Political Education

AMONG the many demands which are made upon our schools and colleges at the present day, none is more universally voiced than the demand for a fuller course of political education. And for this there is good reason. With the growing complexity of modern life, the difficulties of social organization and government are increasing. With the growing pressure toward specialized training for varied spheres of usefulness, the danger that we shall sacrifice the general basis of higher education which will enable us to cope with these difficulties is also increasing. It is not enough for our schools to fit men and women to be parts of a vast social machine ; it must prepare them to be citizens of a free commonwealth. If our educational system fails to do this, it fails of its fundamental object.

But in thus recognizing the importance of training for citizenship, there is danger that we shall make mistakes as to the particular kind of training which will secure the results desired. A true political education is a very different thing from much that passes current under this title. To begin with, it is not a study of facts about civil government. A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen. This distinction is of special importance at the present day, because these topics have so large a place in many of the schemes of education which are now being urged by social reformers. We hear on every side calls for more teaching of sociology and politics and civics and finance, and all manner of studies intended to inform the young American concerning the mechanism of the political world in which he lives. I shall not try to judge the value of these studies from the pedagogical standpoint, or to estimate whether the undoubted advantage which they possess in awakening interest is more than balanced or less than balanced by the danger of cramming which connects itself with their teaching. But when the plea is urged, as it so often is, that they constitute a necessary and valuable training for citizenship, we are justified in making a direct protest. Except within the narrowest limits, they do harm rather than good. As ordinarily taught, they tend to fix the attention of the pupil on the mechanism of free government rather than on its underlying principles ; to exaggerate the tendency, which is too strong at best, toward laying stress on institutions rather than on character as a means of social salvation ; to prepare the minds of the next generation to look to superficial remedies for political evils, instead of seeing that the only true remedy lies in the creation of a sound public sentiment. Not that I would underrate the value of knowledge of political fact to the man or woman who is first well grounded in political ideals, but that the endeavor to cram with facts as a substitute for the development of ideals is at best an inversion of the true order of education, and may easily become a perversion of its true purpose. For the sake of a plentiful and immediate crop of that mixture of wheat and chaff which is known as civics, we run the risk of unfitting the soil for the reception of that seed which should result in the soundest and best growth of which the field is capable.

Nor is it right to conceive of political education as being primarily a training in those scientific principles which regulate the activity of governments. It is true that the teaching of science is a far higher ideal than the teaching of facts, and that the pupil who has received this training enjoys a position of inestimable vantage in judging social events of the day. But it is also true that the study of political science is an extremely difficult one ; and that if we depended for the success of our political education upon the truth of the abstract doctrines of jolitics which have been taught, the outlook would be dark indeed. One political science, and only one, has reached a high degree of exactitude. This is jurisprudence ; and just because it is an exact science, people have ceased to pretend that it is easy, and do not attempt to teach it in the schools. Next to jurisprudence in exactness comes political economy, certain parts of which have been developed in the hands of experts to a satisfactory stage of clearness and precision. But that which is taught as political economy in the majority of institutions is very far from having this scientific character. And what is true of the current teaching of political economy is, I think, true in even higher degree of the various branches of sociology and politics, as they are presented in the classrooms of the present day. As a rule, the teaching of sociology is better when it is called by the plain name of history, the teaching of politics better when it is made an incident in the unpretentious study of geography. Under the old - fashioned name of history or geography, the description of social phenomena arrogates to itself less claim as an exact science than its enthusiastic devotees desire. But the really essential elements in science are truthfulness and precision ; and I fear there can be no doubt that the substitution of the new names for the old has been accompanied by a loss in these respects. Next to an education in political facts without ideals,

I can imagine no worse training for the future citizen of the country than an education in political principles without exactitude.

It must constantly be borne in mind that the training of the free citizen is not so much a development of certain lines of knowledge as a development of certain essential qualities of character and habits of action. Courage, discipline, and loftiness of purpose are the things really necessary for maintaining a free government. If a citizen possesses these qualities of character, he will acquire the knowledge which is essential to the conduct of the country’s institutions, and to the reform of the abuses which may arise. If he does not possess these qualities, his political learning and that of his fellow men will not save the state from destruction. If he has not the courage to exercise his political lights in the face of possible intimidation, no amount of acquaintance with constitutional law will save his vote from suppression or prevent popular government from becoming a mere mockery. If he has not the discipline to subject his will to the restraints of law, no amount of knowledge of the beneficent effects of these restraints will save the people from that revolution and anarchy which invite tyranny from within or conquest from without. If he does not possess a measure of political idealism and disinterestedness of aim, no amount of knowledge of the needs of the country and the ways of meeting them will lead to the formation of an active public sentiment, or prevent the institutions of the nation from degenerating into a more and more rigid formalism.

