The Moral and Educational Revolution That Is Needed

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

( 1 )

Does the scale of values implicit in the prevalent mores of the United States — and in most other countries of the same type — encourage or discourage, facilitate or inhibit, the making of a good life by all those who are given the opportunity to do so by favorable political, economic, and social conditions? In attempting to answer this question, I will confine myself to two observations, one concerning the moral atmosphere set up by the goals most Americans prize and honor, the other concerning the effects of that moral atmosphere upon our educational system.

The things most prized and honored in America are the expanding production of wealth, whether or not the wealth produced satisfies real needs or artificially induced wants; technological advances either for their own sake or for the sake of creature comforts and conveniences in excess of genuine need; external or worldly success as measured by the acquisition of money, fame, or power rather than development of the inner man and the growth of the human being as a person; the expansion of the sensate life rather than the intensification of the life of the mind. The high value set upon these things represents a fundamental disorder of goods, a perverse scale of values, placing lower over higher goods, mistaking merely apparent for real goods, and even transforming goods that are only means into ends to be sought for their own sake, as if they constituted the good life as a whole. Whereas the favorable political, economic, and social conditions that have been achieved in our type of society make it possible for a large proportion of our population to make good lives for themselves, this unfavorable moral atmosphere or climate militates against the possibility of their succeeding; it disinclines them to make the effort; it turns their lives in one or another wrong direction.

This adverse criticism of American culture applies to the quite similar cultural characteristics of all the other technologically advanced and technologically oriented industrial societies that Professor Herbert Marcuse attacks as repressive and that Professor Kenneth Galbraith, with marked ambivalence, describes as the New Industrial State. [1] If the criticism applies with any special force to the United States, that is only because the United States is in the forefront of the twentieth century revolution. It is technologically the most advanced, the most powerful and affluent, and so the best exemplar of the New Industrial State, having to a higher degree than any other country the vices as well as the virtues that evoke Galbraith’s ambivalence.

Unfortunately, Marcuse and Galbraith sometimes appear to think that a political and economic or even a social revolution is called for to remove the repressiveness or to correct the over production and maldistribution of goods that they deplore. It is true that the goal of an ever-expanding economy, which strives for a greater production and consumption of commodities than is necessary, involves a grievous misuse of the time of human lives — time that is freed by technological advances, all of which are laborsaving devices. Instead of the free time being used for the pursuits of leisure, through which a human being develops as a person and grows mentally, morally, and spiritually, it is used in the consumption, as well as in the production, of commodities of questionable value, and for over-indulgence in frivolous activities that make little or no contribution to the good life. To change this pattern of life calls for a moral revolution, not an economic revolution. Similarly, it is not a political or social, but a moral revolution that is needed to free the individual from the mores that now, according to Marcuse, inhibit and maim his personal development.

Also, unfortunately, neither Marcuse nor Galbraith manifests much, if any, understanding of the order of goods that constitute a good life, and both, as extreme libertarians and individualists, would recoil from a teleological ethics that not only conceives the ultimate human good as essentially the same for all men, but also imposes on each the categorical obligation to seek a really good life and to seek it by making right choices with regard to the means of attaining it. While leaving each individual free to decide what is a good life for himself, according to his wants, Professor Marcuse recommends an expansion of the sensate life that, if followed, would cripple personal development almost as much as the misuse of his time in the over production and over-consumption of commodities. [2] Professor Galbraith carries his argument to the point where it is clearly evident that all the advantages conferred by the New Industrial State must be subordinated to the pursuit of happiness, and con trolled as means to the end of a good life for all human beings. But on the subject of what human happiness is, he then bows out, citing Bertrand Russell, of all persons, as authority for the view that “the notion of happiness lacks philosophical exactitude; there is agreement neither on its substance nor its source.” Therefore, he leaves it up to each individual to decide what makes his own life good — apparently good according to his own individual wants. [3] Revolutionaries like Marcuse and libertarians like Galbraith have their hearts negatively in the right place, but they are inhibited by their prejudices, or prevented by their philosophical ignorance, from putting their minds positively there as well.

