The Standing of Scholarship in America

A founding father of applied psychology expresses concern that permissiveness in the classroom has gone too far

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.

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