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Decline of the Great Tradition

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12/09/2011Albert Jay Nock

We have seen that our school system is precisely such as one would expect; and we now see that our educational institutions are precisely such as one would expect. They cannot help themselves; their organizers and administrators cannot help themselves. So long as they choose to remain organizers or administrators, they must organize or administer under the prescription of an impossible and fantastic conception of equality, an impossible and fantastic conception of democracy; and the upshot of their efforts must be precisely such a system as we have, precisely such institutions as we have.

There is an alternative, of course, but it is one that suggests itself at once and needs no comment; it is rather exorbitant to expect them to take it, and in the long run, probably, matters would be not much improved by their doing so. The most that can be expected, and also the least, is that they should be perfectly clear in their own minds about what they are doing, and never for a single moment persuade themselves that it is what it is not, or attempt to extenuate it or justify themselves in it on the strength of any such persuasion. In the realm of morals, I suspect that what one does is of much less importance than a failure in intellectual integrity concerning the nature of what one does. I have no need to remind you that the responsibility for continuous exercise of an absolutely spotless intellectual integrity rests most heavily on those who pretend to be continuators of the Great Tradition.

It is of the essence of the Great Tradition that the disinterestedness and objectivity implied in Plato's phrase should, first and last and most inflexibly, be maintained on ourselves, our interests and desires, above all on our ambitions and achievements. Let these be what they may; possibly better this than that, possibly finer, nobler, more in character with our pretensions as disciples of the Great Tradition, children of light — all that is for us to weigh and judge — but the important thing is that we should invariably see them as they are.

"The newest type of university organization," then, we perceive to be essentially the same as the newest type of college organization; and examination of our secondary-school organization will show that also as essentially the same. Our institutional pattern runs the same throughout our system. Our institutions organize the identification of training with education; they organize the disregard of disciplinary processes and formative knowledge. They organize, precisely as M. Renan said, "a considerable popular instruction without any serious higher education." Under the influence of vocationalism and the fetish worship of size and numbers, they have stuffed out the content of this popular instruction to an incredible volume. No institution could afford to be behind its neighbors in this; all alike had to have a hand in it, for such as did not would go to the wall.

It is fair, I think, to say that our institutions have conducted among themselves a grand competition for numbers, on ruinous terms; first, by shifting the burden of education from the student to the instructor, and putting pressure on the instructor to let his students go through as lightly and quickly as possible; and second, by offering a choice among an immense number of subjects that are easily taught, and easily accessible to a very low order of mind.

"In the realm of morals, I suspect that what one does is of much less importance than a failure in intellectual integrity concerning the nature of what one does. I have no need to remind you that the responsibility for continuous exercise of an absolutely spotless intellectual integrity rests most heavily on those who pretend to be continuators of the Great Tradition."

In this connection I have already mentioned the dilutions of various sciences. Looking over the list of subjects which Mr. Flexner cites as available to candidates for Columbia College's baccalaureate, you will acknowledge, I think, that the difficulties they present are chiefly mechanical. Research in cookery, for instance, home laundering, wrestling are subjects not beyond comprehension by the average intellect, though a certain mechanical unhandiness might hold one back from proficiency in them. With these we may class, for our purposes, two pursuits that the newest type of institutional organization does a great deal with; that is to say, modern languages and what is known as "courses in English." With regard to modern languages, we must make a discrimination that is perhaps seldom observed. A use, say, of Italian or French as a literary language, giving us full command of a great literature in addition to our own — this is one thing. A use which aims at conversation, or as Matthew Arnold said, enables us to fight the battle of life with the waiters in foreign hotels — this is quite another thing. It is the latter use which is in vogue in our institutions, because it is more easily taught and more easily appropriated.

