Aristocratic and Democratic Education

PROFESSOR Grant Showerman in a recent essay very cleverly ridicules what he calls our ‘national belief in universal education’: ‘Having therefore settled that knowledge was power, and that power was happiness, and that every one had the inalienable right to it, the American democracy set to in a fine glow to make straight the way for every one to lay hold on that same knowledge which was power, which was happiness. It universalized elementary education by making it the public right. It went further, and made it a public duty — a duty first because education was a necessary ingredient of good citizenship, and again a duty because it was a factor in the happiness of the individual. Whether the individual wanted it or not, he should have the instrument of knowledge and power thrust into his hands. To be sure, it was a free country; but still, if a man didn ’t know enough to be happy of his own accord, he ought to be compelled to. He should be saved from himself, even if it took a truant officer.’

This, of a democracy. One might suppose that only democracies believe in universal education. Such is, of course, not the case. More than forty years ago Matthew Arnold, investigating continental education for the Schools Enquiry Commissioners wrote: ‘ It may be broadly said that in all the civilized States of Continental Europe education is compulsory except in France and Holland. . . . Instruction is obligatory for lower, middle, and upper classes alike.’

The modern world — democratic and aristocratic alike — appears, then, to be of one mind respecting the wisdom or necessity of universal education. Meanwhile the various societies of this modern world work on very different social theories; therefore, though they agree that universal education is necessary, they cannot possibly agree as to the reason. A short distance they travel together. Universal education, they say in concert, is necessary because it is designed to put men into possession of such elements of knowledge as they may need for the purpose of earning a livelihood or of communicating with their fellows. But this is not the whole of it; popular education has long since gone a good way beyond this point. It has become perhaps the main tool by means of which a given society, or the governing part of that society, endeavors to promote the most dearly cherished objects for which the society as a whole believes itself to exist. Universal education, then, must have just as many different reasons for promotion as societies have — or think they have — for existence.

To bring this out clearly let us contrast from this point of view two diverse societies, Prussia and the United States. They are both prosperous, progressive, and highly self-conscious peoples. Both ardently believe in education, and in universal education. They are seeking, however, very different social and national ends. They must therefore believe in education and in universal education for very different reasons; they must practice it with very different expectations as to what they are going to get out of it.

The presupposition of universal education in Prussia is the existence of a society organized on an aristocratic basis; universal national education must be so construed as to aid in conserving this organization. It has indeed much to do besides: national eminence is,for example, conditioned by economic and social efficiency. Universal education has therefore to promote industrial vigor. But the larger conservative purpose is never forgotten in the nearer aggressive one. Subtly and fundamentally qualifying the method and spirit of the schools is the purpose to maintain the present social organization stable and intact. The schools are a means of social discipline, devoted to the maintenance of the status quo. The more thorough they are educationally, the more effectual they are as means of social constraint.

The Germans drill the mind as they drill the body; they have educational, as they have military, conscription, purchasing a specific sort of power — physical and mental alike — at the expense of range and spontaneity. A strong presumption is thus created that the child will not disturb the social structure by breaking away from the station to which he is born. The nineteenth century witnessed an enormous expansion in university attendance; but it barely touched the lower strata of society. It did not disturb social adjustments. Even now the son of an inferior workman very rarely reaches the University; the sons of artisans are less numerous in the University and Gymnasium than they were a few generations ago. A full third of the present university enrollment hails from official and professional circles; a fourth are sons of academically bred fathers. ‘Higher education,’ says Eulenberg, ‘is obviously a family tradition’; by the same token, other grades of education must be equally traditional. How unusual is marked displacement of an individual, one readily gathers from Paulsen’s charming account of the way in which one peasant boy contrived to begin the career that ended in the professorship of philosophy and education at Berlin: —

‘The destiny of the only son was a matter of course; I should be the successor of my parents on the little farm. That my inclination and talents were especially adapted to this could hardly be maintained. My parents were not deceived about this. I showed more predilection for books than became a peasant. On the other hand, my interest in oxen and sheep, my ability to tell them apart, and to value them, by no means came up to expectation, so that I had often to listen to the reproach, “ You ’ll never make a decent farmer! ”

. . . It happened one day in my fourteenth year, as I was supping with my parents, that I was again chided on the ground that I would never make a capable farmer. Unexpectedly, but not accidentally, I broke in, “ Well, I don’t want to be a farmer, either.” “ What on earth do you want to be then?” asked my mother. “I want to study.”’

