John Pilley

Published in The Social Frontier, April 1939, Vol. V, No. 44, pp. 211-216.
He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again and saw it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap:
"A fact so dread," he faintly said,
"Extinguishes all hope."

Lewis Carroll, in Sylvie and Bruno.

      Although Professor Adler begins his article on "The Crisis in Contemporary Education" in The Social Frontier for February by handing out a few bouquets to the men and women who have been responsible for recent developments in American education, it becomes increasingly clear as one reads on that he thoroughly dislikes everything they stand for. His especial dislike is for those developments in education that have been inspired by the ideas of John Dewey. Like many opponents of the New Deal, he begins by praising that which he would like to make an end of, and then proceeds to attack a gross misrepresentation of it. Progressive educators will certainly find it difficult to recognize themselves in the picture Professor Adler draws of them.

      Professor Adler introduces his onslaught on the progressive movement in education by conceding that it was "sound" in its reaction against the empty formalism of classical education and that it has some "basic insights" which should be preserved. The enthusiasm with which he makes these concessions may be judged by the fact that a little later he refers very significantly to those insights as "goods" which seem to motivate the movement. But though he only hints criticism of the motives which inspired the movement, he leaves no doubt as to his view of its achievements. This is that it has brought contemporary education to a point where it is so bad that it could not possibly be worse. Few educators in the country hold the view that contemporary education is perfect; most are as quick to recognize its shortcomings as they are eager to consider suggestions for improvement. Professor Adler presumably recognizes this or he would not have bothered to address himself to teachers at all. But although American educators are ready to admit that they have made mistakes in the past and that there is a great deal yet to be accomplished, they can hardly regard anyone who holds that education during the past twenty years has become steadily worse as being very conversant with what has actually been taking place in the schools.


      The importance of many criticisms of the kind Professor Adler makes of the work of the schools is generally recognized. Many teachers are well aware that American education has been too much inclined to provide young people with ready-made formulations and solutions of immediate problems instead of helping them to develop the powers of thought necessary for conceiving problems in new ways, where that is necessary, and for arriving at solutions of their own. Many are also aware that the schools do not succeed in teaching young people to read exactingly, to think clearly -- especially in those ways which are most dependent upon language -- or to express themselves effectively in speech or writing. Teachers would, however, be more sympathetic to Professor Adler if in making his criticisms he showed himself more aware of the things of value that have been achieved in the schools. He seems to have no appreciation of the changes that have resulted from abandoning the idea of the pupil as consisting primarily of a mind to be informed and disciplined, and substituting for it the recognition of the pupil as a personality in which body and mind, thought and feeling, perception and purpose, are all closely interrelated. Nor does he seem to recognize the value of the developments that have resulted from recognizing the social nature of human beings. Whereas contemporary education has emphasized that every student must master the arts of learning for himself under the guidance of his teachers, Professor Adler describes this as a "perversion of educational policy which makes the young, i.e., the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity."

      Teachers might also feel themselves more sympathetic toward Professor Adler's criticisms of contemporary education if he had had suggestions to offer as to how teachers could help to improve matters through their work in the schools. In fact, he has no remedy to suggest, short of sweeping away the whole existing educational system and replacing it by a new system based on the "Hutchins program." He does not tell us what form this would take at the junior or senior high school level. Nor is it easy to make out what the philosophy underlying such a program would be.

      On this question the three main exponents of the "Hutchins program" seem to be widely at variance amongst themselves, and this makes it difficult to discover what the "Hutchins program" really is. President Hutchins himself, though he emphasizes the importance of education in giving people "a common stock of fundamental ideas," does not claim absolute authority for any particular stock of ideas, as do both of his philosophical lieutenants, Professor Adler in Chicago and Dean Buchanan at St. John's College, Annapolis. In his Higher Learning in America, President Hutchins, after agreeing that in the contemporary world it would be futile to look to theology for unifying ideas, goes on to say that such unifying ideas are to be found in metaphysics. In saying this he makes it clear that he is not arguing for any specific metaphysical system, and toward the end of his book he shows that he recognizes that order in the realm of ideas and social order are closely interrelated. Thus for him the study of the "great books of the past," on which he lays such stress, is presumably important, not as revealing the absolute truth of any one set of ideas, but in showing the development of ideas and so in helping in the discovery of principles of order which will serve in the present. Although, when he speaks of metaphysics as the highest of the "sciences," he comes near to talking the absolutist language, his good sense is too great to carry him far along those lines.


