Day of Ideas
Tech & Innovation
Arts & Letters
Idealism & Practicality
Nature & Environment
Markets & Morals
Politics & Presidents
Atlantic Home Page
The Standing of Scholarship in America
by Hugo Münsterberg
All signs seem to point in the same direction. From the primary school to the university, from the kindergarten to the vocational life, there seems to arise in our day a demand for greater thoroughness and effort and serious concentration. A hundred symptoms indicate, and serious educators proclaim, that a turn of the road is near. There may have been a time- perhaps it is only a legend - when education had become ineffective through its formalism and rigidity. The children were forced by severe methods to do work repugnant to them. The prescribed studies of the college boys were dry and tiresome. It must have been a depressing kind of instruction in which the best energies of the youth were insistently subdued. A great reaction had to come. School-time was to be made a period of happiness, the child was to learn only what he liked, the college boy was to study only that which seemed interesting. Only that which appealed to the taste and to the attention was deemed worthy of the classroom. Instead of formal training, at last we had instruction which really opened to the boys and girls a gay-colored world where they might enjoy themselves to their heart's content. It was a period in which the children were no longer ordered, but begged and persuaded; in which the abundance of elective courses made a handsome volume out of the announcements of the smallest college; athletics flourished, and in the school all, with the exception of the teachers, had a good time.
But now in the zigzag movement of educational progress, a new countermovement seems imminent. We have been trying the national experiment long enough to test its results. We have seen the girls who have been educated in the high schools with "current events," and the boys who were no longer molested by the demand for Greek. But the outcome seemed more disappointing than ever. Every one who was not deceived by a showy exterior soon discovered the mental flabbiness and superficiality which resulted from the go-as-you-please methods. We began to feel that those who had never learned to obey never really became their own masters; those who had never trained their attention by forcing their will toward that which is unattractive had to learn by severe disappointments later that a large part of every life's work must be drudgery. The youth left the school with a hundred things in their minds, but without any power of intellectual self discipline.
Our public life reflects this lack everywhere. The newspapers and magazines, the theatres and the social-reform movements, are more and more made for a public which looks only to be entertained, and which has lost the power of sustained attention to that which is not attractive in itself; and the nation slowly begins to realize that such a mental state of the community is the natural soil for every kind of moral weed. Thoroughness is only another form of conscientiousness. He who early acquires the habit of inaccuracy and carelessness will never have the energy to work against evil where it is easier and more convenient to let things go as they will.
We stand only at the beginning of this new reaction, but we already hear from many sides that more serious discipline and training and effort must be secured. This coincides with the fact that educational psychology, since it has entered into the stage of careful experimental work, has brushed away the widespread prejudices regarding the training of mental powers. The theorists who advocated the coddling education had made much of the fact that no training can really change the mental powers of the individual. A bad memory never becomes a good one. Experimental psychology has demonstrated the fallacy of such pet ideas. Memory and attention, apperception and reasoning, feeling and emotion, effort and will, can be remoulded by a well-directed education; and this development of the mental powers may easily appear to many as a more important gain than any addition to the stored-up knowledge of facts. But the community on the whole is not eager to consult the experimental psychologist: from the deepest needs of social life the new longing has arisen.
If the nation is not to suffer by a cheap complacency, and the triumph of ostentatious mediocrity, the whole educational life must be filled with a new spirit of devotion to serious tasks. The commencement addresses of the leading men of the country have given fervent expression to this instinctive demand of the nation this year. So far as the colleges are concerned, one imperative change stands in the centre of every platform: scholarship must receive a more dignified standing in the eyes of the undergraduates. The constant appeal to the mere liking of child. and boy and adolescent has finally made the side-shows more important than the real arena. The university administrations practically everywhere recognize such a reform as a most urgent need. Means must be found to effect a complete revision in the views of the average students. So long as the best human material in our colleges considers it as more or less below its level to exert effort on its studies; so long as it gladly leaves the high marks to the second-rate grinds, and considers it the part of a real gentleman to spend four college years with work done well enough not to be dismissed, and poorly enough never to excel, there is something vitally wrong in the academic atmosphere.