And so he finally did.

Such an occasional transfer, however, imperils nothing. It is, in the first place, exceptional: only an unusual individual thus changes his place. In the second place, the Gymnasium, to which he is transferred from the Volkschule, is itself a highly conservative institution. Linguistic drill — ancient and modern — plays a considerable part; the instruction in history is designed to impose a distinctively Prussian version of historic development; that in religion is calculated to implant in the child’s mind the official interpretation of the universe. The general demeanor is favorable to the preservation of accepted distinctions.

I find it somewhat difficult to make my meaning clear without overstating the point which I wish to emphasize. German education is serious, substantial, and progressive. How efficient and successful it has been, no competing modern nation needs now to be told. In both productive and applied science and scholarship it has led, and on the whole still leads, the world. In its higher stages it even gives the individual unhampered scope, — but the sanctity of the particular form which society has historically assumed has been previously safeguarded. The German University student enjoys unique and total freedom; but his formative years were spent under a system concerned with the development of power, preconditioned by disciplined community in specific social and intellectual ideals. The Gymnasium trains classes rather than individuals. It trains them admirably indeed, but in the process consciously endeavors to commit them to a distinct and restrictive social ideal. That battle won, the University may safely leave things free; whether in the long run the battle is going to stay won depends on factors that I need not now mention.

Similarly, the German faculty is a thoroughly democratic body. It governs itself so far as it is governed at all; its members do what and as they please. We must not, however, overlook the existence of the initial control by which this freedom at the higher level is effect - ually preconditioned. It is quite safe to allow a good deal of internal democracy, if the entire organization is in the first place put upon an aristocratic plane. The inner relations of an aristocracy may be very democratic indeed, but the whole remains aristocratic still. Paulsen, a decidedly liberal thinker, argues strongly for the right and duty of the state to exclude from university chairs of political science teachers whose tenets conflict with the officially approved social order. The professor is, he insists, a state official; he may freely criticize abuse, but as an official he is bound to protect and defend the state he serves. The government has, however, gone much further than this in making the University a bulwark of the status quo. For, whatever be the essential character of the professor, the Privatdocent is not an official and hence has no official duties. In a critical case, a Privatdocent in physics, Dr. Arons, was, despite the opposition of the philosophical faculty of Berlin University, deprived by the government of his docentship because of membership in the Social-Democratic party.

That the University is — whatever else it is —a pawn in the social struggle, we can most clearly perceive in the preliminary fencing now taking place at Frankfurt-am-Main. The founding of a university is in Germany — as it should be everywhere else — a deeply serious business. Need must be conclusively proved; adequate facilities and resources must be clearly demonstrated. There was once in academic affairs a day of small things; in civilized modern communities that day has long since passed by. That an additional Prussian university is now required, the Government concedes; Frankfurt is an appropriate location; and the rich city already possesses a considerable part of the necessary material equipment in the shape of laboratories, hospitals, endowments, etc. Practically only the details of organization and policy remain to be settled: but, alas, they are already settled in advance.

The German University has been in recent years severely criticized even by its friends: Lamprecht at Leipzig, Bernheim at Greifswald, have, among others, pointed out serious maladjustments of mediæval origin; these are indeed pretty generally admitted. Correcting them, however, is a difficult matter, for in conservative countries ancient institutions lend themselves but awkwardly to experimental reconstruction. At such a juncture a new establishment would appear to furnish precisely the opportunity needed. Some new departures might be tried; if successful, they could be imitated elsewhere. But the government intends otherwise. The new university at Frankfurt begins by adopting the historical evolution of the existing University. In organization, administration, and policy it departs not a shade from institutions bound by the traditions of centuries. What Strassburg did in the seventies, Frankfurt will do half a century later: like the novice who enters a religious order, it is at once indistinguishable from its sister universities.

