Published in Philosophy in American Education: Its Tasks and Opportunities, 1943. pp. 118-142.
THE COLLEGES, LIBERAL EDUCATION, & PHILOSOPHY
Curt J. Ducasse
I. College Education on Trial II. The Dimensions of Education III. Liberal Education
IV. The Function of Philosophy in Liberal Education
- Liberation from Bondage to Blind Impulse
- Liberation from Bondage to Ignorance
- The Dimensions of Perspective
- Integration of the Curriculum
- The Quickening of Intellectual Initiative
College education has been for some time the object of many criticisms and proposals for reform. Some of these are related to the question this chapter ultimately aims to answer, namely, what specific role in college education philosophy has to play.
Evidently, this question has to be viewed in the context of these criticisms and proposals. But even then, if the answer one offers is not to be arbitrary, it must be reached in the light of a clear idea both of what human education in the most inclusive sense would comprise and of the nature and function of the particular sort of education called liberal. For liberal education seems to be like true love and the apparition of ghosts, of which La Rochefoucauld says that everyone speaks, though few have seen either. A precise idea of what liberal education is and is good for seems rarely to underlie the praises of it, the strictures upon it, or the proposals for its reform.
This chapter, accordingly, has four main parts. In the first, the chief current criticisms of college education are summarized, their relevance is weighed, and brief comments are made on two philosophies of education much drawn upon today for suggestions as to improvement. In the second part, an outline of the variety of things an education of the whole of a human being would have to include is given as background for the conception, sharply defined in part three, of the nature and function of an education specifically "liberal." Finally, the sort of occasions on which man finds philosophical reflection necessary are briefly described; the nature and utility of the fruits of such reflection are pointed out; and, in the light of this, the particular role the study of philosophy has to play in liberal education as conceived in part three is made clear.
I. College Education on Trial
The education provided in our colleges of liberal arts is today on trial -- not for its life, but for its right to sacrifices of money, time, and effort on the scale that has been approved by the high esteem it has enjoyed.
The indictment is manifold and severe. But the most inclusive and loudly voiced criticism -- which would account both for the diversity of the more specific ones and for such real defects as they may point to -- is that college education is today uncertain as to its own functions and therefore as to its proper content, methods, and proximate goals. A clear conception of the nature, the specific utility, and the value of liberal education as distinguished from technical training is, it is charged, possessed neither by our students, nor by their parents, nor even by the faculties of the colleges.
The professors are indeed convinced of the great importance of liberal education. But they understand its nature variously and vaguely -- too vaguely for definite criteria to emerge by which to appraise objectively the individual role and relative importance of various subjects and methods. The students are in the dark as to the reasons for learning what they are asked to learn, and the teachers nearly as much in the dark as to the reasons for teaching it. The result, it is alleged, is educational chaos.
Such, in broad terms, is the case for the prosecution. It is what has furnished, if not the needed light, at least the heat out of which have been born in this generation a number of widely publicized educational experiments.
How Far Is the Indictment Fair?
I have no mind to act as attorney for the defense of the status quo in college education, for I believe that, if the colleges are wise, they will begin by acknowledging that many of the criticisms have some foundations in fact. But they will also insist that, to judge sanely their defects and appraise intelligently the proposals for reform, the facts must first be stated truly and the responsibilities for the defects allocated fairly.
The colleges will point out, for example, that it is simply not true that college education is worse today than during some past educational golden age in which everything was for the best in the best of all possible educational worlds; for no such golden age has ever existed. If there ever was an epoch smug enough to be satisfied with its educational institutions, this very fact was the most damning evidence of their defectiveness. And the vigor and keenness of the current criticism of college education testifies that, after all, the education the colleges gave the critics was not so bad. Hence when men of distinguished cultural achievements claim, as occasionally they do, that they graduated from college virtually illiterate, the claim, one suspects, springs neither from the demands of honesty nor from those of modesty, but only veils in amiable pretense a lively conviction that nature endowed them with superior abilities.
Students who desire a good education and have the capacity for it can obtain it today more readily and in far greater numbers than ever before, notwithstanding the strains and upsets in the curricula of our colleges. These are traceable in part to the fact that the knowledge the colleges seek to pass on to their students includes much formerly unknown; and in part to the fact that mass education at the college level is an undertaking without precedent, which creates novel problems not to be solved in a day. To the individual, who has but his own few years to live and is naturally impatient, the process of solving them seems tragically slow; but history, with its broader perspective, will probably judge it to have been swift.
Moreover, the fact must be faced that society stands now between two worlds. For today there is something new under the sun. Thanks to the practical applications of scientific research, man, for the first time in history, has at hand such power over the processes of nature that, if he but chooses so to use it, he can abolish from the face of the earth the helpless poverty that always in the past has condemned to hunger, ignorance, disease, and frustration the vast numbers of men who were neither exceptionally lucky nor more greatly endowed than the majority with intelligence, vigor, or ruthlessness.