If there is one thing which distinguishes the great writers on politics from the petty ones, it is the recognition of this overwhelming importance of character and public opinion, as compared with the particular institutions in which that character and public opinion may choose to embody its organized activity. Unfortunately, their words on this matter do not always find ready hearing. The details of the organization are so much easier to see than the underlying spirit which gives it life that everybody looks at the former, and few have the sense to see the latter. Every one knows that Aristotle divided governments into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy ; very few know that Aristotle said that there was a more fundamental division of governments into those which were legitimate and those which were not, the former being based on the consent of the governed and acting in the interest of the whole, while the latter were based on the authority of a class and exercised in the interests of that class. Every one knows that Rousseau’s Social Contract was a powerful means for the promotion of democracy in Europe, and identifies him with the doctrine that majorities should rule. Few know that Rousseau protested against the abuse of this doctrine with which his name was connected ; that he said emphatically that the majority of the people was not the people and never could be ; and that he only called for the determination of the public will by majority votes as being a better means than any other which had been devised of approximating to that real public sentiment which, after all, was the only legitimate power. Let us not adopt a line of education which shall emphasize in the minds of our children those details which were trivial in Aristotle and those which were pernicious in Rousseau. Let us rather impress upon them their responsibility as members of a body politic in the formation of that sentiment running throughout the whole body, which is behind the laws of a free state, and without which all law becomes either a mockery or a means to the tyranny of some over others.

But what is this public sentiment, about which so much is said and so little understood ?

“ Man,” says Aristotle, “ is a political animal.” Many attempts have since been made to restate this proposition in an improved form, but on the whole none is so good as the original. The instinct for forming communities which shall be the unit and centre of action is a distinguishing mark of the human species. And in the formation of these communities, the thing which holds them together and marks them out from those about them is not so much a distinction of physical character, or even of mental quality, as a distinct system of political ethics. A man under the influence of this code of political ethics imposed by the community will do things which may seem to militate, and sometimes actually do militate, against his self-interest as an individual. Under its influence he will encounter personal danger to promote public safety, will submit his passions and desires to the restraints of irksome discipline, and, hardest of all, will in modern times perform disinterestedly as a trustee in behalf of the community those powers which the voice of that community has intrusted to his charge.

On that feeling which gives effect to those political virtues we have bestowed the name of public sentiment. It may be said to perform the same functions in the world of political morality which the individual conscience performs in the wider domain of personal morality. And just as codes of private morals are unmeaning or formal unless there is a sturdy conscience to give them effect, so legal regulations and police discipline are but a vain reliance unless public sentiment stands behind them and comes to their aid. We may carry the analogy one step further, and say that just as in private morality there is an alternative between self-government by one’s own conscience and the compulsion of external authority, so in public morality there is a similar alternative between self-government by public sentiment and the tyranny of a dominating power.

It will be readily seen that public sentiment, as thus described, is a very different thing from much that passes under that name. If a large number of people want a thing, we not infrequently hear it said that there is a public sentiment in its favor. It would be much more correct to say that there is a widespread personal interest in securing it. The term public sentiment can only be applied to those feelings and demands which people are willing to enforce at their own cost, as well as at that of others. The desire for better municipal government on the part of the man who is not willing to labor for that end, the effusive patriotism of the man who hopes thereby to lead other people to enter upon a war of which he may celebrate the glories and enjoy the fruits, the denunciation of trusts by the man who has tried to do what they do and has not succeeded, can never be regarded as expressions of public sentiment in any true sense. They are but instances of the selfishness, the vaingloriousness, and even the envy of large sections of the community. There is perhaps nothing which more severely cripples economic reform than a failure to distinguish between a disinterested condemnation of that which we should despise in ourselves no less unsparingly than we denounce it in others, and the interested outcry of those who object to an evil, real or alleged, simply because some one else happens to be its beneficiary.

There is just as much need for the training of this public conscience or public sentiment, by whatever name we choose to call it, as for the training of the individual conscience in the affairs of private life. In fact, there is all the more need for such training, because the functions of the public conscience are less perfectly understood and the matters with which it deals are much more complex. In the practice of ordinary personal virtues a man or woman cannot go far astray without being brought up with a round turn by social disqualification, if not by the police or the reformatory. But in matters which concern the public interest, the transgressor, under our present system, is often entirely safe from the condemnation of the law, and largely so from any active exercise of social disqualification on the part of his fellow men. The greater the complexity of our social phenomena, the less clear are the applications of some of our standards of personal morality in their conduct, and the more does this education of public morality become an indispensable thing for the community that would preserve its integrity.

