Theory of Education in the United States (1932). An MP3
audio file of this article, narrated by Joel Sams, is available
that I am appointed to discuss is the theory of education in the
United States. This discussion has its difficulties. It brings
us face to face with a good many serious disappointments. It calls
for the re-examination and criticism of a good many matters which
seemed comfortably settled, and which we would rather leave undisturbed.
The most discouraging difficulty about this discussion, however,
is that apparently it cannot lead to any so-called practical conclusion;
certainly not to any conclusion, as far as I can see, which will
at all answer to the general faith in machinery as an effective
substitute for thought, and the general reliance upon machinery
alone to bring about any and all forms of social improvement.
had come before the Athenians with some fine new piece of machinery
like a protective tariff, workmen's compensation, old-age pensions,
collective ownership of the means of production, or whatnot
if he had told them that what they must do to be saved was simply
to install his piece of machinery forthwith, and set it going
no doubt he would have interested a number of people, perhaps
enough to put him in office as the standard-bearer of an enlightened
and progressive liberalism. When he came before them, however,
with nothing to say but "Know thyself," they found his
discourse unsatisfactory, and became impatient with him.
So if a discussion
of our educational theory could be made to lead to something that
we might call "constructive" that is to say,
something that is immediately and mechanically practicable, like
honor schools or a new type of housing or a new style of entrance
examinations one might hope to make it rather easily acceptable.
There seems no way to do this. The only large reforms indicated
by a thorough discussion of the topic are such as must be put
down at once as quite impracticable on general grounds, and the
minor mechanical changes that are indicated seem also impracticable
on special grounds, besides having the appearance of uncertain
value and therefore being unlikely to command interest.
this rather barren prospect for our discussion, one thing may
perhaps redeem it from absolute sterility which is that
we are presumably always better off for knowing just where we
are, and for being able to identify and measure the forces which
are at play upon us. I do not wish to adduce too depressing a
parallel in saying that diagnosis has value even in a hopeless
case. Hopelessness in many cases, for instance in cases of incipient
tuberculosis, as you know, is circumstantial, and circumstances
may change; it is almost never flatly impossible that they should
change. Diagnosis, then, has obvious value when it shows only
that in those circumstances the case is hopeless; and even
when it reveals the case as hopeless in any circumstances, it
affords at least the melancholy satisfaction of knowing just where
We may observe
then, in the first place, that our educational system has always
been the object of strong adverse criticism. No one has ever been
especially well satisfied with it, or well pleased with the way
it worked; no one, I mean, whose opinion was at the same time
informed and disinterested, and therefore worth attention. Late
in the last century, Ernest
Renan said that "countries which, like the United States,
have set up a considerable popular instruction without any serious
higher education, will long have to expiate their error by their
intellectual mediocrity, the vulgarity of their manners, their
superficial spirit, their failure in general intelligence."
This is very hard language, and I do not propose, for the moment,
that we should undertake to say how far its severity may be fairly
regarded as justifiable.
I may, however,
ask you to notice two things: first, the distinction which M.
Renan draws between instruction and education, and second, his
use of the word intelligence. We shall not lay down a definition
of education in set terms here at the outset of our discussion;
I think it would be more satisfactory if, with your permission,
we should gradually work toward the expression of our idea of
what education is, and of what an educated person is like. It
is sometimes, indeed often, difficult to construct in set terms
the definition of an object which we nevertheless recognize at
once for what it is, and about which we have no possible manner
of doubt. I could not to save my life, for instance, make a definition
of an oyster; yet I am sure I know an oyster when I see one. Moreover,
in looking at an oyster, I can point out a number of differentiations,
more or less rough and superficial, perhaps, but quite valid in
helping to determine my knowledge. So in gradually building up
an expression of our idea of education, we find the distinction
drawn by M. Renan especially useful.
are not fully aware of the extent to which instruction and education
are accepted as being essentially the same thing. I think you
would find, if you looked into it, for instance, that all the
formal qualifications for a teacher's position rest on this understanding.
A candidate is certificated is he not? merely as
having been exposed satisfactorily to a certain kind of instruction
for a certain length of time, and therefore he is assumed eligible
to a position which we all agree that only an educated person
should fill. Yet he may not be at all an educated person, but
only an instructed person. We have seen many such, and five minutes'
talk with one of them is quite enough to show that the understanding
of instruction as synonymous with education is erroneous. They
are by no means the same thing. Let us go no further at present
in trying to determine what education is, but merely take note
that it is not the same thing as instruction.
Let us keep
that differentiation in mind, never losing sight of it for a moment,
and considering carefully every point in the practice of pedagogy
at which it is applicable. If we do this, I venture to predict
that we shall turn up an astonishing number of such points, and
that our views of current pedagogy will be very considerably modified
in consequence. An educated man must be in some sort instructed;
but it is a mere non
distributio medii to say that an instructed person must
be an educated person.
useful distinction comes out in M. Renan's use of the word intelligence.
To most of us, I think, that word does not mean the same thing
that it means to a Frenchman, or that the word Intelligenz means
to a German. To a Frenchman like M. Renan, intelligence does not
mean a quickness of wit, a ready dexterity in handling ideas,
or even a ready accessibility to ideas. It implies those, of course,
but it does not mean them; and one should perhaps say in passing
that it does not mean the pert and ignorant cleverness that current
vulgar usage has associated with the word.
is our common day-to-day experience that gives us the best possible
assistance in establishing the necessary differentiations. We
have all seen men who were quick-witted, accessible to ideas,
and handy with their management of them, whom we should yet hesitate
to call intelligent; we are conscious that the term does not quite
fit. The word sends us back to a phrase of Plato. The person of
intelligence is the one who always tends to "see things as
they are," the one who never permits his view of them to
be directed by convention, by the hope of advantage, or by an
irrational and arbitrary authoritarianism. He allows the current
of his consciousness to flow in perfect freedom over any object
that may be presented to it, uncontrolled by prejudice, prepossession,
or formula; and thus we may say that there are certain integrities
at the root of intelligence which give it somewhat the aspect
of a moral as well as an intellectual attribute.
laid up the benefit of a couple of extremely valuable fundamental
distinctions, we are now perhaps in a position to discern more
clearly the force of M. Renan's criticism of our educational system.
Some 10 or 15 years after M. Renan made these observations, we
find a curious corroboration of them which is especially worth
citing because it was made by one upon whom no suspicion of superciliousness
can rest. Walt Whitman was "the good grey poet" of the
common life, the prophet of the social mean. His love for America
and his faith in its institutions may, I believe, be admitted
without question. His optimism was robust and obtrusive; one might
call it flagrant.
Yet we find
him reflecting with great severity upon "a certain highly
deceptive superficial popular intellectuality" which he found
existing in our society of the late 1870s. He goes beyond this
to say that "our New World Democracy," whatever its
success in other directions, "is, so far, an almost complete
failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious,
moral, literary and aesthetic results."
was a foreigner and an academician, and his criticism, we may
say, is to be taken subject to discount; he could not be expected
to appraise properly the spirit of America. Well, but, here we
have Whitman who was just the opposite of a foreigner and an academician,
who is accepted everywhere and by all as of the very spirit of
America here we have Whitman bearing out M. Renan's criticism
at every point.
What is an
educational system for, one may ask, if not to produce social
results precisely opposite to those which M. Renan testified before
the fact, and Whitman testified, after the fact, were characteristic
of our country? If our system, then, could do no better than it
was doing, it should be forthwith taken in hand and overhauled.