The ferment brought by the dim vision of a now possible better world affects all our institutions, and among them the colleges. There as elsewhere it acts to release man's thought from the confining channels of habit; but it also takes from some of his beliefs and modes of action the assurance that habit had generated. The colleges, which, like other features of our society, have grown from roots in the past, are troubled by the present disturbances of the old soil; and they, too, are perplexed as to the contribution specifically theirs to make toward the shaping of the future.
Proposals to Turn Back the Clock
The education provided in the medieval universities at their best is sometimes held up as an example of education ordered by unifying principles. But these were, or rested on, a set of religious dogmas then generally accepted. These dogmas had the status of articles of faith rather than of facts scientifically established, and some of them are widely questioned today. They did provide a basis for order in education, but order is not by itself a guarantee of truth or of worth, since error, folly and tyranny can also be systematized and institutionalized, and indeed have to be so if they are to maintain themselves.
On the other hand, lack of order or unity can mean -- and in our colleges today doubtless does in part mean -- that the horizon of values acknowledged has so broadened, and the harvest of facts discovered and of powers acquired become so rich, that time has not yet sufficed to integrate all this adequately in thought and practice. But, plainly, the remedy does not lie in so contracting this horizon and so ignoring or belittling this harvest that only so much of what they offer is kept as can be fitted into some authoritarian synthesis elaborated earlier. Rather, what wisdom commands is to put the best resources of constructive imagination, of rational, open-minded experimentation, and of sympathy with natural human aspirations to work at the task of formulating a philosophy of life and of education that will do justice to all aspects of the picture as we discern it today.
There is no good reason to believe that men wise enough to contribute to a task of this sort only lived and wrote in the past. Were Aristotle reborn in our day, it is safe to say that, for the conceptions of the universe, of man, and of education he would now give us he would not depend on the authority of his ancient writings, but on the same admirable powers of scientific observation, criticism, and theoretical construction he employed before so effectively to push forward the knowledge and thought of his time.
The movement called "new" or "progressive" education leans on a philosophy of education quite different from the one, just commented upon, which would found college education on the metaphysics of ancient and medieval thinkers and have it proceed exclusively by study of great books of the past. This philosophy has been subjected to penetrating criticisms by some of the representatives of the progressive movement, who, be it said to their praise, have also not been backward in exposing, within their own camp, the follies for which what one of them has aptly called its "lunatic fringe" has been responsible.
The philosophy to which the advocates of progressive education are wont to appeal rightly proclaims that scientific methods of inquiry are the only available roads to knowledge; that these imply open-minded readiness to look into the evidence for and against any proposition and to accept the verdict to which the evidence points; and that knowledge -- even if only of probabilities -- is, when one can get it, a better means to realize one's purposes than are blind beliefs even if these travel under high-sounding aliases.
But a number of the more specific propositions on which even some of the ablest protagonists of progressivism would base educational reform are open to criticism as sinning against the very scientific spirit they profess to take as guide.
One such sin has been the espousal of a naturalistic conception of the destiny of man no less dogmatic in its negations than is, in its affirmations, the conception of his destiny held by the supernaturalism so faithfully denounced. For, although the falsity of some of the latter's affirmations is indeed demonstrable, this is by no means the case with all of them; and, where falsity has not been demonstrated, negation is no less dogmatic than is affirmation where truth has not been established. The scientific course in such instances would be to suspend judgment and to realize that, if one chooses or is forced by the need for action to bet on one side or the other, one is gambling either way.
Another sin has been readiness to adopt uncritically a theory of knowledge holding that "all learning is a matter of making over experiences in terms of what we can do with things and situations or in terms of what they will do to us."1 Evidently an "opera-tionalism" thus narrowly anthropocentric ignores the fact that most of what scientists learn through their researches concerns what things other than ourselves do to one another when in certain relations, no matter whether brought into those relations by man or otherwise, and no matter whether man can do anything with the effects the things cause in one another.
Yet another sin has been the tendency to assume that "scientific" is synonymous with "experimental"; whereas in fact experimentation is but one of the procedures by which science grows. And again, the proposition that man discovers step by step what he wants has been accepted so uncritically that the half of truth in it has obscured the half of error. This has meant in practice that, when decisions were to be made, the considerations obvious and immediate were too often assumed a priori to be more significant than those deeper hidden or more distant. Tactics thus easily come to supplant strategy.
This brief notice of a few of the dubious propositions on which progressivism is wont to found its concrete counsels suggests that the scientific spirit to which it declares allegiance cannot without scrutiny in each case be assumed to pervade them. And what is true of the word "scientific" is true also of the adjective "democratic." Protagonists of the "new education" often seek to tie up their ideas with democracy. But, like others of us, they are wont to use the word in a variety of senses. Sometimes, for example, democracy means to them something that, in the concrete and to unprejudiced eyes, is hardly distinguishable from anarchy. Sometimes, it means the rule of the majority. Sometimes, it means a certain way of dealing with social conflicts -- which, unpragmatically enough, seems held by them to be best even where it does not work or is impracticable. Sometimes, at the cost of an etymological miracle, it means the negation of all absolutes. And sometimes, "democracy" appears to be used as but the name of something the nature of which we all wish we knew, that is, as the name of such form of society as would ensure the greatest welfare of all its members. When democracy is invoked, a shift unawares from one to another of these meanings of the term easily results in non-sequitur. And it is well to watch out for this, for our devotion to democracy makes the word readily capable of acting in education and elsewhere as a psychological sugar-coating for conceptions and proposals that might have little chance of gaining our approval if they were presented to us naked.
