Education for a Classless Society

Charter Day Address delivered at the University of California on March 28, 1940.

Some such set of ideas as I have grouped together under Jefferson's name would have been widely recognized, I believe, as 'American ideals,' in every period of our national history. To understand their significance for the future let us examine one by one the three components of the Jeffersonian tradition in American education.

Hatred of tyranny in general and a desire to overthrow the tyranny which the past had fastened on the human mind went hand in hand in the early years of the nineteenth century, for the intellectual leaders of the Jeffersonian tradition were steeped in eighteenth-century rationalism. The liberal faith of the Age of Reason was a product of a cultural evolution intimately associated with economic and political change, on the one hand, and the great triumphs of late seventeenth-century science on the other. Newton was one of its heroes, and John Locke a major prophet. The bill of rights and the laws of celestial mechanics are lasting monuments to its glory. All who live in a land of free institutions and enjoy the benefits of applied science have reason to be grateful to the liberal leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Our gratitude cannot blind us to the fact, however, that these rationalists greatly overestimated the role of reason in human affairs. They were much too optimistic in their expectation of the practical consequences which would follow the liberation of the human mind from the tyrannies they so despised. Can anyone doubt that if Jefferson and Franklin should return today they would be amazed and disappointed? Science, to be sure, has developed far beyond their expectations; the material conquest of an untamed continent has exceeded their wildest dreams. But the tyrannies which control our minds remain defiant and largely unsubdued. We can imagine how shocked these eighteenth-century statesmen would be to find after one hundred and fifty years the survival of emotional reactions which they fondly supposed were founded only on ignorance or superstition. Inanimate nature has proved more yielding than they imagined, human nature more stubborn and barbarous than they supposed.

Today we live in a period of reaction. The optimistic tide has ebbed. To many the failure of the 'war to end war' and the terrifying international scene may be sufficient reason for discouragement. But I believe the cause lies deeper. Are we not to a large measure suffering from the consequences which must result whenever human beings base their hopes on fallacious premises? Our intellectual ancestors were wrong on many fundamental points. The complexities of both the inanimate and the animate world were greater than they dreamed. Their errors, however, in physics, chemistry, and biology do not trouble us. The impossibility of perpetual motion, of navigation to the moon, of the manufacture of an elixir of life, we accept as a matter of course. But the contrast between their hopes concerning the behavior of human beings and the realities of the present has shattered many a modern soul.

The contemporaries of Jefferson idolized freedom of the mind. They placed one ideal upon a pedestal and depicted a new era when humanity would bow down before this shrine. In so doing they passed on to their descendants a bondage to the hopes their prophecies engendered—utopian hopes of reforming man as a social animal. In reality, a belief in a new form of magic came upon the scene. The goddess Reason was to wave a wand and all mankind would be prosperous and at peace. In the twentieth century we find the spell has failed. Or so I read the past. And if I am right, then widespread enthusiasm for intellectual freedom can be rekindled only when a sufficient number of men and women readjust their expectations. Only then will the whole country strain to unleash once more the potentialities of the human mind. When that time comes a new sense of humility will reflect an altered mood. No easy faith in the inevitability of progress will cheer us on. Instead, courage will flow from a determination to face the problem of evil, not from a skill in hiding it.

Scientists appear to agree that we must now modify even those modes of thought which concern inanimate nature. The scientific point of view of the late nineteenth century is already out of date. This is but another step in the progress of a healthy skepticism. It is a recognition that we cannot settle many questions we once thought solvable. It is a recognition that our scientific theories are only models—models that help us formulate those empirical observations which we generalize into scientific laws. It may be necessary, as in the case of light, to employ two theories which once appeared to be mutually contradictory. The physicist has learned to like this situation, perhaps even to love the apparent contradiction involved in employing a wave theory for explaining one set of optical phenomena, a corpuscular theory for another. Parenthetically one may remark that those who teach the elements of the subject have not had their task made easier!

The impact of these new modes of thinking about the sciences will eventually have repercussions on all our ways of thought. In the annual report of the Rockefeller Foundation for 1938 the President writes as follows: 'The physical sciences have centuries of experimentation behind them; the social sciences are just emerging from a priori and deductive methods. Even today a good deal that masquerades under the name of social science is metaphysics, as obsolete in its approach as was Francesco Sizzi's logic against Galileo's discovery of the satellites of Jupiter. "The satellites are invisible to the naked eye," he said, "and therefore can have no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist." This same logical method, long outmoded in the physical sciences, is traceable in some weighty books on economics and political science written as late as 1938.'

This statement of Dr. Raymond B. Fosdick is indicative of a new critical approach to vital problems. A reassessment of the realities of individual behavior and the nature of society is in progress along several lines. Some look to a fruitful combination of the work of the social anthropologist and psychologist. Some believe that the new line of march should parallel that followed so successfully in the development of modern experimental medicine by clinicians. From many quarters come reports that a new strategy is now developing. Once this is formulated and accepted there will be a rush of able pioneers to exploit the field. Confidence in our intellectual leaders will again surge upward. The Jeffersonian tradition will move forward; American thought will change its orientation and American education will feel a quickening of the pace.

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