      In contradistinction to President Hutchins, both Professor Adler and Dean Buchanan believe in the absolute truth of their own particular systems of metaphysics, and -- quite consistently with their own thinking -- regard anyone who does not accept their metaphysical conclusions as heretical. Their systems of metaphysics are in fact nothing but theologies which they find it expedient not to call by that name.

      Anyone who is trying to discover what the Hutchin program is in practice will be perplexed at finding that a schism already divides its two leading practitioners. Whereas Scott Buchanan's orthodoxy which provides the educational philosophy of studies at St. John's College, is on the whole Pagan and Platonic -- leading to enormous emphasis being place on mathematics -- that of Mortimer Adler, which underlies his teaching at Chicago, is Catholic and Aristotelian. Both orthodoxies are at one in being vigorously antidemocratic, although their authors sees not to recognize this. Here, however, it is important to remember that a man who is convinced of the absoluteness of a theory of knowledge or of a theory of value, however little it may be capable of substantiation, may quite sincerely denounce all other values as "error." There is no reason to suppose that the Judges of the Inquisition were anything but sincere even in the sixteenth century when the verbal basis of medieval philosophy was becoming so generally recognized.

      Professor Adler, in making his attack on contemporary education, tells us that he proposes to express what he believes to be true in a "frankly polemical" manner by "defining the errors which underlie progressive education." In fact, the larger part of his article is devoted to an attack on beliefs which he labels as "the myth of progress," "positivism:' and "errors concerning the nature of man," which he maintains have inspired recent reforms in education. To these progressive educators would subscribe with about as much enthusiasm as they would to the views of Professor Adler. Whether his gross misrepresentation of the ideas of the progressive movement if a necessary part of being "frankly polemical" or whether it is an experiment in developing the "racket busting" techniques which he says will be necessary to bring about the overthrow of existing education it is difficult to say.

      Before reviewing Professor Adler's attack on these beliefs, it is important that we should notice how he uses such words as "reason," "knowledge," and "truth" (which for us have a reference to activities we approve) in a medieval sense to refer to activities of which we are rightly suspicious. It is only when we recognize this that the full ominousness of his view becomes apparent. Thus any enthusiasm a reader may have at being told that "it is only license we retain without discipline of reason" will come quickly to an end when he recognizes that for Professor Adler "reason" is not something instrumental that helps us discover how to get the things we want, or what the consequences of pursuing what we want -- or thought we wanted -- are, but something which leads to absolute conclusions even on questions of value. The whole of Professor Adler's writings shows that for him the conclusions of experimental science are no more than "opinion" while "truth" is to be achieved only by "reason" working in the abstract, independently of all empirical observation. It does not have to be pointed out that it was against "reason" in this sense that the scientific movement had to fight its way in the seventeenth century.

      It is only when one recognizes that Professor Adler is using words in such archaic senses that one recognizes the dangers to democracy presented by the attitudes which underly such statements as: "Whenever reason does not rule, the mind must yield to the sheer weight of opinion propagated by pressure; only might remains and none dare say it is not right."

      One of his devices for attempting to gain support for the view that "reason" leads to absolute conclusions as to what is good for people is to oppose the conclusions of "reason" to a highly misleading description of the expression of values by a democratic majority. Thus he argues that, "unless everything is a matter of opinion and the might of the majority is right, these issues are genuine, and the truth lies only on one side."

      It seems that for him true democracy would only be attained when the orthodoxy he represents had been established. It was, no doubt, with this in mind that he wrote in the concluding paragraph of his article: "Even if, in the world at large, violence is needed to win the day, the educational revolution must follow to preserve and nourish the fruits of victory." This gives sense to a remark he made in a recent book (Art and Prudence, p. 94) to the effect that "the importance of the Ministry of Propaganda in Italy and Germany indicates the democratic aspect of these societies."

      In addition to the failures in communication that are likely to arise from Professor Adler's use of words in archaic senses, others arise from his failing to control the senses of his words and allowing them to shift bewilderingly. At times he uses words in conradictory senses even in the same sentence. After telling us, for example, that philosophical knowledge gives us an absolute means of judging ends good or bad, he goes on to tell us that: "The utility of philosophy is thus far superior to that of science and, what is even more obvious, science without moral wisdom -- a command of utilities without right direction -- is a dangerous thing." Here the careful reader, when he has got over the shock of a very grand preamble being used in support of a very obvious conclusion, is ikely to find himself a little baffled at finding philosophy both included amongst, and opposed to, utilities in the same sentence.