II. The Dimensions of Education
Fortunately, we need not wait, for an adequate conception of education, until the meaning of democracy has been cleared up; for something else -- certain evils -- are clear and directly relevant to our task. These are that men everywhere are actually more ignorant, undiscern-ing, selfish, unskilled, weak, insensitive, clumsy, callous, sickly, cruel, uncouth, wanton, and unjust than human beings need be. It is also clear that these defects stand in the way of the welfare and happiness of man. But, luckily, man is the "animal with red cheeks": alone capable of self-scrutiny, he blushes when he perceives his shortcomings, and takes steps as best he can to improve himself or at least his fellows. These steps are called education.
The dimensions of education are as many as those of the human personality, and, to provide the background we need for the analysis of liberal education, we must now indicate briefly the chief of these dimensions, and what education comprises in the case of each.
The kind of education one is likely to think of first is intellectual education. It has a double aspect: it seeks to develop the mental powers and it seeks to build in knowledge won by earlier generations. Some say today that it does not much matter what one studies, because the important thing is to learn to think and to develop intellectual initiative. But this is an extreme view. In every age and place there is a minimum of knowledge each person ought to have, and much beyond this minimum it would be desirable he should have; for without it a man is in life as in a forest without map, compass, or woods lore. To orient himself, man needs broad knowledge over a systematically diversified range; and, to function effectively at the place in life to which his own aptitudes and opportunities lead him, he needs knowledge detailed, precise, and thorough about the matters directly connected with that station.
Development of the intellectual powers, on the other hand, means cultivation of such things as the habit of verifying; as skill in formulating exactly and in logical order facts observed and ideas about them; as capacity for cogent inference; as practical grasp of the requirements of fruitful experimentation; and so on. Powers; -- these like any others -- are developed only by exercise, and it is to their cultivation that the maxim "learn by doing" validly applies. It does not mean, as sometimes mistakenly supposed, that one should seek to discover for oneself even facts it took perhaps days or years to detect, when they can be quickly learned from the records of them handed us by their discoverers. Ability to learn from others is one of the capacities most useful to cultivate.
Intellectual powers -- scientific habits of mind -- can be developed. But this does not mean that, having developed them by exercise on the problems of one field, one can then bring them to bear on the problems of another without first acquiring knowledge of the facts and theories of the latter field. For knowledge also of this is needed if one is to be able even to understand its problems. If "transfer of training" is taken to mean that scientific habits of mind free one from this need, then it is the name of a myth. On the other hand, a person who approaches a field of inquiry new to him with such habits already well established has from the first an immense advantage over another who is not only, like himself, without knowledge of that field, but also without such habits.
Besides intellectual education, man needs education to develop the practical skills requisite for the various material and social operations of life. Some of these skills -- such as running a linotype or a factory -- need be mastered by only a few persons. Other skilled operations -- such as tying one's shoelaces or speaking, reading, and writing the simple words needed for the basic transactions of daily life -- everyone needs to learn. Worth particular mention in this connection is a certain psychological skill usually well developed among politicians, salesmen, and diplomats, but of value to any man. It is social dexterity -- the skill to deal effectively with other human beings in the variety of personal relations one has with them.
Another dimension of an education of the whole man would be aesthetic and artistic education. It includes, for one thing, development of the capacity to discern among colors, shapes, tones, textures, odors, flavors, and so on, differences and other relations otherwise unnoticed. Such discrimination is the basis of taste; and, in the education of it, the works of the decorative and the free arts have a role analogous to that of scientific treatises in the education of the intellect. But there is also such a thing as learning to appreciate the immense variety and subtle nuances of human sentiments, moods, feelings, and attitudes. Here the most educative material consists of the various kinds of dramatic literature -- novels, poems, dramas, biographies; that is, works that depict human characters in typical situations, into which the reader can project himself in imagination and thus gain vicariously a wealth and variety of emotional experience he could neither obtain nor afford in his own person. Furthermore, the education of man in the aesthetic dimension of his being has also an active side -- cultivation of the capacity to express creatively his own sensory and emotional experiences. For although great natural aptitude is as rare here as elsewhere, yet capacity for self-expression in some art medium is no rarer, nor intrinsically harder to develop, than is the capacity to express in writing such thoughts as one may have.
Yet another sort of education, which today as in ancient times is recognized as necessary, is physical education. From the standpoint of its possible contribution to the lives of most persons, what it should seek to achieve is best suggested by the reflection that man's body is both the most useful and the most irreplaceable of his domestic animals. It is the vehicle of all his experiences and the primary implement of all his undertakings. Physical education, then, should seek to equip the individual with the physical habits and powers that will bring him bodily health and efficiency.
