What of Liberal Education?

Is liberal education losing in power to attract youth? This is alleged in many quarters. In college and secondary school, the studies which wear a vocational aspect are being preferred, we are told, to those that minister to the larger ideals of life. Education toward practical achievement is being sought by an increasing number of students, while the numbers of those seeking in the humanities the elevating influences which a higher civilization needs do not increase proportionately. The advocates of an effective vocational education are not infrequently embarrassed by the charge that they are promoting the decay of much that makes for kindled ideal, sympathetic insight and personal culture. They have not always the hardihood to suggest that perhaps the waning of interest in liberal education may be occasioned largely by lack of adaptation in its own instruments and met hods. May it not be possible that the demand for the essentials of liberal education is no less strong than formerly, but that ancient ways of meeting it no longer suffice?

Clearly, better foundations are needed for liberal education in school and college. Professors and teachers of the liberal arts still reflect in a measure the ideals and methods of the cloister and of the leisured world in which their calling found its aristocratic and exclusive origins. Quite naturally, they are usually strong in their faiths, and resentful of scrutiny into the social validity of their purposes; and it would be surprising if, under the circumstances, they proved themselves able to evaluate in any fundamental way the effectiveness of their means and methods in promoting culture and social worth under modern democratic conditions.

Schoolmen — teachers of the liberal arts in school and college — can be credited with a fine devotion to the study of those fields of knowledge in which their scholarly interests lie; but, with rare exceptions, they have not been students of teaching. They have mastered subject-matter, the means of education,— but not pedagogy, the art of effectively applying the means. They have not yet evolved a satisfactory philosophy of liberal education to supersede the store of educational dogmas, psychological misconceptions, and cultural mysticisms which they inherited.

Yet our schools and colleges are thronged as never before by those seeking or sent to seek higher education. Over a million boys and girls, under no legal compulsion, now pursue the traditional types of liberal learning in public secondary schools in America; and t he men and women in the colleges are to be numbered by hundreds of thousands. But much of the work done in these institutions is without clear purpose, and is therefore largely futile as regards the finer ends of liberal education.

Efficiency in education, as elsewhere in the regions of conscious effort, involves on the one hand a fairly clear conception of goals to be reached, and on the other a degree of certitude as to the probable functioning of the means and methods employed. Our institutions devoted to liberal education are not able to apply to themselves tests of efficiency along these lines; they have no acceptable formulations of their purposes; and equally (and partly as a consequence) they have no sufficient evidence as to the efficacy of the procedures which they use. These schools receive the picked personalities of the community, from the standpoint both of natural inheritance and of social surroundings. Intelligent men and women naturally expect the schools to enhance in marked degree the civic and cultural possibilities of these young people. Neither parents nor public are satisfied with the results. In spite of the large attendance in school and college, faculties allege that there is a waning of interest in intellectual pursuits. Students are perfunctory in their devotion to serious studies, except to those appealing to practical motives. Vocational education seems often to have the stronger claims on attention and interest. Because of the greater efficiency of its procedures it may, indeed, tend to attract students at an age when, for them, a further liberal education, if effective, would be preferable.

Vocational education is capable, at best, of making only partial and somewhat incidental contributions to liberal education, no matter how we conceive the latter. A democracy surely needs liberal education, widely developed, as something distinct from vocational capacity. The lawyer can be given, somehow, interests in music and art quite unconnected with his vocation; the farmer may have his tastes for literature, sociology, or astronomy; and the machinist may touch with some appreciation, in his leisure hours, such remote fields as the plant-world, or the interior decoration of a home.

May we not, in fact, still find it desirable to defend, in a degree, liberal education in terms of its differences from vocational education; not indeed in disparagement of the latter, as the cloistered schoolman has done, but as furnishing the vital complementary factors to it? Man, to be of use to himself, and to society, must be a producer of utilities of some sort; and it is folly to disparage this function, or to deny its importance in any sane scheme of education. But man is also a consumer; he is a user of the endlessly varied output of the labor and inspiration of others. To produce little and consume much is a characteristic of parasitical forms of life ; but to produce well and consume badly gives us, in the human sphere, narrow, illiberal, self-limiting, and ultimately self-destroying individualities. The modern world insists on specialization in productive activities as the key-note to efficiency; but it must learn to insist equally on the democratization and universalizing of fine consuming capacities as a condition of maintaining the larger forms of social life. One of the vices almost always inherent in certain forms of social aristocracy, is the artificial specialization of some consuming functions.

