily do about a scholar’s philosophy. He began:
The moral crisis that characterizes our time is … the wide disparity … between man’s technical attainment in the control of his environment and the effectiveness of his moral and spiritual idealism. It is increasingly imperative that the conduct of men and nations be brought under the dominion of a moral ideal. As a practical issue, this is … a responsibility of religion, education, and politics. But the integration of fact and value, necessary to both personal and social character, demands a theoretical foundation which will give meaning and direction to practical effort (“Positivism and the Logical Meaning of Normative Value Judgments,” p. 1).
In more than 250 articles, books, and essays on philosophy, education, and religion, McMurrin has continued to explore the themes manifest in this early study: Human institutions must advance human dignity and respect individuality. Ethics must keep pace with technology.
These ideas emerged and were nurtured by the circumstances of McMurrin’s family, youth, and early career experiences, but the larger historical backdrop of his formative years should not be overlooked. During McMurrin’s college and graduate school years, he witnessed the global depression, Nazi holocaust, fascist and communist totalitarianism, Word War II, and the birth of the atomic age.
While eschewing affiliation with any particular school of philosophy, McMurrin is an existentialist without the angst. He has a tragic sense of history, fears for the human prospect, and writes and speaks doggedly in pursuit of his ideal of social justice. He values individuality, [p.xxi] and he treasures liberal education as the best hope for liberating the human race from ignorance, bigotry, and violence. While he harbors no illusions about the future, McMurrin personally finds comedy in almost every situation—a genre, ironic humor.
Even before receiving his doctorate, McMurrin was appointed to the philosophy faculty of the University of Southern California. After three years, however, his health again began to suffer from the California climate. The University of Utah beckoned once again, and he joined its faculty as professor of philosophy in the fall of 1948. There he taught, except for occasional short-term assignments, until 1988.
As a young philosophy professor at Utah, McMurrin enjoyed the same successand controversythat he had as a seminary teacher a decade earlier. He was an intellectual lightning rod from the start. Frequently invited to give public addresses and scholarly lectures, McMurrin addressed himself to a great variety of social and philosophical issues. Always concerned with human dignity and freedom, he became a spirited defender of academic freedom on campus and an early activist in the field of civil rights in the community. He spent the 1952-53 academic year on the east coast as a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellow, lecturing and pursuing scholarly interests at Columbia University, the Union Theological Seminary, and Princeton University.
In 1954 McMurrin co-edited Contemporary Philosophy: A Book of Readings with James L. Jarrett, and the following year he joined B. A. G. Fuller in expanding and rewriting the third edition of A History of Philosophy. The latter was published both as a single-volume and as a two-volume set, and appeared subsequently in Polish translation. By now, as we shall see, McMurrin was “deaning,” and his energies were already being diverted from his scholarship. His internal struggle between ideas and action had been joined.
During the academic year 1957-58, however, another old theme resurfaced. McMurrin was invited to give a lecture on “The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology” at Ohio State University. Published by the University of Utah Press in 1959, this treatise remains the most penetrating explanation of Mormon philosophy available. McMurrin extended this theme with a series of lectures in 1965 that resulted in the University of Utah Press publication later that year of The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. It remained in print thirty years and is scheduled for republication by Signature Books.
Understanding and explaining Mormon theology was by no means [p.xxii] the same thing as accepting that theology or supporting the policies of the Mormon church. For his persistent criticism of specific church practices, especially for its denial of priesthood ordination to males of African descent, McMurrin was regarded by many leaders and members as a dangerous heretic.
In 1954 a Mormon leader of McMurrin’s congregation, encouraged from church headquarters, initiated excommunication proceedings (see “An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Dialogue, Spring 1984, pp. 18-43; also “McMurrin’s Heresies, History and Humor: A Conversation with Sterling McMurrin,” Sunstone, April 1995, pp. 55-62). When David O. McKay, then president of the Mormon church, heard the news, he called McMurrin on the phone and arranged to meet him that same afternoon at the University Union. When the two men sat down, McKay exclaimed: “They can’t do this to you. They can’t do this to you! If they put you on trial, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.” After a long and cordial discussion, President McKay ended the conversation with heartfelt advice: “Sterling, you just think and believe as you please.” Sterling did. The charges were dropped. And, through five successive Mormon presidents, the church has continued to endure McMurrin’s criticism—and benefit from his loyalty. He remains a fierce defender of the LDS church, its leaders and members, except on specific matters of doctrine and practice where he differs in principle.
