The Case for Humility

“Before our educational system can furnish us the help that it should, the Humanist must learn … to abandon his faith in the mechanical and quantitative methods which belong to science, and to set about the task of reinstating the past in the present.”


During the last year, there has been a sharp revival of interest in educational reform. Everything which we thought was safely tied has broken loose from its moorings; and it is natural that we should be in desperate search of guidance in those fields of activity which promise us some measure of control over our future. I do not wish to suggest that there is any shortage of guides; on the contrary, they are presenting themselves in abundance, and they are all perfectly confident that they know precisely what we must do in order to guarantee that the next generation shall be well educated. But I do wish to suggest that there are at least two difficulties which prevent us from accepting their guidance. Not only are they at war among themselves concerning the way in which we should go, but they have failed to achieve the humility which is indispensable to genuine reform.

We have only to recall the recent literature of the subject in order to be convinced that these difficulties are real. Our experts are divided into two rival classes; and they are spending more energy in the pursuit of dialectical victories than in the search for truth. This battle of the experts has of course its amusing side; and we have been familiar with it for centuries under the name of the battle of Ancients and Moderns. But the public is growing weary of being amused. We want guidance; and instead of giving us what we want, such men as Mr. Abraham Flexner and Professor Shorey are exchanging eloquent abuse. That is the first difficulty; and it is serious enough. But if it becomes manifest that neither party to this quarrel has taken the trouble to found his programme of reform upon a confession of wrongdoing, then we shall have to request their resignation as guides, reduce them to the ranks, and proceed to think for ourselves.

Now, it is notorious that a confession of sin is not worth much unless it is personal, unless it is made by the man or the party or the nation that committed the sin. It does not require much humility to confess the sins which some one else has committed. And the Humanists and the Moderns are both engaged in the delightful task of confessing each other’s sins. Examine Mr. Flexner, who is a typical Modern, and you will find that his writings are one long denunciation of the way in which Latin and Greek and mathematics and history are taught. Current teaching, says Mr. Flexner, is an abominable failure; and so is everything which is connected with it, subjects, schedule, and teachers—all these Mr. Flexner would have us throw away as rubbish. Afterwards, Mr. Flexner would have us set up a shining new school, in which there are to be only new subjects, new methods, and new teachers; but we must not allow this part of the programme to distract our attention from the negative and abolitionary section. It may for a moment appear that the Modern is making a genuine confession of wrongdoing; but only for a moment. Fortunately there is a simple and sure test which we can apply to him.

Mr. Flexner and his fellow Moderns never by any accident begin their ‘confessions’ by saying, ‘We have done wrong’; on the contrary, they always begin by enlarging upon the blackness of the sins which the Humanists have committed. And that is not a sign of humility; that is not a doctrine which is calculated to awaken us to a sense of our own failings. We are only too willing to listen to accusations which are brought, not against ourselves, but against some third party. We know that something indeed is wrong. Here is a world in chaos; and our need was never more bitter that the next generation of men should have more control over themselves and their destiny than we have attained. And in the face of these facts the Moderns come and proclaim to us that the trouble lies, not with us, but with the Humanists! The future will be secure, if only we will make the Humanists serve as the scapegoats of the present; and so the Modern, with the lash of his derisive satire, bids us drive from the City of Learning all the old and evil ‘traditional’ subjects, Latin and Greek, history and literature, and with the subjects those who are engaged in teaching them.

The Modern, therefore, is proudly confessing the sins of the Humanists; and the fact that some of the sins are real and others imaginary is no reason why we should accept the Modern as our guide to a better education. The Modern not only fails to point out to us wherein we have erred: he does not even know that we have erred. He is literally telling us to reform by sinning harder; and to a world which has for ages suffered from the blind tendency of men to worship power and wealth for their own sake, a world whose chiefest sins are abuse of power, tyranny, and greed, — in the very midst of a war in which science and industry have at man’s bidding been combined into a single instrument for the destruction of men, — the Modern proclaims that the proper thing to do is to make the education of the future exclusively scientific and industrial. That is Reform—with a vengeance!

Until the brain of the Modern is stung sufficiently awake for him to realize that science and industry are not divine, being supreme over man, but are mere tools which man has made for his own service and which, like every tool, are susceptible of abuse, the Modern will continue not to deserve his reputation as an expert in education. He is so busy confessing the sins of the Humanist that he has lost all contact with the world about him. His doctrine sounded plausible enough in the years before the war; but to-day that gospel of the nineteenth century has an odd and pathetic ring. For how many years have men fought and suffered and died in the naïve faith that science would make them whole! Science, of course, is knowledge; and knowledge is not virtue. But what a terrible price we are paying for that simple lesson! And it would be ridiculous, if it were not tragic, that Mr. Flexner and his fellow worshipers of science should always be insisting that they and their doctrines are peculiarly modern. They were modern, in the last century; but they withered, let us hope forever, in 1914.

