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The Ends of Education

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Higher Learning in America. By Robert Maynard Htitchins. New Haven: Yale University Press. $2.00. The American State University, By Norman Foerster. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $2.50.

Any discussion of the ends of education, as opposed to methods, leads immediately to philosophical questions. The reason is simple. The ends of education can be defined only in their relation to the ends of the larger society to which educational institutions are means. The ends or ideals which govern a society depend on that society’s basic philosophy. The authors of “The Higher Learning in America” and “The American State University” are well aware of this condition. One fourth of President Hutchins’ admirably compressed argument deals with the external influences which operate to form the character of American institutions of higher learning. Mr. Foerster also devotes a large section of his book to tracing the history of philosophical tendencies which have shaped the ideals of American democracy, and therefore the constitution of the state university.

Both arrive at the same general conclusion. The pragmatic philosophy is discovered to be the trouble maker. Neither uses the term pragmatic; Mr. Ilutchins calls it “empirical,” Mr. Foerster, “naturalistic.” Both argue that insistence on immediately practical education has turned the colleges into training schools which graduate specialist-barbarians. When this process is allowed to go on unchecked the ideal of a liberal education disappears, and every specialty is ranked with every other as of equal value. A program of this kind is of course at the mercy of the whims and fashions of a nation always eager for the new and up-to-date. This, both authors insist, is a mistaken view of democracy and progress. “Education for power and service,” the ideal enunciated by the late President Eliot of Harvard, really meant training to make a living and training for social conformity. Thus it emphasized utility and slurred over intrinsic values. As Mr. Hutchins says: “The trouble with the popular notion of utility is that it confuses immediate and final ends. Material prosperity and adjustment to the environment are good more or less, but they are not good in themselves and there are other goods beyond them.” Nor does the pragmatic education achieve even its narrow purpose. The techniques of business management, of legal practice, of commercial air conditioning, learned in 1937, will be out of date in 1938. But if we admit with the pragma-tists that the whole of experience is in flux to the extent that nothing is saved, we can rely upon the past as little as upon the future, and the whole of education becomes a hopeless business.

It is the denial of this metaphysical postulate which gives the authors their encouragement to construct an effective program for education. According to Mr. Foerster there is a continuous tradition of humane wisdom extending from early Greece to modern times which has not been upset or outmoded by scientific findings. The belief that science can substitute for all other knowledge gets no support from science. It is not scientific but “scientistic.” And Mr. Hut-chins agrees: “A classic is a book that is contemporary in every age.”

Now the assertion that there are unchanging truths and values outside the flux of experience is a denial of the whole nominalistic philosophy which has cumulatively shaped western civilization for the past three hundred years. It is therefore no accident that these authors should quote and defend the opinions of Plato, Anistotle, and the scholastics. In fact, we have here a reversion to what used to be called “realism”—a belief in the reality of universals and nonsub-jective values. From this point of view certain deductions follow. There is a rank and preference among items of knowledge, so that all form a unity. Only the first and broadest principles should or can be included in a liberal education. Needless to say, there can be no democracy among values. The greatest, and the only proper values for educational institutions to cultivate, are the intellectual virtues. These serve the interests of society, the happiness of the individual, and eventually even his efficiency in whatever special work he elects to perform.

The reviewer finds himself in complete accord with these criticisms of present-day pragmatic trends within and without the universities. The utilization of the prestige of science to bolster the claims of the pragmatic or empirical philosophy is one of the philosophical scandals of the day. It is based on an utter misunderstanding of scientific procedure. The whole project of science rests on the assumption, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that universal and unchanging conditions underlie the flux of actuality. Moreover, science is analytical in direction; it does not determine ends or values. Psychology, economics, and the social sciences generally may be of great service, but they do not take the place of normatives. In plain English this means that when useful means parade as valuable ends, even utility is sacrificed in the chaos which ensues.

It is easier to agree with the thesis of these educators than to put much hope in the immediate success of their programs. The classics, mathematics, and philosophy, are studies which both authors would include as major parts of a liberal education, although logic is the only branch of philosophy which Mr. Hutchins would include in his junior college, reserving metaphysics for the university of higher learning. In the latter, natural science and social science are the other main departments. One cannot help wondering whether Instrumentalists, Logical Positivists, and Dialectical Materialists, engaged to teach metaphysics, would not teach the very nominalism against which the projected university is a protest. Can we expect present-day social scientists to accept the metaphysics of Aristotle, or any other variant of the belief in a continuity over and beyond the flux of history? There are many other difficulties which throw doubt on the possibility of establishing universities wherein a philosophy is taught and practiced so at variance with the beliefs of society. Both men recognize this difficulty. Mr. Foerster says: “. . . liberal education will not be revised till a humanistic outlook on life is re-established.” And Mr. Hutchins: “. . . the distressing part . . . is that the state of the nation determines the state of education.” Yet the university itself is a powerful factor in changing public opinion. Someone must break the vicious circle. The movement away from the entire pragmatic philosophy must have its pioneers outside and inside the colleges. Such an intellectual revolution will not come about without prolonged conflict. Need it be added that it will also have its martyrs?


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