Are there not revealed in the distinctions here presented the clues to the methods and functions of liberal education? Man stands in a two-fold relationship to the world; he is a producer of utilities, and also a consumer. As producer, he writes books, or constructs machines, or produces wheat, or builds houses, or heals the sick, or conveys travelers; and for any of these activities he can be trained. As consumer, however, he is inspired by books, served by machines, nourished by bread, sheltered by houses, healed by physicians, and carried by railways; and for the wise and profitable exercise of these activities he can also be trained. He specializes in production; but manufacture, and printing, and steam enable him to universalize in consumption. What we call the social inheritance — knowledge, ideals, institutions, inventions, all capitalized in more or less permanent forms — is at the disposal of any qualified user. In a world of specialized producers, each person sufficiently trained in utilization has for his enjoyment and service endless stores of science, of art, of religious ideals, of political capacity, and of economic resources.

The world needs able producers, and education to that end will never be amiss; but it also needs, as a condition of social well-being, consumers who can utilize material and spiritual products to their own advantage, and also to the advantage of those who are of high grade among producers. Do I buy inferior newspapers, when better are available? I not only injure myself, but I lend my influence to lowering the standards of newspaper production. Does one prefer cheap and ephemeral fiction to the standard writings of the great masters? Not only does he fail to realize his own best good, but he becomes measurably responsible for the failure of other potential great masters to reach the stage of high creative work. Do we, as a people, reward with our approval and patronage unscientific medical attendance, conscienceless political service, and life-impairing industrial activity? We pay, as a rule, our own penalty; but society is also permanently the loser in scientific medicine, in political honesty, and in genuinely efficient industry.

Is not the essence of liberal education to be found in the conception of man as a user? Is it possible to call a man liberally educated, who, as a user, habitually makes inferior choices from the fields of art, literature, religion, applied science, convivial association, political leadership, and travel? Fortunately, we no longer hold the older notion that culture is inseparable from certain specialized forms of appreciation, such as ability to read Greek, speak French, recite sonnets, or discuss the latest fiction; and we are slowly learning to conceive it as something deeper than the mere possession of etiquette and a set of conventions.

The liberally educated man of the twentieth century will not be the member of a narrow cult. From many quarters will it prove possible, as a famous university president has told us, to derive the training and experience which make for liberal education; and it is futile to expect that all liberally educated men shall exhibit powers of appreciation in the same fields. Life is short, and the world of ideals, knowledge, and specialized service grows constantly larger. If all men read, we are under obligation to seek to produce better standards of reading; but this does not mean that we shall bar from the ranks of the liberally educated, on this account alone, the man who has no Latin; nor he who, perchance, may not have read Browning; nor even one who frankly confesses a general distaste for classical literature.

Perhaps, in the more democratic society of the future, we shall find more satisfactory universal tests of liberal education in those regions of activity where large numbers have social contact, To-day we all buy and use pictures — in newspaper, magazine, moving-picture show, bill-board exhibition, and, less commonly, in art gallery and in the household; how much of liberal education for this purpose can a more purposive system of school training give us? We are all users of the output of the modern loom; according to the character of t he demand, this output may be prevailingly flimsy, inartistic, unhygienic, and the product of shop conditions which promote poverty, ill health, and low morals. Will not. right ideas of liberal education insist on elevating these conditions, and socializing this form of consumption? Again, that field of social activity which we term politics has evolved a form of specialized service for which compensation is given as in other fields. Voting means simply collective employment of this specialized service toward the performance of particular functions. In a democracy, it has seemed desirable to allow large numbers to share, directly or indirectly, in the employment of public servants. The essence of general civic education is to produce good employers of civic workers, that is, persons who will have a fairly clear conception of the task to be done, and who will know how to choose efficient and honest employees. From this standpoint, shall we continue to be able to call a man liberally educated for the conditions of modern life who manifests incapacity and professes indifference in exercising his social responsibility in the joint purchase of expert political service?

Now, if the conception of liberal education here put forth is valid, it is necessary that we realize how far the methods of modern academic training are alien to it. Not so much, perhaps, is this true in professed purpose as in methods and results. A careful examination of the pedagogic practice (largely traditional and customary, of course, rather than consciously purposive) of secondary school and college of liberal arts will show the persistence of methods derived rather from an ancient vocational education,and ill serving the purposes of liberal learning.