The details that remain to be settled are, as I have said, settled in advance. A local committee of fifteen has had the project in charge; it has split on social-political lines. Four Social Democrats have been consistently outvoted by eleven representatives of the official and professional classes. On both sides a political and social issue is felt to be involved in the creation of an institution of higher learning. To us at this moment the merits or demerits of the counter-proposal of the minority do not come into question. Significant of the character of the contest is, however, their declaration: ‘We took part in the work of this Commission on the theory that it would be possible so to organize the new university that at least the well-known Prussian grievances due to political interference might be remedied, and a road be opened for progressive university development. Our expectations have been disappointed. The majority has taken the position that the new Frankfurt University has to comply with all existing regulations, if it hopes to receive the requisite governmental sanction.’

A single-minded educational scheme, be it ever so complex, lends itself readily to extension and systematization, from both the educational and the administrative point of view. Various social classes have each its appropriate form of discipline; immense administrative vigor is possible where definite notions as to what each class requires can be clearly stated in advance. The Prussian schoolmaster is, as a rule, untroubled by theoretic doubts; he has been carefully selected and skillfully trained so as not to have them. Whatever the part played by local authorities, the entire system is regulated by a central keyboard. From the common school, from the Gymnasium, from the University, from the technical school, all roads lead to the Cultus Ministerium. When every morning at eleven o’clock the bureau chiefs in the educational ministry in Berlin meet round a table in Wilhelmstrasse, all the school interests and school activities of Prussia have there come together, just as the spokes of a wheel converge upon the hub. From that table radiate outward lines which reach and bind together every Prussian university, every Prussian school.

To this intelligent, centralized guidance, the symmetrical development of higher education in Germany is attributable. Officials of competent intelligence and adequate authority ascertain what science and scholarship demand and make possible: laboratories, libraries, staff organization, what not, they proceed to furnish them. The German University presents therefore an even front. No branch lacks anywhere the internal organization to which it is entitled, or the support it requires from other branches. Law, medicine, engineering, theology, are homogeneously developed at a high level; inferior alternatives are not tolerated.

Within the Gymnasium likewise progressive readjustment takes place; but with deliberation, and only after the new elements have been more or less subdued to the prevailing objects. A strong and wise government knows not only when to yield, but how to make even its concessions serve its own farsighted purposes. The history of modern Germany is conclusive proof that the government has steered a skillful course between repression and renovation. Indeed, the success which has attended its policy confirms the nation in its habit of trusting the leadership of the state. Professor Harnack, one of the most distinguished of living German scholars, in a recent paper urging that the time has come when private benefactors must supplement governmental funds devoted to educational and scientific ends, deplores the fact that, as he says, ‘with us in Germany, one expects everything from the state.’ But this is precisely the attitude of mind which German education has both presumed upon and aimed to foster. The government that desires to keep education in its own hands for purposes that it thoroughly approves must perforce expect to be its sole patron. The Prussian government supports its own version of universal education because it can thus, in an enlightened and effective manner, execute a policy calculated to maintain the order upon which it rests.

Very different is the presupposition of universal education in a democratic society. There, in the first place, society, instead of being more or less highly stratified, is regarded as in process of making. The individual, instead of being more or less certainly destined to a particular place, is to be rendered as free as possible to find his own place, and from it to exercise his powers in helping to determine the precise form the social revolution will next take. The late Professor William James, in this sense a characteristically democratic philosopher, used to insist that the entire universe is an unfinished affair, the course of whose development is bound to be novel and unexpected. In such an environment, whatever else an individual’s education must do for him, it must first of all prepare him to participate in activities which it is open to him also to modify by the creative outcome of his own endeavors.

One sees at once how different the implicit presuppositions of the two educational systems actually are; what different purposes universal education may be made to serve. The Prussian system is part of the steel framework which tends to keep society and the distribution of social functions pretty much as they now are. Our own system, based on the assumption that our present imperfections can be remedied only by change, attempts, in theory at least, to promote and to take advantage of social plasticity. The reassignment of the individual is, of course, not impossible in Germany; but the educational system is not designed to facilitate it: not education, but industry, is the social solvent that is disintegrating German society. The reassignment of the individual on his own merits is, on the other hand, the explicit purpose of universal education in America. ‘In the last one hundred years,’ writes Professor Dewey, ‘ the right of each individual to spiritual self-development and self-possession, and the interest of society as a whole in seeing that each of its members has an opportunity for education, have been recognized in publicly maintained schools, from kindergarten through the college to the engineering and professional school.’

