Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Introduction to Education in the Age of Science, Brand Blanshard, ed. New York: Basic Books, 1959, vii-xviii.



Education in the Age of Science 

Brand Blanshard 

Education has had a strange history in the United States.  We have never been agreed as to where we wanted it to go, so it has plunged about wildly in response to local pressures and changing fashions.  For a long time it copied Europe and put its emphasis on the traditional Latin, Greek, and mathematics.  Under the fire of critics as diverse as President Eliot of Harvard and John Dewey, this classical curriculum came to be regarded as an inadequate preface to life in the modern world, and for several decades American education has been trying to redesign itself.  But it has failed to achieve agreement about either ends or means.  What are we primarily trying to make of our students?  People who are proficient in their callings?  People who will have the widest knowledge of the world they are to live in?  Or people of the most highly disciplined intellect and perception?  One cannot have all these things at once, for the means necessary for one of them will get in the way of the means required for the others.

The recent revelation of what Russia has been achieving in science caused an already bubbling educational pot to boil a little faster.  We had thought we were behind no one in our reverence for science or in our scientific achievement.  We found in fact that we were lagging distinctly behind in some fields of science, that we were producing far fewer scientists and engineers than the Russians, and that there was a disquieting reluctance on the part of our high-school students to choose science as a vocation.  These discoveries produced a spate of extemporized proposals, many of them ill-judged, some of them merely hysterical.  They produced other responses that have been notably sane and far-seeing, particularly the report of the President’s commission on science in education, which appeared in May of 1959.  There is a widespread feeling that the aims of our education should be reviewed and reassessed.  The chapters that follow are a response to that feeling-unofficial indeed, and made from many different points of view, but made by persons whose names and work command respect.  The tale of how the book came to be written deserves to be briefly told.

The Tamiment Institute in New York carries on an imaginative program of adult education under the direction of Mr. Norman Jacobs, chiefly for working people in the city.  Last year the Institute tried an experiment of widening its field.  It invited a group of eight leaders in educational thought to come to the Tamiment camp in the Pocono hills of Pennsylvania and spend two June days in talking over the educational problems that were on their minds.  Each was instructed to prepare a paper airing some of his chief concerns, and (with a prudent spice of malice) each was paired off with someone who would probably take a divergent view.  There were four sessions, at each of which two of the readers, without presenting their papers in full, gave a summary of their conclusions.  Besides the readers, there were present about a dozen others, all concerned with education.  There were the state commissioners of education for New York and Pennsylvania, a Nobel prizeman in physics, several professors of philosophy, education and sociology, several university deans, a college president-elect, an editor, a Fulbright fellow, and the representative of a large foundation.  Their names are listed on a separate page.  They all sat around a big baize-covered table, rather like conferees in Geneva, and as soon as the two openers of the session had completed their summaries, launched into criticism of what had been said.  The discussion generally lasted about three hours.  There was no silent moment throughout the sessions.  One hardly noticed the clicking of a stenotype machine that was faithfully collecting the words as they fell.

I had the pleasant privilege of chairing these discussions, and was sentenced to pay for it by editing them later.  I looked forward uneasily to the business of presiding, for the group or eight were all individuals with marked personalities and pronounced views, whose cavortings might make it difficult, I thought, to keep them running in harness.  Fortunately they all proved to be sportsmen too, whose gallantry to each other and to the chair I remember gratefully.  Readers of their essays who have not heard them in action will no doubt welcome a further word or two about them.

First came Sidney Hook, that inexhaustible geyser of books, lectures, and essays, a philosopher who scents the smell of battle from afar and is soon in the midst of it, giving as well as he gets, and usually somewhat better.  Then there was George Shuster, the urbane head of Hunter College, whose mind, one felt, was less in controversy than somewhere above the conflict, probably on some contemplative upland where, like the poet he talks about, he could muse under his own apple tree.  Next came Douglas Bush, Harvard scholar, critic, and castigator of Philistinism in all its forms.  Whether mass vulgarity in this country is as dark as his portrait of it was a point on which opinion differed, but as to the skill and humor of his portrayal there could hardly be two views.  He was followed by Ernest Nagel, the gentle but sharp-minded logician from Columbia, whose appeal is always to the “sovereign reason” that he thinks is found at its best in science.  Then there was Arthur Bestor, the Illinois historian, lately returned from a year as Harmsworth Professor at Oxford, whose Educational Wastelands lit a bomb under our complacency about American schools. His position was challenged by John Childs, of Teachers College, on behalf of that Deweyan tradition in education for which Mr. Childs is one of the most respected and persuasive spokesmen.  Next came Reinhold Niebuhr, most versatile of American theologians, who was discussing a subject second only to theology in his concern, namely, America’s role in the international scene, and how we are to sustain it.  Unhappily, neither Mr. Niebuhr nor Mr. Childs was able to be present in person, and their statements were read for them by Norman Jacobs.  The last of the symposiasts was Hans Morgenthau, political scientist of the University of Chicago, whose experience in many countries lent weight to his view that politics is in essence a pursuit of power.

