Pauling’s Senior Class Oration

Illustration for the Forensics Club section of the 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

Illustration for the Forensics Club section of the 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

[Continuing our examination of the culture of oratory at Oregon Agricultural College during Pauling’s undergraduate years. Part 2 of 2]

This coming Saturday, Oregon State University will host its 146th commencement exercises.  As the campus buzzes with students finishing their finals and seniors looking forward to the pomp and circumstance that awaits, we turn our attention back to Linus Pauling, and a noteworthy speech that he gave just five days before he completed his undergraduate studies in Corvallis.


It is not given to every man to be unusually successful, to be extraordinarily talented, or to be exceptionally gifted to render services to the world. We can do no more than we are able, but by doing as much as we are able, by doing our best, we shall be accomplishing our task, and repaying our debt. For our college has given us something which will allow us to do more than we otherwise could; and we must do more than we otherwise would.

-Linus Pauling, Senior Class Oration, May 31, 1922

As we learned in our previous post on oratory at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC), forensics was an art form held in high esteem by the culture of the early in the twentieth century. The presence of a reputable orator at an institution symbolized a high level of cultural competence. For this reason, most colleges and universities of the time prioritized this activity and provided their students with the necessary tools to become competent public speakers. Consequently, being chosen to deliver a speech at any given event was considered to be an honor, and especially so at a high profile event.

During Linus Pauling’s years at OAC his close and lifelong friend, Paul Emmett, was heavily involved in the school’s forensics club, a likely reason why Pauling chose to join during his junior year. That year, Pauling entered competitive oratory for the first time and was chosen to represent his class in the inter-class competition, where he finished as a runner up for the title of college orator.

Although he came in second, Pauling’s achievement was impressive for a beginner, as oratory’s popularity and competitive nature was rapidly increasing at the time. Indeed, the year before Pauling joined the forensics club, the college had established a speech department and went from training only a handful of public speakers to a group of fifty to seventy-five orators per year, participating in ten annual competitions.

After 1921 Pauling no longer shows up in OAC’s forensics club records, but his participation in oratory at the school surely continued. Most notably, Pauling was chosen to deliver the senior class oration, an indication that his status as a prominent and respected speaker remained intact.

"Seniors Attend Farewell Convo," OAC Barometer, June 2, 1922.

“Seniors Attend Farewell Convo,” OAC Barometer, June 2, 1922.

Delivered on May 31, 1922, six days before commencement, the speech that Pauling prepared urged his fellow classmates to use the knowledge that they had gained at OAC to attack the problems facing society. Where his junior year oration, titled “Children of the Dawn,” felt simplistic and perhaps overly optimistic, Pauling’s senior class talk was characterized by its emphasis on personal responsibility and the “problems of the state,” a term that referred to the social and political issues that had emerged from the destruction of World War I. “Our lives are to stand as testimonials to the efficacy of the work that our college is doing,” Pauling said. “Education, true education, such as our own college gives us, is preparation both for a life of appreciation of the world and for a life of service to the world”

Another point that Pauling stressed in his address to the senior class was that of “repaying OAC.” It this, one might surmise that Pauling was speaking both of value gained from OAC and from the system of higher education as a whole. It is important to point out that the systematic killing of troops that characterized World War I had fractured the public’s feelings about research in the sciences. As noted by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, a common argument at the time was that science was the cause of the war’s deadly nature. Out of this experience, numerous questions lingered. Should education work to propel science and technology? Was further development of science potentially harmful to society?

In this context, Pauling’s calls for individual responsibility and service to society can be viewed as a reaction against the negative connotations then being ascribed to various educational pursuits. And so it was that Pauling took pains to point out that OAC, Oregon’s land grant institution, “has contributed in a wonderful way to solving the multitude of problems arising in the state.” Likewise, near the conclusion of his talk:

This, then, is the way we can repay OAC – by service. Our college is founded on the idea of service, and we, its students, are the representatives of the college. It is upon us that the duty falls of carrying out that basic idea. We are going into the world inspired with the resolution of service, eager to show our love for our college and our appreciation of her work by being of service to our fellow men.

