[Originally published in 1940]
1The First World War produced a postwar generation, its young men won a fight but lost what they were fighting for. Their lives had been interrupted, their purposes undermined, and their eyes opened. They were self-conscious of their disillusionment and demoralization, and their spokesmen–the artists and journalists among them–publicized their cynicism so successfully that it came to be regarded as the mood of a whole decade.
The Second World War finds us with a prewar generation. It consists of the youngsters still in college and the graduates of the past ten years. Considering their state of mind, one is tempted to say that the fathers have tasted war and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Archibald Mac’s has in fact suggested that the temper of the postwar generation communicated itself and formed the temperament of youth today.
The facts of resemblance must not lead us, however, to a hasty conclusion about causes, for there is one remarkable difference between the two generations. The veterans of the last war had had “illusions”; they had pledged themselves in the name of “ideals.” They were a lost generation because they had lost something. But it would be incorrect to speak of the present generation as disillusioned or demoralized. They seem to have grown up without any allegiances that could be betrayed, without a moral philosophy to renounce. They talk like calloused realists, though their actual experience of life cannot account for their imperviousness to traditional appeals.
This prewar generation has obviously not been produced by the present conflict in Europe nor by the threat of America’s involvement. It existed five years ago, ten years ago, but it took the dire calamities of May 1940 to make us generally aware of the characteristics of our college youth. The commencement orators last June spoke with an amazing uniformity on this one point. Whatever type of foreign policy they favored, they all recognized a danger sign in the disaffection of youth, its distrust of any cause which spoke the language of principles. In address after address the country over, college presidents or their surrogates appealed for a revival of idealism; tried to persuade the young that there are things worth living, and hence dying, for; pleaded for courage and self-sacrifice in devotion to the common good. They argued against what they called the prevalent materialism, the single-minded self-interest of the college graduate’s aim–to take care of himself and let the rest go hang, to get ahead in the world by beating his neighbor. And most tragically significant of all, they begged the youth of the country “to have faith in democracy.”
In most cases the commencement orators were thinking of preparedness, of national defense or active participation in the war. They asked for faith in democracy with an ulterior purpose. Congressional appropriations for armament are not enough, nor even the armaments themselves, built at any speed and in any quantity. Wars, especially modern, total wars, are waged with the energy of youth. Though it seldom became explicit, the speeches last June evoked the contrasting images of Hitler’s youth and ours. Of course Hitler’s youth were regimented and hop-fed, but they had some “virtues” after all. They were loyal and resolute. If only we could generate overnight a faith in democracy that would equal the faith in fascism, with its spirit of self sacrificing devotion to a cause!
The educators or leaders who spoke to America’s young men last June were so anxious about the immediate consequences of their audience’s mood that they did not stop to inquire into its causes. Obsessed with the urgent need for change, they forgot that only by altering causes can one control effects. In their impatience, however sincere, they committed a basic error in rhetoric. They did not even ask themselves why all their words would fall upon deaf ears, why stirring phrases would not stir, why not even the loftiest visions would inspire.
2What are the causes? How did this prewar generation come to be what it is? Since no one can pretend to know the etiology of a whole generation, I claim no more for what I have to say than that it is a guess based on more than fifteen years of classroom experience with the disease I am trying to diagnose. But before I tell my story let me consider some of the other guesses which have recently been aired.
In his now famous address on postwar writers and prewar readers, Mr. MacLeish claimed that the one had contaminated the other, that literature was the avenue of infection, especially the novels of such men as Latzko, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Remarque, and Aldington. I do not know whether MacLeish had the parallel in mind, but he was repeating Plato’s charge that the poets, the storytellers, the tellers of half-truths, were the corrupters of youth. I have never thought that Plato was right about the poets. His characterization of them was right, but not his judgment of their influence. They are storytellers; they are men of imagination rather than of thought; they certainly cannot be relied upon to give youth sound moral and political instruction; but they are not important as compared with other educational influences, much less so in our day than in earlier times.
