Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Chapter XII of The Student Seeks an Answer: Ingraham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion at Colby College, 1951-1959, John A. Clark, ed., Waterville, ME: Colby College Press, 1960, 247-272.


Quantity and Quality in American Education

Brand Blanshard


A British Minister of Education, H. A. L. Fisher, reported after a transatlantic visit that America was a land of many churches and one creed: all Americans believed in education.  In this he was surely right.  I suppose that no other people on record has had anything like so many schools, so many students, so many colleges and universities, so much money to support them, so universal an interest in getting what schools have to give.  Since I am talking about quantity and quality in our education, it may be well to begin by getting some of the quantitative facts before us.

There are about 1,900 colleges and universities in the United States.  One hundred sixty more of them came into being in a single recent decade. In Great Britain there are about 85,000 college or university students, in the United States about 2.5 million, that is, about 10 times as many even in proportion to population; the state of Illinois has about twice as many college students as Great Britain, and the state of New York, three times as many.  And the number of students is rising at a portentous rate.  Although our population has swelled in the last century like a rising tide, our college population has risen about 35 times as fast.  The college degrees we have conferred in some recent years have exceeded 400,000 annually.  In 1930, 12 per cent of our 18-year-olds were enrolled in colleges; in 1940, 18 per cent; at present the figure is about 30 per cent.  In the decade 1941-51, our college population increased 78 per cent; in the 1960’s it is expected to be about double what it is now. 

It is not merely by the masses of students that our belief in education is attested, but also by the massed wealth that pours into our educational coffers.  Americans have acquired a habit that, so far as I know, is theirs uniquely, of grateful and persistent giving to the colleges that nursed them.   It would be impossible for the Sorbonne or Heidelberg or Oxford or Cambridge to maintain itself without government subsidy; in this country the oldest and most distinguished of our universities have received their hundreds of millions of endowment almost wholly from private givers.   Within the past few years this habit of generosity has taken a new turn.  Through the appeals of statesman-like men of business, such as Alfred P. Sloan, the world of industry has been awakened to the needs of education; and to the mere professor, operating on his slender budget, the response of American business has been breath-taking.  The imaginative gifts of Du Pont, the General Electric Co., and many others have been recently capped by a donation from Ford of half a billion dollars in a single stupendous package.  Along with these comes the promise of a similar flood from the cornucopia of government; the President has recently approved a grant to education of over a billion dollars.  What would the culture of the West have been like, one wonders, if this habit of munificence had been established earlier?  You may recall that in 1728 that great philosopher and human being, George Berkeley, set out on a voyage to the new world to establish “a college for the spread of religion and learning in America.”  For this enterprise Parliament had voted him 20,000 pounds.  For some three years he waited hopefully in a Rhode Island farmhouse for the money to arrive.  It never came.  On second thought, Parliament considered the sum too great to be approved.  An enterprise that would have affected the course of American education for centuries was abandoned for want of an amount that would hardly run the present Yale or Harvard for a week.

We live in better days.  Wherever the traveler goes in America, the evidences of public care for education strikes his eye.  How often, in driving across the plains, one passes through some little Gopher Prairie of a town where the wooden houses are ramshackle, the stores shabby, and the filling-stations too many and too loud, only to find that, after all, the town has one impressive modern edifice, which turns out to be its public high school.  And education, as conceived by our schools and colleges, is not, as in Europe, for the mind only, but also for the body.  Our young men, disciplined in well equipped gymnasiums and trained to speed and sportsmanship on the diamond and in stadia of Roman proportions, have so far won the Olympic games with monotonous regularity.  Our young women, to take but one item, have not once lost the Wightman Cup in tennis in twenty-five years.  The idea of mens sana in corpore sana, originated by the Greeks, was inherited by the English, and from the English by the Americans; judging by the physical fitness of our young people, there is ground for thinking that our country has bettered its instruction.

At this point in the recital, some of us may begin to be uneasy.  Do we not find here, it may be asked, a good example of that confusion of quantity with quality which is the standing danger of American education?  This is the doubt I want to explore with you this evening.  And yet I have put first this recital of facts because I want to make it clear that in placing quality high I am not placing quantity low.  It is only a dull imagination that would fail to see the light that shines through such statistics.  The shift of a statistical pointer may record an immense change in human happiness; consider what it means, for example, that since 1900 our average life expectancy has increased by 20 years.  Consider what it means to you and me to be able to read and write, and then what it means in a country to have a literacy of 95 per cent rather than 45 per cent.  America is often criticized, particularly perhaps in the East, for her materialism, for her excessive preoccupation with what can be measured by statistics, like the outlay for clothes and cars and kilowatts.  It is a criticism with which I had less sympathy after I had spent two years in the East.  If the good life is to be lived with any fullness, it normally needs health of body and training of mind, and these things call for that unfortunate crass necessity, money.  Here quality is more dependent on quantity than we may wish to think Sir Arthur Queller-Couch, after listing a dozen of the great poets of the last century, points out that nine of these were university men, with the background of means that this implies, and that of the remaining three, Browning was the son of a prosperous banker, Rosetti had a private income, and Keats, the only one without any sort of backing, died, broken with the struggle, at 25.  I must frankly confess that when I think of those high schools dotting the prairie, of those 1,900 colleges, of those well appointed gymnasiums and big playing fields, I gloat.  The business of the state, said the philosopher Bosanquet, is not to produce the good life, which it cannot do, but to hinder the hindrances to the good life.  That is what we are doing with these things that can be put into statistics.  We are using our material means to fertilize the field for quality.