      In the passage in which Professor Adler sets out to prove that "the myth of universal progress lies at the heart of progressive education," he begins by making a distinction between progress and change with which no one would want to disagree. He tells us that progress differs from change in that it is a change to something better. At the same time he does not make it at all clear whether by a "belief in the myth of progress" he means a belief that everything must always improve of itself irrespective of human purpose, or endeavor, or a belief that things can be made better through human endeavor working to implement human ideals. In much of what Professor Adler says it seems that he holds the view that progress in both senses is impossible. Nevertheless he seems at times to show something like a belief in progress himself. Thus he tells us that philosophy "grows by a refinement in the intellectual process itself, by profounder insight, by better analysis." Here we must assume that Professor Adler's reference is not to mere change but to "a change to something better." In the practical sphere he seems to hold that progress takes place if not in any positive sense, at least by remedying abuses. Thus he tells us that: "If one sets out to remedy abuses one should remember that one is doing so because something good had been spoiled."

      Perhaps the best indication of Professor Adler's conception of progress is provided by the way he uses the analogy of the pendulum to describe changes in education. A deflection of the pendulum from its central position in either direction leads very soon to "extremes." His aim is to "remedy abuses" by bringing back the pendulum to its proper central position of rest and keeping it there!

      A belief in the inevitability of progress which Professor Adler seems to charge to progressive educators may have been held by defenders of laissez faire before the great depression, but there cannot be many people who hold such a belief today. Progressive educators have certainly never held it. The whole history of the progressive movement has been one of purpose and endeavor. Not only did the movement arise from dissatisfaction with earlier educational practice, but it set foremost amongst its ideals the encouragement in young people of ready initiative guided by a well-informed and considerate judgment. The movement, moreover, sought to avoid the imposition of disciplines from without, but to encourage the disciplines that emerge through, and provide the unifying principles of, democratic living -- though not of democratic living in Professor Adler's sense, which depends upon the dominance of an absolute authority supported by a ministry of propaganda

      But although progressive educators do not believe in the inevitability of progress, they certainly do believe that through education much can be done to help young people live fuller lives both as individuals and as members of society. The sense in which they believe in progress is in fact none other than that in which Thomas Jefferson was using the word in a passage quoted by President Hutchins himself (No Friendly Voice, p. 60), in which he said: "If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it."

      It is true that most progressive educators insist that the progressive amelioration of man and the progressive amelioration of society are intimately interrelated, and it is significant that Professor Adler has nothing to say about the way in which the modes of men's thought and feeling as well as their whole manner of living are dependent upon the social conditions under which they are fostered. His reminder that tyrants arise in the world of today as they have done in the past, though it may be interpreted, as he suggests it should be, as signifying that human nature is intrinsically and irremediably bad, may also be interpreted as a reminder that men have not yet learned to make democracy effective. In this connection it is well to remember that universal education is a relatively new force in the world, and its influence is only now beginning to make itself felt. If education can succeed in withstanding the threat of all authoritarianism -- whether subtle or violent -- it will lead for the first time in history to a condition of society in which men will acquire a new freedom and in which the establishment of power by self-interested minorities will be impossible.

      According to Professor Adler the belief in progress which he attributes to educators is derived partly from unjustified extrapolations from the theory of evolution and partly from the errors of positivism. He charges progressive educators with believing that "man's behavior originates in, and is controlled by, his visceral urges, and intelligence is their servant, reason their cunning." These are hard words from one who does not believe in "name-calling," and they make one wonder what "progressive educators" Professor Adler has in mind. To use these words of the majority of men who make up the progressive movement is nothing short of slander. Progressive educators, besides being inspired by ideals that are certainly no less fine than those of Professor Adler, have respect for human personality as their main article of faith, while their main endeavors have been to discover the conditions under which human personality will find its fullest development and achieve the fullest possible harmony, not only within itself but also in its relationships with others.


      Professor Adler's own educational program is based on the denial of the possibility of progress and the implicit assertion of the futility of all human ideals. The grounds of denial are that human nature is constant and unchanging and must therefore defeat every attempt to make the world a better place. He does not put forward this view as a revealed truth, but develops it in an argument designed to give the impression that his conclusion has the authority of biological science. Actually, the argument is purely verbal and amounts to saying that if you define human nature as constant then it doesn't change. As an example of Professor Adler's method of attaining philosophical truth the argument is worthy of close attention. It is as follows:

If we can discriminate between nature and nurture we can understand the sense in which human nature is constant throughout all the variations of culture and all the transformations of history. Man is a biological species, and if a species means anything it means a constant nature which is transmitted from generation to generation. When that constancy fails, when another specific nature is generated, we have, whether by mutation or otherwise, the origin of a new species. It must follow then that so long as what is generated remains specifically human, human nature remains constant from generation to generation.

