Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical re-form of our schools can save us from impending disaster. Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater. — Mortimer J. Adler
Crisis is a turning point. In pneumonia, it is the point at which the patient gets either better or worse. But the present crisis in education is different. Things can’t get worse. They can only get better. We have reached an extreme in the swing of the pendulum. Progressive education in all its forms was a sound and genuine reaction against the extreme aridity and empty formalism of classical education, which had reached the limit of its own degradation at the end of the last century. Unhappily, as always, the reaction went too far. The opposite extreme has given us an educational program which is equally preposterous, though for different reasons. Professor Dewey himself has of late scored the excesses of some of his would-be followers. What is obviously indicated, to avoid a false issue which offers a choice between undesirable extremes, is a moderate position, one which would agree with progressivism in correcting the abuses of the classical program but which would rectify progressivism itself by retaining whatever was essentially right in the classical approach. If one sets out to remedy abuses, one should remember that one is doing so because something good has been spoiled. The trouble with most reforms is that they start out to remove flaws and end by throwing the good away with the bad. We must eliminate the present excesses of progressive education without discarding the basic insights which motivated the movement.
There is no name readily available for designating the middle position. Traditionalism indicates that tradition, as well as progress and novelty, is a factor in education, but the name itself fails to mention the latter factors. Essentialism — apart from its being a barbaric name — has been used for a doctrine that does not seem to me an adequate formulation of the moderate policy. For want of a name, therefore, I shall refer to the solution of our difficulties as the Hutchins program. As I understand it, this combines what was vital in classicism — formal discipline and tradition — with what is sound in progressivism — the emphasis upon the present rather than upon the past and the insistence upon activity as indispensable to the learning process. Tradition and invention are the two factors which constitute every living culture: without invention, a culture dies; without tradition, a culture cannot begin to live. So we must have these two factors, in the right proportion and order, in education if the educational process is to preserve and enhance culture. In these terms I shall defend the reforms proposed by President Hutchins. I say “defend” because they have been so widely, so violently, so blindly attacked.
Much of the attack has been name-calling and does not deserve serious attention. If the real issues were properly understood, there would be an end to all this nonsense about fascism and authoritarianism, for it would be clear that to ask for discipline in education is not to advocate Prussian drill and the goose step; to ask for the abolition of the elective system is not to desire totalitarian regimentation; to emphasize the rule of reason in human life is not to abridge our liberties. It is only license we retain without the discipline of reason. The Hutchins program cherishes all the goods which seem to motivate its opponents: it is forward-looking, valuing the cultural heritage the past transmits only for the sake of intelligent, i.e., prospective, living in the present; it is truly liberal, if the essence of liberalism is respect for persons made free and independent by the discipline of their rational powers; it is fundamentally democratic, for it abides by the principle of universal, popular education, though it distinguishes liberal and vocational training and realizes that even democracies need leaders.
I shall try, therefore, to locate the crucial issues and to discuss them briefly, in the hope that objections arising from misconceptions will be answered and that the real basis for demanding the re-form of contemporary education will be understood. I may even hope that with such clarification, name-calling may cease, though I dare not hope that rational argument will overcome the inertia of the vested interests.
There are two basic issues which divide President Hutchins and his opponents. Both are philosophical. The first has to do with the nature of knowledge and the distinction between science and philosophy, as different kinds of knowledge having different histories and different utilities. The second has to do with the nature of man, whether he is merely an animal whose biological destiny is adjustment in the struggle for existence, or, though an animal, also rational and having a uniquely human destiny of self-perfection. The educational consequences of affirming that man is a rational animal, different in kind and not merely in degree of intelligence, and that philosophy is more eminently knowledge than science, having a validity is which is independent of scientific findings, and a utility superior to that of science — these determine the main points in the Hutchins program. The errors of progressive education are similarly determined by the educational consequences of the opposing denials.