Are we getting the qualitative return that we ought to get from so prodigal an effort?  That, I doubt.  To be sure, in certain areas where energy and technical skill are important, such as engineering, architecture, and dentistry, American work is supreme; there are no such dams, skyscrapers, and bridges—whether of the kind made by civil or by dental engineers—as are to be found within our borders.  But what about the pure science on which the triumphs of practice ultimately rest?  There we are less secure.  In respect to Nobel Prizes, which are usually given for this kind of service, we have won about one in ten of the prizes awarded.  That is no mean achievement.  But it makes one pause to discover that for the first quarter of this century at least, the University of Cambridge alone produced more Nobel scientists than all our universities put together, and that the theoretical foundations of the new world of science were laid almost entirely by non-American hands, by Rutherford and J. J. Thomson and Neils Bohr, by Planck and Heisenberg and Einstein.  I am told that we have only one name to place alongside these intellectual frontiersmen, that of Josiah Willard Gibbs, who walked for the most part unrecognized among us.

Have we fared better in literature? Opinions will differ.  So far as Nobel prizes go, our record is about the same as in science—roughly one in ten.  Whether Faulkner and Hemingway will last as interpreters of the human spirit is hard to say.  What one misses as one looks back over recent decades is any group of writers who brought ideas to bear in a fundamental way in the criticism of their time, writers like Shaw, Wells and Chesterton in England.  It may be said that Mencken was a host in himself, but, apart from his work on language, was he not almost wholly negative?  We have produced one man of high originality both as poet and as critic, Mr. Eliot, but like our most reflective novelist, Henry James, he found a foreign atmosphere more congenial than that of his own country, and left us early.

In music the situation is curious.  We are exporting in quantity, and to increasingly wide and eager markets, but the exports consist chiefly of jazz.  Significant musical creation we leave chiefly to others—to Shostakovich and Prokofieff, to Stravinsky and Bartok and Hindemith.  We have splendid orchestras, led for the most part by conductors whose names are revealing—Ormany, Fiedler, Mitropoulos, Stokowski, Kostellanetz.  With voice and instruments we do better, but it is surely suggestive that a good middle-western tenor named Benton should turn up in New York as Bentonelli.

In speculative thought the story is similar.  Quantitatively, our philosophic wealth is incomparable; we have about a thousand philosophers in the American Philosophical Association, including many superb teachers, able analysts, and competent writers.  But I think most of my colleagues would regretfully agree that there is no one among them of the stature of Russell, or Moore, or Broad, or Whitehead, all products of one foreign university.  Or consider theology.  Here we have one challenging name, that of Reinhold Niebuhr; Tillich is a German, and German-trained.  But able as Niebuhr is, his theology is not so much an original growth as a transplanted stock, for whose seeds we must go to such minds as Kierkegaard and Barth.

The conclusion from this sampling is that the quality of our cultural achievement has hardly kept pace with our quantitative achievements.  But we must try to make this contrast more precise.  When quality is set over against quantity, two different things may be meant by quality.  One is quality as such, as opposed to quantity as such.  The other is higher quality as opposed to lower quality.  When I suggest that quality should have more stress in our education, I mean that it should have more stress in both senses of the term.  Let us try to get clear about each.

First as to the distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative as such.  Here what is quantitative means what can be studied by natural science or can be measured and publicly observed.  Further, what can be thus publicly observed is, always physical; most commonly it is the movements of material things or of the particles composing them.  The realm of the quantitative, the realm of natural science, is that of matter in motion.  On the other hand, in the realm of the qualitative are placed those events that cannot be thus observed, such as thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Now it is a strange but significant fact about America that there are many people among us, many thoughtful and competent people, who doubt whether any such distinction can in the end be drawn.  They doubt it because they have fallen so completely under the sway of natural science as to question whether anything it fails to recognize should be recognized at all.  Many of our psychologists, in their desire to be natural scientists, are reducing the study of mind as far as can be to a study of bodily movement.  Think, for example, of the behaviorist movement in American psychology.  This started from the desire of Dr. Watson to make his subject a respected natural science, like physics and chemistry.  He saw that so long as his science talked about thoughts and feelings, impulses and volitions, he was dealing with something too subjective, elusive and impalpable to be observed and measured like physical motions.  Bodily responses he could see and record; but what was he to do with such ghostly things as these?  His first proposal was to let others study them if they cared to, but to ignore them himself, since, as he announced, he had never discovered consciousness in any of his test tubes.  But he was not content to stop there.  If something could not be dealt with by natural science, was there any good reason to say that it existed at all?  He concluded that there was none.  If he ignored the so-called facts of consciousness, it was for the same reason that chemists ignored alchemy and astronomers astrology, namely that the so-called facts were myths and objects of superstition.  He would have said, with Mr. Russell, that what was knowledge was science, and what was not science was not knowledge.  The study of the mind became the’ study of bodily behavior, and “we need nothing to explain behavior,” he announced, “but the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry.”