Before the Modern departs to the ranks, let us recall his one virtue. It can scarcely be called an intellectual virtue, but it is none the less precious on that account. The Modern does at least believe that our education is susceptible of improvement; and the realization of this fact is an indispensable preliminary to reform.


Now let us turn to the Humanists. Let me say at once that I have the utmost sympathy with what the Humanist represents. It is the business of the Humanist to understand and to interpret the record of man’s spiritual achievement, as it is presented in history and art and literature; and there is no nobler business than that, and none which ought to be a surer guaranty that the men who follow it should be able to give the public expert advice upon educational reform.

But unfortunately the Humanists have contracted a habit of never appearing in public except to damn the Modern. They confess the sins of the Modern with fully as much delight as the Modern confesses theirs; but we have seen reason to believe that this game of vicarious confession has been unduly prolonged. The Humanists must bear their share of the guilt. You cannot help a man to reform simply by telling him that you will be quite contented if he does not become any worse than he is now. And that is just what the Humanists are always doing; for their conception of reform is negative. They have been attacked so often by the Modern that they have come to associate the very idea of reform with the specific ‘reform’ which the Modern proposes. And because the Modern proposes to reform by abolishing humanism along with the Humanist, the Humanist very naturally—and very foolishly—dreads reform just as a child might shrink from eating bread if he were constantly told that bread would poison him.

Examine Professor Shorey’s brilliant essay ‘The Assault on Humanism,’ and you will see that Professor Shorey is not unlike such a child. His essay is an excellent piece of polemic. He ruins all the so-called facts and figures and arguments presented by Mr. Flexner; and then he sits down in the midst of the wreckage and exults because another reform is dead. His choicest epithets are reserved for those who are silly enough to believe that any intentional improvement in education is possible. All such people are ‘impatient revolutionaries’; and they have always had the incredible folly of thinking that education, as it is, is a ‘no less unsatisfactory and bungling makeshift than marriage, government, the distribution of property, or life itself.’ In other words, Professor Shorey feels that it is just as stupid to believe that education is susceptible of improvement as it is to believe that the institution of marriage, government, the distribution of property, and life are also susceptible of improvement. And yet, if Professor Shorey is right, the human race is in a bad way, and we are doomed to perish with our sins upon us. If we cannot help ourselves, then surely the gods will not help us.

The only gleam of hope which Professor Shorey allows to penetrate is his reminder—addressed to the ‘disdainful Humanist’—that ‘these crudities are inseparable from the wasteful process of human evolution, and that the final outcome of agitation is sometimes a good unforeseen by the ‘agitator.’ Now, it may be all very well for the lower animals to put their faith in evolution and the passage of time, though I doubt if the lower animals find the results much to their liking. But surely the ‘disdainful Humanist’ goes too far when he ventures to give such advice to men. Let us have less disdain, and more humanism. It is not the summit of wisdom to deride all reform merely because Mr. Flexner is called a ‘reformer’; and the policy of obstruction, which has too often been practised by the Humanists, will prove, if they adhere to it, fatal both to them and to humanism. Change is sure to come, in education as in everything else; and the only question for the Humanist and the public is whether these changes shall be made in accordance with an intelligent plan or by the Mr. Flexners of this world. The Humanist therefore must abandon his complacency, which is a hard task, and set about the construction of an intelligent scheme of reform, which is a still harder task. But he may lighten these labors by reflecting that the alternative is suicide.


We have now examined the two principal classes of educational experts, and we have found that they are engaged in a stupid and distracting quarrel. Each of them is vaguely aware that our system of education is imperfect; but what remedy has either one of them to propose? The Humanist advises us to let things alone; and in so doing he forgets that neither humanism nor common sense has anything to say in praise of men who have let things alone. It would be difficult to imagine a remedy more frivolous, if it were not for the Moderns, who have surmounted the difficulty, and who advise us to sever our bonds with the past and to worship science and industry. The very magnitude of their error sheds some light upon the direction in which we must search for the truth; and it is the direction of the search which really matters, inasmuch as the absolute truth is and will remain inaccessible, and all that we can hope for is an approximation. Let us therefore avoid condemning the Moderns and their proposals as useless. Their utility as a warning cannot be exaggerated.