I was lately shown a dormitory in an undergraduate college, and was told that people spoke only French in that house, no other language being permitted. This did not interest me. I asked what they said when they spoke French, this being the only thing that counts, for one may chatter nonsense and inanities in French as well as in any other language, I suppose. I got no satisfaction on this point; yet it is most important. The one use of French may be arrived at through the other, no question; yet a quite complete possession of the second use is no guarantee that the other will be attained, and experience shows that it seldom is attained. The best linguists we know, using the word in our institutional sense, are persons who are intellectually quite incompetent to apply their proficiency to even the most rudimentary literary purposes.

We all have seen commissionaires in Marseilles who speak half a dozen languages faultlessly, yet have no literary use of any of them and no power of acquiring such use. On the other hand, we know persons who speak French, say, most execrably, yet who know the history and structure of the language as few Frenchmen know it, and are as much at home in the archaic French of the 15th century — French that not one in a hundred Frenchmen can read — as they are in the French of the Academy, or of the Paris morning newspaper. Mr. Jefferson, you no doubt remember, never attempted to speak any language but English, except under great pressure; yet he had full command of the Italian and French literatures.

With regard to "courses in English," I suspect that if you have not already done some such thing, there is a surprise in store for you when you make an estimate of the number of them that our institutions offer annually. I suggest that you look into the matter, and meanwhile I shall not anticipate your findings, being desirous that they should make their own impression on you and carry their own intimations. I therefore say only that there are a great many such courses, whereas 40 years ago no such thing was known. Why should this be so? Forty years ago, our English-speaking students learned English quite informally; it was our own tongue, we were bred to a native idiomatic use of it, such a use as none but a native can ever possibly acquire. To say that English was not taught in our higher institutions means merely that everybody taught it. No matter what the stated subject under discussion might be, if we expressed ourselves inaccurately, loosely, unidiomatically, we heard about it at once and on the spot, and in terms that forcibly suggested a greater carefulness in the future.

As for English literature, it was our literature, our concern with it was proprietary, everything in it was open to us, and the critical judgment, the standards of taste and discrimination that we applied to it, were such as had been bred in us by our long acquaintance with the literatures of Greece and Rome. No one dreamed of teaching English literature; indeed, I do not see how it can be effectively taught in any formal fashion, how a really competent acquaintance with it can be brought about in any other way than the way by which it was brought about in us.

Why, then, is it that "courses in English" should hold so large a place in the newest type of institutional organization?

They do so for a very simple reason. Under the conditions that we have been describing, great masses of ineducable people come into our institutions. They must be kept there, and must nominally be busy with something or other as a pro forma justification for keeping them. Therefore something has to be found for them, to do that they can do, and this is a hard matter because they can do almost nothing. One thing they can do, albeit after a very poor fashion, is to read; that is to say, they can make their way more or less uncertainly down a printed page; and therefore "courses in English" have come into their present extraordinary vogue. Well, here is a small garland of windflowers culled by an instructor from the work, not of primary-school children, but of university students, chiefly upperclassmen, who were busy with "courses in English":

"Being a tough hunk of meat, I passed up the steak."

"Lincoln's mind growed as his country kneaded it."

"The camel carries a water tank with him; he is also a rough rider and has four gates."

"As soon as music starts silence rains, but as soon as it stops it get worse than ever."

"College students, as a general rule, like such readings that will take the least mental inertia."

"Modern dress is extreme and ought to be checked."

"Although the Irish are usually content with small jobs they have won a niche in the backbone of the country."

The instructor who reported these efforts went on to show how Shakespeare fared at the hands of their authors:

Edmund in King Lear "committed a base act and allowed his illegitimate father to see a forged letter."

Cordelia's death "was the straw that broke the camel's back and killed the king."

Lear's fool "was prostrated on the neck of the king."

"Hotspur," averred a sophomore, "was a wild, irresolute man. He loved honor above all. He would go out and kill twenty Scotchmen before breakfast."

Kate was "a woman who had something to do with hot spurs."

Also Milton:

"Diabetes was Milton's Italian friend," one student explained.