Most psychologists have not followed Watson to these lengths.  They would probably agree with the old jest that in him psychology, having lost its soul, had now lost its mind as well; some critics like Keyserling went farther and said that behaviorism was the natural psychology of a people without inner life.  Still, the influence of behaviorism has been great.  There are many psychologists who describe themselves with pride as behaviorists and who, even when they reject Watson’s conclusions, do so reluctantly.  They stay as closely as they can within the bounds of his sort of natural science, and feel uneasy when they stray outside it.  This seems to me significant.  It reveals in the study of mind itself a stress that is felt more strongly still in other areas of American life, a stress on the outward rather than the inward, on facts rather than values, on the quantitative, rather than the qualitative order.

Consider some of the ways in which this emphasis shows itself.  The man of science today stands on a pedestal.  Particularly since the day of Einstein’s great discovery, this pedestal has risen notably, and its occupants have been invested with a kind of wizard’s mantle.  Plain men did not know what to make of the strange little German dominie and his bizarre announcement that we were living in a new world which was governed by the formula E = mc2, but when, aided by the magic of such formulas, there began to issue from the laboratories packets that could blast whole cities in a moment, they could only bow to a magic they could not in the least understand.  We are at the mercy of these scientists, and we know it.  They stand for something before which we are helpless, as we are before the surgeon with his scalpel and his masked face.  And their authority is extending itself to their lesser colleagues.  Have you noticed how often there appears in advertisements the figure of the man in the white coat peering through his microscope or into his test tube; he is the chief threat to the pretty girl as the means of casting the desired aura over the product.  Have you noticed, again, how advertisers are aping the quantitative exactness of the scientists, whether it makes sense or not; we are assured that a soap will eliminate so many per cent more bacteria; I learned recently, as I listened to my radio, that if I used a new shampoo, the brightness of my hair would be increased up to 35 per cent.  We find every sort of cause or product urged upon us in language that seeks to borrow prestige from its use in physical science; and imitation is the sincerest flattery.

Now the curious thing is that while we are busy pushing the scientist up to his giddy throne, the scientist himself is protesting that about values he has nothing at all to say.  If we happen to want bright hair or red hair or curly hair, he can help us (though unfortunately not if what we want is just hair); but if we want to know whether it is of any importance to have one kind of hair or another, if we want to know what is worth reading, or feeling, or doing, if we want to know about the ends of life as opposed to the means, we find him silent.  He is not only silent; he is deliberately and even ostentatiously silent.  His business, he says, is with facts, or with laws, which are general facts.  He can tell the practical man how to make fissionable material explode, how to make submarines like the Nautilus; how to make rockets and guided missiles.  If you ask him whether it is well that we should have these things, he shrugs his shoulders and says that physics has nothing to do with such questions.  The psychiatrist prefers not to talk of right or wrong, good or bad; these are not impartial scientific terms; they are loaded; the delinquent may be “emotionally disturbed” or “maladjusted to his social environment,” but anything beyond that is “subjective evaluation.”  This tendency to draw a sharp line between fact and value and to insist that knowledge or intelligence, identified with scientific method, has no concern with value, has been fortified by recent changes in the philosophy of science.  Such influential writers as Russell, Carnap, and Reichenbach would agree in saying that judgments of value are not really judgments at all; they are neither true nor false, and therefore do not fall within the province of intelligence or knowledge; they are merely expressions or pro and/or anti feelings, or at most of commands to behave this way or that.  Since they do not assert anything, no reasons can be given either for or against them; they are expressions of the nonrational part of our nature.  When you call anything good or bad, the reflective man may interest himself in the cause or effect of your thus exploding into speech, but to consider whether your remark is true or not is to mistake the business of intelligence.

I believe that this view about judgments of value is bad philosophy, but there is no time to argue that out.  What I do want to stress is the implication of the view for education.  Education is supposed to be chiefly a training of the intelligence, and if intelligence has nothing to do with values, it follows that education, in its chief function, has nothing to do with values either.  This conclusion seems to me disastrous.  The realm of values is bundled up by the scientists and other custodians of knowledge and left like an unwanted child on the doorstep for some passer-by to pick up.  And who is going to pick it up?  The churches?  But there are millions of our people that the churches never reach.  The parents?  But with our juvenile delinquency rates among the highest in the world, parents are proving pretty frail reeds.  The press, television, the movies?  But their values, as we shall see in a moment, are those of the box-office.  If American education, with its vast resources and its all-pervasive reach, is not to undertake the inculcation of values, who or what is?