In emphasizing the idea that knowledge acquired at OAC was a tool that could be used for the benefit of society, Pauling’s speech makes the argument that the development of knowledge in any field cannot be intrinsically evil. Rather, each educated individual has the opportunity to render their knowledge in either beneficial or harmful ways to the greater population and, in Pauling’s view, bears a responsibility to use their talents for the improvement of society.


Pauling's senior class photo (lower left) and inscription (upper right), 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

Pauling’s senior class photo (lower left) and inscription (upper right), 1923 OAC Beaver Yearbook.

The contents of his two major orations at OAC suggest that, even at the earliest stages of his career, Linus Pauling had developed a sense of the values that he intended to promote. For one, he was sure that the pure and applied sciences were important to improving the quality of life of all people. Pauling was also conscious of science’s potential for harm however, and as an undergraduate he began to promote the idea that the privileges of education carry with them with a responsibility to contribute to the greater good.

As Pauling’s career advanced, so too did his positive view of the future of science. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, Pauling took the opportunity, during his Nobel address, to once again exclaim that those who have received the opportunity to study the physical world should devote themselves to becoming responsible citizen-scientists. An extension of ideas first expressed in the OAC Men’s Gymnasium in 1922, Pauling pointed out that scientists who were conscious of the possibilities that their knowledge opened up were morally obligated to share their knowledge of the physical world in ways that benefited humankind.

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Children of the Dawn

children-dawn

[Post 1 of 2 focusing on the culture of oratory at Oregon Agricultural College during Pauling’s undergraduate years.]

Early in the 20th century, Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) – the institution now known as Oregon State University – was in the midst of rapid expansion and development. As new buildings sprung up and the student population steadily increased, the college was gradually acquiring all the markings of a venerable institution.

Prior to 1920, however, one such marking was still missing: a speech department. Viewed through a contemporary lens, it may be difficult to imagine the extent to which colleges of Pauling’s era prioritized and emphasized their linguistics departments. It is nonetheless true that, through the first half of the 20th century, the presence of eloquent orators on campus was a symbol of an institution’s cultural status.

Indeed, the focus on both oratory and debate at O.A.C. was, at this time, at least equal to the campus’ focus on athletics, music or drama. The college’s Forensics Club was regularly featured in the annual Beaver yearbook, with several pages dedicated to narrating club competitions. Likewise, the Barometer, OAC’s student newspaper, would at times publish up to six columns reporting on oratorical competitions in a single issue of the paper.

Oratory was so widely followed and competitive that an insert in the 1907-1908 Rooter’s Club booklet featured a cheer specifically created for OAC’s orators. Finally, in 1920, OAC established a speech department for the first time and thus was able to prepare a forensics team than was stronger than ever before.

"O.A.C. Yells" included in the 1907-1908 Rooter's Club book. Note the second  cheer written specifically for competitors in speech competitions.

“O.A.C. Yells” included in the 1907-1908 Rooter’s Club book. Note the second cheer written specifically for competitors in speech competitions.

The new speech department was a major asset to the college in part because speeches were used for more than oratorical competitions; oratory was a convention used to enhance the experience of nearly all campus events. Orators, for instance, might address the general student body or the college’s athletes before an athletic event in order to raise confidence and excitement in competitors and spectators alike. As stated in The O.A.C. Alumnus, a 1920s publication of the college alumni association, “forensic men and women [gave] athletics every ounce of support” by delivering lengthy and spirited pep talks. Once the game had started, oratory was also used to engage in “verbal combat” with students from other institutions.


Beaver Yearbook page devoted to a 1920 "triangular debate" between OAC, Reed College and the University of Oregon. Paul Emmett is pictured at right.

Beaver Yearbook page devoted to a “triangular debate” between OAC, Reed College and the University of Oregon. Paul Emmett is pictured at right.

The early 1920s coincided with Linus Pauling’s final years as an OAC student. Not surprisingly, his early experiences as a public speaker were heavily influenced by the high value that was placed on oratory within the student culture that surrounded him.