I think I have told enough of Sterling McMurrin’s story to provide a sense of his character and style. He has a remarkable capacity to disagree without being disagreeable, to form authentic friendships and comfortable relationships with people of vastly differing perspectives. He has never eschewed controversy. These qualities continued to characterize him as he moved toward the center of American intellectual and political life. The crucible of his own culture and the American West had prepared him to move easily and effectively in wider and wider circles.
The Path to Washington
Sterling McMurrin’s success as a teacher, author, and social critic led inevitably to responsibilities in academic administration—as well as to teaching at higher and higher levels. The two sides of the man—the thinker and the actor—continued to vie with one another, and it was the combination of the two that propelled him to Washington.
Just six years after joining the University of Utah faculty, he was appointed dean of the College of Letters and Science, a position that he held until 1960, when he became vice-president for academic affairs. In these administrative posts, McMurrin delegated generously and reserved [p.xxiii] his own energies for setting directions and recruiting internationally respected scholars to the faculty. He created a university environment rich in academic freedom and intellectual opportunity.
Walter Paepcke, a wealthy Chicago business executive, established the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in that future Colorado ski resort at about the same time that McMurrin was assuming his deanship at the University of Utah. Looking for a scholar-teacher who could help lead his executive seminar program for high public officials and prominent citizens, Paepcke had apparently been advised by mutual friend Meredith Wilson that McMurrin might be an ideal person. Wilson, then secretary of the Ford Foundation, had recruited McMurrin to the University of Utah faculty when he was dean there. Paepcke simply called McMurrin on the phone, interrupting a luncheon meeting, and secured his agreement to affiliate with the Aspen Institute.
From 1954 to 1962 Sterling, Natalie, and their children spent part of every summer at Aspen, where he led one group of distinguished leaders after another in reading classic texts and considering the saliency of ideas contained in them to contemporary national and world affairs. Just as he had entranced undergraduates, he now stimulated and prodded Walter Paepcke’s invited guests: Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officers, foundation presidents, foreign ambassadors, U.S. diplomats, labor leaders, and heads of international corporations. McMurrin made them think, and he made friends. Among many others, he formed lasting bonds with Walter Reuther, William Brennan, and Byron White, and got to know Eric Sevareid, Thurgood Marshall, and Russian physicist George Gamow. Attorney General Robert Kennedy proved a source of some irritation. His bare feet in the seminar buildings, McMurrin thought, took “Aspen’s generally informal environment a step too far.”
More completely at ease with ideas and with people of stature than ever, but largely unconscious of his notoriety, McMurrin was now acting on a national stage. In 1958 the Department of State invited him to go as a special envoy to Iran, where he spent five months as an adviser to the chancellor of the University of Tehran. His responsibilities were to work on stemming the tide of communism among the students by improving relations between them and the faculty and administration. Both before and after that sojourn, Columbia University had tried to lure him to New York with an endowed chair in philosophy in their Graduate School of Business. McMurrin was widely sought for advice in national policy circles concerning public education, higher education, and national human resource needs.
On the Wednesday night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in [p.xxiv] January 1961, McMurrin received a telephone call from Alvin Eurich, vice-president for educational programs at the Ford Foundation. Eurich explained that he and several colleagues had been asked by the new administration to propose someone to be United States Commissioner of Education. “I want to put you forth for that position and would like to know, first, whether you will accept it?” (John W. Gardner, who was then president of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation, also nominated McMurrin.) McMurrin had never been active in politics, nor had he ever publicly advocated the election of any local or national candidate. Nonetheless, he told Eurich that if asked to serve he would do so. Because of his asthma condition he had not served in the military during World War II and, he explained later, he felt this would help to dispatch an obligation he owed his country.
The day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, McMurrin received a telephone call from the new Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Abraham Ribicoff. He told McMurrin of his wish to have the president appoint him Commissioner of Education and asked how soon he could come to Washington to talk it over.
