from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins
WE have seen that education through the liberal arts and great books is the best education for the best. We have seen that the democratic ideal requires the attempt to help everybody get this education. We have seen that none of the great changes, the rise of experimental science, specialization, and industrialization, makes this attempt irrelevant. On the contrary, these changes make the effort to give everybody this education more necessary and urgent.
We must now return to the most important question, which is : Can everybody get this education? When an educational ideal is proposed, we are entitled to ask in what measure it can be achieved. If it cannot be achieved at all, those who propose it may properly be accused of irresponsibility or disingenuousness.
Such accusations have in fact been leveled against those who propose the ideal of liberal education for all. Many sincere democrats believe that those who propose this ideal must be antidemocratic. Some of these critics are carried away by an educational version of the doctrine of guilt by association. They say, 'The ideal that you propose was put forward by and for aristocrats. Aristocrats are not democrats. Therefore neither you nor your ideal is democratic.'
The answer to this criticism has already been given. Liberal education was aristocratic in the sense that it was the education of those who enjoyed leisure and political power. If it was the right education for those who had leisure and political power, then it is the right education for everybody today.
That all should be well acquainted with and each in his measure actively and continuously engaged in the Great Conversation that man has had about what is and should be does not seem on the face of it an antidemocratic desire. It is only antidemocratic if, in the name of democracy, it is erecting an ideal for all that all cannot in fact achieve. But if this educational ideal is actually implicit in the democratic ideal, as it seems to be, then it should not be refused because of its association with a past in which the democratic ideal was not accepted.
Many convinced believers in liberal education attack the ideal of liberal education for all on the ground that if we attempt to give liberal education to everybody we shall fail to give it to anybody. They point to the example of the United States, where liberal education has virtually disappeared, and say that this catastrophe is the inevitable result of taking the dogma of equality of educational opportunity seriously.
The two criticisms I have mentioned come to the same thing: that liberal education is too good for the people. The first group of critics and the second unite in saying that only the few can acquire an education that was the best for the best. The difference between the two is in the estimate they place on the importance of the loss of liberal education.
The first group says that, since everybody cannot acquire a liberal education, democracy cannot require that anybody should have it. The second group says that, since everybody cannot acquire a liberal education, the attempt to give it to everybody will necessarily result in an inferior education for everybody. The remedy is to segregate the few who are capable from the many who are incapable and see to it that the few, at least, receive a liberal education. The rest can be relegated to vocational training or any kind of activity in school that happens to interest them.
The more logical and determined members of this second group of critics will confess that they believe that the great mass of mankind is and of right ought to be condemned to a modern version of natural slavery. Hence there is no use wasting educational effort upon them. They should be given such training as will be necessary to enable them to survive. Since all attempts to do more will be frustrated by the facts of life, such attempts should not be made.
Because the great bulk of mankind have never had the chance to get a liberal education, it cannot be "proved" that they can get it. Neither can it be "proved" that they cannot. The statement of the ideal, however, is of value in indicating the direction that education should take. For example, if it is admitted that the few can profit by liberal education, then we ought to make sure that they, at least, have the chance to get it.
It is almost impossible for them to do so in the United States today. Many claims can be made for the American people; but nobody would think of claiming that they can read, write, and figure. Still less would it be maintained that they understand the tradition of the West, the tradition in which they live. The products of American high schools are illiterate; and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case. One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the "uneducated" and the "educated" is so slight.
The reason for this phenomenon is, of course, that so little education takes place in American educational institutions. But we still have to wrestle with the question of why this should be so. Is there so little education in the American educational system because that system is democratic? Are democracy and education incompatible? Do we have to say that, if everybody is to go to school, the necessary consequence is that nobody will be educated?
Since we do not know that everybody cannot get a liberal education, it would seem that, if this is the ideal education, we ought to try to help everybody get it. Those especially who believe in "getting the facts" and "the experimental method" should be the first to insist that until we have tried we cannot be certain that we shall fail.
The business of saying, in advance of a serious effort, that the people are not capable of achieving a good education is too strongly reminiscent of the opposition to every extension of democracy. This opposition has always rested on the allegation that the people were incapable of exercising intelligently the power they demanded. Always the historic statement has been verified : you cannot expect the slave to show the virtues of the free man unless you first set him free. When the slave has been set free, he has, in the passage of time, become indistinguishable from those who have always been free.
There appears to be an innate human tendency to underrate the capacity of those who do not belong to "our" group. Those who do not share our background cannot have our ability. Foreigners, people who are in a different economic status, and the young seem invariably to be regarded as intellectually backward, and constitutionally so, by natives, people in M our" economic status, and adults.
In education, for example, whenever a proposal is made that looks toward increased intellectual effort on the part of students, professors will always say that the students cannot do the work. My observation leads me to think that what this usually means is that the professors cannot or will not do the work that the suggested change requires. When, in spite of the opposition of the professors, the change has been introduced, the students, in my experience, have always responded nobly.
We cannot argue that, because those Irish peasant boys who became priests in the Middle Ages or those sons of American planters and businessmen who became the Founding Fathers of our country were expected as a matter of course to acquire their education through the liberal arts and great books, every person can be expected as a matter of course to acquire such an education today. We do not know the intelligent quotients of the medieval priests or of the Founding Fathers; they were probably high.
But such evidence as we have in our own time, derived from the experience of two or three colleges that have made the Great Conversation the basis of their course of study and from the experience of that large number of groups of adults who for the past eight years have been discussing great books in every part of the United States, suggests that the difficulties of extending this educational program to everybody may have been exaggerated.
Great books are great teachers; they are showing us every day what ordinary people are capable of. These books came out of ignorant, inquiring humanity. They are usually the first announcements of success in learning. Most of them were written for, and addressed to, ordinary people.