It would be naive to suppose that these issues could be adequately argued in short scope. Even in a fairly long book, I have failed to argue these matters with rhetorical effectiveness. Not only does the resolution of these issues rest upon profound and extensive considerations, but the mere statement of the affirmative theses arouses so many and such violent prejudices in minds which have suffered the kind of education which their denial has sanctioned, that it is almost impossible to get a hearing, even from persons who call themselves liberal. It almost seems that being educated under the Hutchins program is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the educational philosophy on which it turns. Similarly, the educational philosophy of our teachers’ colleges is received as the obvious truth by those who have been educated under its auspices. But unless everything is just a matter of opinion, and the might of the majority makes right, these issues are genuine, and the truth lies only on one side. Furthermore, philosophic truth is not a private intuition. It is capable of such explication and demonstration that it becomes the public property of all minds free enough from prejudice to be convinced by evidence and reasons.
Since adequate argument is not possible here, I must content myself with trying to sharpen the issues themselves. I choose to do this in a frankly polemic manner — for there is no point in concealing an adherence to the truth as one sees it — by defining the philosophical errors which underlie progressive education. I shall discuss, first, the twin myths of progress and utility which are the misleading notions of pragmatic positivism; second, the false educational psychology which denies or ignores man’s rationality; and, finally, the way in which the progressive program has been determined by these errors.
It is no play on words to say that the myth of universal progress, progress in all things, lies at the heart of progressive education. This myth of progress is a nineteenth-century notion, due partly to positivism and partly to illicit extensions of the doctrine of evolution. Progress differs from change in that it is change in a definite direction and is measured by standards which evaluate stages in a process as better and worse. The growth of a plant or animal is a progress from infancy to maturity, to the point where the organism reaches its biological perfection. But everywhere in nature growth is followed by decline, maturity by senescence. The one possible exception to the rule that natural progress is not interminable is that which the panorama of evolution appears to present. But even here, taking the facts as they are usually told in the story of evolution, it is only by a questionable extrapolation of the curve that one could conclude that there is interminable progress in the development of forms of life. Yet it was just this uncritically reached conclusion which propagated the notion that the law of progress rules all things, and that as we move into the future we go endlessly from worse to better, from lower to higher.
The other source of this myth of progress was a view of cultural history, dictated by positivism. If one supposes, as the positivists do, that science is the only form of valid, general knowledge about the world, and that the technical application of science to the control of things is the only kind of utility which knowledge has, then there appears to be uninterrupted and interminable progress in human affairs as well as in nature. For does not Auguste Comte tell us that there are three stages in human history — the superstitious or religious; the speculative, conjectural, or philosophical; and the stage of positive knowledge, or the scientific — and is this not progress? In the era of science itself does not every century see the ever increasing scope of scientific knowledge and the ever enlarging domain of technology? As the years roll by, we have more and better knowledge, bigger and better inventions or utilities. The positivists are so enraptured by this picture of progress and by the dreams of the future it generates that they are somehow able to forget that in our moral and political affairs a Hitler and a Mussolini and their followers are not much of an improvement upon a Nero or a Caligula and the gangs they led. But this flaw in the picture must not be forgotten, for it is the clue to one of the two great exceptions to the law of progress in human affairs which make the notion of universal and perpetual progress a deceptive illusion.
The first exception is human nature itself. If we can discriminate between nature and nurture, we can understand the sense in which human nature is constant throughout all the variations of culture and all the transformations of history. Man is a biological species, and if a species means anything it means a constant nature which is transmitted from generation to generation. When that constancy fails, when another specific nature is generated, we have, whether by mutation or otherwise, the origin of a new species. It must follow, then, that so long as what is generated remains specifically man, human nature remains constant from generation to generation. By human nature I mean the native abilities and the organic needs which everywhere constitute the same animal, known as man.
The second exception is more difficult to discuss, for it turns on the essential difference between philosophy and science. The positivists cannot accept biological science and deny the specific constancy of man; they can remain positivists and still recognize how the unchanging character of human nature explains the failure of progress in social and political affairs. But they cannot remain positivists and agree that philosophy is knowledge which is not only nonscientific in its method but also independent in its validity of all the ever changing findings and formulations of research. Since I cannot argue the point here, I shall try only to indicate how affirming philosophy affects our view of cultural history.
As I have said elsewhere, the positivist is right in his effort to de-ontologize science, to define science as knowledge of phenomenal relationships, generalizing the correlation of diverse sensibles and being totally unconcerned with substances and causes. He is wrong only when he is a negativist, that is, when he denies philosophy, which is ontological knowledge, which is concerned with substances and causes, and which seeks to penetrate beneath the sensible to the intelligible. There is a clear distinction here between the formal objects or noetic aims of science and philosophy; and that distinction is accompanied by a distinction in method. All human knowledge arises from sense-experience, but the activity of the senses alone can account for no generalizations of the sort which distinguish both science and philosophy from history. Intelligence or reason must work reflectively, analytically, inductively over the materials of sense-experience. These two factors, sense and reason, observation and reflection, experience and thought, are common to both science and philosophy. The difference in their methods lies in the fact that science requires special experience, the data achieved by all kinds of research, investigation whether experimental or otherwise; whereas philosophy arises from reflection about the common experience of mankind, the experience which all men have everywhere and at all times as a result of the noninvestigative use of their senses, and which is always the same because the sensitive powers of man are as constant as his nature and the natural world on which they operate is the same.
From this distinction in object and method arises a basic difference in the historical careers of science and philosophy. Science is progressive, and interminably so, as long as men are ingenious and industrious in their efforts at research. There are no apparent limitations to the progress in scientific knowledge except the width, breadth, and depth of the world to be investigated. But philosophy does not grow with an enlargement of experience. Its data are always the same. It grows only by a refinement in the intellectual prowess itself, by profounder insight, by better analysis. Its development is restricted by the limitations of man’s intellectual powers; and if our ancestors have accumulated philosophic wisdom, we can improve little on their work. I am saying no more here than what Whitehead means when he says that the history of European philosophy is nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato. I cannot resist adding that Aristotle wrote most of the footnotes.
In short, there is perpetual progress in scientific knowledge because of the nature of science itself, the contingency of its conclusions as relative to the available data; but there is no such progress in philosophy or wisdom because its conclusions are not contingent, and the relevant experience is always the same. The historical movement of science is a straight line ever upward. The historical movement of philosophy is a deepening spiral, in every turn of which the same truths and the same errors reappear. Professor Gilson has magnificently demonstrated this in his William James Lectures on “The Unity of Philosophical Experience.”
The essential difference between science and philosophy bears not only on the myth of progress, but also on the utility myth. The positivist, regarding only science as knowledge, thinks that the only utility knowledge can have is to give man control over the operable things of nature. But the things which we can control are utilities only in the sense of means. None of them is an end in itself. Clearly the difference between intelligent and unintelligent operation lies in referring means to ends. Furthermore, everyone can see that science is the kind of knowledge which can be used for evil purposes as well as good, according as the means it provides us with are ordered to the right or the wrong ends. But what determines the ordering of means to ends, and what provides the criteria for judging ends as good and bad? Either this is mere opinion, and again might makes right, or it is knowledge. But it is clearly not scientific knowledge, for otherwise science could protect itself and all mankind from the misuses to which it is so readily put. It is philosophical knowledge, which in the practical order is called morals and politics, that must direct us in intelligent operation toward the right ends. The utility of philosophy is thus superior to that of science, and what is even more obvious, science without moral wisdom — a command of utilities without right direction — is a dangerous thing. The more science we have, the more we are in need of wisdom to prevent its misuse. The imminent tragedy of the contemporary world is written in the fact that positivistic modern culture has magnified science and almost completely emancipated itself from wisdom.
One further point must be added. Philosophy’s independence of science holds in the practical as well as in the theoretical sphere. We have not progressed in moral wisdom. All the advances in science have not changed the moral and political problems which men face, except to make them more difficult because men have more implements at hand to gain their ends.