Even before entering any competitive event, Pauling had gained significant experience speaking to groups while teaching entry-level chemistry to fellow OAC undergraduates. During this same time period, Pauling’s close friend, Paul Emmett – later to become one of the world’s great catalysis chemists and, later still, Pauling’s brother-in-law – became quite active in the OAC Forensics Club and subsequently introduced Pauling to the thrills of competitive oratory. Emmett represented OAC in the 1920 triangular debate, an annual competition involving three colleges. The following year, both Emmett and Pauling were featured in the forensics section of The Beaver yearbook, Emmett as a debater and Pauling as a runner-up in the college-wide oratorical contest discussed below.

By founding a department dedicated to public speaking, OAC was able to provide members of its Forensics Club with a better training infrastructure. Importantly, Professor George Varney served as coach of the Forensics Club starting in 1920. Varney was a new arrival to the college but was known for having trained orators at different institutions, including a state champion. However, when Linus Pauling decided to compete in the annual inter-class oratorical contest, he sought the help of his own personal coach, an English professor whose past experience as a preacher qualified him to train students in the art of public speaking.


Pauling (bottom row, second from left) as depicted in the Beaver yearbook with fellow members of the class of '22.

Pauling (bottom row, second from left) as depicted in the Beaver yearbook with fellow members of the class of ’22.

Competing for the Juniors in OAC’s inter-class speaking competition, Pauling presented a grand interpretation of the status and future of civilization in the 20th century. Titled “Children of the Dawn,” (which he meant to refer to members of his generation) Pauling’s speech contained both analysis of the past and speculation on the future.

The piece opens with a poetic description of a dream, one in which humanity and Earth are only specks within the greater universe. In Pauling’s dream, humanity had developed so effectively as to reach beyond Earth to understand the entire universe. This dream, Pauling reveals, is an allegory for the possibilities that he saw as lying ahead for his generation.

From there, the speech chronicles the development of science and thought since ancient times in order to demonstrate the talk’s main argument: that Darwin’s theory of evolution can be applied to society, science and civilization. In this, Pauling describes the developments of the past as necessary steps to completing a “Great Design,” by which he means an entire universe that is progressing in accordance with the principles of evolution.

Pauling’s optimism and use of poetic language makes for an inspiring oration. The speech concludes on an even more hopeful note by suggesting that the youth of the day were privy to only the germs of unimaginable achievements yet to come. “It is impossible for us to imagine what developments in science and invention will be witnessed by the next generation,” Pauling wrote. “We are not the flower of civilization. We are but the immature bud of a civilization yet to come.”

William Black

William Black

Impressive as Pauling’s first competitive oration was, he wound up tying for second place in the OAC competition, losing top honors to William Black, a senior and three-time participant in the event. Contrary to Pauling’s idealistic and relatively simple premise, Black’s oration, titled “Our Tottering Civilization,” presented an elaborate and frankly racist view of the times. Black’s main argument was that interactions with “peoples of color” would be the demise of civilization as a whole. Black further suggested that in order to safeguard its civilization, the white race needed to secure its natural resources and keep people of color at bay. Black likewise worried that European culture could be lost forever if other cultures were to gain further sway over world social, political and economic affairs.

At the time, China and Japan had undergone periods of rapid modernization and immigrants from east Asia were very well established as active participants in the U.S. economy. The arguments issued in “Our Tottering Civilization” largely stem from a fear that further development of these cultures, both in and beyond the United States, could eventually lead to the subjugation of Western ideals. Black’s oration concludes by exhorting white nations to join forces against the further development of “colored” nations. Despite the fact that Black’s speech is overtly racist, it eventually won second place in the state-wide intercollegiate oratory contest, perhaps because of the complexity of the issues that it dealt with, or maybe because Black was an especially compelling speaker in person.


This episode in Linus Pauling’s life, in which he battles for the crown of top college orator, offers an interesting glimpse into the culture of the early 20th century. While many elements of the era would appear almost foreign in a contemporary context, they do offer important evidence of the values and training that Pauling was exposed to long before becoming a world-renowned peace activist and public speaker.  Next week we’ll examine another important talk that Pauling gave as an undergraduate; one that has special relevance to events happening right now on the OSU campus.