One more dimension of human education is what, without attempting to describe it in the technical language of psychology, one may call education of the will. It seeks to develop self-discipline -- man's capacity to make himself do what he can do and desires to do. Gifted young people, of whom much was expected, too often for lack of having cultivated it disappoint others and themselves in the course of the years. To educate this capacity, one rewards perseverance, firmness of purpose, fortitude, and readiness to take pains in situations, repeatedly provided, that call for this; and penalizes sloth, procrastination, and surrender to hampering petty habits or irrelevant momentary impulses.
Last but not least in the list are moral and spiritual education. If the two are to be distinguished, a hint for this is to be found in the difference between selfish men, righteous men, and good men. Moral education will, then, mean the education that seeks to make a man righteous; and spiritual, the education that seeks to go beyond this and cultivate in him nobility of spirit and goodness of heart.
The selfish man is he who thinks only of what he wants and can get, without caring what injury his getting it may work on others. Moral or righteous, on the other hand, is the man whose rule in dealing with others is simply that of justice -- of fair exchange or compensation. He complies with his obligations and requires others to do the same; but he feels no call to do more than he owes or accept less than owed him. Some of the things required by justice as so conceived are codified in the laws of the land and enforced by the courts; and the penalties threatened or imposed for violations may be reckoned among the instruments of moral education. Righteousness or justice is the most but also the least a man's fellows feel they have the right to demand of him. It rightly calls forth esteem, for its social value is great; but generosity of spirit is no part of it, and hence it does not call forth love.
Spiritual education, on the other hand, seeks to make a man not merely just but good. The good man is he who, going beyond what mere justice or duty requires of him, is kind, merciful, compassionate, and finds direct satisfaction in promoting the welfare of others. Spiritual education, then, might be called the "education of the heart." It is the sort of education the great religious teachers have been essentially concerned to bring. From this point of view, the particular dogmas of the religions they founded are in essence postulated premises of an argument for brotherliness among men.
The churches have been the agencies traditionally in charge of the sort of education that aims to humanize man in this sense. That their attempts to perform this task have not been too efficacious is evident enough, and the proposal has recently been made that the state should be put in charge of it. The "state," however, would in practice mean certain persons, who would doubtless be selected as other government officials ordinarily are, and would also be subject to the same pressures. This hardly warrants expecting that they would possess in the necessary measure the intelligence, the selflessness, and the breadth of sympathy the task calls for; or that they would be allowed to exercise these if they possessed them. Rather, to arm those officials with the power of the state would be as likely as in some historical instances to beget only a vested tyranny over the beliefs of men.
The "Universal Nature" of Man and of Education
The foregoing brief description of some of the chief dimensions of the human personality and its education provides at the same time an account of what is true in the claim -- which some today would take as major premise for an educational revolution -- that, although individuals differ from one another and change, nevertheless, human nature does not alter, and is one and the same in all men.
What is true in this claim is only that all men have bodies equipped with the sensory and other organs necessary to life; that all men can to some extent observe, learn, and reason; that they can acquire more or less well various forms of material and of social dexterity; that all have some capacity for aesthetic appreciation and artistic creation; again, that they all need and are capable of some self-discipline; that, in various degrees, they can learn to be just, and even to deal with their fellows kindly and with generous spirit. In these and some other similarly abstract respects, men, because they are men, indeed are and always have been alike.
But this does not entail that education has one and the same nature always and everywhere -- unless, of course, one describes education in equally generic abstract terms and says that, always and everywhere, education consists in developing these various human capacities as far as circumstances may permit, in whatever relative proportions given cases may call for, and in whatever ways may be there most effective. For this, but nothing more than this, constitutes the changeless universal nature of education. Obviously, however, no specific counsels, but only counsels of perfection, follow from it. It does not tell us, for example, what particular sort of education is "liberal"; nor for what or for whom this kind of education is especially appropriate; nor what parts of a liberal education it is the special task of colleges to provide; nor what sort of curriculum or educational methods are best adapted to perform it. Nor does it answer the question with which we are in the end concerned here, namely, what is the specific function of the study of philosophy in a liberal education and how can it best be discharged? These, however, are the sorts of questions on which a philosophy of liberal education must throw light.
III. Liberal Education
Let us, therefore, now attempt to define what men appear to have had in mind when, through the centuries, they have spoken of liberal education.
For this purpose, it will be well to refer to what Aristotle says on the subject in his Politics; for the subsequent history of the conception of liberal education has largely consisted of attempts to interpret or amend his remarks.
Aristotle holds that the best, most truly human sort of life is one characterized by what he calls arete. By this term -- usually but not too well translated as virtue -- he means the combination of two things. One is intellectual virtue, that is, excellence of the rational faculties in their theoretical and practical employments. The other is ethical virtue -- readiness, as a result of established right habits, always to act as reason directs rather than, as the passions would prompt, blindly. And, for Aristotle, libearal education is the sort of education that makes men virtuous in this twofold sense.