Let me repeat once more that the unfavorable moral atmosphere or cultural influences under criticism here exist, in varying degrees, in all technologically advanced industrial societies. The perverse scale of values that sets up cultural obstacles to leading a good life in the United States today prevails in the mores of every other country of the same general type. “Materialism” — a preference for external goods over the goods of the human spirit — is as prevalent in Europe as in the United States, and in Eastern as well as Western Europe. The cult of sensuality, ad diction to a life of play and frivolity, the existentialist cop-out which consists in living from day to day with no accounts carried forward and with no thought of a good life as a whole — these things flourish everywhere, not just in America, and unfortunately it is to these things that too many of the young tend to turn when they are disaffected with the materialism of their elders, not only in the United States but in Europe as well. The conflict between the younger and the older generation with regard to values is a case of pot and kettle each calling the other black. The moral obtuseness of the young on certain points is as inimical to leading a good life as the moral crassness that the young deplore in their elders. The fact that the young appear to be more sensitive to injustices that cry out for remedies may give them a moral edge on their elders, but it does not alter or condone the moral misdirection of their own lives.

What all this calls for is a moral revolution, but a moral revolution that can begin only after the moral problem is itself under stood and the solution of that problem is envisaged in all its details. That, in turn, calls for an educational revolution, but these two revolutions would seem to be so interdependent that, in fact, neither may be possible unless both come into being simultaneously.

( 2 )I would like to say a few words about the educational revolution that is needed in the United States — one that will reverse the socalled “academic revolution” that Professors Jencks and Reisman have so accurately described in their recent book. [4] I confine my attention to the United States not because the educational revolution is most needed here, but because it is here that all the externals of equal educational opportunity have been more fully achieved than anywhere else. This makes the misdirection of our educational system to the wrong ends so great a travesty on our success in the externals.

The rebellion of the students in our colleges and universities is thoroughly justified by wrongs they are suffering at the hands of their institutions, but wrongs of which most of them are only dimly and, at best, inchoately aware. They are being cheated and defrauded by an educational system that has displaced genuinely liberal and humanistic training by forms of specialized, technical and vocational training intended to fit the young for their places in the industrial machine rather than to fit them for a good life by preparing them to make good use of their free time in the pursuits of leisure.

As I pointed out earlier, the reform of abuses is usually spear headed by those who suffer under them. Today the young feel abused, but many of them project their complaints against the wrong objects — the political, economic, and social institutions of our society. The root cause of their malaise is rather the cultural disorder of a society devoted mainly to technological advances and industrial development, a disorder reflected in the misdirection of the educational system to the wrong ends.

The young complain again and again of the inadequacy and irrelevance of the education they are receiving. They are right. They have suffered, and the generations to come will suffer even more, unless the university system is radically reformed, unless colleges are emancipated from the heavy and deadening hand of graduate and professional schools, and unless the universities themselves become once more communities of scholars and cease to be service stations for the industrial state, Research and Development agencies for government and private industry, or even havens for professors to pursue their special interests without regard to the best interests of the students they should be serving. [5]

It is particularly in the classrooms of our colleges that the young are suffering the worst abuses. To correct these abuses, not only must curriculums be revised, but faculties must once again consist of teachers rather than professors, of men interested in liberal and humanistic learning, for themselves as well as for others, more than in research or in the advancement of knowledge in some specialized or technical field. Unfortunately, most of the young, precisely because they are so poorly educated, do not and cannot know the kind of education they so sorely need — the kind that would have maximum relevance not to business or worldly success, but to the business of making good lives for themselves and to success in that effort. [6]