Indeed, we have it on good authority that a disciplined sense of value is the most important product of education.  Plato says: “It is not the life of knowledge, not even if it included all the sciences, that creates happiness and well-being, but a single branch of knowledge—the science of good and evil.  If you exclude this from the other branches, medicine will be equally able to give us health, and shoemaking shoes, and weaving clothes.  Seamanship will still save life at sea and strategy win battles.  But without the knowledge of good and evil, the use and excellence of these sciences will be found to have failed us.”* [* Plato, Charmides, Steph. 174.]  And Dr. Conant writes: “To the extent that education ceases to be concerned with ‘value judgments in art, in literature, or in philosophy, it ceases to be of service to the free way of life—it ceases to uphold the dignity of the individual man.”  Of course neither this philosopher nor this scientist is decrying scientific knowledge; they value it highly not only for its own sake, but for the sake of the mastery it gives us over nature, and the vast fruits of that mastery in wealth and health and military power.  But they see that wealth and health and military power are not in themselves goods at all.  There have been people who had all of them and lived very meagre lives; there have been people who had none of them whose lives have been full and rich.  The fact is that the measurable things of the world—its dollars and ships and refrigerators—are of value only as they contribute to nonmeasurable things, such as justice and happiness and love and poetry and laughter.  In the end the usefulness of useful things lies in the help they give us in getting these useless things.

Does this seem like a paradox?  If so, a moment’s thought will make it almost a platitude.  Suppose you ask a college student why he came to college.  He is likely to answer, “Because it will help me to succeed in my job, whatever it is.”  You ask him why he wants to succeed in his job.  If he has patience with what seems like a silly question, the not improbable answer will be, “Because it will give me a larger income.”  If he is then asked why he should want a larger income, he says, “Because then I can have a house with modern improvements, I can have a Cadillac if I want one, my fiancee, if she wants to, bless her, can be the grandest lady in the Easter parade, and we can send our children to Colby.”  But in spite of the inspired climax, doesn’t that sort of thinking go round in a squirrel cage?  He wants an education for the sake of success, this for the sake of income, this for the sake of Cadillacs, and this for the sake of education one generation removed, which is supposed to start all over again for the sake of success, for the sake of income, for the sake of a two-car helicopter garage.  That is a vicious circle, education for gadgets, for education, and how is one to escape from it?  Not by crying out that things are in the saddle and ride mankind, or trying to live like Gandhi or Thoreau; it is too late in the day to secede from civilization.  No, the only feasible escape is to make quantity subserve quality, to accept this vicious circle as a ring that provides a solid setting for a pearl of incalculable price.  For my own part I think that our gadgetry is one of the glories of our culture and should serve as a proclamation of emancipation into a fuller life.  It is surely not for nothing that our science and technology are shortening our working day in about the same proportion that they are lengthening our life span.  But what will it profit a man to gain this new world of gadgets if he wears the bloom off his soul in getting them?  It is only too possible for wealth to accumulate and men decay.

Will you carry out with me a little philosophical experiment?  Imagine successively three kinds of world.  First, our modern world with all its gadgets, and scattered around them its notable men and women, Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Churchill and Mrs. Roosevelt and you and me.  Secondly, imagine a world with all our modern gadgets subtracted with no electricity or steam or motors or railways or radios or telephones, with no printed books or newspapers, no means of preserving food, no anaesthetics, no science of medicine or surgery, no sewing machines, reapers, typewriters, even spectacles.  One feels at once that such a world would be shrunken and impoverished, for so much that we are and do is made possible by these things.  Would life in such dreary poverty be worth living at all?  Well, let me remind you that this was the world of Socrates and Sophocles and Aristotle, of Virgil and St. Augustine and Dante.  There was nothing poverty-stricken about these minds; indeed it is to these minds precisely that men in other times turn when they want to escape from their own poverty.  Carlyle once raised the startling question, Which would be the greater loss to England if it had to part with one or the other: Shakespeare or India?  With all respect to India, how that question lights up the worth of one great spirit!  But now imagine the third world.  Instead of subtracting the machinery of civilized life, let us leave it all standing, or rather multiply it to the limit, with super-skyscrapers on every horizon and, within them, push-button resources for every want.  And let us subtract just one thing, consciousness.  It is a paradise of gadgets, lacking only persons.  And the question I want to ask is, What would be the value of such a world?  The answer is, nothing at all.  Without its persons the worth of the world would vanish utterly.  It is for persons, for better and more sensitive persons, for the knowledge and love and goodness of persons, that all the machinery of civilization exists.  There may be great persons with little or none of this machinery.  There can be greater ones, I am convinced, with the aid of this machinery.  But the machinery without the persons has a value of precisely zero.