His conception of it is presented in terms of the place such education had in the social structure of a Greek state of his time; and his discussion of its content, which is incomplete, is naturally in terms only of such "liberal arts" as were cultivated in his day. That it was education for a leisure class, not for the slaves or even the artisans of that epoch, is true enough; but to say simply this is to misrepresent Aristotle's idea. A fairer statement would be that for him liberal education is the sort of education that fits a man, who has power in the community and is free to employ his time as he chooses, to employ it in a manner worthy of the responsibilities that go with the privileges of his position.
This conception is connected only accidentally with the particular distribution of leisure and labor that existed in Greek society, but it is connected vitally with the difference between two kinds of education.
One kind, which may be called training, aims essentially at developing specific technological or vocational skills. It seeks mastery over certain operations largely through rehearsal of them -- with only the aid of so much information or theory as is directly needed to ensure that the operations shall successfully achieve the contemplated results. This is education for a skilled job. When a help-wanted notice states that only experienced men need apply, this is the sort of "experience" meant. Whether such education be acquired through apprenticeship "on the job" or through instruction, examples, and practice provided in specialized trade and vocational schools, it is evidently education indispensable for the efficient performance of a vast majority of the operations vital to the affairs of men in our society. Hence to distinguish it -- as technological or vocational education -- from liberal education is in no way to disparage it in comparison with the latter. It is only to call attention to the particular nature and value of a vocational education, and to underline the fact that liberal education is another sort of thing with another sort of value. Neither of these two kinds of education is a possible substitute for the other.
The fruits of liberal education, however, are not usually of kinds that can be touched with the hand or seen with the physical eye, as can those of technological training. At a time when the importance of the latter is so obvious, men of prominence and vision have emphasized the danger that would threaten the country if liberal education -- because its utility is of a kind less obvious or tangible -- were sacrificed or slighted. Wendell Willkie, for example, in an address at Duke University, declared that the liberal arts are "so important . . . for our future civilization . . . that education in them should be as much a part of our war planning as the more obviously needed technical training." But this would not need to be stressed if most persons understood clearly what sort of thing a liberal education is, and what sort of effects it has, both directly on those who gain it and indirectly on the society in which they participate.
Liberation from Bondage to Blind Impulse
As its name indicates, the function of liberal education is to liberalize or liberate the mind of man, and this means, in more specific and concrete terms, that it should confer upon him freedom from two kinds of inner bondage. Both of them are widespread even among persons who have the outer freedoms -- political and economic -- envisaged by Aristotle as already possessed by those for whom a liberal education was appropriate. And it may be added parenthetically that such an education turns out also to be among the best means to the acquisition or preservation of these two outer freedoms.
One of these two forms of inner bondage is bondage to the passion, the impulse, the whim, or the temptation of the moment. Man gains freedom from this sort of slavery in proportion as his various desires, interests, and powers become integrated with one another through the habit of thinking; for only then do his acts genuinely represent decisions of the whole man, instead of irresponsible expressions of only such aspect of his personality as happens to be brought uppermost at the time by inner chance or outer incident. Thought, by co-ordinating man's impulses, tends to free him from blind bondage to them; for when thought gives the voices of all of them a chance to be heard, then, as Spinoza pointed out, the claims of each are controlled and disciplined by those of the rest. Thus, self-discipline, which is one of the things a liberal education should generate, has its key in thinking before one acts and acting accordingly. It must not, however, be conceived to mean the crushing or arbitrary repression of normal human impulses. Rather, it means the sort of inner economy that prevails when these are so well organized that no one of them is allowed indulgence in a manner, or to a degree, or upon occasions, that would cheat the individual's other interests of their just rights.
It is, for example, self-discipline in this sense that makes it possible for a man's altruistic impulses to have a vote in his decisions, instead of being crowded out of their rights by the immediate rush of his egoistic drives. Again, it is what enables a man to bring to bear on his decisions the knowledge he happens to have of the consequences of a course of action, instead of being hurried blindly into that course by its immediate attractiveness, or away from it by the perhaps arduous efforts it would immediately demand.
Self-discipline is not the whole of inner freedom, but it is a part of it for which there is no substitute. Indeed, it is necessary even for outer freedom, for, as Nietzsche declared, "he who cannot command himself shall obey."
The colleges can do a good deal to encourage development of self-discipline in their students. Yet the responsibility for this part of liberal education does not belong especially to the colleges. They share it with a number of other agencies, among which one of the chief is the family.
Moreover, it cannot be too strongly insisted that the self-discipline of a self-disciplined man does not automatically make his nobler impulses as strong as might be necessary for the welfare of society, or even perhaps for his own. It guarantees that they shall have voice in his decisions, but not that this voice shall be strong rather than weak. For there is such a thing as being well aware of, and even regretting, the great harm to others that a certain slight benefit to oneself would entail, and nevertheless preferring the latter. There is little doubt that, for the welfare of society, the nobler impulses need in most men not merely to get their chance to be heard at the time of decision, but also to be strengthened. To do this is the task of what earlier we called "education of the heart." It may well be considered an intrinsic part of a liberal education, but again it is one for which the responsibility does not rest chiefly on the colleges, but on the family and, traditionally, on the agencies of religion.