Applying here the critical distinction between natural needs and conscious wants, what must be said is that all our young need genuinely liberal and humanistic learning as a means to the good life, the dullest among them as well as the brightest. But the brightest among them do not now want the kind of education they most need, as indicated by the types of courses they them selves arrange for when they set up their own Free Universities. They do not want the kind of education that they need because they have not been taught the basic moral lessons about the shape of a good human life, about its constituent parts and the means they must employ to achieve it. Miseducated and, there fore, misguided, they thrash about in a variety of wrong directions, hitting out against political, economic, and social conditions that have favored them, instead of against the deficiencies and deformities of an educational system that has mistreated them so badly. [7]

( 3 )We saw earlier that the time of our lives — our century — was better than any earlier period of human life. That judgment must now be qualified in one significant respect. The statement is true for all the external conditions of a human life on earth, conditions provided by technological advances and by a greater approximation to the ideals of democracy and socialism — the ideals of the classless society and the welfare state — brought about by the beginning of the twentieth century revolution. Included among these external conditions is, of course, equality of educational opportunity in all its external aspects. But it is precisely in the sphere of education that the twentieth century is inferior to the oligarchical, class-divided, slaveholding, poverty ridden societies of the past, in which the possibility of making a good life was open only to the very few.

When schooling was given only to the privileged few, it was directed to the right ends. It was essentially liberal and humanistic and, therefore, prepared the few whose time was free from toil to use that free time in all the forms of learning and creative work that constitute the activities of leisure. In this way it helped them to make good lives for themselves. The irony of our present situation is that now, when a large proportion of our population is provided with external conditions that help them to make good lives for themselves, the educational facilities do not fulfill that promise by affording them the kind of education they need. Instead of being the kind of education appropriate to free men, and men with ample free time for the pursuits of leisure, it is the kind of education appropriate to slaves or workers, men whose time will be mainly consumed by economic activities rather than devoted to the activities of leisure. [8]


1. See H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, and Negations; J. K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State.

2. In a speech to the students of the Free University of Berlin in the summer of 1968, Marcuse drew wild ovations for approving the sexual rebellion of youth. While the so-called “sexual revolution” is soundly motivated, the moral problem of the individual with respect to sexual indulgence remain unchanged. While advocating complete permissiveness on the part of society with regard to sexual behavior, Marcuse gives no evidence of understanding the moral conflict between a good time, usually enjoyed on the level of sense-experience, and a good life, which involves the subordination of sensual pleasures and the pleasures of play to the achievements of leisure-work. His philosophical commentary on Freud in Eros and Civilization reveals his commitment to the pleasure principle. In Part 11 of Eros and Civilization, entitled “Beyond the Reality Principle,” Marcuse tends to go in a direction opposite to the one that Freud took in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

3. The Affluent Society, p. 270. “To have argued simply,” Galbraith writes, “that our present preoccupation with production of goods does not best aid the pursuit of happiness would have got nowhere. The concepts to which one would have been committed would have been far too vague. Any direct onslaught on the identification of economic goods with happiness would have had another drawback. Scholarly discourse, like bullfighting and the classical ballet, has its rules and they must be respected. In this arena nothing counts so heavily against a man as to be found attacking the values of the public at large and seeking to substitute his own.” Nevertheless, Galbraith cannot totally refrain from considering the good life, even though he has ruled it out of the discussion. Released from our preoccupation with the production of consumable goods, “we become free for the first time to survey our opportunities. These,” Galbraith observes, “at least have a plausible relation to happiness. But it will remain with the reader, and ultimately one hopes with the democratic process, to reconcile these opportunities with his own sense of what makes life better” (ibid., pp. 270-271; italics added). In a review in The New Yorker of Galbraith’s The New Industrial State, Naomi Bliven writes: “One can scarcely be less than grateful to an economist who begins by telling us about factories and concludes by asking us, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ ” Unfortunately, Galbraith appears to think that each man can decide that for himself, and that moral philosophy cannot possibly have anything significant, precise, or valid to say on the subject.

