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Toward a Philosophy of Educational Liberation

ISSUE:  Summer 1970


Writing in The Harvard Educational Review many years ago, I indicated my approach to a philosophy of education by quoting a phrase of John Dewey’s and a sentence from William James. Dewey’s conception of philosophy as “the generalized theory of education” gives a clue to the pedagogy prized by teachers from Socrates to Whitehead. And there is, I think, the essential germ of a still viable philosophy of education in James’ assertion that “philosophy in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America.” I should like, in this paper, to develop these views and, in so doing, to raise the question to what extent the colleges in America are indeed moving in the spirit of James and Dewey.

Their spirit, I believe, is the twentieth-century version of the liberal arts, not in the merely traditional sense of a literary education fit for the privileged gentry but of a robust and progressive concern for all the achievements of mankind. It is the humane spirit of liberal education not with the conventional meaning of the liberal mind as one freed from the supposedly sordid and degrading occupations of common men, but with whatever in the arts and sciences can bring uncommon insight and inspiration to men’s common concerns. It is the spirit of liberating experience.

In asking to what extent the idea of the American college is functioning in these ways, three considerations suggest themselves as limiting circumstances. First is the enormous growth of the collegiate population and of the universities to which many colleges are attached. Second are changes in the content and subject matter of education, changes in knowledge itself and in the sciences and arts both as bodies of knowledge and as social forces. And third—closely related to the foregoing—are current attitudes toward authority and personal relationships.

What college teacher can fail to remember the high excitement with which boys and girls, on the verge of manhood and womanhood, approach their freshman year? Those whose secondary schooling has been stimulating see bright prospects of exploration in terra incognita and even those whose previous experience has been less gratifying are likely to feel the hope of a new life and possibilities. Few freshmen, if any, in my observation, have confronted their instructors with an attitude of “teach me if you can.” Such an attitude may, of course, be provoked by a condescending approach on the part of a professor: “We are here to teach the students; they are here to learn.” By contrast I am delighted to quote the greeting extended to entering students in September, 1968, by the then new Dean of Columbia College, Carl F. Hovde: “We are going to be giving one another, outside the classroom, an education of a rather special kind. We shall have the special privilege of teaching one another a great deal about what Columbia—indeed any university—ought to be.” So too, in the classroom, a teacher who manifestly remains a student, ever ready to learn, is surely the most effective pedagogue.

The vast increase in the number of colleges and of college students, already referred to, involves important changes and serious problems which would have to be faced even if there were no essential changes in the content of education and in the relation of teachers and educational administrators to students. Or, more precisely, the increase in the size of the college population is a major factor in respect to the problems which are exacerbated by these and other social changes. If the traditional values of liberal education at its best were becoming available to as many young people as possible, if young men and women were, indeed, being liberated intellectually and spiritually in ever increasing numbers, it would truly be an educational millennium. To the extent that young people come to colleges asking such liberation from ignorance and stultifying conventions, from immaturity and narrow parochialism, every teacher should rejoice and feel the challenge of new opportunities and occasions to perform his essential function.

A realistic appraisal would have to admit that this millennium is not at hand and that false expectations of what college is all about reduce the opportunities and complicate the challenge. Not only does inadequate preparation in primary and secondary schools prejudice the issue but, fully as serious, assumptions as to the social and economic advantages, some partly valid, some trivial or false or irrelevant, becloud the motives for entering college. Yet here too there is a challenge.

The importance of meeting the challenge of these opportunities is related to all three of the circumstances mentioned above. The initial difficulty, it seems to me, the problems of size and numbers is one which might most readily be solved. Its solution would at least reduce the magnitude of other issues and thus mitigate the sense of constant crisis. What Justice Brandeis called “The Curse of Bigness” has long threatened education at every level. Large classes tend to offset the efforts of even the most effective teachers. The most devoted instructor is hampered in such circumstances from establishing fruitful relations with students and, lacking such relationship, girls and boys lose a sense of personal involvement in their schooling. Huge institutions tend to diminish the individual.