It was the common feeling at the end of the sessions that the sparks that had been generated should not be allowed simply to go out.  Gerald Holton, who edits the admirable quarterly Daedalus for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, arranged to print the papers in slightly abbreviated form in the winter number following; and he added to them several timely, essays in the same field by Margaret Mead, Philippe LeCorbeiller, Warren Weaver, Fletcher Watson, David Riesman, and the late Alfred North Whitehead.  Mr. Leon Svirsky of the Basic Books house of New York thought that if all of them could be published together, supplemented by excerpts from the oral discussion, they would make a useful book.  So did I.  So we set to work.  It must be confessed that between us we have covered a long distance with our blue pencils, chiefly, of course, on the Tamiment oral discussions.  But care was always taken not to tamper with the writer’s or speaker’s meaning.

The first eight papers in the volume, with the discussions following each pair, present four symposia on educational problems of the day.  First there is a discussion by Messrs. Hook and Shuster of the aims of education. Then Messrs. Bestor and Childs consider whether our schools are attempting too much and so failing in their intellectual task; the two men give differing answers.  Third, Messrs. Niebuhr and Morgenthau canvass the question, What can be done to prepare students for the sort of citizenship demanded by America’s new place in the world?  Fourth, Messrs. Bush and Nagel debate the functions and place of the humanities and the sciences in education.

What is the upshot of all these discussions?  In terms of definite and agreed-upon recommendations, not very much.  In terms of fresh suggestion, frank criticism, illuminating obiter dicta, personal enthusiasms and skepticisms, and the sort of chastening of one’s views that comes from conflict with one’s peers, a good deal.  Certainly the discussions helped me toward a view of my own; and since in the interests of impartiality as chairman I had to stay out of the fray and try to look severely judicial, I hope I may be allowed to get into it now.  I speak here for no one but myself; indeed, I should expect a sharp reprimand from some of my colleagues for the line I am about to take.

My first remark will be a fairly safe one.  In the debate still raging as to whether we should stress the humanities or the sciences in education, the answer is surely: we must give strong attention to both.  That dispute was already going on a century ago, as a result not of sputniks and rockets but of Darwin.  When John Stuart Mill discussed the issue in his classic rectorial address at St. Andrews, he gave the answer we have just repeated.  Plainly we cannot spare either the humanities or the sciences if we are to be citizens of the modern world.  Granting this, should the two fields receive equal emphasis in our schools and colleges?

To that question I think the answer must be No.  Since the Tamiment conference my opinion has been fortified by listening to a debate on this point in the University of London.  Two eminent British classical scholars engaged two eminent scientists, with Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, who is at once a classical scholar and President of the Royal Society, in the chair.  Since the debate was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the British Chemical Association, the audience consisted largely of scientists.  This scientific audience voted overwhelmingly that the central role in education should be assumed by the humanities.  These people obviously did not hold science cheap; they were giving their lives to it.  What did their vote mean?

It meant, I think, that science, pursued as a scientist pursues it, is a subject for the specialists, while the humanities are for everybody.  By the humanities I mean such subjects as literature, languages, history, philosophy, and art.  I do not think, nor did the London scientists, that these by themselves are the whole of a liberal education.  Science obviously has a part in it.  But at all levels in such education, its part is secondary, not primary.  Why?

Because, of the two most important goals in education, science can achieve one and the humanities can achieve both.  These two goals are a disciplined sense of values and a disciplined power to think.  That intensive work in any science can produce a disciplined power to think is, I suppose, unquestionable.  But no one who wanted a student to achieve a critical sense of what was best in poetry or music or morals would send him to physics or chemistry to get it.  Darwin and Galton have left it on record that their imaginative power seemed actually to have decayed as their scientific mastery increased.  By almost universal agreement the sense of moral and aesthetic value, so far as not gained by the contagion of example, is most effectively cultivated by literature and the arts, by history, biography, and ethics.

It is often contended, however, that when the humanities have done this essential work for anyone, this is virtually the end of their service; that the distinctively intellectual business of forming hypotheses and elaborating them, of testing them against fact, of sifting and weighing evidence, of proving and disproving a case, must be learned from the study of science. This I think is untrue. I do not deny that one can learn these invaluable arts from scientific study. I do deny that one cannot also learn them from the humanities, and I am inclined to think that most people learn more about them from the humanities they have studied than from the sciences they have studied. I am myself badly educated on the scientific side, and so am not a good judge.

