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Nock's Theory of Education

December 1, 2009

Tags EducationMedia and CultureU.S. HistoryEntrepreneurship

The Theory of Education in the United States

[The Freeman, 1971]

One is glad that he left these luminous pages in their pristine form of lectures (he begs indulgence for doing it), because that form shows him off at his best: full of charm, candid in his prejudices, elegant in diction, a natural ironist, and a man in whom thinking is clearly a familiar exercise.

I remember picking up the book soon after its appearance in 1932, at a little book shop on Broadway near 115th Street. I am afraid it was a remaindered copy, very cheap, like the novels of E. M. Forster and the two volume set of Henry James's letters. It was my first acquaintance with Nock and I was delighted with my discovery.

I felt elated even after my incredulous irritation at what I found him saying on pages 76–77. That is the passage where Nock, who throughout his lectures claims a connection with Columbia University, repeats some libelous nonsense about Columbia College, based on Abraham Flexner's then recent study of American and other universities.

According to both these unverifying men, it was possible to obtain a bachelor of arts degree in Columbia College by offering such subjects as advertising layout, practical poultry raising, elementary stenography, wrestling and self defense, and half a dozen other subvocational exertions.

Nock recurs with relish to this list of depravities (including book reviewing) two or three times again the later lectures. It is enough to make one doubt his common sense — or his familiarity with the educational scene of his own day.

As a graduate of Columbia College in 1927, who began teaching there that same year and for many more thereafter, I knew from inside knowledge that Nock's statement was a fantasy. The requirements for the degree permitted no such hijinks as Nock alleged. What is worse, he goes on to say that by "some sort of traffic arrangement with a sister institution" the Columbia College undergraduate "may also count as leading to a degree, courses in … cookery, clothing decoration, dancing for men," and so on through a second half dozen domestic or social accomplishments.

The fact is that permission to take any courses outside the Columbia College catalogue was extremely difficult to obtain. These enumerated frills (presumably from the Teachers College home economics department) would have been disallowed by the Columbia College dean, sitting with his committee on instruction.

The paradox is that if Nock had but known it, Columbia College in his day was the nearest approximation to the ideal set forth in his lectures. The curriculum did not require Latin and Greek, to be sure, but it turned its back on the free elective system and imposed strict requirements in history, mathematics, science, English, and modern foreign languages. The majors had to be approved so as to prevent a frivolous scattering of effort among elementary courses, and (as I said) there was no straying off the reservation into easy extension or Teachers College courses. Arguing with friends from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard showed that they lived far more under the loose dispensation that Nock reprobated.

What was in fact his connection with Columbia? Research shows that from 1930 to 1932, he taught American history and politics at St. Stephen's College, then a distant affiliate, later independent as Bard College. Reading his book suggests that Nock was there chiefly to bait President Butler, whose pronouncements he studied with the feral eye of a ruthless attorney. Nock, for example, is not above twisting one of Butler's phrases about the "new type of university organization." He makes it stand in a sinister way for the nonintellectual, non formative subjects he castigated before.

That is not what Butler was referring to, much less advocating. For Butler was a humanist, too, and in his way as good a one as Nock. And Nock, one must also add, was a little blinded by his just cause into forgetting some truths about the great tradition he praised and preached.

"Nock was entirely right, of course, in his main thesis and his prophecy as well."

His medieval universities were not as he represented them. Had he stopped to use his wonderful imagination, he could have inferred that the old faculties of law and medicine were nothing but vocational schools — medicine especially. And even letters and theology were largely dedicated to the "preparation for life" which he deprecates — making clerics and scribes and pedagogues. The Abelards and Occams are always rare and never the average. Universities are good enough when they permit them to thrive and collect disciples.

Nock was entirely right, of course, in his main thesis and his prophecy as well. We have been seeing the final degradation of the institution whose misdirected aim he denounced with such deadly urbanity. It would be good to have from him a section fifteen to add to the fourteen in his neat little book. It would be on relevance and social consciousness in the free politicalized university.

If I had a Ouija board, I'd spend a few evenings trying to take down the text of it from the authentic source.

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