In Washington, Ribicoff and McMurrin met briefly and quickly established rapport. Before they finished their initial meeting, Ribicoff sent a message to Ralph Dungan, JFK’s special assistant for administrative appointments, who shortly arrived from the White House. He joined the interview with McMurrin, then asked him to step outside the room while he called President Kennedy.
Moments later Dungan and Ribicoff congratulated McMurrin and said the president would announce his appointment that evening. McMurrin was not asked if he would accept, nor was he told what his salary would be. But Ribicoff made it clear from the outset that HEW was a huge department and that he would run the health and welfare ends of it if McMurrin would take care of education. Said the former governor and future U.S. Senator from Connecticut: “Sterling, let’s give them hell: and if it doesn’t work out, you can go back to teaching philosophy and I’ll go back to selling neckties.”
The commissioner-elect went to work immediately—commuting weekly to and from Salt Lake City. It was all informal at first, of course, until after Senate confirmation—which did not occur until April due to the flood of nominations from the new administration.
When the confirmation hearing finally commenced, Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania asked McMurrin if, as a Mormon, he could support desegregation in the public schools. He responded: “I’d like the committee to know that I do not agree with the policies of the Mormon [p.xxv] church with respect to Negroes, and I have made my position very clear to the leadership of the Mormon church. I’m 100 percent in favor of desegregated schools.” Clark and others were highly supportive of McMurrin, and his appointment won swift approval from the Senate. And, indeed, desegregation of education, the equalization of educational opportunity, and federal aid to public schools were priorities McMurrin pursued vigorously as commissioner.
The National Education Association was at odds with the new commissioner from the start, but did not oppose his appointment. The conflicts were predictable, especially because of McMurrin’s advocacy of merit pay for teachers. Further, he had come out of higher education, he had no previous relationship or membership in the National Education Association, and he did not intend to continue the rather cozy relationship that had long existed between the NEA and the U.S. Commissioner’s office. McMurrin did not know until later that one of President Kennedy’s criteria for selecting a new commissioner was that he or she not come from NEA’s membership.
Setting the sights for New Frontier and Great Society education policy, and illustrative of McMurrin’s relationship with the NEA, was an early incident involving Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the father of America’s nuclear navy had become concerned about the state of U.S. education and took a series of trips abroad to compare our system with those of other nations. He wrote extensively about what he regarded as the evils of progressive education and attracted much attention with Education and Freedom in 1959 and Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better in 1962.
In the midst of all this, Congressman John E. Fogarty, who chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor and Education, invited Rickover to state his views for the benefit of Congress. The admiral did not think American education was competing with Soviet education, and he launched a volley of criticisms at our system. Later Congressman Fogarty asked Commissioner McMurrin for his views on the condition of American education, pointing out that Congress already had such a statement from Admiral Rickover, as well as from McMurrin’s predecessor, Lawrence Derthick.
Pleased to respond, McMurrin had begun preparing his thoughts for the assignment when his deputy commissioner approached him and said that the NEA and the Office of Education, as with past assignments of this type, would work together through a joint committee to compose the requested document. Shocked, McMurrin replied, “If it is my views [p.xxvi] Congressman Fogarty wants, then it will be my views, and no one else’s, that he gets.” Reminding the commissioner that the deadline for submission was short, his aide pushed a bit further, suggesting that McMurrin could probably use some help. “I’ll have it on time,” McMurrin declared, and he did.
McMurrin wrote the essay longhand in one evening, had it typed by his secretary, and then spent a few days tinkering with it as his schedule permitted. He delivered the statement to the House Appropriations Committee, and Congressman Fogarty ordered the U.S. Government Printing Office to publish 100,000 copies. An abbreviated version appeared almost immediately in the Saturday Review as “A Crisis of Conscience: A Report on the State of American Education” (September 16, 1961, pp. 58-78).
“A Crisis of Conscience” was pure McMurrin, and it set the tone and framed the agenda for federal education policy during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. “In education we are facing a crisis of conscience and collectively we are experiencing a sense of national guilt,” he charged:
We cannot deny that today we would command far more knowledge and have far more creativity, civic character, and national strength if our schools had been more rigorous in their intellectual discipline and … more adequately structured to the needs of our society. We have with lavish prodigality wasted the talent and energy of countless persons.