Another said: "Satan had all the emotions of a woman and was a sort of trustee in heaven, so to speak."

The theme of Comus was given as "purity protestriate."

Mammon in Paradise Lost suggests that the best way "to endure hell is to raise hell and build a pavilion."

The newest type of institutional organization has obliterated the lines that formerly marked off the units of our system and bounded their respective bailiwicks. Each unit is doing a little of everything, a little secondary-school work, a little college work, a little vocational work, and whatnot. Certain new units also have been knaved up out of this hodgepodge to do likewise a little of everything; the "junior college," for example.

"Mr. Jefferson, you no doubt remember, never attempted to speak any language but English, except under great pressure; yet he had full command of the Italian and French literatures."

Some years ago I visited an old acquaintance in the Midwest, who was teaching English in a huge swollen institution that went by the name of a state university. I looked in on one of my friend's classes in "English composition," and found him engaged on a kind of thing that by the very handsomest concession was only eighth-grade work; and his students were dealing with it in a manner that an educable eighth-grade pupil would regard as disgraceful. These students were not eighth-grade pupils; they were adult persons, ranking bona fide as part of a university population, and eligible for a degree authorized by a university.

The outcome of our theory in this particular may be clearly seen by another reference to the undergraduate college, as occupying a middle ground among our institutions. Not long ago I visited an undergraduate college — not one of those connected with Columbia University — and on casually looking into matters there, I told the president that I was surprised to see the college doing so much work that belonged far back in the grade school. He said it was unfortunate, but it could not be helped; students came there with these holes in their preparation that had to be filled up. I observed that the undergraduate college was perhaps hardly in a position to afford these diversions from its proper business, and that it seemed likely to suffer from them. "Yes," he said, "but don't you think we ought to do something for these poor fellows who come to us so imperfectly prepared?"

"Certainly I do," I said. "Fire them."

"Ah, yes," he replied, "but then, you see, we should not have any students and would have to shut up shop."

I hinted as delicately as I could that this might not be in the long run an absolute misfortune; as I remember, I may have quoted Homer's pertinent line on the death of Patroclus. He admitted the force of this, but said, "We are doing a poor job, I know, but we are doing something as best we can, and I think a little better than most institutions of our kind; so we hope it is worthwhile."

At the other end of the line, this college was doing quite a thriving business in preprofessional and prevocational training. Having asked about this, I was told that the lads were in a hurry to get on with their vocations and did not feel like spending time on any work that had not a direct vocational bearing; if such work were insisted on, they would simply leave, and go to some other place where the requirements were more generous. Here you may quite see what it is that obliterates the lines between the units of our system, and also where the responsibility for that obliteration and its consequences really lies. If you will permit the expression, the college passes the buck to the secondary school; and there is a measure of justice in that. The school, also with a measure of justice, replies, "If you are not satisfied with the way these men are prepared, why do you admit them? We cannot consider your requirements alone; we have very many diverse demands made on us, and must do the best we can to meet all of them." The vocational or technical school, the office or the factory — postcollegiate conditions generally — say to the college, "We cannot altogether accommodate ourselves to your ideas; if these young men are in such a pucker to get on in the world, it is your business to start them right, according to the conditions that actually exist"; and there is a measure of justice in that, too. Responsibility, clearly, lies nowhere in the order of our institutions; it runs back to the acceptance of an erroneous theory. All this ludicrous state of things that we have been examining is the inevitable result of trying to translate a bad theory into good practice.

Certain other aspects of this state of things are worth a moment's notice, in order that we may see how directly they come about in consequence of the attempt to turn bad theory into good practice. Granted our theory, they could be forecast and postulated as inevitable. A system constructed on this theory must comprise an immense amount of machinery, and as we have seen, so long as the theory is kept to, this machinery will be incessantly multiplied, overhauled, and tinkered in the vain hope of making it work better than it can. Thus our system invites, nay, we may almost say commands, the interest of persons whose approach to it is most undesirable; the careerist, adventurer, quidnunc, hand-over-head experimenter, publicity getter, profiteer, and quack.