But such skill in analysis and argumentation as I have managed to pick up has certainly not come chiefly from physics or chemistry, or even from such mathematics as I was exposed to, but rather from fledgling ventures in debating, from the struggle to write essays in philosophy, and from recurrent attacks of hero-worship directed at such assorted masters of argumentation as Burke, Mill, Bradley, and Asquith.

The mind of a first-rate mathematician like Newton is a fearful and wonderful engine.  The mind of a first-rate biologist like Darwin is less Olympian, but still a fine instrument.  No doubt both of these men were able to carryover into the general business of life some of the precision and order with which they attacked their own problems, though Newton could write very foolishly about the prophecies of Daniel, and Darwin found Shakespeare insupportable.  Still, their types of thinking are not of the sort most of us are called upon to do.  Few mathematicians think mathematically when planning a vacation or voting for President, and if they waited until the abstract figures and the neat necessities of their demonstrations appeared, they would not plan or vote at all.  Furthermore, as Bertrand Russell points out, much of mathematics, even higher mathematics, is hardly to be described as thinking; even the composition of Principia Mathematica was largely, he says, an automatic following of rules, a thinking with the fingers, as it were.  Thinking in the more concrete sciences is nearer home.  But here again the material, compared with that of ordinary life, is oversimplified.  Things are not persons: their attributes can be isolated and dealt with by experiment; they can be measured and their relations precisely stated; they do not normally engage our passions and prejudices.  Persons do.  And the thinking that most men are called upon to do involves persons: it is thinking about their families, their unions, their businesses, their professions, their politics.

Now granting that the physical scientist is better at such thinking than the average man, I am inclined to think that the truly disciplined humanist is better still.  Of course, if humanism means wallowing in Dylan Thomas and surrealist art, cadit quaestio.  But by a disciplined humanist I mean, for example, a person who can read and enjoy Burke’s speech on Conciliation, Mill’s Liberty, Boswell’s Johnson, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  The man who can do that, even if he has never been in a laboratory, is in my judgment better prepared even on the intellectual side than the man trained exclusively by science.  In strictly scientific problems he may be hopeless.  But for the thinking he has to do as father, breadwinner, and citizen, he is much the better equipped of the two.

It is inevitable that one who takes this view should be thought to disparage science.  Far from disparaging science, I think that it is increasingly important to one’s understanding of the world, and that many more students should go into it professionally.  But I am concerned with what should be taught to the ordinary student, and here I seem to hold an unconventional view.  The study of science is not the only way to hone an edge on one’s intellectual faculties.  That, I have suggested, can be done as efficiently and more congenially by the humanities.  What science, and only science, can do is to give us its results.  The worlds it has opened, submicroscopic and supergalactic, what it has brought to light about the past of the earth and its tenants, about health and disease, about the workings of the body and the more mysterious workings of the mind-these are vastly illuminating and they should be part of the equipment of every educated person.  Can they be acquired without a mastery of the techniques involved in their discovery?  Scientists are continually telling us that they cannot.  Is this contention sound?

The answer, I suggest, is that it is sound in the subjects which it is less essential for students to know, and unsound in the more essential ones.  No one can properly understand relativity or quantum physics without a stiff dose of advanced mathematics and probably some exacting work in the laboratory.  But such an understanding of relativity or quantum physics is the business of the specialist, not of the arts undergraduate.  No one can fully understand the constitution of nylon or terrylene or the operation of penicillin without doing advanced work in chemistry—granted.  But here again I do not see that such understanding, valuable as it is, is any necessary part of a liberal education.  To be sure, the new complexion that has been given to our world by such researches in physics and chemistry is part of a general education.  But this can be transmitted illuminatingly without an extensive mathematical and physical apparatus; it has actually been done by such expositors as Bertrand Russell and A. S. Eddington.  One does not, through reading them, understand fully what went on in the minds of Rutherford, Heisenberg and company, but such understanding is neither accessible to the ordinary mind nor would it have much value if it were, in the life he is called upon to live.

On the other hand, the sciences which are most important for the average man to understand, the sciences of man and society, can be pursued profitably with a minimum of special techniques.  Freud can be understood by any attentive reader.  Sumner, Frazer, and Westermarck require nothing more technical than general intelligence and an easy chair; and the same may be said of Marshall’s economics or Bryce’s American Commonwealth.  The method of these works can be assimilated along with their content.  Biology, physiology, and geology are less accommodating, and for original work in them, no doubt laboratory work, field work, and training with instruments are essential.  But the average student is not taking these subjects with the purpose of doing original work in them.  And a very fair idea of both the results and the painstaking method of workers in these fields can be gained directly from what they have written; I know a philosopher whose wife read him the whole of the Origin of Species in their free evenings, to the pleasure and profit of both.