Liberation from Bondage to Ignorance
The part of liberal education for which the colleges are the special instruments has to do with the liberation of man from the bondage that arises from ignorance, prejudice, and narrowness. Freedom here means possession of a comprehensive view of the variety of human discoveries, achievements, and capacities; and appreciative insight into the typical values for which men live -- in short, it means possession of perspective.
The freedom perspective brings is freedom of choice, for this consists in having a choice or choices; while he who knows but one course, or sees but one aspect of things, or the compass of whose appreciation embraces but a limited range of values, has no choice or little choice as to the direction he takes and, therefore, is not free. He is imprisoned within the walls of a merely personal outlook. Unaware of his own prejudices and ignorance, he is held by them in an invisible jail.
Its doors open in proportion to the breadth of the horizon of values to which he becomes awake, to the diversity of points of view from which he can regard things, to the scope of the information he gains, and to the variety of possible ways of action known to him. Possession of perspective in this sense is a mark of the liberally educated mind. The detachment it brings is not that of the idle bystander, who holds aloof from all commitments and for whom life is but the most entertaining of spectator sports; it is much rather the judicial detachment that enables the earnest man to perceive and weigh the alternatives that face him, and then to commit himself in full awareness both of what he chooses and of what he rejects.
Only a man who has perspective in this sense can direct himself or others responsibly. Self-discipline and good will toward man are not enough, although both are needed. This is why the welfare of society imperatively requires that individuals occupying positions of responsibility should be liberally educated. But in a democracy anyone may come to such positions, and everyone has in any case the measure of responsibility that goes with his vote. Hence the importance that the citizens of our society should get not only such technical education as they need for their vocations, but also as much as possible of the perspective-giving, liberal education that makes individual and social decisions responsible ones. Without this, one may unawares cheat oneself or others of the outer freedoms that men must have if they are to be able to live the lives of men.
The Dimensions of Perspective
But now, if giving its students that perspective is the college's chief task, how best can it go about it?
To answer this question rationally rather than on the basis of one's own predilections for certain subjects or modes of thought, it is necessary to bear in mind that experience can grow in two dimensions -- breadth and depth; further, that knowledge of results is one thing, and knowledge of processes another; and finally, that all four of these contribute to perspective.
By knowledge of results is meant here knowledge of what has been discovered or done in a certain field by others; and by knowledge of processes, experience with the type of mental activity specially called for in dealing with the characteristic problems of the field.
These types of activity or "disciplines" are in the main four.2 One is the rigorously formal, symbolic thinking characteristic of mathematics and pure logic. Another consists in the experimentation, measurement, inductive sampling, procedures for testing hypotheses, and so on, which the empirical sciences employ for the scrutiny of nature in their laboratories or in the field. A third type of activity -- prominent in the theoretical parts of the natural sciences, in the social sciences, and in philosophy -- is speculative activity; that is, the constructing of theories by means of which facts known but not yet understood can be explained, and others not yet known can be inferred. Lastly, there are the mental activities typically involved in aesthetic appreciation and in the creative process in the arts.
The organization of studies in a college of liberal arts should be governed by the principles these remarks suggest. Perspective in depth will result from relatively intensive, prolonged, and critical study of some -- necessarily more or less limited -- region of the field of human experience. This is the only way to gain a just appreciation of what it really means to know something, and know how it gets established or done. Only thus does one gain adequate perspective regarding the precariousness of ideas that have, instead of the status of knowledge, only that of mere opinions, guesses, hunches, snap judgments, or wishful beliefs. To provide perspective in depth in just this sense is the essential function of a student's concentration of effort on some chosen "major" subject during the latter part of his college course. Hence, for the purposes of a liberal as distinguished from those of a prevocational education, it does not matter which particular area of the field of knowledge the student selects as his major subject. The central aim at this point is to give him some firsthand experience of what thoroughness is like. Because of this, the fact that a subject happens to fascinate a given student is a good and sufficient reason for him to select it as subject of major study.
But, although interest often does not have its root in purpose, nevertheless, purposes tend to generate interest in matters that bear on them. Therefore, if a student is planning to enter a given career, then, irrespective of whether or not he eventually does enter it, a subject having evident utility for it will probably interest him. And, if so, there is no reason why he should not choose it as his major subject, since he will then be killing two birds with one stone, or indeed three -- the third being that he also then acquires perspective regarding the relation between theoretical knowledge and practical tasks.
Perspective in breadth, on the other hand, will be gained through attentive elementary study of a number of subjects so selected as to be together representative at once of the main fields of human inquiry, and of the four chief "disciplines," that is, of the four types of mental processes briefly described earlier. Because perspective in breadth -- comprehensiveness of outlook and catholicity of appreciation -- is especially what is aimed at here, great depth of penetration will not be called for at any point, nor indeed is it possible in the time available. It is reasonable here only to demand as much depth as can be achieved in a year-course in each of the subjects included. What will be all-important in connection with these courses, however, is that they shall be neither desultory sightseeing affairs nor occupied largely with preliminaries or details whose significance could be perceived only if more advanced study of the subject were undertaken. Rather, these courses should emphasize two things: one, the nature of the methods of attack relevant to the problems of their respective fields; and the other, such of the main results there already attained as have important bearing on kinds of judgments any responsible person is likely sometime to have to make.