Some seem inclined to think that the whole blame belongs to athletics. If the interest in intercollegiate sport is allowed to take hysteric character, and if the successful college athlete stands in the limelight of publicity, it appears necessary that the devotee of quiet scholarship should remain unnoticed in the dark, and that his modest career should not attract the energetic fellow. Whatever the reasons may be, many suggestions for reform have been made. Perhaps none may more quickly lead to an improvement than the much-discussed plan of introducing a stronger element of competition into the scholarly sphere, and thus to use for intellectual purposes those levers which have been so effective in the field of sport. The effort to put the highest energy into scholarship has not reached its ideal form so long as it is controlled by the hope of surpassing a rival. That for which we must aim is certainly a more genuine enthusiasm for intellectual efficiency. And yet the present situation would not only excuse, but really demand the fullest possible play of these secondary motives. If we can roster scholarship by an appeal to the spirit of rivalry, by all means let us use it. We may hope as soon as better traditions have been formed, and higher opinions have been spread, the interest in the serious work will replace the motives of vanity. As soon as the finest men of the college turn, from whatever motives, with their full strength toward their class-work, the masses may follow, and higher and higher ambitions will be developed.
Of course, no one can overlook some intrinsic difficulties in the way of such plans. No artificial premium can focus the successful scholar that same amount of flattering interest and notoriety which the athletic victory easily yields. The difference lies simply in the fact that the student's athletic achievement represents, in that little field, a performance which may be compared with the very best. The scholarly work of the undergraduate, on the other hand, at its highest point necessarily remains nothing but praiseworthy exercise, incomparable with the achievement of great scholars. The student football-player may win a world's record; the student scholar in the best case may justify noble hopes, but his achievement will be surpassed by professional scholars every day.
But the real difficulties in the transformation of the present state, after all, lie much deeper. Certainly, the faculties of the universities ought not to leave anything undone which may shift the centre of gravity in the little encircled academic world. But however high the hopes may be, we ought not to underestimate the much greater difficulties which have their origin outside of this college world. May it not be an illusion to believe that the deplorable lack of appreciation for scholarship of students can ever be fundamentally changed so long as the corresponding ideas in the great world outside of the college campus are not thoroughly revised? No college faculty can change situations on the campus, if they are simply symptoms and results of the conditions in our whole social organization. The scholarship of the students will never be fully appreciated by the most vital men in college so long as public opinion does not back them; that is, so long as scholarship has no real standing in the American Community.
If we are sincere, we ought not to overlook the fact that the scholar, as such, has no position in public opinion which corresponds to the true value of his achievement. The foreigner feels at once this difference between the Americans and the Europeans. The other day we mourned the death of Simon Newcomb. There seems to be a general agreement that astronomy is the one science in which America has been in the first rank of the world, and that Newcomb was the greatest American astronomer. Yet his death did not bring the slightest ripple of excitement. The death of the manager of the professional baseball games interested the country rather more. Public opinion did not show the slightest consciousness of an incomparable loss at the hour when the nation's greatest scholar closed his eyes. And if I compare it with that, deep national mourning with which the whole German nation grieved at the loss of men like Helmholtz and Mornmsen and Virchow, and many another, the contrast becomes most significant.
When the president of Harvard University gave up his administrative work, the old Harvard students and the whole country enthusiastically brought to him the highest thanks which he so fully deserved. But when, the year before, William James left Harvard, the most famous scholar who has worked in this Harvard generation, the event passed by like a routine matter. At the commencement festivities every speaker spoke of the departing administrative officer, but no one thought of the departing scholar. And that exactly expresses the general feeling.
It was said with emphasis the other day that the strength of the American university lies in its graduates. In Germany, for instance, inside and outside of the academic circles, every one would take it as a matter of course that the strength of a university lies exclusively in the professors; and moreover in the professors as scholars. If I think back to my student days in my fatherland, the greatest events of those happy years were the festivities and torchlight processions which we boys organized for our great professors when they declined a call to another university. Their work and their fame in the world of scholarship was our greatest pride. For their sake we had selected one or the other alma mater. The American students feel this pride and attachment only for the institution as such; the individual scholars there are to them merely the appointed teachers; they may like them as teachers, but consider their scholarly achievement a private affair.
A very characteristic symptom of the situation is the prevalent opinion that as a matter of course every professor is ready to become a college president. Again and again scholars from most widely different fields are discussed for presidencies, even in places where they would have to give up their scholarly work and be obliged to go over entirely into administrative work. It is evident that such a change lies well in the line of men whose scholarship refers to government or economics or similar subjects. But if a scholar of Greek or mathematics is treated as an equally natural candidate, it clearly indicates that the public does not consider the university professor primarily as a productive scholar, but essentially as an officer of the institution. To change from a professorship to a presidency then appears as a kind of promotion, while in reality it means a change of profession.