It is widely admitted that there is something amiss with the science teaching in our colleges; too many students are bored and alienated by it and avoid science as a vocation.  Undoubtedly this is in part the students’ fault.  There is no royal road to the mastery of scientific technique; it takes hard work and long hours, and college is rosier and more carefree without it.  But after nearly forty years of teaching in large and small American colleges, I am convinced that the apathy toward science is more than a matter of undergraduate laziness.  It is largely due to a misconception on the part of scientists about the place of science in a liberal arts education.  To them scientific method is the crown of the whole business: the rigor, the precision, and the beauty of it are their professional pride and joy; their mastery of it is at the base of their self-respect; if others are to think with a like precision and rigor, they must achieve a similar mastery of it.  The experts and specialists devise courses calculated to produce experts and specialists like themselves.  The few among their students who are already committed to science and proficient in it revel in these courses and get A’s in them.  The others, who are the great majority, fall into two classes—those for whom this adventure in science is terminal, and those who are feeling their way, wondering whether to go farther or not.  For neither class do present courses hold much appeal.  For the arts student they seem full of details that are unimportant and techniques that he will never use.  The student who is uncommitted says quietly to himself that if science means a lifetime of this manipulation of x’s and y’s in the interest of ends that are somehow never made clear, then thanks very much; he has had enough; his vocation seems to lie elsewhere.

Science teachers throw up their hands at this attitude and complain of student defeatism.  To them it looks as if the students are sidling off into the humanities because they cannot face rigorous requirements and high standards.  I have become increasingly skeptical of this explanation as I have listened to it over the years.  The American college student is, by and large, an ambitious and serious fellow, with a keen nose for the areas in which he will find intellectual profit, and it is incredible that he should go on deprecating and depreciating “the most valuable of college disciplines” merely because it is hard.  If he grumbles, the reason is quite simply that introductory science, taught with its present emphasis, seems to him an investment of low return.  In the contention that science is the only road to clear and accurate thinking, he smells an aroma of professional humbug.  Old X in history is an ogre, but listen to his lectures for a term and you somehow understand what international issues are about; Y teaches philosophy, which everyone knows is hokum, but after he has ripped a few of your papers to pieces, you begin to know what self-critical writing means.  Students collect around these people like moths around a lamp.  They would collect in the same way around any science whatever if the educational candle power were there.

I do not think it will be there until scientists learn the difference between science for the liberal-arts man and science for the specialist.  It must be said bluntly that failure to learn that difference is the prime reason for the plight of science in our colleges and universities.  What is needed are teachers in physics, in chemistry, in biology, who are philosophers and humanists in the sense that they feel in their own minds, and can communicate to others, the importance of their subjects in understanding the modem world.  A young man who has just written a Ph.D. dissertation bristling with professional jargon is not the most likely candidate for this difficult office.  In my own department at Yale, we consider freshmen too hard an assignment for the younger men and throw into the task our senior professors who have worked at the subject for enough decades to have achieved some simplicity of view.  Older heads are better than younger ones at distinguishing the woods from the trees.  But there is no rule about this; some young men are born into swaddling clothes that take the shape of a teacher’s mantle, and some scientists of world reputation are hopeless in the classroom. I once heard a man say that there was only one worse teacher of physics in Europe than Kelvin at Glasgow, namely, Helmholtz at Berlin—and the speaker had sat under both.

Above all things in the world we in America need an educated citizenry.  That means, I have suggested, a citizenry with a disciplined sense of values and a disciplined power to think.  Both types of discipline can be supplied by the humanities, and it is through the humanities that most people must continue to gain them.  The second kind of discipline can be gained from science also.  But current scientific teaching is actually preventing students from getting it by trying to make them leap over mounds of detail and technological hurdles when they are hardly clear what the enterprise is all about.  There is small point in prodding and switching them over these hurdles; most of them are not cut out for that sort of mental athletics.  What they need is introductions to science taught by dedicated men who will give them some conception of the achievements, the importance, and the attraction of the specific branches of inquiry, and at the same time awake in those of them who are born to the purple the excitement of a high calling.  The thing is not impossible because it has been done.  It was done by Nathaniel Shaler and Louis Agassiz at Harvard and by T. H. Huxley in London; indeed it is always being done by unsung scattered teachers who live in their students’ memories.  If we could sow such teachers two or three to a college, we should not have to worry about the future crop of American scientists.

Posted March 19, 2007

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