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The Meaning of Education

April 11, 2012

Tags EducationFree MarketsInterventionism

[The Page-Barbour Lectures for 1931 at the University of Virginia.]


Traditionally, an educational system was conceived of as an organic whole, with distinct lines fixed between its units; and each unit was supposed to exercise its function with strict reference to the units preceding and succeeding it. When we organized our system, this was also our general plan. Our units were the primary and secondary schools, the undergraduate college, the university and the technical school. The intention was that a person should proceed directly through the primary school into the secondary school, and through that into the undergraduate college. On leaving college, he was prepared to enter the university, if he was looking forward to one of the four so-called "learned" professions. Otherwise, if he proposed to occupy himself with one of the sciences, or with some pursuit like agriculture, architecture, engineering, for which a considerable technical training is necessary, he was also prepared to begin that; he was qualified to enter the institute of science or the technical school. I do not say that this intention was always and everywhere carried out; at the University of Paris, in the 16th century, students entered under the Faculty of Law with very little preparation, sometimes with none. In a new civilization like ours, local poverty, poor equipment, the scarcity of teachers, and other difficult obstacles stood in the way of orderly consecutive progress through all these grades. Nevertheless, this was the intention; and in general, probably, it was as well kept to as circumstances permitted.

The intention was, moreover — and this is most important — that the character of this progress through the schools and the undergraduate college, right up to the doors of the university or technical school, should be purely disciplinary. The curricula of the primary and secondary school and of the college should be fixed, invariable, the same for all participants. There should be no elective studies. The student took what was deemed best for him, or left the place; he had no choice. Hence there was no overlapping or reduplication of function anywhere along the line. The college, for example, did not reach back into the work of the secondary school to fill up any holes or take up any slack in the student's career there. If the student came to college unprepared in any particular, he was unprepared, and there was nothing to do about it but to remand him. No more did the college reach forward into the purview of the university or the technical school with any prevocational or preprofessional exercises. Each institution kept strictly to the doings in its own bailiwick, as a unit in a general system.

Such, I say, is the traditional way in which the mechanism of an educational system is supposed to work; and such, speaking broadly and with regard to the force of circumstances, was the way that our mechanism was set up to work. The progress through school and college did, in fact, remain quite strictly disciplinary up to the revolutionary period which set in, as well as one can put a date to it, about 35 years ago. Now, it was of the very essence of this disciplinary character — the very fifth essence, as a medievalist might say — that all the knowledge canvassed in these fixed curricula should be of the order known as formative. Instrumental knowledge, knowledge of the sort which bears directly on doing something or getting something, should have no place there; it should have as strict an institutional quarantine raised against it as cities raise against a plague. This discrimination was quite carefully regarded in our institutions until the revolution of 35 years ago broke it down. I suggest that we look for a moment at the disciplinary fixed curricula made up of purely formative studies, to see what it actually came to in practice.

Let us look at it in this way: let us suppose that an educable person found good schools and a good college, where all circumstances were favorable — there were such — what would he do, and what might be expected of him? After the three Rs, or rather for a time in company with them, his staples were Latin, Greek, and mathematics. He took up the elements of these two languages very early, and continued at them, with arithmetic and algebra, nearly all the way through the primary, and all the way through the secondary schools. Whatever else he did, if anything, was inconsiderable except as related to these major subjects; usually some readings in classical history, geography, and mythology. When he reached the undergraduate college at the age of 16 or so, all his language-difficulties with Greek and Latin were forever behind him; he could read anything in either tongue, and write in either, and he was thus prepared to deal with both literatures purely as literature, to bestow on them a purely literary interest. He had also in hand arithmetic, and algebra as far as quadratics. Then in four years at college he covered practically the whole range of Greek and Latin literature; mathematics as far as the differential calculus, and including the mathematics of elementary physics and astronomy; a brief course, covering about six weeks, in formal logic; and one as brief in the bare history of the formation and growth of the English language.