In both the United States and Germany the scholars are almost exclusively university professors, in striking contrast to France and England, where many of the greatest scholars have always been outside of the universities. But this personal union has had different effects in the two countries. In Germany, the exultant respect for scholarship raised the career of the mere university professor; in America, by the lack of respect for scholarship, the standing of the individual scholar has on the whole come to be determined by his administrative position in the universities. Those who have a kind of personal reputation, independent of their services to the institutions, owe it as a rule to extraneous features. Perhaps they make a practical discovery, or give eloquent popular lectures, master a picturesque epigrammatic style, or like to write magazine articles in their leisure hours; in a word, they earn a reputation by their by-products, in spite of their scholarship.
Again, it would be shortsighted to isolate this feature of public opinion from the whole social physiognomy. This relatively low standing of the scholar's work very naturally resulted from the whole make-up of public opinion. It is certainly not a necessary part of democracy, but it has been a characteristic element in the development of American public life, that every one feels himself a judge of everything, every one is fit for every place, and every one knows what is worth while in life. There is no one who can appeal so little to such a court of judges as the scholar. He has nothing to show. Even the greatest scholar could not point to a fair success, when the success is to be measured in commercial terms. Any clever lawyer or skillful physician would greatly outshine him - not to speak of the banker and the broker. He cannot show his success in that popularity or notoriety which comes to the politician or the literary man or the administrator or the athlete. His work interests a few score of colleagues. Even the external conditions do not furnish those official labels by which the high opinion of the few who know is made widely visible to the crowd- the English baronetcies for the leading scholars, the governmental decorations and titles. Men whose names may be among the noblest assets of the United States in future centuries, at a time when the names of the wheat kings and railroad kings will be forgotten, thus remain negligible quantities in the public opinion of to-day.
Hence the most direct reflection of this public situation in the college life is not the disrespect for high-grade class-work but, still more, the unwillingness of best men to turn toward a scholarly career. It seems to be the unanimous experience of the faculties in all the leading universities that the men who turn to graduate school represent a less energetic material than the average of the senior class or of the law school. The finest men go into business and industry, law and medicine; and those who turn to the graduate schools of the country to pursue the life of a scholar are, in the majority, men without initiative and ambition, and without promise for the highest kind of work. Of course, there is no lack of exceptions. There will always be a few men whose genius calls them, who feel the need of solving the problems which are before their souls, and whose vision sees clearly the noble scholarly achievement. But these exceptions are too few. The man with power and ambition usually seeks another path, he cannot feel attracted to a calling which finds so little appreciation in the community, he must instinctively feel as if he were going into a second-rate profession in which no high rewards are awaiting him. And all this constitutes a vicious circle, with the common result that in all layers of society, with young and old alike, scholarship is not acknowledged as a vital force. It has no access to the inner life of men.
The world laughed when Heinrich Heine's disrespectful humor in the Harzrese ridiculed the scholarly pedantry of old Gottingen. He says, "Before the gate of the town I heard two little schoolboys and the one said to the other, 'I no longer want to have any social intercourse with Theodore. He is a disgusting cheap fellow. Yesterday he did not even know the genitive of mensa." Yes: that sounds absurd; and yet there will never be really great scholarship in a country where there is not sufficient honor for scholarship to attract the very best men to such a career; and the adult men will never possess this high belief, unless the whole atmosphere is so filled with it that even the children instinctively feel it.
Yet the fact that scholarship has no worthy standing in the community at large is again not the ultimate source of the distortion of values. We must go still further to find what is really the last sociological cause. Behind all of it stands a characteristic view of life, a kind of philosophy which is on the whole vaguely felt, but which not seldom even comes to definite expression. Whenever it becomes shaped in such definite form, it is proclaimed, not as a debatable proposition, and not as an argument which is upheld against any possible opposition, but it is always naively presented as a matter-of-course principle. This naive philosophizing crystallizes about the one idea that the end of all social striving is to be the happiness of individuals. Now, this is exactly the well-meaning philosophy of the eighteenth century, the philosophy of the rationalists in the period of enlightenment. It is a philosophy which formed the background of all the social movements of that important period, and was therefore the philosophy out of which the Constitution of the United States naturally arose.
The greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals is indeed the social ideal which, outspoken or not, controls the best forward movements of the country. It seems to stand above the need of any defense, as it evidently raises itself high above the low selfishness of the masses. He who works for the pleasures of millions must be in the right, because those who think only of their own pleasure are certainly in the wrong. Now, to be sure, a social body organized in order to secure the maximum of happiness for its members will have a high appreciation of knowledge. The period of enlightenment very naturally even overestimated the value of knowledge as an equipment of man. But knowledge then and now was in question only as a tool for practical achievement. Such a society will therefore work with the greatest enthusiasm for good schools and widespread education, and will take care that everybody may have the opportunity to learn as much as possible, because wide information and acquaintance with the world must help the individual in his striving for individual success and satisfaction. The splendid efforts of the American people for the raising and expanding of the school system are thus completely in line with this latent philosophy of enlightenment.
But the history of civilization shows that such philosophy is by no means a matter of course; it is a particular aspect seen from a particular standpoint. Other periods, other nations, have seen the world from other standpoints, and have emphasized other aspects of reality. In a bird's-eye view we see throughout the history of mankind the fluctuations and alternations between positivism and idealism. The philosophy of enlightenment is positivism. It is true, in the trivial talk of the street, we call a man an idealist if he does not think of his personal profit, but of the pleasure of his neighbors. But, in a higher sense of the word, such unselfish altruism does not constitute an idealistic view of the world. On the contrary, it may have all the earmarks of positivism.
We have positivism wherever the concrete experiences - and that means that which “is"- make up the whole of reality. We have idealism where the view of the world is controlled by a belief in absolute values for which there is no "is," but only an "ought;" which have not the character of concrete experiences, but the meaning of obligations which are to be fulfilled, not in the interest of individuals, but on account of their absolute value. For the positivist, knowledge and truth and beauty and progress and morality have meaning merely in so far as they contribute to the concrete experiences of satisfaction in existing individuals: for the idealist, they represent ideals the realization of which gives meaning to individual life, but is eternally valuable independently of the question whether their fulfillment contributes to the pleasure of individuals. From such an idealistic point of view it seems shallow and meaningless to see the end of striving in a larger amount of individual happiness. The purpose of man is to do his duty, -- not to be pleased.
This is not the place to enter into a real discussion of these two types of philosophy, and to develop the system of eternal values as against the relativism and pragmatism and utilitarianism of the positivists. This is not even the place to ask which of the two views of the world, and of human life, is the deeper one and the more fit to give account of the reality in which we live. Here we have to emphasize only the fact that this great antagonism of world-views is going on, in order to insist that scholarship, that is, the devotion to the advancement of knowledge, can find its true appreciation only in a society which instinctively believes in idealism.
To give at once a historical background to this contrast, we have only to look from the philosophy of the United States to the underlying world-view of the German nation. Germany went through the same ideas of enlightenment in the eighteenth century; then came the great philosophical-literary uplifting of the national spirit, the period of Schiller and Goethe, of Kant and Fichte and Hegel. It was a national reorganization, in which the idea of the purpose of man became thoroughly revised. Not experience, but conviction; not the "is," but the "ought," became the pivot. This does not mean that the average man read, or would have understood, Kant and Fichte; but the ideas of the great thinkers reached the entire national life through a thousand channels, and the whole new German education and organization of society was controlled by this idealistic turn. Duty and discipline and submission to an ideal of absolute value became the underlying forces; and, however much millions of selfish individuals may have wandered away from the ideal, the fundamental direction of the national energies hid been given.
The aim of life then became the realization of absolute values. The individual and the state alike received, through this conviction, their aim and their meaning; and nothing else can claim real dignity but that which ultimately serves such ideal fulfillment. In such a philosophy the moral deed is not valuable because it adds to the pleasure of the neighbor, but because it is eternally good; the work of art is valuable, not because it pleases the senses, but because it realizes the ideal of beauty; the world of the market is valuable, not because it satisfies individual needs, but because it means a realization of the ideal of progress; the life of the state is valuable, not because it secures the greatest happiness of its members, but because it is a realization of the ideals of right, and as such of eternal value: and knowledge, too, is valuable, not because it is a serviceable tool for the pleasure of individuals, but because it is a fulfillment of the ideal of truth.