He said that the aims of education cannot be defined in narrow or nationalistic terms, nor does education serve national security primarily through technological and scientific training. Without a “world-minded” citizenry, McMurrin wrote, “we cannot hope to satisfy the obligation of world leadership that history has conferred upon us.” He called for better education across the board, urging that we
… guard against the tendency to suppose that our national well-being is served primarily by advances in technology, however important and timely these may be …. The study of politics, history, and philosophy is fundamental to our cultural life, and no nation can achieve a lasting strength unless its character is expressed in great literature, art, and music.
McMurrin called upon the federal government to provide sound leadership for American education “as well as material support,” while not interfering with the tradition of local and state control over curricula and teaching. He proposed a new policy of general federal financial [p.xxvii] support for education, but one that avoided national control of schooling or educational and economic planning—which might infringe upon individual choice of educational pursuits.
Specifically, McMurrin offered this agenda for improving American educational practice:
*Raise expectations for student performance, with more emphasis on solid material, less on “trivial studies and activities.”
*Set new standards of teacher preparation, including a bachelor’s degree in liberal education prior to specializing in teacher education.
*Select teachers according to higher intellectual standards, including stronger preparation in the subjects to be taught.
*Bring teacher education into the mainstream of university intellectual life, rather than keeping it apart.
*Base teacher education on a wide range of academic disciplines, relying less on psychology as the knowledge base for the profession.
Finally, he admonished the nation to “turn a deaf ear to those reactionaries among us who are forever insisting that we abandon our democratic ideal and model our education on the aristocratic patterns of some European nations” (p. 78).
This essay was the expression of one mind; it was anything but the product of a committee. The commissioner sought consciously to put the education of teachers, and educational standards, in the forefront and talked chiefly about ends. He left economic issues like teacher salaries to follow as means. It was not a statement the NEA would have made. It appears that the content of the essay, more than the rebuff of their offer to help write it, put McMurrin in increasing conflict with this union.
“A Crisis of Conscience,” republished in several places, won laurels from policy makers across the country and inspired much debate and a fair amount of federal legislation. Like the president he served, McMurrin’s ideas were bold and clear, his language graceful and compelling.
Telling the story of McMurrin’s actions as U.S. Commissioner of Education and assessing his influence on educational policy will be my task in a subsequent publication. Here I am concerned chiefly with his ideas, where they came from, and how the philosopher and the actor in McMurrin competed for his energies. Suffice it to say here, he worked diligently for higher standards in education and teacher preparation, general federal aid to education, desegregation of schools and colleges, and the simplification of the federal education establishment. The NEA objected to much of what he tried to do, with comparatively little effect.
Return to University Life
[p.xxviii] After less than two years as U.S. Commissioner, McMurrin submitted his resignation. Several factors seemed to have played into this decision. Still in his forties, McMurrin had children in school, and he and Natalie did not enjoy having their lives scattered across the country from the Potomac to the Great Salt Lake. He also missed teaching and writing, having been in one administrative post or another since assuming the deanship at the University of Utah in 1954. To go home to Salt Lake City would be to go home to his scholarship for the first time in many years.
The catalyst for McMurrin’s decision was HEW Secretary Ribicoff’s announcement that he planned to resign as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in order to run for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut. McMurrin and Ribicoff had worked well together, and that relationship would clearly be missed. In late summer 1962 McMurrin announced that he would also be leaving the administration. Secretary Ribicoff objected to his decision strenuously but fruitlessly.
Abraham Ribicoff had advocated splitting HEW apart and creating a new Cabinet-level Department of Education. He intended to propose legislation to achieve this change and told McMurrin that he expected the president to appoint him U.S. Secretary of Education if the Cabinet-level department was established. McMurrin strongly favored Cabinet-level status for education but had no interest in moving to such a post himself.
Before leaving office, McMurrin had a session with Ralph Dungan, still President Kennedy’s appointments chief. Dungan said the president wanted McMurrin to suggest the names of a few people who might be qualified to succeed him. The retiring commissioner gave Dungan three names in rank order: Francis Keppel, professor of art and dean of faculty of education at Harvard, James E. Allen, New York Commissioner of Education, and Harold Howe III, superintendent of a New York school district.