This is about as good as arguing that boys cannot grow up because if they did they would not be boys any longer. It is not clear whether Professor Adler really believes that such an argument entitles him to claim that his conclusion that human nature does not change has the authority of biological science, but a few lines lower we find him making just this claim when he says, "The positivists cannot accept biological science and deny the specific constancy of man."1

      Professor Adler would only be entitled to claim biological authority for his view on the unchanging nature of man after consulting a human biologist and asking him what genetic change had probably taken place in the human species during recorded history. If the biologist's answer was that the change was probably very small, then Professor Adler would be entitled to claim that the "nature" of man (which term the biologist might well ask him to define) had probably changed no more than a little.


      But even if biologists were to assert that the genetic changes in the human species during the last few millenniums were slight, Professor Adler would still not be justified in drawing the conclusions of the kind he wishes to draw about the unchanging "nature" of man. Still less would he be justified in the very provincial view underlying his philosophy which is that the underlying principles of "thought as revealed in common experience" are independent of all cultural conditions and are for all men and at all times the same as were recognized by Aristotle in the thought of his particular age. One of the first things that a student of human growth and development (and especially one who is interested in the characteristics whereby human beings differ from all other creatures) recognizes is that man's development, and especially his mental development, is enormously dependent upon the cultural traditions in which he is fostered. There is, of course, continuity of traditions, and the community of thought that members of Western cultures find with Greek thinkers is largely the result of the fact that Greek traditions played so large a part in shaping the traditions of thought and action, as well as of language of all these cultures. The community between our minds and those of the Chinese or the Pawnee Indians would be very much less. Common elements could be found between the thought of members of cultures as diverse as these, but what they would be and how large a part they would play in the make-up of men's minds could only be discovered by empirical investigation. Introspective studies of the kind that Professor Adler claims yield knowledge -- while science yields only "opinion" -- can give no answers on such a question. We can, however, be fairly confident that, in so far as we can make the distinction, a closer resemblance would be likely to be found between those kinds of thought that are most dependent upon sensual imagery of various kinds rather than between those more intellectual kinds of thought that are dependent upon the forms of language developed in the particular culture.2

      In view of Professor Adler's faith in the absolutist knowledge arrived at by "reason" working introspectively, it is not difficult to understand why he regards all that has inspired the progressive movement in education led by John Dewey as anathema in the strict Catholic sense of the seventeenth century. Professor Dewey's philosophy rests upon such pragmatic conclusions as that you can only discover the effectiveness of a policy by trying it in practice, and that it is only through experience that you can discover what you value. In maintaining that people must discover for themselves how they most want to live, Professor Dewey stands at the opposite pole from Professor Adler who believes that all such questions are to be settled by "reason."

      In contradistinction to Professor Adler's emphasis upon inculcating discipline of the kind that his philosophy demands, the progressive movement is concerned with encouraging in young people those powers of judgment whose importance to democracy it recognizes so clearly. In spite of its many very great achievements the progressive movement has yet much to achieve in this direction. Its limited success in this respect did not arise from any lack of endeavor to encourage initiative in thinking. It arose largely from an inadequate recognition of the dependence of the kind of thinking that is characteristically human upon effective mastery of symbols -- especially those of language.

      There is now widespread recognition of the importance of encouraging mastery of those kinds of thinking whose development depends so closely upon a simultaneous acquisition of a mastery of language, and the problem is being actively studied by many educators. Because of this recognition, President Hutchins's proposals for cultivating the liberal arts, which he claims would give young people more effective mastery of such thinking, have attracted great interest. Such proposals, attractive as they may sound, are dangerous if they carry with them a demand for the acceptance of a medieval theory of knowledge such as Professor Adler's. To be appropriate to the present day, the liberal arts must be conceived of afresh in light of present knowledge.