There is, however, another basis for American belief in education aside from the development of endowment as the ethical right of the individual. The perfectibility of social life on this earth has never been an accepted article of popular belief abroad: there the golden age has always been referred to a prehistoric past or a postmundane future; education had nothing to do with either. Our own social philosophy was in the first place highly optimistic; we began with thinking that, given favorable conditions — and here they were! — things would inevitably go well. The simple faith that all things must eventually go right with us, has strongly tinged American thinking, writing, and doing. We are disillusioned now. We have awakened from our dream to realize that, in new countries as in old, things do not of themselves go well. Mere transplantation across the Atlantic was not of itself enough. People thus change their skies, not themselves. The passions and weaknesses to which the defects of European society were due crossed the Atlantic with the immigrants who have filled our cities and taken up our farms. They hated inequality and oppression, partly at least, as it turns out, because they were the inferior and the oppressed. Too often where they have been able to get possession of the necessary resources and position here, they have been quick to assert a galling and unrighteous superiority. Again, our early political philosophers in expecting a beneficent order spontaneously to assert itself, were ignorant of the facts now embodied in the evolutionary philosophy. They did not realize how incompletely man has as yet outgrown the baser and fiercer traits of animal origin. Nor did they dream of the new powers, the new opportunities, the new temptations, that would accompany and offset the scientific developments of recent years.

In the face of disillusionment we did not abandon our faith. We are still fundamentally optimistic; we still believe that our democratic venture will pay. We even believe that the newly discovered and applied powers, from which gross evils have come, may in the end prove almost wholly beneficent. But we no longer think that things will, or even tend to, go well of themselves: they have got to be made to go well.

Education is what we nowadays rely on to make them go well. Education has therefore in a democracy a positive function in reference to an ideal hoped for, as against a negative function in reference to a status already established. The democratic world wants to be saved, not conserved; it is convinced that if it is to be saved at all, its salvation will come by education. Democratic purpose does not achieve itself spontaneously, however favorable the environment; it does not even get realized when the mere elements of a good education have been communicated to every child in the land. Something much more elaborate is found necessary. What Professor Showerman calls the ‘democratic dream of education,’requires, as he very truly says, not only the grammar school, but the high school, the college, and the state university.

The fact is that we have discovered that democracy needs — more so than any other social form — to be both intensively and extensively educated, albeit extensive and intensive organization is not itself native to the genius of democratic society. Here we once more rub against a fundamental contrast. Organization comes relatively easy to monarchical, aristocratic, or other kinds of paternal government. They can go a long way without asking permission; they possess a good deal of initiative; within fairly large limits, they make up their minds as to what is good for the people or in the interest of the governing classes, and ‘ jam it through’; they come nearer, then, to covering their field; in point of scope they are more adequately representative of the total national interest, as they conceive it.

Democratic government, on the other hand, tends necessarily to be inadequate to represent the total interest of its own society. And for this reason: what a democratic government can do depends upon consent. The sphere within which a government can act which must first obtain the consent and the support of the public tends always to be restricted to a minimum. Democracy lacks, therefore, driving force; it is deficient in initiative, in the ability to conceive and to execute comprehensive designs. The veto is very easily applied even by a minority. Sanitation and transportation and education and art are, for example, among the vital concerns of the nation. But until there is pretty general agreement about them, democratic governments are apt to be supine. Difference about even minor detail may remove a subject from governmental action for the time, or restrict governmental action to narrow limits. Democratic governments are therefore apt to lag a long way behind really intelligent opinion.

It is, then, on the face of the facts a simpler matter to organize and systematize the educational activities of an aristocracy than those of a democracy. Indeed, what democracy counts as the natural defects of systems as such, namely their resistant power, their inelasticity, are among the qualities which commend systematization to conservative thinkers. They want something that does not yield too easily, that tends to reduce the unit to conformity with the type, and that will even take over to itself the exception. Social stability is so important to a caste organization that it is on the whole safer not to make miscellaneous individual development too easy. On the other hand, organized educational system being necessary if democracy is to handle its undertaking, a way must be found to overcome, in the first place, its disinclination to comprehensive systematization; in the second, the defects to which systems as such are liable.