At bottom, it would seem that, popular objection to so-called liberal education rests largely on a widespread, though seldom articulate, conviction that it is not liberalizing. Does the study of the historic ‘humanities,’ as carried on in a modern atmosphere, produce the ‘humane’ man, — the man who, as in the olden view, saw profoundly, thought deeply, sympathized widely, and became a blessed source of high ideals, correct thinking, and benign sentiment? Are our highschool graduates liberally educated to utilize and thereby to improve service in the making of books, the preaching of sermons, the nurture of children, the policing of cities, the administration of charity, and the presentation of plays? Is the organized training of the average college of liberal arts (not the college life, since often, by chance or design, this is unquestionably liberalizing) such as to produce high-grade appreciation and effective powers of utilization in the fields of citizenship, art, social intercourse, religion?

It seems highly probable that, because of the prevailing haziness of thinking regarding the valid and practicable ends of liberal education, there is ineffective organization of means. What, for example, has the obligatory study of algebra and geometry on the part of ninety-five per cent of the more than half million high-school girls in America to do with their liberal education? Some seventy per cent, probably, of all boys and girls in our public high schools are constantly studying Latin, that ancient and extolled instrument of liberal education; but, as commonly studied, by grammatical methods, and without persistent interest, what part does it play, except in rare instances, in the liberal education of American youth? These subjects, it will be said, are prescribed merely as the preliminary instruments of a later liberal education; but what is this? Are the instruments ever actually used, and with what, effect? Does such education, in truth, ‘function’? where, and to what extent?

Again, the large purposes of scienceteaching, enunciated at intervals since the days of Spencer and Huxley, are acceptable and admirable from the standpoint of liberal education; but in spite of laboratories and innumerable courses in college and secondary school, do not these purposes still remain largely unrealized? What, after all, for the average youth, has the prevailing study of physics, of chemistry, and of biology to do with liberal education? The methods currently employed are those of formal vocational education; high school and college teachers organize their work as if their sole business were to prepare forthcoming specialists in teaching, medicine, and engineering. Once in a generation each institution may get a real teacher of science from the standpoint of inspiration, insight, culture — in a word, liberal education; but the rank and file are technicians only. The popular verdict is that science, pure or applied, is not yet in practice a feature of liberal education.

The same criticism applies to other subjects. Our secondary schools and colleges multiply courses in history. We all feel, vaguely, that in history, if anywhere, should be found valuable means of liberal education. But scientific methods, an insufficient pedagogy, and a prevailing lack of social insight (perhaps better called sociological insight) have contributed to the sterilization of this subject as a soil for the growth of ideals, sentiments, and useful social knowledge.

Obviously, we need a revision of the philosophy and methods of liberal education. Surely, no one can contend that in a world growing daily richer in all kinds of resources, — spiritual, intellectual, æsthetic, material, — and in specialized service, we do not need education towards wise utilization on a high social plane. The democratic and universal character of this education must be assured. Let it not be forgotten that extra-school agencies, and these often of an irresponsible sort, are always active in leading the consumer toward anything but the finer forms of utilization. The Sunday newspaper and the cheap magazine become the literature of the majority; the billboard, vaudeville, and moving-picture show give to the people not only romance, but art as well; the convivial association of the drinking place is substituted for more refined and restrained intercourse; and advertising, which now costs annually far more than the total outlay for all forms of organized education, incessantly fashions tastes and standards in the use of clothing, ornament, food, and habitation, as well as in literature, music, and political service.

Many of the foregoing agencies are good; but they are seldom capable of producing from within themselves the higher standards, and they often fail to lend themselves to the wider social purposes needed by the age in which we live. The school is the one institution under more or less of public control, which is charged, in so far as it deliberately ministers to liberal education, with responsibility for the elevation and diffusion of higher standards of appreciation and utilization. A purposive programme to this end is a present educational need. When it shall be evolved, it seems probable that, in comparison with it, our pitiful drills in algebra, Latin, text-book physics, ancient history, elementary logic, and English composition, will make a poor exhibition as supposed means of genuine liberal education.