My conclusion is that the machinery of civilization is to be justified only so far as it contributes to the qualities of persons.  Now colleges are an important part of this machinery.  We could make them, if we tried, into efficient factories, mass-producing efficient robots, themselves the most efficient of machine tools, who would whir us along toward 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Some think that is essentially what they are doing already.  That keen observer, Lowes Dickinson, wrote home from this country: “colleges are an investment to Americans, and educate only as a means to getting on.”  Professor Sir Walter Raleigh wrote home even more sourly, “There are no persons in this country.”  I am afraid that in both cases what is speaking here is dislike.  Yet dislike may have keen eyes.  And here it may remind us that the prime business of the college is not to enable a youth to “get on,” but to become more of a person; “reflect on the difference,” said President Wriston, “between the ‘gain wisdom’ of Solomon and the ‘get wise’ of today.”  It may remind us that scholarship itself may be dead and mechanical.  Ivor Brown has remarked that “there are naturalists without wonder, scholars without awe, theologians without worship, economists without anger, historians who never laughed or hated or despaired.  They may be wise, but who is jealous of their wisdom?  It is possible to know everything and understand nothing.”  As against such cactus minds, consider the ideal drawn for the American college by James Russell Lowell at Harvard’s 250th anniversary.  What the college should try to produce, said Lowell, is a type of man, “a man of culture, a man of intellectual resources, a man of public spirit, a man of refinement, with that good taste which is the conscience of the mind, and that conscience which is the good taste of the soul.”  The crown of quantity, and its justification, is quality. 


Important as it is not to confuse quality with quantity, it is still more important, and far more difficult, not to confuse second-rate quality with first-rate.  It is difficult because there are so many pressures in a democracy that make for this latter confusion, and important because it is the prime business of liberal education to resist it.  Let us look at these two points.

Consider first how strong the forces are that make the good the enemy of the best and the commonplace the enemy of the good.  The first, to use a phrase of W. C. Brownell, is “the immense extension in our time of what may be called the intellectual and aesthetic electorate.”  More than 97 per cent of Americans can now read and write. This is an unparalleled national achievement, and there have been reformers who would have thought of it as ushering in Utopia.  But Arnold Toynbee has questioned whether the extension to everyone of the capacity to read has not lowered values generally by enlarging the demand for the vulgar.  It is easy to see how this could happen.  Economically, we are still a society in which production is determined by profit.  The man who is producing books knows that his profits depend on circulation; the man who is producing movies knows that his profits depend on the length of the line at the box-office.  Now if what he wanted in both cases is the largest number of buyers, the proper course is not to appeal to this or that group, with this or that taste, but to the largest possible group.

And how is that to be reached?  The answer can be given in mathematical terms—by appealing to the lowest common denominator.  And where is this common ground to be found?  Hardly in thoughtfulness, or in moral or psychological acuteness, or an interest in delicate portraiture.  It is found rather in what is primitive about us, in sex and fear and anger, in sensation in both meanings of the term, and in those infantile daydreams of ourselves as princesses or supermen that all of us have when young and some of us never lose.  Hence publishers find it profitable to fill the racks in stations and drugstores with paperbacks celebrating violence.  The consumption of comics, both in newspapers and in book form, is portentous.  I have no recent statistics on book circulation, but in the last year for which I have them, the best seller was the Bible, and the runner up was Forever Amber.

If our fiction does not run to coarseness and violence more than it does, we probably owe it to American women, who form our chief audience for fiction.  Unhappily the same selection by mass appeal is at work among them too.  I trust you look occasionally, as I do, into some of our incomparably illustrated women’s magazines.  What strikes one in the pictures is that nearly all American women are aged eighteen; what strikes one in the stories is that those who are not are expected to spend so much time brooding on the emotional involvements of those who are.  Now of course it is a tragic thing to realize that we will never be eighteen again; I have been carrying that bitterness with me for forty-five dark years; but I can attest that even when the larks of spring are no longer singing and fresh romance has long abandoned its station round the next corner, life may with resolution be borne.

There are journals, indeed, that make no concession to either sentiment or sensation, but the joint circulation of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune is less than half that of the Daily News.  But more typically American than any of these are such journals as Life and Look.  Here you see in vivid form the effect of mass appeal in confusing values.  Side by side with magnificent studies of religion, or art, or the cultural advance of man, there will appear some shapely nitwit or the sprawling corpse of some gunman.

A more effective witness still to the leveling effect of mass appeal is the movies, since they are made for the non-reading as well as the reading public.  That Hollywood can produce good things is shown by the two pictures whose leading actor and actress received this year’s Academy awards; Marty and The Rose Tattoo, both fascinating glimpses of real life.  But I was reminded when I recently saw one of these what the producers depend on for their income; for accompanying the “Oscar” film was one after Hollywood’s own heart.  The photographic and other technique was of course perfection, but the hero and heroines (for there were three of these) were apparently based on the conclusion of the mental testers some years ago that the mental age of Americans was, on the average, fourteen.  The hero was a young man who showed his immense virility by nonchalantly piloting airplanes over the Rockies, knocking through a window a notorious brawler with a foreign accent, and downing endless glasses of bourbon on the rocks.  Many of our movie heroes rare incarnations of what a critic has described as “ferocity modified by fatuousness.”  The heroines were all dolls of faultless face, form, and costume, mammoth wealth, and total absence of ideas.  Here were great sums of money and consummate technical expertness spent on embodying the daydreams of the boy behind the soda fountain and the girl behind Woolworth’s counter.  Those dreams, like those people, are all right in their place and for their years.  But why, for their sake, must we all pretend to arrested development?