It is not to our purpose to inquire how far the administration of our system is actually in the hands of gentry such as these; we merely remark the fact, about which there can be no doubt, that a system erected on our theory is most freely and conspicuously liable to their incursions. Moreover, it is notorious that a period of attempted consolidation after a revolution always opens the way for the ascendency of elements that are in every respect objectionable; and hence on both these grounds our system occupies an extremely vulnerable position.

Then, too, the erection and operation of this vast amount of machinery has tended quite strictly to formalize its administration; and this in turn has tended to the disappearance of individuals whose gifts, abilities, and distinctions were not of the order prescribed by a rigidly formalized routine, but were nevertheless very useful. You are aware, of course, that the older type of institutional organization made a great place for such individuals. In the Middle Ages, the association of educable persons with them, and the exposure to the spiritual influences that they generated, pretty well made up all there was to education. Here or there would emerge some great man, like Peter Abelard, John of Scotland, Bernard of Clairvaux, and aspiring youngsters out of all peoples, nations, and languages would lay down the shovel and the hoe, pack up some provisions, tramp off and find them, camp down with them, and pick up what they had to give; then tramp off to the next man whom they had heard of as mounting pretty heavy guns, and then the next.

If you have not done so, I venture to suggest that you read Miss Helen Waddell's scholarly, unpretentious, and exquisitely sympathetic little book on the Vagantesy of the wandering students of the Middle Ages. Do not be afraid of it; I am not trying to make medievalists of you; you may read and enjoy it and still remain "men of your time." I merely suggest that the view of another type of educational routine, albeit one that our system disallows, is interesting.

Some vestiges of this routine survived well into our own time. You will notice that nowadays a person always says, I am a graduate of Virginia, or of Columbia, or of Harvard, and lets it go at that. I myself can remember when one seldom heard a person speak so. I can distinctly remember a time when the regular way, the natural and instinctive way, to put it, was, I studied under Mr. Humphreys, or Mr. John B. Minor, or Mr. Gildersleeve, or Mr. Frank Smith, at the University of Virginia. The man was instinctively brought first to mind, and put in the place of honor, and in honoring the man one honored the institution that maintained him.

Precisely so in the first half of the 16th century, you find one of Rabelais's characters saying, "When I was a law student at Poitiers under Brocardium Juris" this being a student's nickname for one of the law-professors at the University of Poitiers, possibly Robert Irland, or Ireland, a Scotsman who taught law there for 50 years, and did much to make the faculty of law at Poitiers one of the most distinguished in all Europe. Rabelais also has Panurge make a playful reference to some readings under "the most decretalipotent Scotch doctor" at Poitiers, which this time almost certainly points to Robert Irland. He also has Pantagruel going the customary round of the French universities, as Rabelais himself may have done, judging by the casual record of his acquaintance with distinguished men connected with some of them: Boyssonne at Toulouse, Schyron and Rondellet at Montpellier, and so on. The point is that all these men were (if I may put it so without offense; I certainly mean none) distinguished for something that lies outside the scope of a pedagogy established on trade-unionist principles. In our own country, many years ago, when the Great Tradition was respected among us, and its discipline as well as possible maintained, the authorities at Harvard thought it worthwhile to keep Oliver Wendell Holmes demonstrating anatomy, Longfellow teaching (I think) Spanish, and James Russell Lowell teaching Romance languages. Technically, I dare say there were better men available for these specialties, and certainly in the trade-unionist sense, Holmes, Longfellow, and Lowell had no qualifications worth speaking of. But they were completely and conspicuously in the Great Tradition, they were children of light. All their works and ways had the mark of the Great Tradition on them, not the mark of Dagon. Therefore any mode of association with them, whether over Spanish, or anatomy, or what you will, continually liberated the Great Tradition's influence, spread the contagion of its charm, and powerfully recommended its discipline; and this, in the view of the older type of institutional organization, made them abundantly worth their keep.