But Bigness is a curse in educational institutions for other reasons too. It is a menace to significant schooling and not only because of the loss of close personal relationship between teachers and students, students and faculty and administration, and all of these to the remoter functionaries of academic governance, regents and trustees. These are serious losses but they can, to some extent, be mitigated even in an era of ever increasing mechanization. Even in large universities the institution of somewhat independent residential houses, as at Harvard, or Yale’s system of distinct colleges each with its own master and student body reminiscent of English collegiate organization, the proliferation of interdepartmental studies in many institutions, valuable for teachers and students alike in reducing personal and departmental isolation, Columbia’s colloquia and university seminars which bring together numerous academic disciplines and non-academic practitioners in discussion and exploration—these and other devices diminish the dangers of what might be call megalacademica.

Yet the greatest danger inherent in undirected growth remains. It is the loss of a sense of purpose. For high school students the plan of going to college may seem sufficient and for undergraduates professional options may appear to give a satisfying goal. Rightly conceived these proximate goals may contribute to the essentials of spiritual and intellectual liberation. This is, I think, true at every stage of education but it is most significant in those years in which young people are engaged in the difficult business of discovering their primary interests and abilities and of deciding, however tentatively, the direction of their personal ambitions. Here the nature of their studies as well as the character of their instructors and the stimulus of their fellow students are all obviously of the greatest importance. Even for those who have a sense of what they hope their future is to be, the opportunities for further development and discovery in a flexible program of studies can provide new insight. The various patterns of so-called “general education” need not constitute obstacles to the college freshman who has already found himself but should rather help him to relate his special interests to other fields and to the interests of others as individuals and as a community.

In an admirable introduction to philosophy of education entitled “The Promise of Wisdom,” J. Glenn Gray of Colorado College writes: “Education is first and foremost for understanding, only secondarily for pragmatic and vocational purposes. Specialization…is necessary both as preparation for the demanding technical positions in our complex society and for working to push back the boundaries of knowledge in the various disciplines. But these purposes should not be allowed to obscure the time-tested goal of learning or liberation of the mind for responsible citizenship and the good life.”

My friend and Columbia colleague, the late Frank Tannenbaum, originator, administrator, and constant inspiration of the university seminar movement, made a proposal not long before his death to further inter-disciplinary communication among undergraduates. For example, a student beginning his collegiate studies in American history would, in addition to his regular course in that field, meet, together with his instructor, for sessions with students in American literature, economics, philosophy, art, and music and with their teachers. Not only would the various disciplines supplement one another but differences in background, outlook, and conviction would illuminate the discussions in which the students would participate and from which they would assuredly gain stimulus for further study and exploration. Such an approach is an adaptation to undergraduate education of the methods and procedures of the Columbia University Seminars in which academicians from many schools and practitioners from the wider community have been meeting together on the basis of shared interests and diverse competence for the past twenty-five years.

As a student sees the manifold interconnections of ideas and ideals, of arts and sciences, theory and practice, of various cultures and institutions—in short, of his own life and the lives of others, remote or in face-to-face relationship—his education becomes, in truth, a liberating experience. One recalls William Butler Yeats’ assertion that “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Here is the meaning of academic freedom. Freedom in teaching and studying is not peripheral to education; it is the very heart of the matter. Liberation is the essential function of our schools and a free academy is the sole instrument by which it can be attained. As a student advances through the upper college and in postgraduate studies he becomes, in the course of time, his teacher’s apprentice and junior colleague, increasingly capable of full collaboration in free association. Such freedom is not an abstraction; it is the most specific and concrete condition of moral growth and intellectual development. Academic freedom is not a separable appendage of education; it is its essential precondition. The freedom of the mind, of the minds of all students, be they in statu pupillari or of faculty, is the right to learn. Though the learned sometimes appear to have forgotten how to learn, learning—as distinguished from training—can only occur in an atmosphere of freedom. When students and teachers—one might even venture to add administrators and trustees—are free to learn there can be a healthy college, a genuine university, a liberalizing education.


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