The creation of flexible ‘wide-open’ state systems of education now fairly under way is the response of society to this need, — a development which is assuredly one of the surprises of democracy. President Pritchett has very truly pointed out that ‘the fathers would have looked upon a state university which crowned a compulsory public-school system as an autocrat dangerous to liberty.’ The ultimate objects of democracy have thus already greatly modified some of its prominent original tendencies.

Still another striking and perhaps equally characteristic contrast may be pointed out, in respect to the origin and control of progressive movements in education. I spoke a moment ago of the tendency in paternal and aristocratic governments to leave everything educational to the state. I meant not only the routine conduct of education: the tendency applies to readjustment and reform as well. Education is in Prussia a thing for experts, the naturally conservative instincts of the expert being in this instance accentuated; for he is either an official or a teacher, both strongly conservative in tendency. Experimentation within the Prussian schools therefore takes place only within relatively narrow limits; nor is it much freer outside the system, for the state holds private educational ventures to the legalized school standards. Unquestionably the nation is thus protected against serious abuses not unknown elsewhere; but there are disadvantages. Ostwald, in his interesting book on Great Men, after pointing out that as a rule the scientific investigator has found the humanistic Gymnasium a hostile discipline, shows how the situation is practically deadlocked so far as decisive improvement is concerned: ‘ With the well-known tone of conviction, the conservative declares, “One must not experiment with the schools.” How then is one to improve education, if one is forbidden to experiment? Usually they expect to improve it by getting an expert or a commission of experts to work out a curriculum, which without further testing is put to work.' Protest and criticism therefore take place almost wholly within the system; the principle of progress is inside the system. It keeps to the point and is guilty of no absurdities; but it lacks volume and breadth of view.

By way of contrast, the principle of educational progress in the United States is largely outside the system. Here educational discussion and suggestion proceed merrily, without excessive attention to expert counsel. The bars are down. Teachers themselves may freely criticize and experiment. So may any one else. Indeed, professional training has hitherto been so feeble that it has hardly drawn a sharp line between teachers and laymen. The fact is that the struggle to construct educational systems which shall not operate restrictively, which shall not be based upon the acceptation of a priori conventional values, but which shall respond to the whole range of social and individual need, could not possibly be worked out by trained experts alone.

We shall need the expert at every stage; but even so, not the conventional expert whose point of view is identified with a traditional system. The drawbacks to the ‘wide-open’ school situation which results are obvious enough. It is for the moment confused beyond description. Pending the elucidation of the problem of values, no particular values are respected. There is no agreement as to what is more, what less important; as to what is essential, and what incidental or instrumental. Institutional competition has aggravated the confusion. Will the ultimate objects of democracy here again modify its original impulsive tendencies: will coöperation, largely voluntary, bring the necessary degree of control in reference to larger ends, the necessary organization and differentiation, once competing values have been permitted to try themselves out? Meanwhile the interesting characteristic phenomenon with which we are here concerned is the collaboration in criticism, suggestion, and construction of the educator and the interested layman in the United States. We have associations of educators, to be sure, as the Germans have their recent Bund für Schulreform: but we have parents’ associations, employers’ associations, and other non-professional educational associations besides.

A thoroughly characteristic organization of this kind is the Public Education Association of New York, made up of men and women none of whom may in any capacity be connected with the schools, and aiming in all possible ways to improve and to supplement the school system of the city. Its relation to the school system of New York is at once sympathetic, helpful, and critical. It assists the schools in their efforts to procure the larger funds which they imperatively need; it watches with a jealous eye all proposed educational legislation; and it maintains a staff of visiting teachers who ply between the school and the home, searching in individual cases for the causes of school failure and endeavoring to supply the conditions under which better results may in each instance be obtained. The canny urchins of the East Side shrewdly designate these agents as ‘ lady cops.’ Absolutely without official status, they are welcomed equally by the principal and teachers on the one hand, and by the parents and children on the other. The Public Education Association of New York is a striking example of the fecundity of a democracy in devising ways of not leaving everything to the state.