I turn now to the psychological error concerning man’s nature. So-called “scientific psychology,” which has its roots in the physiological laboratory and its ideology from the evolutionary speculations of nineteenth-century materialism, regards man as an animal different from others only in degree of intelligence or in such accidental matters as erect posture. Man is a bundle of reflexes which can be conditioned, as in other animals, by the positive and negative stimuli of pleasure and pain; he learns as other animals do, by trial and error — or if he has insight, as the gestaltists claim, so do all other animals; his habits are all sensori-motor co-ordinations, the archetype of which is the reflex arc. When to the experimental literature are added views which have their origin in the clinic or on the psychoanalytical couch, man’s rationality, if admitted at all, is reduced to the craft whereby his ego is forced by his id to rationalize the basic instinctive drives which get him into social conflicts. His behavior originates with and is controlled by his visceral urges, and intelligence is their servant, reason their cunning.
It should be apparent, though it is seldom seen, that such a conception of human nature makes it impossible to explain how man can be a scientist, not to mention a philosopher. Scientific truth, which man possesses, and the scientific method which he employs, cannot be accounted for in terms of conditioned reflexes or sensori-motor co-ordinations, except by the most obvious verbal legerdemain. The very ideal of science — that the truth, to whatever extent it is achieved, is objective and independent of our passions and urges — must be an illusion, if reason operates only in the service of the gut and under its dictation. With the scientific ideal goes all the rest of morality, for all ideals become illusions which thinly conceal man’s brutishness. The paradox still remains, however, that man is the only animal which finds it necessary to fool himself with ideals.
The opposite view, which makes the issue, can be simply stated, though not here argued. Man is a rational animal, and in possessing rationality, which is not just animal intelligence to a higher degree, he is essentially, that is, specifically, different from brutes. Man has all the powers possessed by brute animals: he has vegetative powers; he has sensitive, appetitive, and locomotive powers. But in addition he has an intellect, and this power, the power of understanding, of abstracting, judging, reasoning, no other animal has. It is by the exercise of this power that man is an artist, a scientist, a philosopher; that he lives socially by conventions determined by himself rather than instinctively as other social animals do; that he has a syntactical language for the communication of knowledge and commands; that he is able freely to choose the means by which he attains the end he desires because he understands it to be good.
Opposite educational consequences follow from choosing opposite sides in these two issues.
If man is a rational animal, constant in nature throughout history, then there must be certain constant features in every sound educational program, regardless of culture or epoch. The basic education of a rational animal is the discipline of his rational powers and the cultivation of his intellect. This discipline is achieved by the liberal arts, the arts of reading and listening, of writing and speaking, and, perforce, of thinking, since man is a social animal as well as a rational one and his intellectual life is lived in a community which can exist only through the communication of men. The three R’s, which always signified the formal disciplines, are the essence of liberal or general education. They cannot be inculcated by college courses in logic or mathematics or classical languages. That was the error of classical education, which the progressivist rightly condemned. One learns to write and read only by performing these acts, but since reading and writing are intellectual arts, the habits must be formed under the discipline of rules of art; moreover, intellectual habits cannot be formed intelligently unless the rules themselves are understood. The program of liberal education consists of the liberal arts, acquired as habits through performance under intelligible disciplines. In short, the A.B. degree should be awarded for competence in reading, writing, and reckoning.
But one cannot learn to read and write without subject matter. The reason is trained in its proper operations by these arts, but the intellect is not cultivated by them. That can be accomplished only through furnishing it with knowledge and wisdom, by acquainting it with truth, by giving it a mastery of ideas. At this point, the other basic feature of liberal education appears, namely, the great books, the master productions in all fields, philosophy, science, history, and belles-lettres. They are not only the material which must be used to teach students how to read and write, but they constitute the cultural tradition by which the intellects of each generation must first be cultivated.