4. See C. Jencks and D. Reisman, The Academic Revolution; and cf. Jacques Barzun, The American University, esp. Ch. 3, 7-8; Learning and the Professor, ed. by 0. Milton and E. J. Shoben, Jr.; Noam Chomsky, “The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis,” in The Great Ideas Today, 1969, ed. by R. M. Hutchins and M. J. Adler, pp. 41-61; Confrontation: The Student Rebellion and the Universities, ed. by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol; Joseph J. Schwab, College Curriculum and Student Protest.

5. In a brief essay entitled “The Case for the Rebellious Students and Their Counterrevolution,” in Harper’s Magazine, August 1968, pp. 9-12, John Fisher points out that the undergraduate can expect and will get “scant nourishment” if he seeks light on basic moral and social problems. “The questions he asks — What is the good life? The nature of justice? The remedy for the evils of society? — are a bore and an embarrassment to his professors. After all, none of them professes to have the answers to such large and unscholarly questions; each professes his own narrow specialty econometrics, say, or minor British poets of the 18th century. The students who expect ‘a visible relationship between knowledge and action, between the questions asked in the classroom and the lives they live outside of it’ get instead ‘pedantry and alienated erudition’ (Jencks and Reisman). Is it any wonder that they are ‘completely turned off’ and convinced that ‘all systematic and disciplined intellectual effort is a waste of time’? The tragedy is compounded because they are often ‘the best students in the best universities’ — a Jencks and Reisman conclusion which I can confirm from my own conversations with dozens of them.” Instead, in some cases, they “turn for guidance to gurus such as Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse who do profess to have answers to the Big Questions. (The answers may be wrong, as in the case of Marcuse, or ridiculously oversimplified, as with Goodman; but in the absence of anything better they find many buyers.) In other cases, they simply drop out — both from the university and from society — turning to drugs, hedonism, and the pathetic private world of the hippies.”

Cf. an essay by Irving Kristol, entitled “The Strange Death of Liberal Education,” in Fortune, May 1968, reprinted in The Annals of America, Vol. 18, pp. 677-679. Kristol writes: “Over the past year, there has been born a student-faculty movement toward the founding of off-campus and -universities, where the prevailing academic conventions are ignored and where students can study (or play at studying) whatever and however they wish. This is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the campus revolt. But it is also, in a perverse way, witness to the tendency of our higher educational institutions to impoverish the intellectual experience and to leave discussion of ‘the most important things’ — touching on the meaning of the good life and the good society — to amateur enthusiasts or cynical popularity seekers.”

6. See three reports by Stephen Spender on the student rebellions in Paris, Prague, and Berlin, published in The New York Review of Books (July 11, August 22, and September 12, 1968). One passage in the essay “Paris in the Spring” reveals extraordinary misunderstandings on the part of the young about the nature of subsistence-work, play or sport, and leisure-work, and the relation of these activities to “leading a life of better value” (loc. cit., July 18, 1968, P. 20).

7. See Democracy and the Student Left, which contains George F. Kennan’s address at Swarthmore College, “Rebels With Out a Program,” subsequently published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, together with letters from students at a wide range of campuses and letters from the older generation, to all of which Mr. Kennan replies in Part IV of the book. Commenting on the prevalent student view of the crisis in Vietnam, which, as an experienced and seasoned diplomat, he regards as a “dangerously over-simplified view of a complex situation,” Kennan asks: “Where, one wonders, have the teachers been while a view so lacking in balance and historical perspective was being formed?” That question, most appropriately addressed to the teachers of history and international politics, can be repeated many times over and addressed to the teachers of philosophy, the teachers of literature, the teachers of economics, who have failed the students as signally on other matters currently producing confusion.

8. The superiority of schooling in the past for the few who were given the kind of discipline in the liberal arts no longer available in our best colleges and universities may explain why of the few, whose privileged circumstances afforded them the opportunity to make good lives for themselves, a larger percentage made reasonable efforts to take advantage of that opportunity than is the case today when that opportunity is open to a much larger number, larger both absolutely and relative to the size of the population.

Source: Chapter 22 from The Time of Our Lives.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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