The writers themselves seem to agree with me on this point. Mr. Robert Sherwood said: “Archibald MacLeish is right in his conclusions, but he exaggerates the influence exerted by writers of our generation. By far the most successful of antiwar books, All Quiet on the Western Front, failed to convert young Germans to pacifism.” Mr. Richard Aldehyde dismissed the notion that authors really affect the national state of mind as a typical highbrow delusion: “most people in America have never heard of the writers MacLeish mentions and could not have been influenced by them.” I am sure that most college students have not read these novels. Even allowing for the influence they may have worked through the movies, or by indirect communication, I cannot agree that they are the major cause.
The writers who commented on MacLeish’s speech had guesses of their own to offer. Again I quote Mr. Sherwood, who felt that youth considered “democracy a decadent mess — and no wonder, in view of the environment in which they grew up: the jazz age of the early 20s, the hypocrisy and crime of prohibition, the drunken sailorism of the Coolidge boom, and the wailing defeatism of depression.” Another author placed the blame on young men’s doubts about their economic or spiritual stake in American democracy. And still another said that they had “lost faith in democracy. It is up to democracy to show it is worth fighting for.”
There is some truth in all these remarks, but I do not think they go to the root of the trouble. There is no question that the spectacle of democracy malpracticed may have killed some youthful enthusiasm for its cause, no question that the go-getting materialism of the American environment has corrupted youth more than novelists ever could, no question that the young have felt themselves betrayed by their elders. But it is not the failure of democracy to solve its economic problems, nor the shallowness and stupidity of its political leadership which has caused the disaffection.
The real trouble is that our college students and recent graduates do not take any moral issues seriously, whether about their personal affairs or the economic and political problems of the nation. Their only principle is that there are no moral principles at all, their only slogan that all statements of policy, all appeals to standards, are nothing but slogans, and hence frauds and deceptions. They are sophists in the most invidious sense of that term which connotes an unqualified skepticism about all moral judgments. Such skepticism leads naturally to realpolitik: in the game of power politics — and there is no other — only force and propaganda count. The issue between fascism and democracy can not be argued as if there were a right and wrong to it. Whoever wins is right; whatever works is good. Our college students today, like Thrasymachus of old, regard justice as nothing but the will of the stronger; but unlike the ancient sophist, they cannot make the point as clearly or defend it as well.
What, then, is the difference between our youth and Hitler’s? Even if ours have not read Mein Kampf or been inoculated with the revolutionary spirit of nihilism, they have become “realists” of the same sort, believing only in the tangible rewards of success — money, fame, and power. Unlike Hitler’s youth, however, they mean by success their own personal advancement, not nationalistic aggrandizement. Hitler’s young men, through a mystical identification of personal with national success, work for Germany. Our young men work for themselves, and they will continue to suffer democracy — which, remember, they do not think can be proved to be intrinsically better than fascism — only so long as it works for them. True, at the present moment, they feel that Hitler is a bad man and say they don’t like totalitarianism; but if pressed for reasons they will repeat phrases such as “civil liberties” or “human rights,” the meaning of which they cannot explain, the justification for which they cannot give. They can readily be pushed to admit that these too are only opinions, which happen to be theirs by the accident of birthplace.
Here precisely lies the danger. The present generation has been immunized against anyone who might really try to argue for democracy in terms of justice, but not against the attractions of success and security. The only slogans they have learned to suspect are those which claim the approval of reason; and the thing which seems most like propaganda to them is what “pretends” to offer rational arguments for a course of action — as right rather than expedient. They have no sales resistance against the appeal of promises to gain for them the things every animal wants. They will even have “faith” in democracy if such promises can be made in its name. They are ready to have faith in any program which does not insist that it is right by reason. Let America cease to be the land of opportunity for individual success, let another and much worse depression increase the number who are hopelessly insecure, and our young men may find a leader who can change their “faith.” They are democrats now only by feeling and opinion. Feelings and opinions are easily changed by force of circumstances and by rhetoric which mocks at reason, as Hitler’s did. If some form of fascism offers immediate fruits, they who have forsaken the way of principles and reasoning will not see that democracy is better in principle, despite abuses which impair its beneficence in practice.