The profit motive is not the only leveler of values.  Another is our impulse to conformity, which seems to be stronger in these days than ever before.  We have heard much of American individualism and self-reliance, and we are proud of it.  Schopenhauer once defined society as a collection of hedgehogs driven together for the sake of warmth, and we rather like the idea of ourself as bristling and prickly with individuality.  It was therefore something of a shock to me to hear Sir Ernest Barker addressing an American club in England on his experience of teaching in an American college and entitling his address The Tyranny of Conformity.  He warmly liked American youth—as who that knows them does not?—but he felt a looming danger that our young people should graduate from high school, and even college, with minds as much alike as their diplomas.

Why is this impulse of conformity stronger here than in some other countries?  Surely part of the reason is this, that we have no castes in this country whose members, merely by belonging, are given a feeling of security.  Most Americans are immigrants, one or two generations removed, who have been thrown willy-nilly into the melting pot.  The standards of their parents quickly go; where are they to get others?  Some never get them at all; hence in part our inordinate crime rates.  The majority get them from their schoolfellows and neighbors on whose liking they must depend for their acceptance into the new culture.  Hence there has developed in this country an almost passionate desire not to forfeit this acceptance by being too different from other people.  This is so deep-going that, as Van Wyck Brooks says, “the desire not to be of the herd is in itself a herd desire.  It is a recognition of the herd of which the original man is incapable.”  On this pressure toward conformity depends the vast assimilative power of America, and its results are often excellent.  Some years ago there was admitted to Yale a Negro boy who not only made the football team, but went on in his senior year to be elected with the fine fairness of youth to the captaincy of the team and to various secret and honor societies.  When he left the university, some proud members of his race told him they wanted to give a scholarship to Yale in his honor.  He was delighted.  The scholarship, they said, would be earmarked for a Negro.  No, no, he would not have that.  A scholarship in his honor must not discriminate against those fair and kindly white folk who had made him what he was.  It is a fact that is never to be forgotten about American pressures for uniformity that they may level up as well as down.

Still, my point about them is Emerson’s point when he said that society is in conspiracy against everyone of its members, and Goethe’s point when he complained of was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine, “of what shackles all of us, the commonplace.”  We sometimes think of primitive communities where there is no law or police or government as singularly free, whereas it is precisely in such communities that everyone is most tightly imprisoned, like so many raisins in the cake of custom.  There are many groups and persons in this country that seek to make it, in this respect, a large-scale primitive community, or even like those herds of animals that turn upon a sick member and attack it because it is different and they do not want such a creature about.  They dislike the exceptional man or woman, because such a person is a challenge to their own standards and ways of thought.  We all feel the tug of this impulse; Bernard Shaw has remarked that “the best of us is nine hundred and ninety-nine per cent mob (Mr. Shaw was no mathematician) and one per cent quality.”  But some groups are more passionate levelers than others.  We have our American Legion clamoring against UNESCO; we have our Reece committee attacking those foundations whose business it is to seek out and encourage the unconventional mind, precisely because they have encouraged such minds; we have had such a rash of investigations of unrepentant and even repentant liberals that liberal thought has become stammering and hesitant.

Since this repressive attitude is directed against difference as such, it operates against good as well as bad; indeed the nonconformist intellectual, described as an egg-head, is particularly suspected because he touches the springs of fear and envy.  Charles Kingsley reported an interview with a newspaper editor in this country who said to him, “Mr. Kingsley, I hear you are a democrat. Well, so am I.  My motto is, ‘Whenever you see a head above the crowd, hit it.’’’  Now whenever a man stands for the first-rate in quality, his head is bound to be above the crowd; “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” to quote Emerson again; and he will therefore offer an inviting target for the Philistines around him.

There is another and related force that makes against the first-rate.  It is the curious conviction, more often felt than clearly formulated, that the very notion that some persons and subjects are better than others is undemocratic.  I gather that some schools have abolished grades in their reluctance to report that one of their students is brighter or duller than another.  Some student bodies have tried to do away with prizes and honors, and some scholars have declined Phi Beta Kappa as likewise undemocratic.  The elective system in our colleges went upon the assumption that it was dogmatism to say that some subjects in the curriculum were of more educative value than others.  The result is that very odd characters have crashed the academic party, both downstairs and upstairs. In the last number of the Key Reporter, two high school courses are mentioned that particularly took my fancy—one in “Orientation to the School Building,” and another called “Progress in Democratic Smoke Abatement.”  There are parents who refer to their children’s courses as “Concentrated Beanbag” and “Advanced Sandpile.”  The universities have their own courses in beanbag and sandpile.