As evidence tending to show the difference between this view and the view of the newer type of organization, I may mention a recent experience of my own with one of the best philologists in the country. Somewhere in his sphere of influence there had turned up a boy who in earlier days would have passed muster as a good promising student, nothing to get excited about, but who now was to be regarded as something of a prodigy in Greek and Latin studies. He had got about all he could get where he was, and the question was what to do with him. Did I know of any outstanding man in any institution anywhere in America, with whom he could be put; any man who was at all notably a continuator of the Great Tradition? My interlocutor, a man of my own age, and I looked at each other in silence for about 20 minutes while we overhauled all the resources of our memory, and then had to give up. We could think offhand of excellent technicians, well-trained reporters, and all that sort of thing, but that was as far as we could go. We then remarked the strangeness of the fact — for it did seem strange when looked at in retrospect from the present state of things — that 30 years ago we could have rattled you off the names of a dozen or more in a moment, as fast as our tongues could run.

Another interesting feature of this present condition of affairs is the complete disappearance of what may be called the nonprofessional scholar, such as foreign countries have always produced, and still produce, and of which we ourselves formerly produced a few, some of them quite notable. One of the best Latinists in England of the last generation was a bishop; one of the very best Greek scholars in England was the head of the huge Westminster Bank. Some of England's public men of the period, like Mr. Asquith and Mr. Gladstone, were good scholars. Even now, among France's public men, M. Poincaré is an excellent man of letters. At the height of the war, M. Poincaré, representing the French Academy at the centenary of Ernest Renan, wrote an appreciation of Renan's position in the world of letters that was redolent of good sound literary learning and taste; and M. Barthou did as much in his capacity as representing the Institute of Science on the same occasion. In our own country, the revision of our standard Latin lexicon was made almost entirely by a man in the insurance business. The history of the Inquisition which has held the field undisputed for thirty years was written by a retired publisher in Philadelphia. A newspaper editor gave us our best translation of a Greek historian. Bearing our theory in mind, you will have no trouble about seeing that this sort of thing was bound to disappear as promptly and completely as it has. With education supplanted by training, and vocationalism rampant, it could not do otherwise. One of the most interesting and significant assumptions in the world is that which you will nowadays encounter everywhere in American society: if a person shows signs of having an education, properly so called, the assumption is almost invariably, first, that he got it in Europe, and second, that he makes his living by it or at least uses it for purposes of profit. This, I repeat, is most significant. I am strongly tempted to trace out some of its implications, but what has been said already will probably make them apparent.

"Responsibility, clearly, lies nowhere in the order of our institutions; it runs back to the acceptance of an erroneous theory."

It may be said — indeed, it is often said — that this is an age of science, and that we have men of science who are as eminent and influential as those whom we have just cited. If Harvard, for example, no longer has a Holmes and a Lowell, this means no more than that their places have been taken by Mr. X., the biologist, and Mr. Y., the physicist, who are quite as eminent as Holmes and Lowell were, quite as highly regarded and as much looked up to. While we may freely accept this statement as it stands, two things are to be noted.

First, eminence in science does not necessarily imply eminence in the Great Tradition, and eminence in the Great Tradition is what we are talking about. A man may be most eminent, for instance, in the science of medicine, he may be the most skillful practitioner living, or the most capable man in research, or whatever else you will, without bearing anything remotely resembling the mark of the Great Tradition. One may be ever so eminent as a physicist, yet with an eminence wholly different from that which distinguished some physicists of the last generation who notably bore this mark. We may go further than this. A man may even be most eminent on the scientific side of the Great Tradition's discipline itself, he may be thoroughly up on its whole technique, and yet be in no sense a continuator of the Great Tradition. On the contrary, his views of life and his demands on life may be such as show conclusively that he is all abroad in it, quite untouched by its formative power.