What was the purpose of this? We may admit, I presume, the disciplinary value of these studies, since that has never been seriously disputed, so far as I know, but we may say a word, perhaps, about their formative character. The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity; every department, I think, except one — music. This record covers 2,500 consecutive years of the human mind's operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit's operations. If I may paraphrase the words of Emerson, this discipline brings us into the feeling of an immense longevity, and maintains us in it. You may perceive at once, I think, how different would be the view of contemporary men and things, how different the appraisal of them, the scale of values employed in their measurement, on the part of one who has undergone this discipline and on the part of one who has not. These studies, then, in a word, were regarded as formative because they are maturing, because they powerfully inculcate the views of life and the demands on life that are appropriate to maturity and that are indeed the specific marks, the outward and visible signs, of the inward and spiritual grace of maturity. And now we are in a position to observe that the establishment of these views and the direction of these demands is what is traditionally meant, and what we citizens of the republic of letters now mean, by the word education; and the constant aim at inculcation of these views and demands is what we know under the name of the Great Tradition of our republic.

An educational system, was set up in our country, and lavishly endowed in response to the noble sentiment of parents for the advancement of their children. It was to be equalitarian, as the average man understood equality; that is to say, everybody should be regarded as able to take in its benefits. It should be democratic, as the average man understood democracy; that is to say, no one had any natural right to anything that everybody could not get. Very well, then, we said, education, traditionally, is the establishment of certain views of life and the direction of certain demands on life, views and demands which take proper account of the fundamental instincts of mankind, all in due measure and balance; the instinct of workmanship, the instinct of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners. The aim at an inculcation of these views and demands is the Great Tradition of a truly civilized society. The traditional discipline, the process which has been found most competent to the purpose, is that chiefly of scrutinizing the longest available continuous record of what the human mind has hitherto done with those instincts; what it has made out of them; what its successes and failures have been; and what is to be learned from both. Bring on your children, and we will put them through this process under the sanction of an equalitarian and democratic theory.

It did not work. We discovered almost at once that it did not work, and that apparently there was no way of making it work. The reason it did not work was that this process postulated an educable person, and everybody is not educable. Far from it, we discovered that relatively very few are educable, very few indeed. There became evident an irreconcilable disagreement between our equalitarian theory and the fact of experience. Our theory assumed that all persons are educable; our practical application of it simply showed that the Creator, in His wisdom and in His loving-kindness, had for some unsearchable reason not quite seen His way to fall in with our theory, for He had not made all persons educable. We found to our discomfiture that the vast majority of mankind have neither the force of intellect to apprehend the processes of education, nor the force of character to make an educational discipline prevail in their lives.

Thus we were faced with a serious dilemma. On the one side was our equalitarian theory, with all the power of a strong sentiment behind it, pushing it on into the test of practice. On the other side was the fact that an inscrutable Providence had most signally failed to do its part towards enabling our theory to stand this test. We had, then, the choice of revising our theory, or of letting it stand and sophisticating our practice into some sort of correspondence with it. If we let go of the equalitarian idea in our theory, the democratic idea would disappear with it; for if all persons are not educable, then some persons may pretend to a distinction to which all others may not pretend, whereby education becomes a kind of class-prerogative; and this is undemocratic.

We made our choice, leaving our theory unrevised and unexamined; it remains today the theory upon which our system undertakes to operate. I repeat for the sake of emphasis, that as far as I know, this theory has never been formally brought before the bar of letters for examination and critical judgment. Then, having made our choice, we set out at once on the business of overhauling, recasting, readjusting and tinkering the mechanics of our system; and this has gone on without cessation for 35 years, and so energetically as to degenerate at last into a mere panicky license of innovation. Plan after plan, method after method, program after program has been hailed and touted as the one thing needful, put into effect, carried on for a while, and then become outmoded in favor of some other; our shores are strewn with their wreckage —

Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?

This article is excerpted from The Theory of Education in the United States (1932), chapter 6.


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