Sidney Hook, Education for Modern Man: A New Perspective (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.


We have been attempting to justify the ends of educatlon by their consequences in experience. There is another approach which rules out all reference to consequences as irrelevant. This declares that we are dealing with a metaphysical question, which requires an answer based on the true metaphysics. Its chief exponents in America are Robert M. Hutchins, Monsignor Fulton Sheen and Mortimer Adler. They hold that the appropriate end of education can be deduced from the true nature of man. The true nature of man is that which differentiates him from animals, on the one hand, and angels, on the other. It is expressed in the proposition: "Man is a rational animal." From which it is inferred that the end of human education should be the cultivation of reason.

We shall have occasion to see that the term "reason" does not mean the same thing as the term "intelligence" -- that it designates something that has a different origin, nature, and function. But for present purposes, we shall ignore the differences in the meanings of the terms "reason" and "intelligence." The main point is that a patent fallacy is involved in the presumed deduction of the ends of education from what uniquely differentiates man from other animals.

First of all, if what we have previously said is true, from what man is we can at best reach conclusions only about what human education is, not what it should be. What man should be is undoubtedly related to what he is, for no man should be what he cannot be. Yet a proposition about what he is no more uniquely entails what he should be than the recognition of the nature of an egg necessitates our concluding that the egg should become a chicken rather than an egg sandwich.

A further assumption of the argument is the Aristotelian doctrine that the good of anything is the performance of its specific virtue or the realization of its potentiality. The "good" egg is one that becomes a chicken, the "good" man is one who realizes his natural capacity to think. This overlooks the fact that the natural capacities of a thing limit the range of its fulfillments but do not determine any specific fulfillment. Not every natural power of man has only one natural end; and not every power which has one end achieves it by one mode of development. Thinking is no more or no less natural to man than eating and singing. But what, when, and how a man should eat; what, when, and how a man should sing; about what and when he should think -- all this depends not so much upon the natural powers of eating, singing, or thinking as upon an ideal of fitness, appropriateness, or goodness, that is not given with natural powers but brought to bear upon them in social, historical, and personal experience. When we assert that men should be rational, we are not talking biology or metaphysics but voicing a social directive that selectively modifies the natural exercise of human powers in the light of preferred consequences among possible alternate uses.

Second, granted for the sake of the argument that animals other than man are incapable of any rationality. The question is an old and difficult one, handled satirically by Plutarch and experimentally by Köhler, both of whom disagree with the airy dogmatism of the neo-Thomists. Nonetheless, rationality is not the only feature which differentiates man from other animals. Man can be defined, and has been by Benjamin Franklin and Karl Marx, as a "tool-making animal." By the same reasoning employed by neo-Thomists, we can "deduce" that man's proper education should be vocational! Man is also the only animal that can will to commit suicide. Does it follow that education should therefore be a preparation for death? Man is also the only animal that ruts all year round. What educational corollary does this unique trait entail?

Thirdly, even if man is a rational animal, he is not only that. He has many other traits -- needs, feelings, emotions, desires, whose nobility or ignobility depend upon their social context. An education appropriate to man would not necessarily limit itself to one aspect of his nature even if that aspect were regarded as more valuable than any other. It is a queer view of the nature of any organism that limits itself to a concern only with its differentia. The notion that the education of reason can or should be carried out independently of the education of the emotions has been called by Whitehead "one of the most fatal, erroneous and dangerous conceptions ever introduced into the theory of education."4 At any rate what is clear is that we can go from the nature of man to the conclusion that we should educate for reason only because some selective principle has been introduced. The basic educational issues, like the basic ethical issues, pose problems of choice. The nature of man is always relevant; but just as relevant is our decision as to what we want to make of it, what we want men to become. At this point no metaphysical deduction, whether proceeding from materialistic or spiritualistic premises concerning the nature of "reality," can guide us.

