Education for a Classless Society

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

I am wary of definitions—even in expounding the exact sciences to an elementary class. It is often more profitable to explain the nature of a concept by illustration than to attempt a definition. Both the words 'free' and 'classless,' as I am employing them, have a relative, not an absolute, meaning. They are useful, I believe, even in a rough quantitative sense, in contrasting different types of social organizations which have existed in the last few centuries in the Western World. It is easy to imagine a small segment of any country where one would be hard put to it to say whether the society in question was free and classless, or the contrary. To pass a judgment on larger social units is even more difficult, but I should not hesitate to say that Russia today is classless, but not free; England, free, but not classless; Germany neither free nor classless.

To contrast the social history of the United States and that of even so closely related a country as Great Britain is illuminating. If we examine, for example, the recent history by G. D. H. Cole entitled The British Common People, 1746-1938, we shall see portrayed the evolution of one type of political democracy within a highly stratified caste system. Compare this picture with the history of the growth of this republic by expansion through the frontier in the last one hundred years—a history in which social castes can be ignored; a history where, by and large, opportunity awaited the able and daring youths of each new generation.

This fundamental difference between the United States and England has been blurred by similarities in our political and legal systems and by our common literary culture. Failure to give due weight to the differences between a casteless society and a stratified society has had unfortunate consequences for our thinking. I have already suggested that many of our friends on the Right have had their educational views distorted by too ardent contemplation of the English public schools (so-called) and English universities. Similarly, I believe that in the last few decades our friends on the left, who look towards a collectivist society, have suffered from overexposure to British views—views emanating in this case not from the ruling class but from the left-wing intellectuals of the Labor party. It seems to me that in this century, as in a much earlier period of our history, an imported social philosophy has strongly influenced radical thought. I am not referring to orthodox Marxism, but rather to the general slant of mind inevitable among English and Continental reformers whose basis of reference is a society organized on hard-and-fast class lines. The original American radical tradition has been given a twist by the impact of these alien ideas. As far as the role of government is concerned, the political reformer has swung completely round the circle. On this issue, Jefferson with his almost anarchistic views would find difficulty, indeed, in comprehending his modern political heirs.

Native American radicalism has all but disappeared. Our young people now seem forced to choose between potential Bourbons and latent Bolsheviks. But without a restoration of the earlier type of radical the Jeffersonian tradition in education will soon die. Obviously it cannot long survive a victory of the socialistic Left—there is no place for such ideas in a classless society on the Russian model. And it will likewise disappear automatically unless a high degree of social mobility is once again restored. To keep society fluid, the honest and sincere radical is an all-important element. Those in positions of power and privilege (including college presidents) need to be under constant vigilant scrutiny and from time to time must be the objects of attack. Tyrannies of ownership and management spring up all too readily. In order to ensure that the malignant growths of the body politic will be destroyed by radiations from the Left, much abuse of healthy and sound tissue must be endured. Reformers and even fanatical radicals we must have. But if the unique type of American society is to continue, those who would better conditions must look in the direction of the progressive or liberal movements of an earlier period. The Left must consider returning to the aim of checking tyranny and restoring social mobility. Reformers must examine every action lest they end by placing in power the greatest tyrant of all—organized society.

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