Note, here, how the myth of progress is denied. If there is philosophical wisdom as well as scientific knowledge, if the former consists of insights and ideas that change little from time to time, and if even the latter has many abiding concepts and a relatively constant method, if the great works of literature as well as of philosophy touch upon the permanent moral problems of mankind and express the universal convictions of men involved in moral conflict — if these things are so, then the great books of ancient and medieval, as well as modern, times are a repository of knowledge and wisdom, a tradition of culture which must initiate each new generation. The reading of these books is not for antiquarian purposes; the interest is not archaeological or philological. That was the type of interest which dominated the humanistic course in the German gymnasium, and was “classical education” at its worst. Rather the books are to be read because they are as contemporary today as when they were written, and that because the problems they deal with and the ideas they present are not subject to the law of perpetual and interminable progress. The fact that the ancients and medievals were wrong in many matters of scientific knowledge, the fact that even Newton and Galileo were wrong in their turn, makes no difference to the philosophical accomplishments of these periods, nor even to the insights and procedures of the great masters of science.
There is not space here to expound fully the curriculum for liberal education which President Hutchins has proposed and which is in operation at St. John’s College in Annapolis. I am merely indicating how the emphasis upon the liberal arts and the great books follows from and is justified by the fundamental theses which distinguish his educational philosophy. If the educational system were properly divided into three parts — elementary, secondary or collegiate, and university — what I have here called liberal or general education would occur at the second level. At the lowest level, elementary education would inculcate the fundamental routines of language and mathematics and stimulate the imagination and the talents for fine arts, thus preparing for college in a manner quite unlike that determined by college board examinations. At the university level, which might begin at what is now the junior year of college, if the A.B. were advanced as the degree for secondary education, would come all the specialized and professional studies. A man can be well trained as a chemist or a historian, a lawyer or a physician, only after he has been fundamentally educated, after he has learned to read and write and has some ideas. If general education emphasizes the permanent studies — the liberal arts and the cultural tradition — specialized education, at the university level, is the place for the progressive studies, the studies in which novelty and invention predominate.
If one examines the education which now prevails from the elementary school through to the university, one discovers that the opposite theses are at work. Influenced by the myths of progress and utility, failing to recognize the constancy of human nature, and denying, implicitly or explicitly, man’s distinctive rationality, the existing system has completely discarded the permanent studies or, what is almost as bad, put them in the university where they are out of place. In terms of a false educational psychology which misinterpreted experiments on the transfer of trainings as showing there is no point to formal discipline, not enough effort is made to teach students how to read and write. If man has an intellect it can be disciplined despite all the findings on the limited transferability of training from one set of sensori-motor co-ordinations to another. In terms of pragmatic positivism, the cultural tradition is ignored because there is nothing worth knowing except the most recent results of scientific research. Any book older than yesterday is hardly worth reading, for by the law of progress we must have advanced to a new and better stage of knowledge. We must teach students how to face contemporary problems, and each generation must pull itself up by its own bootstraps, for the problems are ever changing and the past can afford no help at all.
Because man is viewed as having only an animal career and not a human destiny, interest and adjustment have taken the place of discipline and cultivation as the watchwords of educational policy. The whole aim of education changes, for adjustment leads to the cult of success, the “ideal” of getting ahead by beating your neighbor. The emphasis on the interests of the student makes him a buyer instead of as patient, and the teacher becomes a salesman rather than a doctor prescribing the cure for ignorance and incompetence. It is the student who is the master under the elective system, which was invented because of the excessive proliferation of scientific courses in the curriculum, and has been perpetuated by that perversion of educational policy which makes the young, i.e., the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity. Extracurricular activities originated in response to interests that were tangential to the main business of education, but in many schools they have become the curriculum, and the substantial studies have been thrown out. They are not even extracurricular. Many college curriculums offer courses from A to Z without discrimination; and the university, instead of being a hierarchy of studies and a community of scholars, is a collection of specialties, together only in geographical proximity.
Elementary education is devoid of discipline. The basic routines in language and mathematics have been dropped or corrupted. Memory is not cultivated. Social studies, current events, manual arts and games occupy the major time. Secondary or collegiate education fails even more, though in part the failure is due to the inadequate preparation given in the elementary schools. Our Bachelors of Arts cannot read, write, or speak their own language well; neither they nor, for that matter, our Masters of Arts, are acquainted with the liberal arts. They cannot read and they have not read the great books in all fields. They do not possess the leading ideas or understand the basic problems which are permanently human. They have been fed for years on textbooks and lecture courses which hand out predigested materials; and, as a result, they are chaotically informed and viciously indoctrinated with the local prejudices of professors and their textbooks. As a final consequence, education at the graduate and professional level has been necessarily debased. Law schools must teach reading; graduate schools struggle to get Ph.D. candidates to write simple, clear English.
