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Four Bear Witness

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

Education Between Two Worlds. By Alexander Meiklejohn. Harper & Brothers. $3.00. Education for Freedom. By Robert Maynard Hutchins. Louisiana State University Press. $1.50. Education at the Crossroads. By Jacques Maritain. Yale University Press. $2.00. Liberal Education. By Mark Van Doren. Henry Holt and Company. $2.50.

Within a period of twelve months four star witnesses have testified as to the state of liberal education. They chose a crucial year in which to testify. As Mark Van Doren observes tersely in his preface, in the United States the war “has almost completely suspended liberal education.” Meanwhile, on campuses from coast to coast faculty committees are examining what has been suspended, to see if it can be improved; and the armed forces are making the most painful and humiliating discoveries of what contemporary education adds up to, not in course credits but in usable abilities.

Alexander Meiklejohn, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Jacques Maritain, and Mark Van Doren have, in that order, taken the stand. We, their readers, would better measure the truth of their statements than “place” their books or psychoanalyze the authors. Still, their testimony so consistently reports the bankruptcy of liberal education in our country that we can but marvel at the wide variety of their intellectual Odysseys.

Meiklejohn and Hutchins are of course old hands at testimony. It is many years now since Meiklejohn made Amherst a college in a sense in which there have been precious few liberal colleges in our country in this century. It became indeed so truly a college in a country no longer addicted to real college education that something was bound to break somewhere. It did. Meiklejohn ceased to be president of Amherst, and many alumni took sides. Then came the Experimental College at Wisconsin, and more recently adult education in San Francisco. Had Amherst not lost one of the very few great college presidents America has seen, the rest of us might never have gotten “Education between Two Worlds,” in which Meiklejohn traces our educational collapse and investigates the conditions under which there might occur a general restoration.

When Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago at thirty, he was the enfant terrible of the academic world. Now, in his forties, he may not be an enfant, but the words in “Education for Freedom” are no less terrible to anybody who cares whether Americans are to be educated or to play at being educated. Whereas Meiklejohn was trained in philosophy, Hutchins was trained in law. His art has always, appropriately, been indictment: he has lost none of his skill. He has a genius for clarity, for relevant and horrifying information, for devastating quotation, for relentless ability to see what necessarily follows. His academic critics say they could listen to him better if he were less cutting; but nothing could have cut through an object as comfortable as a campus that was not very, very cutting indeed. In his latest book, he is as witty as ever, and as wise.

Hutchins is a college president, and Meiklejohn is an ex-president. Neither Van Doren, nor Maritain if we except his present administrative duties with the Ecole Libre in New York, has yet faced that ordeal. Van Doren is a distinguished poet, a novelist, a critic, and probably few of his readers know that he is a college professor and an exciting teacher to boot. Moreover, where MeikleJohn’s testimony was wrung out of him by the agony he shared with Matthew Arnold at

Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born, and where Hutchins and Maritain testified in the form of lectures which universities invited them to give, Van Doren was asked by the Association of American Colleges to say what was wrong. Perhaps because of the definiteness of that invitation, his “Liberal Education” might have been expected to be the most prescriptive and useful testimony of all. It is, but I think there are several reasons why this is true.

Meiklejohn is avowedly agnostic. Indeed, it is because he notes that education is for the most part no longer a function of the church in a society which has largely lost its Christian faith and because he notes that the present political state is ill fitted to discharge the educational task, that he wants to find what sort of state might have authority to assume the obligations of teacher. Unlike Meiklejohn, both Hutchins and Van Doren are interested in theology, but neither is a theologian. Maritain is perhaps the world’s most famous philosopher in the Catholic tradition and a lifelong student of the most famous theologian whom Christendom has produced. Indeed, in “Education at the Crossroads” his faith is so strong that he does not have to be strident about it but can afford to appeal merely to his reader’s reason.

I cannot imagine anybody who is really concerned about our educational debacle, or even about our cultural debacle, not deriving both wisdom and courage from these four books. Nor can I think it probable thaltany single year in the near future will produce four books on education as significant as these. When one reflects on the infinite dullness of nearly any book on education that one picks up, one can only marvel at the great advantage to society when education is discussed by educated men. But these books have far more in common than that. In fact, the amazing— and comforting—thing about these four books is the measure of agreement they exemplify; and the terrifying thing about them is the vast distance they all stand from current educational practice.

None of them supposes that vocationalism, professionalism, specialization, can ever take the place of liberal education, of education in the liberal arts. Yet these are precisely the leading characteristics of our “colleges of liberal arts.”

All four are convinced that liberal education should be universal. Yet the American professor’s favorite dictum is that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The metaphor suggests that most of his fellow citizens are in his own best judgment sow’s ears, and therefore presumably not created free and equal with incipient silk purses. This is doubtless because they are “not college material” and should be trained to hew wood and draw water.

None of the four, may God be thanked, wants anything to do with the notorious Mark Hopkins at the end of his notorious log: that is, none of them supposes that you can get a liberal education from some imaginary “great teacher,” regardless of how trivial the subject on which he may be required by “student demand” to lecture. Yet the American academic community remains mawkishly wistful about the joys of sitting at the feet of the many great teachers on our campuses.

Three of our witnesses would have boys go to college at an earlier age, and one of them, Hutchins, has taken bold I action to see that at least some of them do. One of the wittiest sections in Hutchins’ book describes the wave of academic disapproval at this flouting of union rules.

Three of them agree that we must return to the great books of our Western civilization if we are to resurrect the curriculum; and the fourth, Meiklejohn, though he does not discuss in detail the problem of a college curriculum, has given ample testimony elsewhere that he would agree with them. Yet the great books continue to be read in our colleges as professional subject matter in departments, or in excerpt, or in resume, or under the benign light of the Historical Point of View, so ably and so recently analyzed in the “Screwtape Letters.” The elective system still guarantees that you will not read those you find difficult. And the market in college textbooks remains the only gold mine of a traditionally indigent profession.

Three of them make it explicit that the liberal arts, with mathematics and science left out, produce what Van Doren calls “merely literary” persons instead of educated men, Meiklejohn, again, does not discuss curricular details.

All four know that liberal education is overwhelmingly concerned with the human intellect, disagreeably as that word sounds on the academic ear; although all four are also deeply aware of the connections between intellect and will, between mind and moral character. Meiklejohn, it is true, has the deep interest of the agnostic in the moral problem, where Maritain has the deep interest of the contemporary Catholic. Hutchins and Van Doren seem a little more certain of what happens to morals when good intellectual operation becomes habitual. Yet the contemporary American college, if it has been anything during the past quarter of a century, has been anti-intellectual and “practical.”

Above all, the three that discuss the curriculum are all completely agreed that the elective system has broken down. Yet the elective system and the textbook are the distinguishing marks of the American liberal college today.

The discrepancy between the testimony of our four witnesses and current educational practice should give us pause. Those who would measure the discrepancy with precision would do well to read the most valuable chapter in Van Doren’s book, a chapter in which, while discussing “colleges of liberal arts,” he actually calls those arts by name and analyzes them. Both names and analysis will come as a complete surprise to most of our colleges of liberal arts. Yet, until the arts themselves have been rediscovered, and until we learn again to practise them, and even to teach them, the problem of the American liberal college remains—as indeed it looks—insoluble.


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