Rationality in Education

John Dewey

Published in The Social Frontier, December, 1936. Vol. lII, No. 21, pp. 71-73.

It happens that in the last few weeks I have been reading two books, both published this year, one written by an Englishman and one by an American. These books are superficially extraordinarily similar and fundamentally extraordinarily different. The two books are Lancelot Hogben's The Retreat from Reason and President Hutchins' The Higher Learning in America. Both of them are brief, one consisting of eighty-two pages, the other of one hundred and nineteen pages. Both books present material first given in public addresses. Both deal with basic educational problems in relation to contemporary conditions. Both are troubled deeply about education as it now exists and about contemporary life. Both are concerned with the place of reason and understanding in education and in life, Professor Hogben being profoundly affected by the eclipse of intelligence characteristic of present society and President Hutchins saying that the "most important job that can be performed in the United States is first to establish higher education on a rational basis, and second, to make our people understand it." Both books deserve the most serious attention and study on the part of educators.


At this point similarity ceases, save that there is some degree of agreement in spirit, if not in words, as to the causes that have occasioned our present ills. The profound difference between the two books, a difference which leads them to opposite condusions, lies in the conceptions respectively entertained by the two men as to the nature of what both call by the same name -- Reason. Mr. Hutchins looks to Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas in order to discover the nature of Reason and its modes of operation; Mr. Hogben looks to the activities of experimental science as the place in which to discover its real nature. To Mr. Hutchins the sciences represent in the main the unmitigated empiricism which is a great curse of modern life, while to Mr. Hogben the conceptions and methods which Mr. Hutchins takes to be the true and final definition of rationality are obscurantist and fatally reactionary, while their survival in economic theory and other branches of social "science" is the source of intellectual irrelevance of the latter to the fundamental problems of our present culture. Indeed, these disciplines are more than irrelevant and futile. They are literally terrible in their distraction of social intelligence and activity from genuine social problems and from the only methods by which the problems can be met.

This basic difference reflects itself in the authors' treatment of every aspect of education and social culture, both in themselves and in their connection with one another. Of these aspects I select three for special consideration: the constitution of human nature, the relation of theory and action, and the method of the working and development of "reason."


President Hutchins is quite sure that the elements of human nature are fixed and constant. They "are the same in any time and place." One great business of education is "to draw out the elements of our common human nature." "The truth is everywhere the same." Hence, omitting details, "the heart of education will be, if education is rightly understood, the same at any time, in any place, under any political, social, or economic conditions." Mr. Hogben emphasizes equally common elements in human nature. But these elements are needs, and therefore the first questions to be considered "are whether the common needs of men as members of the same species, phylum, and type of matter, are at present satisfied, what resources for satisfying them exist, and how far these resources are used." Moreover, the needs in question are growing, not fixed; the needs for food, for protection, for reproduction, for example, are always the same in the abstract, but in the concrete they and the means of satisfying them change their content with every change in science, technology, and social institutions.


The bearing of this difference upon the relation of theory and social practice is close and direct. President Hutchins feels strongly that the invasion of vocationalism is the great curse of contemporary education. Mr. Hogben would agree as far as by vocational "we usually mean that [which] helps us gain a livelihood irrespective of the social usefulness of the occupation chosen." But the isolation of existing education, taken generally, from connection with social usefulness in distinction from personal pecuniary advancement, is the chief ground of his criticism of that education. The exaltation of knowledge as something too "pure" to be contaminated by contact with human needs and the resources available for satisfying them, he puts on the same level as the prostitution of learning to serve those needs of individuals that are due to the existence of competitive, acquisitive, pecuniary economic-social institutions and ideals -- if they can be called ideals. He quotes with approval the saying of Bacon that "the true and lawful goal of science is to endow life with new powers and inventions"; that of Boyle to value "knowledge save as it tends to use," and of Thomas Huxley, "the great end of life is not knowledge but action."

The educational implications of this position contrast with the conclusion which President Hutchins logically draws from his conception of the nature of knowledge and action in their relations to one another. Higher education is to be purified and reformed according to him by complete separation of general and "liberal" education from professional and technical education. The student having exclusively acquired in the liberal college the basic principles of knowledge in a purely theoretical way and having thereby learned "correct thinking," will later proceed to studies that prepare him exclusively for some line of practical activity.* Moreover, even in the latter there will be as little connection with "experience" as possible, later practical life supplying the factor of experience, which Aristotle and St. Thomas have already shown to be merely empirical, to be nonrational save as parts of it may be deductively derived from the eternal first principles of rational knowledge.