Mr. MacLeish diagnosed the disease correctly but he failed to trace its causes to their roots. John Chamberlain had observed that the younger generation “needs none of Mr. Stuart Chase’s semantic discipline. The boys and girls tend to distrust all slogans, all tags — even all words.” Agreeing to this, MacLeish went further. He saw that their basic distrust is of “all statements of principle and conviction, all declarations of moral purpose” — for it is only such statements and declarations that they regard as slogans. But he merely scratched the surface when he supposed that it was the literature of our period that “was disastrous as education for a generation which would be obliged to face the threat of fascism in its adult years.” The education of this prewar generation has been disastrous indeed; but the calamity has been caused by our schools and colleges, not by our novelists. Even if the First World War had never happened, even if there had been no postwar generation to spread its disillusionment, even if such phrases as “making the world safe for democracy” had not come to symbolize how men can mistake empty slogans for sacred shibboleths, the present generation would be as full of sophistry and skepticism. For the past forty years there have been forces at work in American education which had to culminate in this result.
3The factors operating in the current situation have been prepared by centuries of cultural change. What has been happening in American education since 1900, what has finally achieved its full effect in the present generation, flows with tragic inevitability from the seeds of modem culture as they have developed in the past three hundred years. The very things which constituted the cultural departure that we call modern times have eventuated, not only in the perverted education of American youth today, but also in the crises they are unprepared to face. That fascism should have reached its stride in Europe at the same time that pseudo-liberalism — the kind Lewis Mumford denounces as corrupt, pragmatic liberalism — has demoralized us, is a historic accident. Only the timing is a coincidence, however, for both the European and the American maladies arise from the same causes. They are both the last fruitions of modern man’s exclusive trust in science and his gradual disavowal of whatever lies beyond the field of science as irrational prejudice, as opinion emotionally held.
I do not wish to make science itself the villain of this essay. It is the misuse of science, intellectually as well as practically, which is to blame. We do not blame science for the murderous tools it has enabled men to make; neither should we blame science, or for that matter scientists, for the destructive doctrines men have made in its name, men who are for the most part philosophers and educators, not scientists. All these doctrines have a common center — positively, the exclusive adoration of science; negatively, the denial that philosophy or theology can have any independent authority. We can regard this intellectual misuse of science as another one of the false modern religions–the religion of science, closely related to the religion of the state. We can group all these doctrines together and call them by names which have become current: positivism and scientism. And again we can see a deep irony in the historic coincidence that just when the practical misuse of science has armed men for wholesale slaughter, scientism — the intellectual misuse of science — has all but disarmed them morally.
Let me see if I can explain the mind of this prewar generation by the scientism which dominates American education. I am also concerned to show how the semanticism, which Messrs. Chamberlain and MacLeish noted in the youthful distrust of all language, is a closely related phenomenon. Just as scientism is a misuse of science, in itself good, so semanticism names the excessive exploitation of semantics, which in itself is a good discipline concerned with the criteria for determining the significance of words.
An American college student who, under the elective system, samples courses in the natural and social sciences, in history, philosophy, and the humanities gradually accumulates the following notions:
- that the only valid knowledge of the nature of the world and man is obtained by the methods of experimentation or empirical research;
- that questions which cannot be answered by the methods of the natural and social sciences cannot be answered at all in any trustworthy or convincing way; or, in other words, answers to such questions are only arbitrary and unfounded opinions;
- that the great achievement of the modern era is not simply the accumulation of scientific knowledge, but, more radically, the recognition of the scientific method (of research and experimentation) as the only dependable way to solve problems; and, in consequence of this, that modern times have seen man’s emancipation from the superstitions of religion, the dogmatisms of theology, and the armchair speculations of philosophers;
- that the study of social phenomena became scientific when research divorced itself entirely from normative considerations, when economists and students of politics no longer asked about the justice of social arrangements, but only who gets what, when, and how.