How can such a programme be formulated? It seems to the writer that the first condition is a statement of the aims of liberal education in terms of demonstrable utilities, — a statement which shall consist neither of mere descriptions of means and subjects of study, nor of vague and perhaps mystical generalizations. ‘Culture,’ ‘mental training,’ ‘æsthetic appreciation,’ ‘the scientific spirit,’ are all too uncertain, too complex, and perhaps, in their general aspects, too impracticable of realization, to serve usefully as formulated goals of educational effort; and, on the other hand, subjects of study, the so-called liberal arts, as condensed, formalized, and desiccated by the schoolmaster, in text-book and manual, are rarely, in themselves, utilities, but merely instruments or means. It may be desirable that a high-school girl should be induced or compelled to study algebra, but surely this should not be for the sake of the algebra itself; and it is educational faith and dogma, not certitude and science, which now declare that out of such study she will emerge keener of mind, stronger in self-control, or elevated in useful ideals. As found in practice today, liberal education directs its efforts toward mastery of certain subjects; these are certainly only means to further ends, which are either not yet defined or rest largely on a basis of tradition and mysticism.

But modern education should prove equal to the task of discovering and formulating, as educational ends, a large variety of interests, forms of appreciation, and powers of utilization, all having worth to the individual and to society. Having found valid and attainable aims, it could then develop ways and means of realizing them.

A few examples may indicate what is here meant. In the study of music, proficiency in execution can be attained by but few; but fine appreciation should be possible to many. Might not a programme of music-teaching in secondary schools be devised with the latter end only in view? It is doubtful if we yet have any tested methods for this purpose; but these would follow a definition of such purpose. Again, suppose it were made a controlling end of certain civic education in the high school to produce a fairly definite attitude toward, and comprehension of, the problems of the joint employment of public servants: namely, voting. What kind of a pedagogic programme could be devised to that end? To take another example, what could a college do if it sought to evoke by educational means, not the scientific attitude in general, which is at best a questionable possibility, but a constructively scientific attitude toward the modern reporting and publication of alleged news? Or if a high school were to seek to elevate the consuming capacities of its students in t he field of the drama, would its faculty provide for an analytical study of Shakespearean plays, or would it strive to evoke fairly good results through amateur playwrights and actors from within the student body itself? Again, how shall we give to the youth who is to be a future householder, taste in the choice of material surroundings — by the study of formal drawing and physics, or by the exercise of the constructive interests of the amateur furniture-maker and interior decorator — the work of the manual-training shops?

The second condition governing the formulation of a more vital programme of liberal education, as defined above, would seem to require a lessening of the aloofness of such education, as now carried on. An ancient type of spiritual-mindedness was clearly characterized by its contempt for worldly things, its insistence on the all-importance of things beyond this earth; our so-called liberal education preserves even yet some cloistral aspects, in its distrust of worldly things, its shrinking from too close contact with actualities of the present. Perhaps this attitude was desirable when culture of any considerable degree was necessarily the product, as well as the possession, of an exclusive and leisure class; and, just as the modern world is richer, in all probability, for the monastic detachment of the churches which permitted the ripening of certain social tendencies, so, possibly, an exclusive ancient culture has fertilized modern life. But what is here called liberal education ought not only to be democratic and popular: it is, in forms good or bad, actually that to-day. The school may ignore its responsibilities; other less disinterested agencies will continue actively at work. All people in modern society are being subjected to neverceasing influences which debase or improve their consuming capacities.

A system of liberal education which maintains old traditions of intellectual or social aloofness cannot serve well under modern conditions. Our academic studies are, on this ground, open to criticism. Many of them are organized and presented too much with reference to their ‘pure’ aspects — that is, without regard to their applications in contemporary life and activity. As a consequence, they fail to ‘function’ in life, social and individual, as it is now lived; that is, the results in terms of ideals and knowledge in action, namely, in ‘works,’are not realized.

Can we not devise a system of liberal education which shall find its foundations in the best things of the here and now? Literature and art are all about us; science and faith offer their daily contributions; history is in the making to-day; industry pours forth its wares; and children, no less than adults, are sharing in the dynamic activities of contemporary social life. Not in the things of the past, but in those of the present, should liberal education find its beginnings as well as its results. Fortified by the resources, interest, and insight thus obtained, it can be made to embrace areas of culture and power which are relatively remote and abstract.

Cannot our teachers of the liberal arts, while holding their high ideals and conserving their refined interests and tastes, yet keep themselves in vital contact with the world of people and of things in which their real work is to be accomplished? Is any other course open to the supporters of a liberal education which shall meet modern requirements of pedagogy on the one hand, and of democratic society on the other?