The Modern is still dreaming. To every one except the Modern, it has become plain that science and industry are not panaceas. All men, except the Modern, are aware that knowledge is not virtue, and that our science, which has endowed us with vast powers over nature, has signally failed to enable us to control ourselves. This is the confession of sin which we must prefix to any scheme of reform: though masters of the world, we are not masters of ourselves. And therefore the problem of education is essentially the same as the problem of government: how shall men subdue their own desires and turn them into the channels of right action? If it is possible to discover some of the reasons why we have failed in this effort to attain self-mastery, then it will also be possible to suggest what new demands we must make of education, and in what ways the system that has broken down must be amended.

Fortunately there is no need to resort to abstruse metaphysical argument. The catastrophe which has overtaken the world has its origin in a sort of absent-mindedness; and it is precisely like the lesser catastrophes which penalize absent-mindedness in the individual. Between the ridiculous errors of action which we find in all the anecdotes of absent-minded men, and the tragic criminality which characterizes the actions of a Prussian autocrat, lies a kinship too close to be denied. Between the philosopher who walks with one foot in the gutter and the nation which invaded Belgium there are indeed many differences, but in this one respect they are alike: they do not know what they are doing. The Germans believed that they were so acting as to secure for themselves a glorious and happy future; and the vast interval between their belief and the fact is the measure of their absent-mindedness.

Transpose and heighten the maladjustment of consciousness to action which makes the philosopher laughable; intoxicate a nation with power, drug it with self-worship, drill it into insensibility; and you will produce a nation which is far less aware of what it is doing than was the philosopher. But absent-mindedness which is so transposed and heightened becomes no laughing matter; and the maladjustment of consciousness to action which, on the lower plane, endangered only the individual, may, if it spreads through a whole nation or body of nations, endanger the world. In the present crisis, when hatred runs high, it is fatally easy to believe that Germany was the only nation which was thus infected. But the truth is that the rest of the western world was suffering from the same malady.

Examine the record of the nineteenth century, of the epoch which closed three years ago, and you will find that it is a record of increasing absent-mindedness on the part of men and nations who imagined that they were doing one thing but who were actually engaged in doing something else. They imagined that they were making the future secure by their feverish activity; they imagined that they had only to devote themselves to science and to industry in order to be happy. But, as a matter of fact, the whole tendency of their activity was to make the future insecure; and their blind faith in science and industry is being repaid by the unspeakable misery of war. The relation between their former faith and their present misery is plainly one of cause and effect. How should a world which thought that it was already saved pay attention to what it was doing? Since men believed in automatic progress, it was only natural that they should abandon themselves to the task of multiplying wealth and power in every form, and that they should cease to inquire whether these vast new powers were likely to be well and wisely employed. It was only natural that they should come to regard Germany, which was first in science and industry, as a model nation. But there is one respect in which their faith in automatic progress is startlingly unnatural. It is easy to comprehend the results of their faith. But how could their faith be so profound? How could an age which boasted of its knowledge of the past fail so completely to profit by human experience?

The nineteenth century failed because it refused to make the incessantly renewed effort of attention to past and present, the effort which is the price of consciousness; and the extent of its failure is measured in the most positive manner by the shock of the awakening in 1914. We are familiar enough with the fate which overtakes a man who fails to make this effort of attention to past and present; we say of him that he is incapable of learning by experience. But what shall excuse our folly if we refuse to apply this familiar lesson to the nineteenth century?

No power on earth or in heaven can save men from making mistakes. But there does exist a power which can save men, if they will but make the effort to use it, from making the same mistake over and over again. In the case of the individual, we call that power memory; and we say that in memory is stored the past experience of the individual. But we are always forgetting that the mere storage of past experience in memory does not in the slightest degree guarantee that the individual will not repeat the mistake he has already made, and therefore does not guarantee his self-control and his mastery over the impulse of the moment. On the contrary, it is notorious that all his memory and his experience will go for nothing, unless he puts forth an effort of voluntary attention. Without that effort to understand his past, to grasp it, and to carry it with him so that it may illuminate the decisions which life forces him to make in the present, he cannot be free and he cannot be master of himself; and just in the proportion that he relaxes that effort, he loses his hold upon his past experience and upon his humanity, and sinks back into an existence like that of the lower animals, bestial, dominated no longer by his own spirit, but unconscious, the slave of instinct and of impulse, mechanically carrying out activities of whose direction and tendency he is unaware.