A bright college student will readily draw certain inferences from these few basic notions that get dinned into him from every source of his education. He will see for himself that moral questions, questions of good and bad, right and wrong, cannot be answered by the methods of natural or social science. He will conclude that “value judgments” cannot be made, except of course as expressions of personal prejudice. He will extend this conclusion to cover not only decisions about his own conduct but also moral judgments about economic systems and political programs. He will accept without question the complete divorce of economics from ethics and, in discipleship to Machiavelli, he will become as much a realist in politics as Hitler and Mussolini. If, in addition to being bright, he is proud of his modernity, he will regard anyone who talks about standards of goodness, principles of justice, moral virtues as an unregenerate old fogy; and he will express his aversion for such outmoded opinions by the ad hominem use of epithets like “medieval” or “scholastic” or “mystic.”
Even those who are not bright enough to draw their own conclusions from the main tenets of a college education get them ready-made in certain courses. They are told by the teachers of social science that all “systems of morality” reduce to tribal mores, conventional taboos and prescriptions which govern the culture of a given time and place. They learn, as a result of this complete moral relativism, that they must respect their “ethnocentric predicament,” which simply means that they, who belong to a given culture or system, cannot judge the right and wrong of any other without begging the question, without taking their own point of view for granted, though it is neither better nor worse than the contrary assumptions of those whom they judge. They are told, in so many words, that anyone who proceeds otherwise is an absolutist. To suppose that all men living at any time or place are subject to the same fundamental canons of right and wrong, however diverse their manners or mores; to suppose that all men, precisely because they are all men, sharing equally the same human nature, should be motivated by the same ideals of truth and goodness–that is the demon of absolutism which every social science course in the curriculum tries to exorcise. When they succeed, as they usually do by sheer weight of unopposed prestige, the college student who has been thus indoctrinated even dislikes using such words as “truth” and “goodness” because they sound like “absolute values.”
I said a moment ago that the teaching pronounced in unison by the social scientists is unopposed. You may think that opposition must come from at least one quarter of the campus — obviously from the philosophy department. But, paradox of paradoxes, if the student is not already thoroughly debunked, rid of all “medieval superstitions” and “absolutisms,” he gets the finishing touches of his modem education in the philosophy courses. While it is not unanimously accepted, the doctrine of scientism is certainly the dominant dogma of American philosophy today. The degenerative tendency of modem philosophy to move in this direction reached its culmination in American pragmatism and all its sequelae–the numerous varieties of positivism. All the varieties agree on one point: that only science gives us valid knowledge of reality. Hence philosophy, at its best, can be nothing more than a sort of commentary on the findings of science; and at its worst, when it refuses to acknowledge the exclusive right of scientific method to marshal evidence and draw conclusions therefrom, philosophy is either mere opinion or nonsensical verbiage. The history of philosophy, especially in the primitive times before the scientific era, is told as a history of guesses, some bright, some wild, but all equally unworthy of modern credence.
Far from opposing the social scientists, their colleagues in the philosophy department support the derogation of “systems of morality” as so many ways of rationalizing emotional fixations and cultural complexes. (Ethics becomes a sort of psychoanalysis). It is in the philosophy course that the student really learns how to argue like a sophist against all “values” as subjective and relative. Far from being the last bulwark against the scientism professed or insinuated by every other part of the curriculum, the philosophy courses reinforce the negativism of this doctrine by inspiring disrespect for any philosophy which claims to be independent knowledge. And, to complete the job, the ancient sophistries which our philosophy departments have revived are implemented by semanticism. The student learns to suspect all words, especially abstract words. Statements which cannot be scientifically verified are meaningless. The abstract words which enter into moral judgments — such words as “justice” and “right” or even “liberty” and “happiness” — have only rhetorical meaning. Denuded of deceptive verbiage, all such judgments can be reduced to statements of what I like or what displeases me. There is no “should” or “ought.”