The degree to which McMurrin’s judgment continued to affect federal education policy throughout the 1960s is illustrated by subsequent events. The three distinguished educators he nominated turned out to be his three successors as commissioner. President Kennedy appointed Frank Keppel (1962-65); President Johnson appointed Harold Howe (1965-69); and President Nixon appointed James Allen (1969-70).
Sterling and Natalie McMurrin left Washington, D.C., in September 1962, resuming their lives in Salt Lake City and his professorship at [p.xxix] the University of Utah. It was not, however, to be a quiet period for them. He turned down a number of college and university presidencies, endowed professorships, and board memberships—including a high position with the Ford Foundation. But he accepted appointments to a number of national and international commissions for the improvement of education and human resource development. For fifteen years McMurrin was affiliated with the Committee for Economic Development as an adviser on research and director of the committee’s projects on education. During this period he was also a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation.
In 1964 McMurrin was appointed E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. But he was inveigled back into the administration in 1965, presiding over the institution’s educational affairs as provost. Within a few months of this appointment, however, Henry Eyring, dean of the Graduate School, announced his retirement, and McMurrin let the president know that he would prefer to serve in that capacity. He never liked budgets or personnel administration, and the move to the graduate dean’s office in 1966 relieved him of those burdens, by and large. He served in that role for twelve years, teaching a course every academic term throughout this period.
I came to the University of Utah in the middle of McMurrin’s years as graduate dean. I was a youthful newcomer as dean of Liberal Education and my introduction to McMurrin and his thinking was twofold. First, I remember receiving “Communique No. 4” to all faculty from the graduate dean. I was taken aback by the imposing title of McMurrin’s proclamation and remarked to that effect to a veteran faculty colleague. “Oh, that’s just Sterling having fun,” was the quick reply. “He seldom writes a memo, but when he does he makes the most of it.”
My second encounter with McMurrin was over a piece I wrote about the aims and purposes of liberal education. He read it and sent me a critique (see letter dated May 5, 1975, University of Utah Archives, Box 6338 H265). I still call his letter my “Well now, young man” initiation. McMurrin pointed out that I had pitted liberal education and career education against one another—a most unfortunate mistake. The reasons for liberal education go far beyond economic considerations, my senior colleague pointed out, but critical thinking, broad understanding, and other values associated with liberal education do, in fact, have enormous economic benefits. And these benefits accrue both to the individual and to the society. McMurrin, of course, was right on all accounts.
As graduate dean, McMurrin pioneered a process for combining the [p.xxx] use of internal committees and external scholars for evaluating the quality of graduate programs and academic departments. This method played a major role in raising the stature of the University of Utah, and it has been widely emulated by research universities throughout the nation. He retired from the deanship in 1978 but remained active in the history department as the E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor until 1988.
As he looks back over his career, McMurrin has said on a number of occasions that he regrets having spent “so damn much time in administration.” Then why did he spend more than twenty years at high levels of leadership? I have no doubt that he always enjoyed being in the thick of university, state, or national issues. While it is true that he never enjoyed the routine acts of administration—directing the work of other people, building and presiding over budgets, and writing memoranda—he very much enjoys being in a position to formulate broad policies and cut through bureaucratic nonsense. And, unquestionably, he enjoyed the tangible benefits of administrative office: highly skilled assistants, discretionary funds, and a forum from which to affect university and community directions and values.
Sterling McMurrin is clearly a man of quick and independent intellect, a philosopher by nature and disposition. He lives in a world of ideas, he thinks in terms of principles and ideals, and, beyond the sheer force of his mind and personality, he has never been oriented toward, or particularly good at, practical politics. But he is a builder of institutional sagas, a steady and felicitous voice who reminds members and leaders alike that educational and religious organizations exist not to perpetuate themselves but to advance knowledge, support learning, and promote human dignity.