      The liberal arts, as they were cultivated in the Middle Ages, were conceived of in terms of the scholastic and anti-empirical philosophy that they also served to uphold. This philosophy, whose only justification in denying progress was to be found in its success in preventing it, has now been rendered obsolete by the advance of science. Advances in physics and biology were the first to make encroachments on the scholastic picture of the world and were resisted by an extremely vigorous rearguard action. More recently the advance of scientific studies in psychology, in comparative ethnology, and especially in language, have shown how the "truths" discovered by the introspective philosopher are closely dependent upon the structure of the language by which his thought has been shaped and in which his philosophical enquiry is carried out. As soon as we recognize the influence of language upon the thought (and perception) of any age, and the changes that take place in language in its development as part of a changing culture the absurdity of maintaining the absoluteness of any philosophical conclusion becomes immediately apparent.3

      Emancipation from the magical power of language only begins when the limitations of language as an instrument for ordering experience are recognized and when this recognition is taken as a basis for the study of modifications that take place in language as culture develops and men enter into new relations with one another and with their environment -- becoming different creatures in the process.

      Such emancipation can never be achieved by the cultivation of the liberal arts in the medieval sense. Studies and exercises carried out in the realm of words detached from experience, even when they are based on the works of the greatest masters, can only serve to enclose students in a circle of words. Such studies may help to make them masters of sophistic argument, but they will cramp their perceptions and make them incapable of recognizing or of attacking new problems in the world in which they are living.

      To be effective in this the liberal arts must be conceived of anew. They must give students a mastery of words, not in their dialectical relationships to one another, but as instruments for bringing order into experience -- instruments which acquire their meanings in the very same process. It is only when this is achieved that books will help to enlarge students' experience of life -- they themselves acquiring meaning by being understood in relation to life. It is only when this is achieved that young people will be able to withstand the influence of those whose aim is to mislead them.

      One of the most urgent needs in contemporary education is that educators should develop methods whereby students may be emancipated from the power of words and become their masters. A great deal of the preliminary work of exploration necessary for the development of such methods has already been done, while such a book as I. A. Richards's Interpretation in Teaching is already an important contribution to the development of classroom methods. A further important contribution is being made by the English Committee of the Progressive Education Association, which is shortly publishing a report containing a large number of recommendations that should help considerably in encouraging greater effectiveness in all forms of thinking as they develop with and depend upon mastery of language. Books are still needed which will be useful to teachers in helping them to give their students a better understanding of the relation of the writings of the past not only to the history of literature but also to the conditions of the times in which they were written.

      The development of such new kinds of understanding in the schools and the encouragement of the greater mastery of language upon which they depend can only take place as teachers give their active attention to the problem. Today a large number of teachers are doing this and are ready to give a sympathetic hearing to all whom they think might have useful suggestions to offer. All this is excellent. Let them, however, beware of all those who advocate absolutist philosophies and especially of those who are confident in their denial of the possibility of man's being able to improve his condition. Today there are many who advocate a return to the conditions of the Middle Ages. Though their arguments are various we must be on our guard against them all.


      1 In his book Art and Prudence (p. 300) Professor Adler says that to quote empirical evidence in support of a principle known by revelation is to debase its dignity and to make it "no better than one amongst many warring creeds." The present method presumably avoids such debasement. [Back]

      2 It is interesting to observe that Professor Adler's theory of rational knowledge resembles somewhat the Freudian's theory of unconscious knowledge. The Freudians claim that the "complexes" revealed by psychoanalysis, as well as the symbols in which unconscious thought expresses itself in dreams, are part of the innate constitution of man and so constant in all cultures and at all periods of history. Though the claims of the Freudians are based on a genuine appeal to empirical observation they can no more survive reference to a comparative study of cultures than can those of Professor Adler. [Back]

      3 On this point it is not out of place to quote the words of Dr. Whewell, whose views on education President Hutchins quotes with approval on a number of occasions in his essay on "General Education" in The Higher Learning in America.

"There are two ways [of making abstractions clear], one by examining the words only and the thoughts which they call up; the other by attending to the facts and things which bring these abstract terms into use. The latter, the method of real enquiry, was the way to success; but the Greeks followed the former, the verbal or notional course and failed. . . . The propensity to seek for principles in the common usage of language may be discovered at a very early period. . . . In Aristotle we have a consummation of this mode of speculation. . . . The method of Plato was little more efficacious than that of his rival."

Speaking of the thought of the age with which Professor Adler has so closely identified himself he says: --

"Wavering abstractions, indistinct generalizations, and loose classifications of common language . . . were the only source from which the Schoolmen of the middle ages drew their views, or rather their arguments; and though these notional and verbal relations were invested with a most complex and pedantic technicalities, they did not on that account become at all more precise as notions, or more likely to lead to a single real truth." -- Dr. W. Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, pp. 61-63 and 234. Third edition 1858. [Back]