The means for this education have not kept pace with the need. In some respects we have actually gone backward. Grand as is the work which is done by the courts of the present day, it is doubtful whether their function as public educators stands where it did a century ago. Partly on account of the increasing difficulty of the cases with which they have to deal, partly on account of a theory of legal authority which dates from the beginning of the present century, our judges have contented themselves more and more with the application of precedents, and have been less and less concerned with the elucidation of reasons which should appeal to the non-technical mind. Add to this the fact that the performance of jury duty, once an all but universal educator in the principles underlying some of the most important branches of the law, has now become a burden which men seek to avoid, and we see how the judiciary has been largely shorn of those educational functions which in the history of the human race have been even more important than the purely technical duties of the office.

A still more serious retrogression has perhaps taken place in the educational influence of our public orators and debaters. It is hardly more than a generation since the utterances of political leaders in and out of Congress were a mighty power for the shaping of public opinion. Calhoun and Clay, Webster and Lincoln, formed by their speech the sentiment of large bodies of men on matters of public duty. We may differ in our judgment as to the rightness or wrongness of the conclusions which they drew. The man who agreed with Calhoun will disagree with Lincoln. But, now that the clouds of strife have passed away, all can agree that Calhoun and Lincoln alike appealed to something higher than personal interest, created something with more cohesive power than a mere enlightened selfishness — that each, in short, was inspired by a high ideal of the public conscience to which he appealed, and helped others to realize that ideal. To-day, on the other hand, it is almost proverbial that the effective speeches are those which voice a prepossession already felt, and give a rallying cry to partisan or personal interests. The system of district representation has gone far to make legislation a series of compromises between the interests of the several parts concerned, rather than an attempt to meet the needs of the whole. So far as this change has taken place in our legislation, it has become inevitable that the debate by which such legislation is preceded should be not so much an attempt to discuss the interest of the whole and to subordinate thereto the interests of the several parts by an appeal to self-sacrifice, as a skillful conduct of a negotiation where each speaker represents his sectional demands, which he strives to enforce by his superior adroitness as one among many players in the game of politics.

It is a common saying, and on the whole a true one, that newspapers have taken the place of orators as the educators of public sentiment. That the change has been attended with some advantages, none but the blindest pessimist would deny. The average citizen learns more facts through his newspapers in a day than he learned from his public speakers in a month. Materials for judgment are thus brought home to him far more promptly, and on the whole, I am inclined to think, rather more truthfully, than they were under the old régime. But whatever advantages the modern newspaper offers, it does not, with some honorable exceptions, recognize the duty of educating public sentiment as a paramount one. From the very circumstances of the case, the daily newspaper is under a strong pressure to emphasize what is ephemeral as compared with what is permanent; to throw into high relief what is crude rather than what has been thoroughly digested ; to make more use of that which is sensational than of that which is sedative. Too often it is compelled by pressure of necessity to subordinate everything else to partisan ends. Even where the editor himself has a high ideal of the possibilities of his vocation, he finds himself hindered by a lower conception of journalistic duty which prevails among the public at large. Whatever the reason, and wherever the blame, we cannot rely on the average newspaper of the present day to furnish that training in disinterestedness which is the essential basis of a really powerful public sentiment.

All these facts increase the responsibility which is placed upon our institutions of learning. The more inadequate the means for forming a disinterested public opinion in other ways, the more urgent is the need that our colleges should make this one of their chief functions. It will not do to have our higher education a purely technical one. However completely the citizens of the next generation may be fitted for the exercise of their several callings, our Constitution will not be safe unless they are also trained in the principles which enable them to govern themselves and their fellow men.

It is an interesting thing to see how the higher education of different countries reflects in its organization and character the political institutions of the nations concerned. In France and in Germany, where the citizen is part of a public machine, university life is occupied with an almost purely technical training, which fits each man for his place in that machine. In England and America, on the other hand, where the citizen is regarded primarily as part of a governing body, we have had a system of college education less closely adapted to technical needs, but more efficient in the creation of public sentiment. England and America have a system of liberal education in a sense which France and Germany have not, — an education whose liberality consists not in the superior quantity of knowledge, but in the relation of that knowledge to civil liberty.