Concerning the intellectual character of this generation, there appears to be agreement. Certainly the most plausible explanation of that character is in terms of the education youth has received. If I have fairly summarized the impact of a college education have I not accounted for the state of mind which seemed to worry the commencement orators last June, and which Mr. MacLeish attributed to the insidious effects of postwar novels?
Whether or not they go to war, irreparable damage has been done to the young men of this generation. They have been misled by their teachers into giving up their birthright. Education has failed democracy as well. When men no longer have confidence that right decisions in moral and political matters can be rationally arrived at, when they no longer regard themselves as rational animals, but as rationalizing brutes, the institutions of democracy are the walls of an empty house which will collapse under pressure from without because of the vacuum within.
4There are two misconceptions I wish to avoid. The picture I have painted is black enough but it is not utterly so. It must be qualified in the first place, by recognizing that there are a few teachers on every campus who take their stand against the tide; and in the second place, by acknowledging that most college students are at heart good boys and girls. (So, may I add, were Hitler’s boys and girls.) It is sometimes difficult to decide whether they think sophistically or only talk that way, but it is easy to discover that their sophisticated speech masks a kind of natural goodness. Let me report some of my own experiences to illustrate these points.
For some years now at the University of Chicago President Hutchins and I have been teaching courses in which the students are asked to read great works in ethics, economics, and politics. They have already had enough education to be suspicious of Plato and Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke. They react at once against these, or any other authors, who write as if truth could be reached in moral matters, as if the mind could be convinced by reasoning from principles, as if there were self-evident precepts about good and bad. They tell us, emphatically and almost unanimously, that “there is no right and wrong,” that “moral values are private opinions,” that “everything is relative.”
This is not the picture of one class, but of many. What is impressive is the uniformity of our experience during the past ten years in teaching high school students, college students of all classes, graduate students drawn from various divisions of the university. We have found the same thing in trying to teach the philosophy of law to future lawyers and the philosophy of education to future teachers. Nor should it be thought that the reaction is elicited by the books we assign, that it merely signifies the students’ suspicion that we are doctrinaire Aristotelians or Thomists, or something equally bad. It happens as readily in reading Rousseau, who tries to prove republicanism from the rights of man; or in reading The Federalist Papers, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; for those fellows also talked about self-evident truths and used such words as “liberty” and “happiness” as if they had some meaning. And for those who suppose that American colleges are hotbeds of radicalism, let me say that the same thing happened when we asked them to read Karl Marx’s Capital. We tried to show them how Marx had proved the injustices inherent in the historic processes of capitalism. They resisted, not because they could answer Marx’s arguments, but because they initially rejected the very notion that a moral judgment about capitalism, or anything else, can be proved.
Yet, I say, these same boys and girls are good at heart. We revealed their hypocrisy to them one day when they accidentally displayed their devotion to ideals. The subject was education in relation to the state. For the sake of clarifying a point in Aristotle’s Politics on the statesman’s use of education, Mr. Hutchins took the position that education cannot improve the community, that education will never serve the cause of social progress. He argued that the aims of education are always determined by existing moral and political standards, and hence one cannot hope for educational change to raise the general morale. Apart from the merits of the argument, the interesting fact is that the students were plainly shocked by such pessimism. They hoped that education could make men better and uplift society. This hope, we pointed out, was inconsistent with everything else they had been saying. They who had been denying objectivity to the distinction between better and worse were now affirming the possibility of progress, of human betterment. They had been taken off guard by Mr. Hutchins’s apparent turnabout and, for the moment, betrayed a strain of natural aspiration. Deep down in their hearts they still wished to believe there was some meaning to “better” by which progress in human affairs could be measured. But when faced with the implications of such belief, they refused, albeit with some embarrassment, to concede that reason could require all men to acknowledge such things to be true. Here was a new hypocrisy. The old-fashioned hypocrite paid lip service to moral maxims which his conduct flouted. These youngsters appeared to have some love for the good; they might even act accordingly; but except in unguarded moments, their sophisticated minds prevented them from speaking accordingly.
Whoever says that it makes no difference what people think or how they speak so long as their hearts are in the right place, commits a dangerous fallacy. One hypocrisy is as bad as the other; if anything, this one is worse because, when right feelings are not supported by right thinking, good men can be insensibly corrupted. Men of good will are not just sweet-tempered animals, but beings whose desires aim at a good they rationally apprehend as such. When the mind refuses to see the good and the bad of things, repudiating any moral quality in things and actions to see, the will is blind, and blindly attaches itself to this or that through natural instinct, waywardness, or caprice. Not rooted in reason, such attachments are impermanent. They can be easily uprooted by those who are skilled in playing Pied Piper to the passions. That is why I dread the instability of a generation which, at best, will only have “faith” in democracy — but no sure reasons for upholding it as objectively the best form of political community. If their “faith” in democracy amounts to nothing more than well-disposed feelings at the moment, change of circumstances may alter the direction of their sentiments and they may find themselves with a faith in fascism or the same thing by another name.
Let me illustrate the inconsistencies and confusions which result from the divorce of head and heart, by a few tales out of school about my colleagues, the teachers of this prewar generation. On one occasion last spring an eminent professor of history at the university took the position in after conversation that, while he didn’t like Hitler, no one could prove that he was wrong. I tried to argue that I could demonstrate — demonstrate as certainly as Euclid could a theorem in geometry — that totalitarianism is intrinsically unjust; but in vain, for the professor of history replied that any demonstration I might make would be valid only in terms of its premises, and, obviously, my premises would be my arbitrary assumptions. Hitler need not grant them; he could make others, and prove the opposite case as well. Nondemocratic political systems could be just as valid as non-Euclidean geometries. I did not succeed in convincing him that moral thinking, unlike geometry, does not rest on postulates. but commands assent to its conclusions because they are drawn from self-evident first principle traditionally known as the natural moral law. The historian denied self-evident truths; what looked like them were just verbal tautologies, word magic. He smiled at the notion of a natural moral law; there were just primitive urges which could be rationalized in different ways. My historian was a democrat “by faith” — by the way he felt at the time. It is easy enough to imagine how a change of heart might be forced on him; his mind would present no obstacle to such change.
On a later occasion I was dining with the local authority on international law and a professor of medicine. It was shortly after the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries. Both my colleagues were hot under the collar about American isolationism. They wanted immediate action in support of the Allied cause. What was that cause? I asked. It was the cause of democracy, our cause, and we must act at once. At the time those were my sentiments too, but I soon discovered that I could not make common cause with my colleagues. After dinner I reported the conversation I had had with the professor of history, and again I said that I thought the political truth of democracy could be demonstrated. No such thing! Democracy could be saved by force of arms but it could not be proved by weight of reason. The professor of international law told me that his “preference” for democracy was simply a cultural bias, arising from “postulates” which could not themselves be examined for truth or falsity. That we Anglo-Saxons accepted them, that Italians and Germans rejected them, was simply an inscrutable fact, a historic accident. The professor of medicine spoke similarly: outside the domain of natural science there is only opinion; each man systematizes his opinions in a certain conceptual frame of reference, there is the democratic frame of reference, the Nazi frame of reference, and so on. I knew the impossibility of plumbing this argument to its depths. That would mean challenging the scientism which made my colleagues skeptical about morality. I simply said that I might be willing to fight for democracy as a political good I could rationally apprehend, but that I wouldn’t move an inch to make the world safe for a cultural bias, a set of postulates, or a frame of reference.