To say this is no more than to remark what is a matter of common observation, that an ineducable person may succeed in training himself in the sheer science of the Great Tradition's discipline, and remain nonetheless ineducable. Not long ago, I remember, I was looking over a volume of minor Greek verse which on the scientific side was a marvel of editing, but that was all one could say for it; one laid it down with gratitude that one had escaped an introduction to Greek literature at the editor's hands.

Our reply is, then, that we are not interested in eminence except of a special order. Let us have all the science there is, of course — one can never have too much — but stark eminence in science does not in the present instance command our interest. The object of education, as we understand the word, the purpose of enforcing the Great Tradition's discipline, is to inculcate certain views of life and certain demands on life. Hence this object is not to produce, say, great practitioners of medicine, but (if you will permit me to bring forward some examples by name) to produce great practitioners like Pancoast and William Osler. Not to produce great physicists, but great physicists like Mr. Millikan. Not great philologists and grammarians, but those like Gildersleeve and Humphreys, who had all the science there was, but who employed it in all their works and ways for the furtherance of the Great Tradition, and for that alone.

The second observation which we must make concerning the eminence of men of science in our day and country is one that we may not perhaps care to dwell on too closely, but undoubtedly we should remind ourselves that by reason of the rather questionable principles on which publicity is organized among us, a person may be eminent and not be conspicuous. His eminence may be duly acknowledged in all quarters where such acknowledgement counts for anything, and he may yet remain otherwise almost unknown. It is only by a certain order of achievement in science that he becomes conspicuous; that is to say, if he invents or discovers something that can be popularized, like the telephone, or if he writes popularly on some subject that touches the curiosity of a large public, as Sir James Jeans is doing, or if, like Mr. Einstein, his pursuits are such as are exploitable by journalism. One may doubt that the names of Dana, Gray, and even Agassiz were as well known in their day, or are now as well known, as those of Morse and Bell; yet there is no question about their eminence. In the last generation, this country produced one of the most eminent men of science in the whole world. His name was quite unknown among us while he lived, and it is still unknown. Yet I may say without too great exaggeration that when I heard it mentioned in a professional assembly in the Netherlands two years ago, everybody got down under the table and touched their foreheads to the floor. His name was Josiah Willard Gibbs.

Now, the object of this observation is not to intimate that spurious or inflated reputations are easily made among us; whether this be true to any great extent or not is no concern of ours at the moment. We may raise the question, however, whether the general interest in science which as a people we are supposed to have, actually exists. It is taken for granted, especially by unfriendly critics of the Great Tradition's discipline, that as a people we are of a scientific turn, and have great interest in science. I see no reason to believe this. We are greatly interested in the practical outcome of invention and discovery; that is clear, and we need not go too far out of our way to attribute a mercenary motive to this interest. We are also, I think, greatly possessed of an indolent, passive, and fitful curiosity about certain superficial and speculative concerns of science, which causes us to skim their large popular literature with some frail and tenuous semblance of attention.

We are also susceptible to sensation mongering, such as that which poor Mr. Einstein found so ready to be visited on him when he came here; a most discreditable and repulsive performance on the part of our journalists who, as you no doubt remember, drew on the very last resources of their loathsome profession in the effort to exploit his superb achievements. But that we have, as for instance the Germans so notably have, an ingrained regard for science, an instinctive respect for whatever is wissenschaftlich, a sense that there is a right and a wrong way of doing things, and that the right way is the one to be followed — this is in my judgment rather more than doubtful, for I nowhere see evidence of the working of any such spirit. Therefore when it is assumed that this turn for science has anything to do with a disparagement of the Great Tradition's discipline, I would suggest that we examine carefully the premises of this assumption before we accept it.

This article originally appeared as chapter 9 in the book The Theory of Education in the United States.

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