If many great books seem unreadable and unintelligible to the most learned as well as to the dullest, it may be because we have not for a long time learned to read by reading them. Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books.
This is not to say that any great book is altogether free from difficulty. As Aristotle remarked, learning is accompanied by pain. There is a sense in which every great book is always over the head of the reader; he can never fully comprehend it. That is why the books in this set are infinitely rereadable. That is why these books are great teachers; they demand the attention of the reader and keep his intelligence on the stretch.
As Whitehead has said, "Whenever a book is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for it cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place."
But are we to say that because these books are more difficult than detective stories, pulp magazines, and textbooks, therefore they are to remain the private property of scholars? Are we to hold that different rules obtain for books on the one hand and painting, sculpture, and music on the other? We do not confine people to looking at poor pictures and listening to poor music on the ground that they cannot understand good pictures and good music. We urge them to look at as many good pictures and hear as much good music as they can, convinced that this is the way in which they will come to understand and appreciate art and music. We would not recommend inferior substitutes, because we would be sure that they would degrade the public taste rather than lead it to better things.
If only the specialist is to be allowed access to these books, on the ground that it is impossible to understand them without "scholarship," if the attempt to understand them without "scholarship" is to be condemned as irremediable superficiality, then we shall be compelled to shut out the majority of mankind from some of the finest creations of the human mind. This is aristocracy with a vengeance.
Sir Richard Livingstone said, "No doubt a trained student will understand Aeschylus, Plato, Erasmus, and Pascal better than the man in the street; but that does not mean that the ordinary man cannot get a lot out of them. Am I not allowed to read Dante because he is full of contemporary allusions and my knowledge of his period is almost nil? Or Shakespeare, because if I had to do a paper on him in the Oxford Honours School of English literature, I should be lucky to get a fourth class? Am I not to look at a picture by Velasquez or Cezanne, because I shall understand and appreciate them far less than a painter or art critic would? Are you going to postpone any acquaintance with these great things to a day when we are all sufficiently educated to understand them a day that will never come? No, no. Sensible people read great books and look at great pictures knowing very little of Plato or Cezanne, or of the influences which moulded the thought or art of these men, quite aware of their own ignorance, but in spite of it getting a lot out of what they read or see."
Sir Richard goes on to refer to the remarks of T. S. Eliot: "In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about the poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better. An elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier. It is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship."
Even more important than the dogma of scholarship in keeping people from the books is the dogma of individual differences. This is one of the basic dogmas of American education. It runs like this: all men are different; therefore, all men require a different education; therefore, anybody who suggests that their education should be in any respect the same has ignored the fact that all men are different; therefore, nobody should suggest that everybody should read some of the same books; some people should read some books, some should read others. This dogma has gained such a hold on the minds of American educators that you will now often hear a college president boast that his college has no curriculum. Each student has a course of study framed, or "tailored" is the usual word, to meet his own individual needs and interests.
We should not linger long in discussing the question of whether a student at the age of eighteen should be permitted to determine the actual content of his education for himself. As we have a tendency to underrate the intelligence of the young, we have a tendency to overrate their experience and the significance of the expression of interests and needs on the part of those who are inexperienced. Educators ought to know better than their pupils what an education is. If educators do not, they have wasted their lives. The art of teaching consists in large part of interesting people in things that ought to interest them, but do not. The task of educators is to discover what an education is and then to invent the methods of interesting their students in it.
But I do not wish to beg the question. The question, in effect, is this: Is there any such thing as "an education"? The answer that is made by the devotees of the dogma of individual differences is No; there are as many different educations as there are different individuals; it is "authoritarian" to say that there is any education that is necessary, or even suitable, for every individual.
So Bertrand Russell once said to me that the pupil in school should study whatever he liked. I asked whether this was not a crime against the pupil. Suppose a boy did not like Shakespeare. Should he be allowed to grow up without knowing Shakespeare? And, if he did, would he not look back upon his teachers as cheats who had defrauded him of his cultural heritage? Lord Russell replied that he would require a boy to read one play of Shakespeare; if he did not like it, he should not be compelled to read any more.
I say that Shakespeare should be a part of the education of everybody. The point at which he is introduced into the course of study, the method of arousing interest in him, the manner in which he is related to the problems of the present may vary as you will. But Shakespeare should be there because of the loss of understanding, because of the impoverishment, that results from his absence. The comprehension of the tradition in which we live and our ability to communicate with others who live in the same tradition and to interpret our tradition to those who do not live in it are drastically affected by the omission of Shakespeare from the intellectual and artistic experience of any of us.
If any common program is impossible, if there is no such thing as an education that everybody ought to have, then we must admit that any community is impossible. All men are different; but they are also the same. As we must all become specialists, so we must all become men. In view of the ample provision that is now made for the training of specialists, in view of the divisive and disintegrative effects of specialism, and in view of the urgent need for unity and community, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the present crisis calls first of all for an education that shall emphasize those respects in which men are the same, rather than those in which they are different. The West needs an education that draws out our common humanity rather than our individuality. Individual differences can be taken into account in the methods that are employed and in the opportunities for specialization that may come later.
In this connection we might recall the dictum of Rousseau: "It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church, or the law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man . . . When he leaves me, he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be a man."
If there is an education that everybody should have, how is it to be worked out? Educators are dodging their responsibility if they do not make the attempt; and I must confess that I regard the popularity of the dogma of individual differences as a manifestation of a desire on the part of educators to evade a painful but essential duty. The Editors of this set believe that these books should be central in education. But if anybody can suggest a program that will better accomplish the object they have in view, they will gladly embrace him and it.
The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins