The suspicion has arisen that something is wrong with education, a suspicion, carefully fanned in certain quarters, which has aroused a storm of criticism. As a result — a deluge of pamphlets and books both attacking and defending the present system of lower, secondary and higher education in America.
Something has always been "wrong" with education. Students who have been dismissed from the schools have all too often ended by becoming the outstanding men of their century; while the scholastic favorites have merely upheld the established tradition, however brilliantly they may have done so.
Nearly three hundred years ago, John Locke wrote in his famous essay "The Conduct of the Understanding":
When I consider what ado is made about a little Latin and Greek, how many years are spent on it, and what a noise and business it makes to no purpose, I can hardly forbear thinking that the parents of children still live in fear of the schoolmaster's rod, which they look on as the only instrument of education; as a language or two to be his whole business.
Then and now the confusion seems to center about the question of what education really is at heart. Men of letters insist that true education lies in the literary field as distinct from the vocational and professional. Yet a historical review of the notable men and women in English and American literature shows a surprising number who never graduated from college, others who never attended, and not a few who were dismissed in disgrace.
Certainly no one questions the standing of a great artist or musician as a cultured and educated person, although he may never have entered college. It would seem that too much has been made of the importance of letters and academic degrees as the index of an educated man, whereas to assume that such training is essential even to a literary career is to ignore the facts. The academic argument seems to revolve about some nebulous mid-Victorian idea of what distinguishes a "gentleman" in contrast to those less favored.
We are entering a new era, and the changing consciousness apparent in many of our young people requires methods of education which recognize the soul in nature and in man. Here lies the missing link in modern education, for the lack of which the structure is tending to fall apart. For far too long have we been building an external semblance of genius without its creative fire; studying the outer structure of great books without recognizing the soul within which gave them birth.
Mortimer Smith, self-styled layman, in And Madly Teach* finds the administration of our public schools so bogged down with goals, and objectives, complicated charts and nomenclature as to lose touch with the students as individuals. He says:
From every side come complaints that the typical public-school graduate can't spell or write a decent English sentence, that he is ignorant of the elementary facts of his country's history, and completely muddled about the rest of the world.
* And Madly Teach, by Mortimer Smith. Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1949.
Mr. Smith feels that the public schools have failed in adequately preparing the children entrusted to them; and that the colleges by including studies properly belonging to the grade schools, have lost prestige as institutions of higher learning. He sees an added danger in the expansion of school functions to include a community center for hobby training, courses in homemaking, canning, woodworking, masonry, catering, etc., etc., considering this trend as totalitarian in nature, and leading only to collapse through overloading on the one hand and neglect of basic studies on the other.
In sharp contrast to the previous writer, Albert Jan Nock sees a return to intensive study of Greek and Latin language and literature as the only solution to the problem. He classes those who take readily to this curriculum as "educable," and the great majority who do not as "ineducable." A suggestion which will strike the average American as a bit of intellectual snobbishness! Judged by this standard, many of the greatest men of our country, statesmen, scientists, artists, writers and many others would be denied the privileges of education. The idea of training the best minds of the country in the ways of right thought is excellent, but whose conception of right thought is to be followed? Is it to be after the "Great Tradition" referred to repeatedly in The Theory of Education in the United States* by Dr. Nock? Or is some other theory to prevail?
* The Theory of Education in the United States, by Albert Jan Nock. Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1949.
There is enough divergence of opinion, and that something needs attention seems evident to many.
The following sentence from a letter recently received is to the point:
"There is no real education in colleges these days, only a thin smattering of 'learning' like a crust of ice, easily broken through — into the void of ignorance. I sometimes think that all I learned was the fact that I still had a lot to learn."
In Goals for American Education* we find presented the lectures and comments of an educational symposium representing the leading authorities in the country. Not a book to be read and laid aside but one that should be on the table of every educator. In it every phase of teaching is presented and discussed, and the problems of the day viewed with clarity and understanding — a reaching out towards a more spiritual concept, not of any one religion, but of religion itself as an inherent part of nature.
* Goals for American Education, edited by Lyman Bryson, Louis Finkelstein, and R. M. Maclver. Harper and Bros., New York, 1950
It would be futile to attempt any just evaluation of the many and varied contributions from these professors. There is one, however, that should not be overlooked, that of Theodore Brameld, professor of Educational Philosophy at New York University. He writes:
In contradistinction from those, and they are legion, who like to dismiss a certain type of thought from serious consideration by labeling it "utopian," my thesis is that the single most profound need of our day is to revivify and magnetize the Utopian spirit. The monotonous regularity with which the "practical minded" — who too often, upon scrutiny, turn out to be the pedestrian, visionless, compromising, or cynical — attach invidious adjectives like "starry eyed" to anyone so presumptuous as to project imagination-stretching goals for society and education alike, is actually a commentary on their own failure either to perceive the character of our present culture or to grasp the central responsibility of philosophy to it.
By the character of our present-day culture, the professor means "its condition of chronic and acute crisis," which scientists are persuading us along with civilization itself is "in danger of literal annihilation." By the "central responsibility of philosophy," Professor Brameld emphasizes that it should not only be able to diagnose our present crisis, but more importantly should delineate as "audaciously as possible the alternatives to annihilation."
Of these alternatives, the single one deserving of exhaustive consideration would aim to assure mankind that, amidst the grim and fearful dangers which threaten us, our own future is simultaneously if ironically abundant with unprecedented promise: with as yet unfulfilled, certainly unguaranteed, but entirely realizable ends. The crystallization of ends appropriate to a revolutionary period of history — ends sufficiently powerful at once to neutralize the false lure of defeatism or escapism, and to generate by their own compulsions the strategies required to win them — here is the Utopian spirit which should permeate philosophy in general and educational philosophy in particular.
We agree with Professor Brameld that "no other obligation begins to compare with this in urgency or importance." It is a time of change, and the thought of man can no more return to the dreams of an earlier age than a chick can return to its shell. In the recognition of universal brotherhood and the essential divinity of man may well lie the ultimate answer.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)