Mr. Hogben is himself a scientist of standing as well as a humanist in the only sense in which I can attach meaning to that much abused word. I should give a totally wrong impression if what I have quoted from him indicates that he has a low conception of the value of knowledge and the search for it. On the contrary, the idea of the intimate connection that exists between the very nature of knowledge and such action as is socially useful (rather than socially harmful) carries with it the conclusion that students would obtain more knowledge in a more significant way and have a deeper and more enduring apprehension of the meaning of truth, if the facts and ideas acquired in school had some vital connection with basic social needs, with the resources available for common satisfaction of them, and with an understanding of the forces that now prevent these resources from being used. The methods of getting knowledge are to him best exemplified in the natural sciences and most badly represented in the present methods of the so-called social sciences. He calls, therefore, for more science, taught very differently from the way in which it is now taught; for the necessity of science in the education of those who are to control, directly and indirectly, political life; and for the closest association between the teaching of human history and the course of scientific advance. While he does not discuss the question of "truth," I take it that he would agree that "truth is the same everywhere," though he might well be chary of speaking of the truth. But just because truth is so important, the methods of arriving at it are the things of primary importance in education and in life.

To President Hutchins on the contrary truth only needs to be taught and learned. Somehow or other it is there, and there is something in existence called the Intellect that is ready to apprehend it. The truth is embodied in "permanent studies" as distinct from progressive studies. As with the great masters, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas, the eternal and the changing are in sharp opposition to each other. And there is no doubt as to what are the permanent studies with permanent content. They are the three arts, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, which constituted the trivia of the university in those medieval days when knowledge was organized and universities were universities -- though the historian might say that they were most of all professional schools. Then there are the classics, though not necessarily taught in the original language, and mathematics; and "of the mathematical studies chiefly those that use the type of exposition that Euclid employed" -- a somewhat curious statement in view of the fact that contemporary logicians recognize the many logical defects in the Euclidean exposition, while working scientists would agree, I think, that of all branches of mathematics it is the one that is of least importance in their pursuits. As for science, "the Physics of Aristotle, which deals with change and motion in nature, is fundamental to the natural sciences and to medicine." In contrast with these permanent studies, what is now called the "scientific spirit" consists in gathering facts indiscriminately and hoping for the best. The basis and keystone of the entire educational arch is metaphysics, which it would appear, though no specimens are given, is also an established system of permanent truths. It is concerned in any case with "things highest by nature, first principles, and first causes."

It is not to be inferred that all "empirical" studies are excluded by President Hutchins. Information, historical and current, may be introduced in the degree that "such data illustrate or confirm principles or assist in their development." But all other studies including the natural and social sciences are to be pursued in "subordination" to the "hierarchy of truths." These empirical studies would proceed, in accord with the classic logic of antiquity and the middle ages, "from first principles to whatever recent observations are significant in understanding them."**


In a subsequent article I propose to discuss some of the definitely educational questions raised by the two conflicting conceptions presented in these two books. In this article I have presented a problem in very general outline. I agree with both of the writers in holding that present education is disordered and confused. The problem as to the direction in which we shall seek for order and clarity is the most important question facing education and educators today. Teaches and administrators are not given to asking what the nature of knowledge is, as distinct from the subject-matter that is taken to be known, nor by what methods knowledge is genuinely attained -- as distinct from the methods by which the facts and ideas that are taken to be known shall be taught and learned. These two books taken together serve to prerent the problem in its two aspects with extraordinary clarity. Until educators have faced the problem and made an intelligent choice between the contrasting conceptions represented in these two books, I see no great hope for unified progress in the reorganization of studies and methods in the schools.


* The completeness of the separation set up is indicated by such passages as the following: "I concede the probable necessity in some fields of practical training which the young man or woman should have before being permitted to engage in the independent practice of a profession. Since by definition this training cannot be intellectual, and since by definition a university must be intellectual, this type of specific training for specific jobs cannot be conducted as part of the university's work." [Back]

** Mr. Hogben's idea about such methods may be gathered from the following quotation, which in its context refers to economics as deduced from "rational" first principles: "We can only conclude that economics, as studied in our universities, is the astrology of the Machine Age; it provides the same kind of intellectual relief as chess, in which success depends entirely on knowing the initial definition of moves and proeesses of checking, casting, etc. . . . In science the final arbiter is not the self-evidence of the initial statement, nor the facade of flawless logic that conceals it. A scientific law embodies a recipe for doing something, and its final validation rests in the domain of action." [Back]