This prewar generation has been made what it is by its teachers–these colleagues of mine, justifiably respected in their special fields, yet undermining all the merits of their teaching by a false philosophy, the destructive doctrine of positivism. But the blame should not fall entirely on the colleges and universities. The corruption begins at the lower levels, long before the student becomes sophisticated in semantics or learns about the ethnocentric predicament. The public school system of the country, at both elementary and secondary levels, whether explicitly “progressive” in program or not, is Deweyized in its leadership. I use the name of Dewey to symbolize what Lewis Mumford describes as pragmatic liberalism–a liberalism “so completely deflated and debunked” that it forsakes all the “essential principles of ideal liberalism: justice, freedom, truth” and hence disavows a rationally articulated moral philosophy; supposing instead that ” ‘science,’ which confessedly despises norms, would eventually supply all the guidance necessary for human conduct.” Public education in the United States is run by men and women who have been inoculated with pragmatic liberalism at the leading schools of education (Columbia, Chicago, Harvard, etc.) where fundamental policies are formed. Mr. Mumford has done yeoman work in castigating his old friends on the New Republic and Nation, but it is much more important to change the mind behind the school system of the country than the minds of the readers of the so called liberal weeklies.
Mr. Hutchins and I discovered what that mind was like when we taught a course in the philosophy of education last year. It was taken by men and women who were candidates for the Ph.D. in education many of whom were already in responsible teaching or administrative positions. We began with this definition: “Education is the process whereby the powers of human nature become developed by good habits.” I have italicized the word “good” because that, as usual, was the stumbling block. The class objected to the definition as normative; the science of education must be objective. Some of them said there was nothing good or bad about education, and others shocked us even more by suggesting that education might just as well be a development of bad habits. The argument went on for days, requiring us to get down to fundamentals. In the course of it we discovered that these professionals in education had been thoroughly indoctrinated with scientism and positivism. The mark of indoctrination was that they really couldn’t defend their position; the marks of the doctrine they had swallowed were the familiar denials–of the objectivity of moral standards, of the rationality of men, of any method for answering questions except that of empirical science.
If the teachers of the country, and more than the teachers, their higher-ups, are in this state of mind, can we expect the present generation to be otherwise? Mr. MacLeish may think that those who write a country’s novels are more influential than those who make its laws. I think that those who teach its youth are more, immeasurably more influential than either.
5Can anything be done about American education? I doubt it. The college presidents who expressed such deep concern about American youth last June do not, for the most part, see educational failure itself as the major cause of their condition. If they remember their commencement addresses they may open college with a renewed effort to inspire “faith in democracy,” to appeal for a purely emotional loyalty to the nation in time of stress. As the emergency increases there may be talk of military training and similar expedients for immediate preparedness. But of that long-term preparedness which consists in fundamental educational reform there will be nothing. College presidents will not try to fight the enemy in their midst — the destructive doctrines which dominate American education today — because they do not recognize this enemy, or worse, they belong in his camp. President Conant, for example, has been one of the most vocal exponents of intervention. He urges us to fight for democracy. But he has never affirmed — and being a scientist, is not likely to see the need for — an independent metaphysics, without which ethics and politics have no rational foundation. In consequence, his educational policy involves no challenge to scientism and positivism in all corners of the Harvard curriculum.
One college president has issued that challenge again and again. He too spoke about preparedness last June. But he was thinking of a basic intellectual reform as indispensable to safeguarding democracy from dissolution, as well as from attack by force. He said:
In order to believe in democracy we must believe that there is a difference between truth and falsity, good and bad, right and wrong, and that truth, goodness, and right are objective standards even though they cannot be experimentally verified. They are not whims, prejudices, rationalization, or Sunday school tags. We must believe that man can discover truth, goodness, and right by the exercise of his reason, and that he may do so even as to those problems which, in the nature of the case, science can never solve. . . . Political organization must be tested by conformity to ideals. Its basis is moral. Its end is the good for man. Only democracy has this basis. If we do not believe in this basis or this end, we do not believe in democracy. These are the principles which we must defend if we are to defend democracy.Are we prepared to defend these principles? Of course not. For forty years and more our intellectual leaders have been telling us they are not true. They have been telling us in fact that nothing is true which cannot be subject to experimental verification. In the whole realm of social thought there can, therefore, be nothing but opinion. Since there is nothing but opinion, everybody is entitled to his own opinion. . . . If everything is a matter of opinion, force becomes the only way of settling differences of opinion. And, of course, if success is the test of rightness, right is on the side of the heavier battalions.