What, after all, is meant by ''the nature of man" whenever we speak of relating educational ends to it? The phrase masks a certain ambiguity that makes it difficult to tell whether its reference is empirical or metaphysical. A great deal of philosophical profundity consists in shifting back and forth between these two references and not being found out. When the neo-Thomists speak of the nature of man as a basis for educational ideals, their concern is not primarily with biological, psychological, historical, and social features of human behavior. For since these items designate specific processes of interaction between an organism and its environment, it would be risky to choose any set of traits as fixing forever the nature of human nature, and therefore the nature of education. But the position we are examining is concerned precisely with a conception of human nature which will permit the deduction that, in the words of Mr. Hutchins, "education should everywhere be the same." Everywhere and at every time? Everywhere and at every time. In a weakened form, Mr. Adler repeats this: "If man is a rational animal, constant in nature through history, there must be certain constant features in every sound educational program regardless of culture and epoch."5 And Mr. Mark van Doren who carries all of his teacher's ideas to recognizable absurdity, adds that because education and democracy have the same end -- the making of men -- they are one and the same. "So education is democracy and democracy is education."6 From man's nature we can apparently deduce not only thal education should everywhere be the same, but the social system, too.

If education is determined by human nature, may not human nature change and with it the nature of education? "We must insist,"writes Mr. Hutchins "that no matter how environments differ human nature is, always has been, and always will be the same everywhere."7

This is truly a remarkable assertion. Before we inquire on what evidence Mr. Hutchins knows this to be true, let us see what it implies. For one thing, it implies that human nature is completely independent of changes in the world of physical nature with which the human organism is in constant interaction. Now, certainly, Mr. Hutchins cannot know that the world of nature "is, always has been, and always will be the same everywhere." He therefore must believe that no transformation of the physical basis of human life can possibly affect human nature. His assertion further implies that man's nature is completely independent of changes in the human body, particularly the brain and nervous system. At one stroke this calls into question the whole evolutionary approach to the origin and development of the human species. Finally, it implies that the habitation of man's nature in a human body is unaffected by changes in society and social nurture. The enormous range of variation in social behavior which testifies to the plasticity of the simplest physiological response under cultural conditioning, leaves the essence of human nature unaltered. In short, human nature is taken out of the world altogether. It is removed from any verifiable context in experience which would permit us to identify it and observe its operations. For anything which operates in the world does so in interaction with other things that help shape its character.

There is only one entity that satisfies all these conditions. It is the supernatural soul as conceived by theologians of the orthodox Christian tradition. It is not the Aristotelian concept of the soul because, for Aristotle, the soul was the form of the body, all forms were incarnate in matter, and the nature of man was construed from his behavior. The constancy of human nature in Aristotle was predicated on the notion of the constancy of the natural order as well. Were he, in the light of modern science, to abandon the latter notion, he would have surrendered the belief in the constancy of human nature, since it was integrally related to the behavior of the body in nature and society. For Aristotle man can become a rational animal only because he is also a social and physical animal. But Mr. Hutchins admits all the facts of physical and biological change as well as historical and social development in man's environment, yet insists that man's nature cannot change or develop. It is only when we realize that he is not talking about empirical, historical, suffering man but about a mystical, supernatural entity, which has a temporary abode in the human body, that the peculiarities and ambiguities of his language are understandable.

This is the secret behind the talk of man's true and constant nature that defies all change. Bishop Sheen and M. Maritain are more frank with us than their epigoni at Chicago and elsewhere. But all of them owe us a proof that the immortal soul, as defined by them, exists. So far not a shred of valid experimental evidence has been adduced to warrant belief in its existence. In fact, the achievements of genuine knowledge about human nature in medicine, biology, psychology, and history have been largely won by a bitter struggle against obstacles set in the path of scientific inquiry by believers in a supernatural soul.

When it is understood that by "human nature" Hutchins really means the human soul, whose study involves rational theology, and whose goal cannot be adequately grasped without the deliverances of sacred theology and revealed religion, another article of his educational faith becomes clear. The true education of man must include the education of his soul by the one true metaphysics and theology. In the writings of Mr. Hutchins this conclusion is obliquely expressed, but it is explicitly drawn in those of his mentor, Mr. Adler.