I conclude with the question: What are the chances of this deplorable situation being remedied? What chance is there of the Hutchins reform being effected? I ask this question, of course, on the assumption that the truth lies on his side of the basic issues, and with the insight that his program is the moderate one between the extremes of a dead classicism and a progressivism run amuck. Even granted this, I must confess that I am pessimistic, for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, there is the inertia of vested interests, which perpetuate existing human institutions. Organized education is one of the largest rackets in this country, and the teachers’ colleges, especially such influential ones as those at Columbia, Chicago, and California, are the gangs which control what goes on, in ways that do not always meet the eye and would not stand inspection. To call education a racket is, of course, to speak metaphorically, but the comparison has point. Reforming education will have to use racket-busting techniques or it will not succeed.
In the second place, there is the vicious circle in the teaching profession itself. The teachers of today were taught by the teachers of yesterday and teach the teachers of tomorrow. When this vicious circle, which has always existed, gets standardized by schools of education, in which a philosophy of education becomes an official program imposed upon the profession and the system by various accrediting agencies, degrees, requirements for promotion, and so forth, the circle becomes almost impregnable. Even if the great mass of teachers were to feel that there is something wrong with education, they could do nothing about it. They have been subjugated; worse than that, they have been indoctrinated by the reigning philosophy so that they no longer have enough free judgment to be critical; but worst of all, they themselves have been so inadequately educated that they would be hindered from understanding the principles or taking part in the execution of the reform being proposed. For the most part, the members of the teaching profession are over trained and undereducated. Teaching is an art and a teacher must be trained, but since the technique is one of communicating knowledge and inculcating discipline, it is not educational psychology and courses in method and pedagogy which train a teacher, but the liberal arts. Further, a teacher should have a cultivated mind, generally cultivated regardless of his field of special interest, for he must be the visible and moving representative of the cultural tradition to his students. But how can he be this if he has no acquaintance with the cultural heritage, if he cannot read well, and if he is not well read?
Finally, there is the even deeper vicious circle in which an educational system and the society in which it flourishes are reciprocal. You cannot improve a society without changing its education; but you cannot lift the educational system above the level of the society in which it exists. We probably have as good an educational program today in this country as we deserve, according to our cultural attainments and aspirations. If my pessimism encounters objection on the grounds that the movement which John Dewey led succeeded in changing American education, I must answer that that change moved with the tide of American life and expressed its own dominant values and interests. The reform in which I am interested must work against the tide, challenging the worst, and also the most obdurate, features of our national ethos — our materialism, our pragmatism, our modernism.
But pessimism must not lead to despair, for much is at stake that makes it imperative to keep working for reform so long as a chance remains. There are many signs and portents that the modern world is headed for a great social upheaval and a drastic cultural eclipse. We are viewing a race between two revolutions — a violent one by fire and sword and a peaceful one by education and reason — to end the iniquitous capitalistic system and the rotten bourgeois culture of our times. Even if, in the world at large, violence is needed to win the day, the educational revolution must follow to preserve and nourish the fruits of victory. In this country, democracy and liberal institutions are at stake, for these can be sustained and developed only by a truly liberal education. Failing to develop critical minds, failing to liberate the mind by discipline, contemporary education makes the way easy for demagogues of all sorts. Education which does not build on wisdom or respect reason above all else, leads to the frustration of the individual and the brutal conflict of social forces. For whenever reason does not rule, the mind must yield to the sheer weight of opinion propagated by pressure; only might remains and none dares say it is not right.
This essay by Mortimer Adler addressing his lifelong crusade — reforming education in our schools — was first published in 1939 but, in essence, it could have been written today.
[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]