But President Hutchins will not succeed in changing education at Chicago for the same reason that it will not be changed in most of our institutions. The faculties, by and large, see the other way. They are (and perhaps no one else can be) the ultimate guardians of the curriculum, the oracles of its content. That being so, I doubt if anything short of a major cataclysm or a miracle could work the transformation.
We have some reason to be wryly optimistic about the cataclysm. If we are forced to fight, we will; in that eventuality young men will join the colors or be drafted. But we may be forced to defend democracy without the violence of arms, and to defend it against interior decay and boring from within. Even if we fight, or perhaps because we do, we may be faced with the necessity of resuscitating democracy from the almost lethal dose of wartime measures. Even if we win a defensive war, fascism may still reign among our enemies, and we shall be too morally and spiritually weakened to combat their success story, the triumphant march of totalitarian ideologies. In any of the possibilities I can foresee, our greatest need is the clearest understanding of what democracy means, the most patient rational articulation of its principles. And I do not mean that this should be a rare secret, possessed by the favored few who have written books on the subject. I mean it should belong to the masses whom democracy educates — certainly all those who enjoy the opportunities of college education. That, as I have tried to show, cannot happen until the colleges make their students philosophers instead of sophists.
Last June, while the commencement orators were calling for renewed faith in democracy, a student at Williams College wrote a guest editorial in the college paper which bluntly said fascism is a better object of faith than democracy. It has more to offer, positively and constructively. Democracy is decadent and dying. It does nothing but repeat old shibboleths, out of step with the times. Fascism does things, and does them in terms of contemporary realities. “The English government and the French government,” he wrote, “offer no twentieth-century set of aims and principles in which the poor soldiers in Flanders can put their faith as the German boys put their faith in Hitler.” We of the democracies are fighting for next to nothing. “It is we, rather than they, who are nihilists.”
Thus the cataclysm may overtake us like a summer cloud, without our special wonderment. War or no war, victory or defeat, we may wake up some morning to find that a good many boys feel as the writer of the Williams editorial. Whether it is a prewar or postwar generation will make no difference so long as it is a generation which has been educated in the manner of the past forty years. They will pass from a faith in democracy to a faith in fascism simply because outward circumstances will have sufficiently attenuated the one and strengthened the other. As President Hutchins pointed out, our present intellectual position is “much closer to Hitler than we may care to admit. . . . Such principles as we have are not different enough from those of Hitler to make us very rugged in defending ours in preference to his. And second, we are not united and clear about such principles as we have. We are losing our moral principles. But the vestiges of them remain to bother us and to interfere with a thoroughgoing commitment to amoral principles. Hence we are like confused, divided, ineffective Hitlers.” The payoff is indicated: “In a contest between Hitler and people who are wondering why they shouldn’t be Hitlers, the finished product is bound to win.”
This may sound like a counsel of despair. But it is defeatism in the schoolroom, not on the battlefield. Strangely enough, it is much easier to solicit preparedness for war than preparedness for peace. Men can be energized into action, even radical reforms, when the issues are urgent enough, and the ends not much beyond their noses. The long term objectives are seldom achieved by the purposeful planning of man or the concerted action of nations. They are reached, slowly and painfully, through the inscrutable windings of history. Education will not shake off its typical modern faults until history is ready for the end of modern times and the birth of a new cultural epoch. The impending cataclysm foreshadows the event. I know I may be looking for miracles, but I cherish the hope that if democracy dies it will be reborn in a better culture than that of the modern world.
Originally published in Harper’s Magazine (October, 1940). Reprinted in Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education: the Opening of the American Mind (Macmillan, 1988).
[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]