In determining the particular subjects to be included in the part of the student's program aiming at perspective in breadth, a rational choice will thus be guided by two principles. One is that the subjects shall be so selected as, between them, to initiate the student into each of the four types of mental activity or "discipline" mentioned. But this requirement could be satisfied equally by several different lists of subjects. Hence the other principle concerns the choice that still remains to be made among them. It is that the choice shall be of the subjects most directly important for three things: for perspective regarding the strategic personal decisions of an individual's life; for perspective regarding questions of social policy; and for intelligent living in a world where scientific knowledge and its applications are playing an ever larger part.
Integration of the Curriculum
The courses a student takes in a college of liberal arts usually fall into three groups: those in his subject of major study; those he is required to take in a variety of other subjects; and those left to his free election. The plan this division defines is sound in essentials, since, if rightly implemented, it can give that perspective in both depth and breadth which is the chief thing the curriculum of a college should contribute to the liberal education of its students. That the plan in practice rarely achieves this well is, I believe, due mainly to the fact that the nature and distinctive functions of liberal education are in general so vaguely conceived not only by students but also by the college faculties that shape and administer the courses of studies. From this vagueness there tend to result a number of mistakes that operate to rob in practice that theoretically sound plan of the effectiveness it can have.
One is that, in determining which several subjects the student shall be required to study to the end of breadth and balance of outlook, the faculty is likely to proceed tacitly under the courteously democratic but nevertheless false assumption that the diverse subjects taught in the college are all of equal value to that end, and therefore that, even as regards the requirement that the student shall diversify his studies, numerous options should be left open to him.
Another unfortunate result of the lack of a clear philosophy of liberal education is that the courses offered to students as satisfying this requirement are too often shaped by the unconscious expectation or hope that the student will eventually undertake more advanced work in the same subject; whereas they should be given the shape, already described, which is evidently the one called for by the nature of the contribution demanded of them to the liberalizing of the student's outlook.
And a third, also regrettable, effect, traceable to the same ultimate cause as the two just mentioned, is that the grounds on which the subject the student decides or is advised to select -- or perhaps not to select -- as his major study are too often grounds irrelevant to the specific nature of the contribution, also described above, made to liberal education by concentrated effort for some considerable time on some one subject.
The criticism is often heard that the great defect of the education the colleges now give is that it lacks integration. Integration, however, is not to be achieved by terminal "integrative" courses, nor automatically by preparation for a "comprehensive" examination. The only way to integrate in any genuine sense the course of studies is to organize it throughout on principles that are definite and are clearly understood and accepted by both faculty and students.
The customary general plan, which groups the college courses under the three headings of "distribution," "concentration," and "electives," is, to repeat, sound in essentials, and is in no need of revolutionary upset. What is needed, however, is that the concrete implementation of this general plan should be thoroughly scrutinized in the light of a realistic and sharply defined philosophy of liberal education; and then that the contents and methods of the courses that implement the plan should be so reorganized, whenever they turn out to need it, as to make the courses truly functional to the ends of liberal education. If this is done, and if the colleges see to it that not only the faculty, but also the students are clearly aware of the nature and objectives of the enterprise in which they are engaged and of the role in it of whatever they are doing at the moment, then we shall no longer need to worry about integration and vitality in the college course. They will be there automatically, and at the same time a truly liberal education will be gained by the students.
The Quickening of Intellectual Initiative
There is, however, a certain other great contribution to a liberal education which can properly be demanded of the college. It has to do with the fact that education does not have to end when the student graduates, but can and should continue through all the years that follow.
What a student obtains in the liberal arts college at its best is an initiation into the possibility and the nature of self-education, and an introduction to the variety of directions in which it can proceed. This means that he then knows what there is to be known, that he does not yet know; and also that he knows where it is to be found and how one goes about inquiring into it. If he has learned this he has acquired the best equipment he could have, wherewith to carry farther his own education after he leaves college.
But to possess this equipment is one thing and to have the itch for intellectual adventure that would impel one to use it is another, which does not automatically result from that possession. To give its students the impulse to use it, however, is as truly and as important a part of the task of the college as to give them that equipment; for a love to explore the fields of culture contributes in the long run perhaps even more to their education than did in itself what they learned in college.
It would be a fatal error, however, to believe that improvement of the curriculum will of itself have much effect in arousing that love in those who do not already have it. The factor to which one must look for this as by far the most potent is the spirit and the quality of the teacher. He must be one whose own continuing growth is an inspiring example; whose insight into the human worth of his subject gives it dignity and dramatic import; and whose adventurous joy in the further exploration of his field is manifest to his students. The spirit of such a teacher is contagious even under a poor curriculum.
On the other hand, a curriculum may well provide a student with elementary knowledge of a representative variety of the fields of human experience, and with a more thorough knowledge of some one of them; and it may well also initiate him into the modes of thought typically appropriate to the problems of the various fields; but even then, if none of his teachers have the spirit described, the love of inquiry may easily remain unkindled in the student. That this is true beyond all doubt is shown by the fact that in too many teachers themselves this love is lacking or burns but dimly, notwithstanding that they possess those other things in even greater measure than students could gain them at the college level.