I suspect that we strike rock-bottom here; we touch a contrast that goes far beyond the single phase with which we have been dealing. Democracy marks itself off from aristocracy, not only in governing itself through agents of its own choosing; it goes far outside official lines in self-governance. In this sense we govern ourselves by the Child-Labor Society, the Consumers’ League, the Civic Federation, or the Education Association, as truly as by departments of commerce, labor, education, etc. The official type of agency — governmental departments, for instance — represents what has made its way, has won recognition and formulation; the non-official type of agency represents the vague, the more or less inchoate. But democracy includes both; and the successful, responsive, progressive democracy is that in which official and non-official agencies are found in close sympathy and interaction.

Political philosophers once held that, as democracy is essentially a government in which all citizens freely participate, pure democracy perished when the town meeting went to pieces. In the town meeting, citizens met, discussed their problems, chose their officials, and later scrutinized their acts. Official and citizen coöperated in governing. As towns became bigger, population more numerous, and municipal problems more complex, the town meeting ceased to be feasible or effective. It remains true, nevertheless, that democratic government involves the participation of the citizen far beyond the point of merely choosing representatives and executives: he must actually coöperate. Is it fanciful to suggest that the spontaneous and supplementary organizations I have mentioned are an effort to provide a substitute for the town meeting? In these organizations the citizen once more participates in the actual conduct of affairs; through these organizations he retains things more or less in his own hands. He keeps in contact with problems, officials, and other citizens; and this contact develops civic sense and civic responsibility, — which was precisely the virtue of the old town meeting. Do we not thus reproduce in essence the town meeting?

Grant that nowadays the area is too wide for frequent assemblies. Well, voluntary association can be city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, according to the problem at issue. Municipal communities are now unmanageably large. Very well! Voluntary associations devoted to particular objects are easily manageable. Problems have become too knotty for profitable discussion by ill-informed general gatherings. Very well then! By differentiation, by devoting separate bodies with expert guidance and advice to each of the several problems under discussion, we escape random and uninformed discussion. Finally, there are too many issues for any one assembly to handle. Differentiation breaks them up and distributes them feasibly. In this way the people are brought into direct contact with their own problems, just as they were in the old town meeting. And as all these varied activities come together, their unity reproduces the unity of more primitive conditions.

Voluntary association for specific social ends is thus the democratic way of not leaving everything to the state. By the character and spirit and earnestness and number of these bodies, the actual level of democratic life may at any moment be known. They are indeed the most unmistakable indications of the level of our social morality and intelligence. In this sense, a student seeking to gauge American democracy at this moment must give due weight to the Consumers’ League, on the one hand, and to Tammany Hall on the other. They are all alike freely formed aggregates for the attainment of definite ends. Which is really representative of that which the American nation actually and permanently wills? Which of them will eventually bend to its purposes and ideal the authority and resources of the state? That issue still hangs undecided. Its decision depends largely upon the seriousness and earnestness which men and women can bring to voluntary organizations aiming to create sound public opinion, and to initiate and sustain measures that seek to give that opinion effect.

What is true elsewhere is true of education. The Prussian government can create and operate an admirable educational system; they can in some measure fashion the people by means of it. No American state government can do likewise. Here state institutions and privately endowed and supported enterprises under only indirect and ineffective state control exist side by side. Nothing but conscience, intelligence, goodwill, can ever bring them into harmonious relationship. For the time being no such harmony exists: confusion and feebleness everywhere result — in the field of elementary education, in academic education, in professional education. If harmony of ideal can be established through voluntary coöperation based on supreme regard for the public good, we shall gain the necessary vigor without sacrifice of democratic variety.

We have in America no way of achieving rational ends except by voluntary submission to rational ideals. Aristocratic societies are harassed by no such perplexities; nor, on the other hand, do they enjoy any such opportunities. With them, universal education is a closely articulated system worked from a central station, only slowly responsive to direct pressure from without. With us, universal education is loosely jointed, on some accounts repugnant to certain native tendencies, but self-imposed, because not otherwise are the ultimate objects of our experiment attainable. Universal education expresses then the sincerity of democratic endeavor. Whatever organs we create for carrying it on, it remains the responsibility of each individual still. In this, I say, it reflects the essential nature of our democratic enterprise. Though the citizen of a democracy may delegate power, he never absolves himself from responsibility; he never creates an organ so adequate to its total purpose that less formal organizations looking to the achievement of social ends may be altogether dispensed with.