In a society in which that is the instinctive background of public feeling, the incomparable position of scholarship must be secure from the start. The scholar, like the artist or the minister or the statesman, serves his ideal with every fibre of his life. Whether his knowledge will ever be transformed into practical use for anything is not the question. That could not add to the worth and dignity of his achievement. All which gives meaning and absolute value to his creation is that it serves the advancement of truth, that it adds to the world's forward movement toward the ideal. The scholar, as productive scholar, therefore stands on a higher level than he who serves only the happiness of individuals. Where such a thought, dearly expressed or vaguely implied, stands in the centre of national ideas, it must be reflected everywhere; it must give to every effort toward knowledge a new meaning and a new aspiration. To learn for truth's sake then becomes a kind of ideal service; and even if it is indeed only the genitive of mensa, it means duty.
Such an idealistic view of the world may seem and must seem to many a logical monstrosity. They have their skeptical and positivistic and pragmatic arguments on the tip of their tongues. And this antagonism has existed at all times. There would have been no need for a Socrates and a Plato and their idealism, if the country had not resounded with the positivism of the old Sophists. The point is only that we must not believe that, in a positivistic, utilitarian society, we can ever give that standing to scholarship which it naturally has in a society controlled by philosophical idealism. Of course, many would say that a change would not be worth while anyhow, or that it would be too dearly bought, if we were to get higher standing for scholarship and government and art by giving up our philosophy of enlightenment. But we must be dear that we cannot have one without the other. And at least we ought to give up the superficial illusion that just such a type of positivistic philosophy is the regulation equipment for a true democracy.
Indeed, there is no lack of indications that American life, too, tries to overcome the narrowness of utilitarian philosophy, and moves toward idealistic ground; and nothing seems to hold back this progress so much as the illusion that the greatest happiness of the individual is the only possible goal for a democracy. On the surface it may appear as if positivism has more consideration for every concrete individual, and is thus more inclined to award an equal share of the world's pleasures to every one. On the other hand, idealism, which believes in the value of the whole as a whole, may appear more inclined to appreciate the symbols which represent the whole, and therefore to endorse the symbolic forms of the monarchy. In this sense it was not by chance that the Americans, under the influence of a positivistic philosophy of the eighteenth century, founded a republic.
Yet history shows that utilitarian motives have erected monarchies too, and that true democracies have been filled with the spirit of idealism. The American attitude there is controlled by nothing but tradition. Their democracy originated historically from a positivistic philosophy which was most suitable for a century of pioneering and developing the resources of the new world. But now, as times have changed, as new aims and historic purposes come into the foreground, the national philosophy too must adjust itself to the new age; and progress ought not to be hampered by an illusory belief in the democratic character of utilitarianism. On the contrary, if the purpose of life is understood as the realization, of ideals, the democracy comes to its highest meaning. Each man has an ideal share in the national duty, each man equally should contribute his part toward the realization of absolute values, and equally should submit his individual desire for his pleasure and happiness, for his individual fancy and opinion, to the service of the ideal good.
There is an abundance of factors which, even in the midst of our utilitarian life, point to the necessity of this inner change. For instance, it is very curious to see how the technical complexity of our life forces on individuals an increasing submission to the judgment of the expert. At first it was only the expert in engineering and sanitation, slowly it has become the expert in education, finally it will become the expert in government. But whether the positivism of the time will be undermined by such new practical demands, or by new philosophical thoughts, or by a new emotional revival, in any case indications are abundantly visible that a change is to come. This great new educational uprising against the go-as-you-please scheme, and this new cry for more thoroughness and discipline, for more serious respect for scholarship, are after all only symptoms of this great national movement. It is essential to recognize these connections. So long as the reforms are confined to our schools and our colleges, they may improve the situation but can never be fundamentally effective. The real reform can come only if it is supported by a corresponding movement throughout the national life.
As soon as the nation feels that the meaning of life lies, not in the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of individuals, but in the realization of eternal ideals, then, as a matter of course, school and college and vocational life will be reshaped and reorganized. Then, on the university campus, scholarship and athletics will no longer be rivals which stand on the same level: athletics will be the joyful play which gives pleasure and recreation to individuals, and serves its purpose well if it makes happy boys more able to live for their real life-tasks; but scholarship will be a service which does not ask, but which finds, respect everywhere, as it is sacred through its own dignity. Service to scholarship will then appear to every one just as valuable as honesty and morality; it is an eternal reward in itself.
Volume 104, Number 4, pp. 453-460