A prolific lecturer, writer, and teacher, McMurrin has never thought of himself as anything but a professor. A professor doing a stint in administration much of the time, but a professor still. As his administrative career wound down, his scholarship picked up significantly, lending further credence to the depth of his professorial identity. Since 1980 he has written or co-authored two books on philosophy and religion (Religion, Reason and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion and, with O. C. Tanner and Lewis M. Rogers, Toward Understanding the New Testament), written and edited several other volumes, and published dozens of articles. The nature of the influence and leadership that McMurrin exercised throughout his career, the scholar-in-action who forged institutions primarily through the strength of his ideas—and his [p.xxxi] courage in expressing and acting on them—continues to have enormous appeal. To whatever extent this kind of leadership ever flourished, however, it is clearly more difficult now than in the past. Bureaucracies are bigger, hierarchies are more complex, and external regulations are more confining than ever before—making leadership increasingly mechanical, reactive, and politically driven.
In universities this shift has made deans, vice-presidents, and presidents increasingly career administrators once they are appointed. They must still start as academics; but once in administration, the die is often cast within two or three years, after which a return to teaching and writing is increasingly difficult and eventually unlikely. As a result, their orientation shifts inevitably away from education and knowledge. The university administration itself, and the advancement of their own careers, become the ends. The parallels with contemporary church leadership—Mormon, Protestant, or Catholic—are compelling.
A careful analysis of McMurrin’s leadership makes it clear not only that his career peaked in a different era, but, more importantly, that he was able to orchestrate his administrative appointments in such a way as to occupy those rare positions such as graduate dean where he could still keep the real ends of education—thinking, teaching, and writing—at the forefront. Leaders with McMurrin’s orientation and temperament are clearly needed in all institutions today, religious, educational, and governmental. The question is whether the evolution of these institutions has significantly reduced the probability of the emergence of leaders who possess a moral vision … and retain the capacity to act on it.
Contributing no doubt to Sterling McMurrin’s success in keeping two kinds of lives going simultaneously, one of reflection and one of action, were his powerful childhood heroes and experiences. His grandfathers flourished in sharply contrasting walks of life, he revered them both, and as a teenager he fully tasted each way of embracing the world. Man of ideas, man of affairs: McMurrin refused to choose one over the other. At the age of eighty-two, he is writing books and essays in Salt Lake City and breeding horses in St. George.
From his earliest adult experiences and professional writing, Sterling McMurrin was drawn to the clash between authentic individuality and institutional loyalty. The moral and spiritual idealism about which he continues to speak and write is prompted by a deeply felt concern about a widening chasm between actual community, corporate and organizational practices, and those conditions that advance human dignity and [p.xxxii] individual liberty. In McMurrin’s view, the unfortunate convergence of increasing organizational size and rising technological complexity has pushed our major social institutions further and further from ethical accountability for their actions and, consequently, diminished the realm within which individuals can make and execute moral judgments of their own.
The development of moral and ethical principles, therefore, and the critique of institutional behavior, have interested and concerned McMurrin throughout his life. Further, education and religion, the chief institutions that have conveyed moral ideals among past generations (and powerfully influenced McMurrin in his youth), have been noticeably weakened in their moral influence throughout the twentieth century.
This schism between technology and morality, between organizational conduct and organizational ideals, was the force that animated McMurrin’s protest of the Mormon church’s earlier proscription of priesthood ordination to males of African descent and that drove his efforts to reform American education and religion. Neither religion nor education has been spared the awful dichotomies of displaced institutional values and bureaucratic abominations, but McMurrin has remained devoted consistently to the improvement of both of these institutions—to the end that they might make their badly needed offerings to a society he sees in serious decline.
Sterling M. McMurrin’s lifelong intellectual leadership springs from strongly held and clearly stated ideas about human nature, formal education, and social organizations. Since his early adulthood, he has devoted himself to the refinement of religion, education, and government. Sorting out ends and means within his own cultural heritage as a youth and as a young scholar put a distinctive stamp on his leadership that has served him and his institutions well. He has never seen himself as a servant of the institutions themselves. Rather, McMurrin has been, and continues to be, a trustee of the ideals they were created to advance. In the fifteen chapters that follow we will explore in conversation the themes identified here, as well as a wide variety of events that have shaped and punctuated Sterling McMurrin’s beliefs, thoughts, and actions.