How shall our colleges continue to give the education which is liberal in this higher sense, — education in the virtues of the freeman as distinct from those of the slave ? In the answer to this question is bound up the whole future of the American college as an institution ; not only its form, but perhaps its very existence.

Its course of study, in the first place, must deal with subjects which are nonprofessional. The student who begins at too early a period of his education to occupy himself with matters pertaining to the gaining of bread and butter is from that very fact in danger of losing sight of his broader privileges and duties as a citizen. The moral influence of having the student’s mind fixed, during some of the most plastic years of his mental life, on things whose value is independent of their money-making power for him individually is a thing of incalculable value.

In the second place, the course of study must deal with things which are permanent and not ephemeral. The man who would govern a nation and lead its public sentiment must not be swayed by the misjudgments and distortions of the moment. There is no power which in the long run has more commanding influence over the people than the power of a strong man to adhere to fixed standards where weaker men are unbalanced and unsettled by momentary confusion. It is this quality of permanence, I believe, more than any other, which has given to classical literature its commanding place in the educational systems of countries like England and America. I would not confine the term “ classic ” to the literature of Greece and Rome; but I would insist with confidence that the education of free citizens should be grounded in the study of those works which have proved their greatness, not by the appeal to a single generation or even to a single country, but by living long enough and spreading far enough to serve as a permanent basis of thought amid the shifting views and ideals of different communities.

In the third place, it must deal with large affairs rather than small ones. In some of our modern methods of work there is a real danger that this need may be disregarded. Controlled as our studies are by persons who see in every brilliant scholar a possible candidate for the degree of doctor of philosophy, there is a tendency in some quarters to substitute thoroughness and minuteness of detail for breadth of view, and to use, in those general studies which are intended to enlarge the mental horizon, methods of training which are more fit for those who would pursue them for technical purposes. It cannot be too strongly impressed on the teaching force of the country, in these days of specialization, that a liberal education has in view purposes different from those which control the specialist, and in some degree opposed to them. Original research, of which so much is said, is a valuable thing in its place; but it will not do to have the citizens of our republic regard the muck-rake as the chosen instrument of higher learning. I would not undervalue for one moment the importance of hard and thorough work ; but unless our teachers can find methods of securing this work on broad lines instead of narrow ones, the collegiate education of the country, in its older sense, is bound to pass away, because it will no longer be fulfilling its definite function in the training of the citizen.

But by no means the largest part of the education in public spirit which a college ought to give is to be sought in its course of study. The education given by the students to one another, and resulting from the spirit of the place, is that on which we most rely for the development of loyalty and self-devotion and those moral elements which are necessary as a basis of public sentiment in a self-governing community. It is perhaps not too much to say that the chief importance of the choice of studies in the collegiate training of citizens lies in the fact that the right selection of studies attracts the right kind of student material. The school which is purely technical, which enables its graduates to get large salaries at the sacrifice of breadth of character, inevitably attracts, as the years go on, those persons to whom money-making is the prime object. The school whose course is crammed with things of momentary rather than of permanent interest attracts those persons who value the superficial or transitory rather than the profounder things of life. The school whose methods of instruction are microscopic rather than telescopic attracts the minds that are narrow instead of broad. But with a course of study arranged independently of preparation for professional life, dealing with the things of all time more than with the interests of the moment, and aiming to give all possible breadth of intellectual interest, we are reasonably sure of attracting a student body capable of educating one another in disinterestedness, in stability of purpose, and in that sense of proportion which goes with largeness of vision. Nor is the influence of such students confined to those who are immediately associated with them. A few successive classes of this kind can build up a system of traditions and of sentiments which are hard to explain to those who have not come under their influence, but which, to those whose privilege it has been to feel their force, constitute the profoundest element in the political education furnished by a college course. This influence is not confined to any one department of college activity. It is manifested alike in the classroom, in the society, or on the playground. It carries those who feel it outside of themselves, and makes them part of a college life whose freedom trains them for the freedom of the larger national life into which they are just entering. Taking our boys — and, in the present generation our girls also — from different sections of the country, it makes them acquainted with their fellow men or women in a broader and more national sense than is possible in the secondary school, and under circumstances which contribute to the development of wider ideals than are possible in a system of technical training. May the time be far distant when these elements in our college life shall be crowded out by the pressure of professional studies, or weakened by schemes of education which lay more stress on the things which lie immediately before us as individuals than on those which fit us to be members of a free commonwealth and makers of the world’s history !

Arthur Twining Hadley,