Sacred theology is superior to philosophy, both theoretically and practically. . . . Just as there are no systems of philosophy but only philosophical knowledge less or more adequately possessed by different men, so there is only one true religion, less or more adequately embodied in the existing diversity of creeds.8
To this he adds the claim that anyone who does not accept the truth of these propositions has no logical rignt to call himselt, or be regarded, as a democrat, together with the urgent recommendation that all teachers who do not subscribe to these truths should be purged ("liquidated" is his word) from our culture.

Since the central problem of education is for Mr. Hutchins a metaphysical problem, all the basic issues depend for their solution upon finding the true metaphysical answer. Consequently, metaphysics, including rational theology, occupies the chief place in the recommended curriculum of studies as the only discipline that can impart to students a rational view of the world.

By way of metaphysics, . . . students on their part may recover a rational view of the universe and of their role in it. If you deny this proposition you take the responsibility of asserting that a rational view of the universe and one's place in it is no better than an irrational one or none at all.9
The philosophic presumption of this passage vies with its atrocious logic. To deny the proposition "by way of metaphysics students may recover a rational view of the universe" is certainly not to assert that "a rational view of the universe . . . is no better than an irrational one or none at all." The denial of the first proposition implies that students cannot get a rational view of the universe by way of metaphysics; it leaves open the possibility that they may get a rational view of the universe by the study of other disciplines, e.g., the sciences, social studies, literature, and history. It emphatically does not imply that a rational conception of the universe is worthless or worth no more than an irrational one. I pass over the additional confusion of identifying a rational conception of the world with the conception that men are rational and the world rationally ordered. A rational conception is one warranted by evidence and a conception of the world may be rational if the evidence points to the fact that men are irrational and the world chaotic. I am not saying they are but contesting the relevance of an a priori metaphysical deduction to these questions. Nor am I denying that the study of philosophy has an important place in the liberal arts curriculum. It has many justifications among them the achievement of a methodological sophistication that may immunize students against the confusion of definitions or linguistic resolutions with empirical hypotheses of varying degrees of generality, which constitutes so much of traditional and popular metaphysics.

It is important to know what men are in order intelligently to determine what they should become. Educational aims merely restate what we believe men should become insofar as they can be influenced by the processes of learning and teaching. The comparative study of cultures shows how diverse men may become; it also shows certain similarities and identities. The vital physiological sequences are the same in every culture. A social organization, a form of mating, and other institutions are also everywhere observable where men live together. But there are all types and degrees of cultural institutions. And these institutions, in turn, give varied meanings to identical physiological acts. These meanings enter so integrally into the performance of the physiological action that it requires an abstract science like biology to distinguish between what is attributable to the unlearned behavior of the organism and what is learned from the culture.

It would be idle . . . to disregard the fact that the impulse leading to the simplest physiological performance is as highly plastic and determined by tradition as it is ineluctable in the long run because determined by physiological necessities.10
Depending upon the particular aspect of human behavior we are interested in, we can establish an empirical case for the constancy or mutability of human nature. Provided we keep the distinctions in mind, there is nothing incompatible in asserting that in certain respects human nature is the same, in others different. What is apparent is that those aspects of human nature which appear constant are a set of unconscious processes that are a condition of life. Although these are taken note of in every sensible educational program, they are far from the center of educational concern, which is understanding the dominant cultural problems of the present in relation to the past out of which they have grown, and to the future whose shape depends in part upon that understanding. Whether men remain the same or different, in the sense in which the question is educationally significant, depends upon whether they choose to retain or transform their culture.