Teachers whom that spirit animates are, it is true, not too numerous, and a college can hardly hope for a faculty wholly made up of such men. But a few will go a long way. If every student at some time comes under the influence of even one such teacher, this may well prove enough yeast to start fermenting in him an intellectual hunger and initiative that will spread to all his studies and remain with him for the rest of his days.
IV. The Function of Philosophy in Liberal Education
The conclusions reached in what precedes as to the nature and function of liberal education put us in position now to say just what the study of philosophy is called upon to contribute to such an education. In brief, philosophical reflection begets a special sort of perspective, more important perhaps than any other for the strategy of one's life; and to provide this particular kind of perspective is philosophy's distinctive role in a liberal education.
Perspective has not only the two dimensions of depth and breadth, but a variety of kinds. There is, for example, historical perspective; there is also what may be called contextual perspective, gained through acquaintance with the relations of a given subject to adjacent ones; and there is the sort of perspective regarding practice, which one obtains through knowledge of relevant theory and regarding theory through relevant practice. But there is also philosophical perspective: critical light on the judgments of value -- whether moral, aesthetic, religious, logical, or other -- which all men make every day and which determine the policies of their lives.
The nature of philosophy is widely misconceived. The strictures on philosophy some scientists voice, for example, are usually based on the false assumption that philosophy is but the fossilized guesswork of prescientific ages; whereas the truth is that philosophy deals with questions other than those the sciences study, but strives to study them scientifically too, that is, by methods capable in the long run of yielding knowledge and not mere opinion.
Again, the aspersions of some self-styled practical men on philosophy commonly rest on the error that philosophy is a congeries of abstract technicalities unconnected with the concrete problems of life; whereas the truth is that philosophy is intimately related to certain of those that are most vital. If plain men merely pushed farther and carried on with more care the reflections on which these problems at times force them to embark, they would find themselves pondering even the most abstract of philosophical questions. For, as Josiah Royce in his lectures used to show again and again through the telling examples he had a gift for picking, even the most abstract of those questions have just as practical bearings on ordinary experience as have the no less abstract questions of theoretical physics.
Philosophical reflection is not something that only rare men called philosophers engage in. Just as each man in his own life practices to some extent medicine, engineering, finance, art, and so on, so does he practice philosophical reflection. Philosophers, like other specialists, do but carry on more critically, farther, and more persistently, an important activity in which all men at times engage. Its nature and the kind of utility peculiar to it become most clear if one attends to the occasions on which all but the smuggest of us launch into it spontaneously. They are those on which a man has judged some given thing good, or perhaps bad, or better or worse than some other; but when -- usually because someone else challenges his estimate -- he comes to entertain a doubt of the validity of that estimate.
The thing he judged may have been of any kind -- an opinion somebody expressed, perhaps, or a mode of conduct, a musical composition, a piece of reasoning; or a law newly enacted, some religious practice, or some educational theory. And his judgment of its worth may correspondingly have been expressed by some value-adjective more specific than "good" or "bad." The adjective may have been, perhaps, "true," or "erroneous"; morally "right," or "wrong"; "beautiful," or "cacophonous"; "cogent," or "fallacious"; or perhaps "just," or "unjust"; "holy" or "sinful"; "sound" or "pernicious." But whatever the particular judgment of value may have been, if doubt as to its validity occurs and is not due to lack of information about the thing itself that was judged, then the reflections through which the person concerned tries to resolve his doubt are essentially philosophical.
This sketch of a philosophy of education and of, more particularly, a philosophy of liberal education, illustrates the general nature of the questions philosophical reflection tries to answer about any domain of human experience it considers. Any set of mutually coherent answers to them constitutes a philosophy of the subject concerned -- a philosophy of education, or of art, of religion, of science, and so on. This sketch also illustrates the kind of utility such answers have: because the conception they yield of the subject they concern is analytical instead of ingenuous and therefore definite instead of vague, that conception provides specific criteria by which to judge the merits of practices or proposals related to its field. And when judgments are so reached, they no longer represent snap estimates, arbitrary dicta, or expressions of blind traditionalism or equally blind neolatry; but, on the contrary, decisions responsible in the sense of being rationally integrated not only with one's store of known facts but also with one's basic beliefs and one's conscious and weighed purposes.
To reach decisions in this manner is to reach them with benefit of philosophical perspective, and that is, wisely, or at least as wisely as men may. For wisdom is the kind of knowledge philosophical reflection seeks, that integrates man's actions with the whole of his being. The function of philosophy in liberal education, then, is to provide in some measure this kind of knowledge, and thus, as H. S. Canby recently put it, "to make wisdom seem as important as it is."3
1 B. H. Bode, Progressive Education at the Crossroads, 42. New York: Newson and Co. 1938.
2 The use of "a discipline" to mean the mode of mental activity specially relevant to the typical problems of a given field is borrowed from H. M. Wriston's book, The Nature of a Liberal College.
3 The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 38, New York, September i8, 1943. p. 12.