When I was teaching in a state university, I had as a house guest a distinguished Oxford don who came as a visiting professor of aesthetics.  When he went to his first class, he found that there had been an unfortunate confusion and that he was confronting a large and eager group that had come for the psychology of advertising.  I remember his incredulous astonishment that there could be such a course, and his speculations on the varieties of titillation and bamboozlement that were apparently canvassed in it.  Recently, as if to give aid and comfort to educational levelers, along came Miss Mead and Miss Benedict and their anthropological colleagues with the seductive doctrine of democracy in ethical values, which holds that since each moral code must be authoritative for its own culture, there is no ground for saying that any code or culture is really better than any other; and some of my students who have worked in sociology seem to think it the last word in sophistication to say that since goodness is a matter of mores, the wary man will avoid judgments of better and worse.  Democracy for practical purposes does count each man’s vote as of equal weight with every other, but this does not mean that your opinion or mine is of the same weight as Mr. Dulles’s or Mr. Warren’s; if it were, I should hope that both would be sacked for incompetence.  As for orders of merit and distinction, we need far more of these rather than less.

The French Academy, the British Academy, and the Order of Merit, in which true quality is singled out and publicly honored, have a few pale parallels in this country, like the Pulitzer prizes, but there ought to be more, and of greater weight.  Is it not a significant fact that so fine a spirit as Emily Greene Balch had to wait for the award of a Nobel prize before she was recognized by her own countrymen, and that a visit of hers even now to any city in the country would not awaken a tithe or the interest of a visit by Marilyn Monroe?  Snobbishness, to be sure, is an unpleasant trait.  But so is inverted snobbishness that resists as priggish the suggestion that some types of manners, mind, and moral ought to be accepted as true titles of nobility.

At this point a question is sure to arise.  It seems always to arise when anyone talks about the first-rate in education.  A few weeks ago we had Sir Richard Livingstone at New Haven to speak about education, and since, when he does that, he always talks about the first-rate, I could see what was coming.  One of our brighter and more articulate boys would surely take the first chance to rise and put a triumphantly awkward question.  Sure enough it came, and ran something like this: “You are talking about the first-rate.  But who is to tell us what is first-rate?  One expert says one thing, another another.  So when you ask us to seek the first-rate, you are really asking us to accept what you happen to prefer.  And isn’t that dogmatism?”

The answer Sir Richard gives to that question is essentially the answer that Robert Hutchins gives.  It is this:  “For all practical purposes you know the answer already.  There may be disputes about who is better than who on the level of the third-rate, but there is surprisingly little dispute about the figures at the top.” 

May I try another little experiment with you?  I am going to name several fields of academic study and ask you whether there are any names that come to your mind at once as supreme in these fields.  Take first the field of poetry.  Suppose you were asked to name to yourself one figure, not from American or European annals only, but from the whole history of poetry, would any name come to mind?  Now think of music in the same way; is there anybody about whom you would say without question that he stands for superlative quality?  Now take the field of science; is there any name that stands out here likewise as unchallengeably great?  Very well.  Now I should like to know whether in answer to the first question, you thought of Shakespeare.  In answer to the second question, did the name of Bach or Beethoven or Mozart come to mind?  In answer to the question about science, did the name occur to you of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein?  If the answer to these questions is Yes, then the question of who is to tell me what is first-rate is academic.  The judgment of the world has sufficiently settled that for us.  If we want work of supreme quality, we know already where we can find it.

You may be disposed to answer, These are classics, to be sure; but then Dr. Hutchins himself has defined a classic as a book so great that nobody reads it.  To ask ordinary students, that is all students who are not at St. John’s College, Maryland, to live with these people, still more to emulate them, would be rather like asking a moth to wing its way to a fixed star.  Is it not notorious that when education has tried to get students to drink draughts of quality straight, it has generally failed?  Are there not people without number to whom the name of Shakespeare or Caesar suggest chiefly the boredom that surrounds a dog-eared high-school textbook which they want never to open again?  Our Yale Professor Phelps said that he never realized, while reading his Latin, that Caesar wrote sense, not sentences.  It is all very well to indulge in commencement commonplaces about high ideals and quote Tennyson to the effect that “we needs must love the highest when we see it,” but all this comes to is very little unless education has some way of making students see it.

I have much sympathy for this objection.  It is of no use to hang golden apples beyond a student’s reach if there is no ladder by which he can get to them.  The point I would emphasize is that putting the ladder in place is chiefly the student’s business rather than the teacher’s.  Unless the student has a genuine specific levity which carries him upward, some authentic interest, ambition, or enthusiasm, the teacher has nothing to work with.  “You cannot get golden character out of leaden instincts.”  There are persons, as Henry Ward Beecher noted, in whom you can no more light a spark by good teaching than you can raise a lump of dough by blowing a resurrection trump over it.  If some enthusiasm is there to start with, even a misguided enthusiasm, there is hope, for there is a drive that you can direct and modify.  I would rather have a boy who was enthusiastic about Eddie Guest than one who did mere lip-service to Shakespeare.  And if I were advising students about their programs, I would say, watch your enthusiasms; keep them alight; only by letting the flame grow brighter will you ever do anything first-rate.

A mind incapable of enthusiasms has no place in college at all.  Samuel Butler said there were two rules about human motive, a general rule and a special one.  The general rule was that everyone could make anything of himself if he wanted to badly enough.  The special rule was that everyone was more or less an exception to the general rule.  But that general rule is a charter of life.