The whole question of the constancy of human nature is sometimes obscured by a simple failure to distinguish between names and things. The name we give anything originally fixes our attention on it and identifies it as the object whose behavior (or nature) we are going to inquire into. After we have discovered its behavior, the name is used not only to identify the thing but as a shorthand indication of selected traits of its behavior. If and when these traits change, it becomes a matter of convention whether we are going to continue using the same name or some other name to designate the new properties. If we decide to use another name, this by no means gainsays the historical fact that the traits which hitherto have constituted the nature of the thing have changed or been modified. This is denied in the following passage which is typical of members of the school we are discussing:

The most familiar form of the problem [permanence and change] has to do with the nature of man, concerning which the educated person will know what he knows about any nature, namely that insofar as it is a nature, it does not change. For then we should have another nature; meaning that in the case of man he would have another name.11
Apparently an educated man cannot distinguish between things and names. Names are intelligently used to communicate knowledge and facilitate the control of things. The names we choose to attach to things have no bearing on how they actually are going to behave; they summarize what our experience has led us to believe they will do. The argument of the passage is equivalent to saying that what comes from a cow's udders can never become material for apparel because, since the first we call "milk" and the second "cloth," their essential natures must be different. Milk cannot change into cloth. How can a metaphysical bull, in its triple sense, determine that what comes from a cow's udders must be drunk by human beings, instead, after appropriate treatment, of being turned into cloth for apparel? The whole of modern science would come to a stop if it took this word-magic seriously. Since the changes that men undergo are part of their nature, it is absurd to argue from a definition of the term "human nature" that human nature throughout its long historical pilgrimage has not changed and cannot change. For if this be true by definition, it is an analytic statement or tautology that does not tell us anything about the world (except about how a certain writer proposes to use a certain word). But those who write this way set great store by statements of this kind as momentous truths about men.

In conclusion. To speak of the nature of man is already a sign that a selective interest is present. What is designated by the term "man" may have many natures depending upon the context and purpose of inquiry. Even if the nature of man is defined in terms of what differentiates him from other animals, we can choose any one of a number of diverse traits that will satisfy the formal conditions of the definition. And for many purposes what man has in common with other animals may not be irrelevant to his nature. Once we assign a term to stand for a thing and seek to discover its nature, that nature is disclosed not by a definition and its logical implications, as in mathematics, but in its activity or behavior. The activity or behavior of man depends upon many things within and outside of his body. From the point of view of education, the most important of the forces beyond the skin of a man's body which control his behavior is the culture of which he is a part. It also controls many things that occur beneath his skin. Human history is an eloquent record of cultural change, of continuities and discontinuities, in social institutions, language, values, and ideas. It is therefore the sheerest dogmatism to deny that human nature can change.

Education should be adequate to man. Man's nature does not change. Therefore an education adequate to man will always be the same. So Mr. Hutchins and his fellow-metaphysicians argue.

Education should be adequate to man. Man's nature shows a pattern of development in which both constant and variable elements may be discerned. Therefore an education adequate to man will reveal a pattern that reflects this development. So the experimentalist educator.

Value judgments underlie both positions. But the first can be held only so long as the term "human nature" is an unanalyzable abstraction. Just as soon as an empirical meaning is given it, its falsity is palpable. The fact that certain specific educational proposals -- like an identical curriculum for all students -- are justified by the alleged universal constancy of "human nature" indicates that the term is being used with systematic ambiguity.

. . .


4 Alfred North Whitehead: The Aims ot Education and Other Essays (New York: The Macmillan Company; 1929), p. 9.

5 Mortimer Adler: "The Crisis in Contemporary Education," Social Frontier, Vol. 5, No. 42 (February 1939), p. 140.

6 Mark van Doren: Liberal Education (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1943) p. 38.

7 Robert M Hutchins: "Towards a Durable Society," Fortune, Vol. 27, No. 6 (June 1943), p. 158. My italics.

8 Mortimer Adler: "God and the Professors," in Proceedings of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion (ed. Louis Finkelstein; New York: Harper & Brothers; 1940), p. 131.

9 Robert M. Hutchins: Education for Freedom (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press; 1943), pp. 26-27.

10Bronislaw Malinowski. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays (ed. Huntington Cairns; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; 1944), p. 87.

11Van Doren: Liberal Education. p. 26.