Take an example or two.  Our college students are constantly accused, and I am afraid with justice, of using their mother tongue, in both speech and writing, clumsily, loosely, and flatly.  Business men when they employ a college graduate hope to have somebody who can draft a report or state a case with clearness, conciseness, and precision—in short, in English of some distinction.  Needless to say, they are often disappointed and begin to ask whether the teachers are earning their stipends.  No doubt there are many of us who do not.  But I should like to point out that mere good teaching has never produced a writer of distinction and never will.  We can compel students to write monthly themes, or weekly themes, or, as Barrett Wendell did for many years at Harvard, daily themes; we can struggle over them half the night; we can do as I have done in the unbearable ennui of these piled-up essays, and have quantities of rubber stamps made with the most frequently repeated strictures, or again, as I have done, have a sheet printed with forty needed comments ready for the appropriate check marks.  A teacher can bring to bear all the tricks of the trade for years, and the boy still writes English that is as flat and tasteless as cold porridge.

Then something happens to the boy that means more than all the years of the teacher’s slaving: he reads an essay by Macaulay or a preface by Shaw, and with a glow on his face says, “What a man! Think of being able to write like that, perhaps even to talk like that!  What wouldn’t I give if I could do it?”  That moment is the turning point in the boy’s literary life.  He has caught a gleam.  He has felt at firsthand the force and economy of fine prose.  He begins to read it because he likes it, to feel the dullness of his own stale stuff beside it, to leave out the big dead words that made his essays wooden, to write firm sentences instead of the old shapeless ones, to write letters that convey himself.  He buys Fowler’s Modern English Usage and begins to take pride in achieving perfect precision without any loss of ease.  He begins to sample styles, to feel the force and coarseness of Mencken, the sloppiness of Dreiser, the music of De Quincey, the exquisite refinement of Newman.  Then some day you see a piece in a journal and realize that a new writer has arrived, a writer of idiosyncrasy and power and grace.  You, the teacher, have not taught him those things.  Like so many others, he has found himself by falling in love; he has had an affair with English prose.  He has achieved with delight and by himself a quality that no amount of instruction could convey.

All this about style may leave you cold.  Very well; take a more important example, and only one.  It is a firm conviction of mine that the characteristic which a college should aim above all to produce is reasonableness.  What does reasonableness mean?  Not skill in reasoning, though it is always the better for that.  It is not even wholly a matter of the intellectual side of our nature, though a trained intelligence is essential to it.  It is the pervading habit and temper of a mind that has surrendered its government to reason.  On the intellectual side it shows itself as reflectiveness, the habit of examining the meaning of a proposed belief, and looking to its grounds and consequences, before accepting it.  On the practical side it is justice, a scrupulous regard for the rights of others as well as of oneself.  On the emotional side, it is partly good taste—such an adjustment of feeling to its object that one is never wrought up over molehills nor cavalier about mountains, and partly, again, that equanimity of mind which comes of having made one’s peace reflectively with the best and worst that life may bring.  Reasonableness, in this complex sense, seems to me the finest flower of an education.

How many of us achieve it?  I fear, none of us at all.  Though college studies can refine and inspire our thought, they can do little directly about reasonableness in feeling and act; education, even the finest, cannot guarantee greatness of mind.  But it can do the next best thing; as  Whitehead reminds us, it can supply the vision of greatness for those who have eyes to see.  You may remember Wordsworth’s amendment of St. Paul; instead of accepting the trinity of faith, hope, and love, he said, “We live by admiration, hope, and love.”

Well, in this matter of the reasonable spirit, the business of education is to put pictures on the wall, and point at them, and then hope that in our sluggish hearts and minds admiration will begin to stir.  None of the pictures it holds up can show us fully what reasonableness is.  But when it holds up Plato, for example, we can see in the play of that clear and all-encompassing intelligence what reflectiveness means at its best.  When we turn to such figures as Marcus Aurelius and Abraham Lincoln, we see the reasonable mind in another aspect, the aspect of imperturbable justice and magnanimity.  As for reasonableness in feeling, we have on the one hand the long line of entries from Longinus through Goethe to Eliot, from whom we may learn sobriety of taste, and on the other the long line of saints from Buddha to Schweitzer to tell us the secrets of inward peace.  Qualitative existence means living in the presence of these people till we find ourselves thinking as they do, feeling as they do, and walking in their far-sighted ways.

It is a great thing for a university to turn out engineers and doctors in regiments.  It is a fine thing for a given engineer or doctor to a mastery of his technique.  But the highest tribute to a college is not to have produced masses of technicians with a perfect technique.  It is to have stamped on its sons and daughters the priceless imprint of the reasonable mind.  Just one such person—thoughtful in his judgments, fair in all his dealings, unruffled in his sweetness of temper, fearless because he has looked before and after and made his terms with life and death—just one such person may give light to a whole community.  His spirit is beyond price because you cannot buy quality with any amount of quantity.  And if he lives at an altitude hard to reach, we may remind ourselves, with Spinoza, that all precious things are as difficult as they are rare.

Posted March 19, 2007

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