Such was the fate of the nineteenth century. Lulled into a false security, it lost its hold upon the past experience of the human race; and men abandoned their minds to the oldest of all delusions—to the belief that the possession of power is the sufficient pledge of a happy and virtuous future. Under the influence of this delusion, they divinized every form of power; but most of all, they worshiped science and industry, in the blind assurance that science and industry would save the world. And thus they made once more an ancient and deadly error. How ancient an error this is, and how often men and nations have succumbed to it, it would be impossible to say. History, which is the memory of the race, records the irretrievable ruin which has overtaken those men and those nations; but the men of the nineteenth century suffered all the precious experience which is implicit in history to go to waste, and they relaxed the effort to comprehend and to vivify the past, until in the later decades before the war men came to regard the study of the past as frivolous and unpractical, and under the cover of this mad delusion began to expel the study of the past from its last strongholds in school and college.


What then must we do if we would win some measure of control over ourselves? There is no easy way. The price of this control is an intense and painful effort of attention to past and present, a struggle to pluck ourselves out of the pit of unconsciousness into which we had fallen. Our first need is to get rid of complacency, and to substitute for it a humble recognition of our vices of thought and action. Faith in science and industry has survived the war; and we must shake ourselves free from the lying ‘philosophies’ and the evil systems which that faith has begotten. This means, of course, that we must accomplish a conversion of our whole attitude. In regard to government, such a conversion is already taking place, in thought as well as in fact; and the philosophies of the state which were fashionable a few years ago are rapidly crumbling.

But in regard to education, the first moves have yet to be made. Here are Mr. Flexner and his associates, still bound, as if enchanted, within the limits of the old delusion. We must leave them to their fetish-worship, for they are probably incurable.

But what shall we say of the current educational practice and theory, upon which Mr. Flexner made so violent an assault? Is it so good that it deserves to go unchanged? Shall we join Professor Shorey and the Humanists, and abandon it to the lovingkindness of evolution?

The changes which a genuine conversion demands of us will indeed be radical. Education has during the last century become more and more a drill designed to produce power; but we must make of it a path to freedom and to self-control. Instruction in science will be a part of our plan, and a necessary part. But the greatest failure of our educational system, the weak point toward which we must direct our energies, is not the instruction in science, is not the instruction in history and literature and the humanities in general, although there are abundant and serious defects in that instruction. The weak point is the very fact that we have relied upon instruction to produce educated men. We want, that is to say, a certain result, in the shape of men who are free and self-controlled; and we have been attempting to get that result by a complicated mechanism of instruction and drill. The tragic absurdity of such a process consists in the attempts to treat living human beings as if they were so much matter, and as if any mechanical process could take the place, in a student’s mind, of that prolonged and constantly renewed effort which must constantly renewed effort which must be furnished from within by each student for himself. Look at the history of education during these last decades, and you will find it a record of innumerable alterations in curriculum and in methods of instruction. Every one of these alterations has been designed to perfect the working of the machine and so to afford an absolute guaranty that the product would be correspondingly improved. But it was inevitable that failure should result from every alteration which was based upon such a mechanical philosophy; and so our colleges struggled on, enmeshing themselves still more deeply with each new attempt, trying one device after another, and constructing a hierarchy of administration whose sole function was to keep the clumsy machine, somehow or other, going.

The truth is that no mechanism of instruction will produce the result which we desire. It is obvious that the faith in such a mechanical process is next of kin to the faith in science which blurred the minds and perverted the purposes of men; and if we are capable of learning by experience, we shall remake our whole system of education in the light of a principle which is not new, but which is in fact as old as civilization. This principle teaches that freedom and self-control must be won by each man for himself; and the installation of this principle in the heart of our educational system will mean that hereafter the chief emphasis will be placed upon learning and not upon instruction, upon the effort of the student to acquire and to understand and not upon the ways and means by which facts are presented to him.

This effort to acquire and to understand is aborted by our present system, as life is always aborted by mechanism. We are commonly told that the American student suffers from every intellectual vice: he refuses to think for himself, has no interest in intellectual pursuits, crams his lessons by sheer force of memory, and shakes off his apathy only to devote himself to the frenzied diversions of sport or of social ambition. As a statement of fact about the American student, this is not altogether untrue; but as an accusation implying that the student is responsible for these defects, this is addressed to the wrong quarter.

To what sort of an intellectual world is the American student introduced? He attends a specified number of classes each week; he is compelled to memorize the facts and theories contained in the lectures and in the assigned reading; and at the end of about four months he is compelled to take an examination on the subject-matter of the several courses which he is following. If he passes the examinations, he has automatically deposited to his credit in the college ‘office’ a fixed mathematical fraction of the degree to which he aspires. To obtain the degree, he has only to repeat the same process through four years. In different colleges, this process is varied in many ways; but in all colleges, the requirements are complicated, and in all colleges they are so designed as to prevent the student from obtaining the degree without having undergone a certain minimum amount of instruction.

It is not at all marvelous that such a system fosters the very apathy which it was intended to prevent. Now, if we adhere to our principle, we shall indeed realize that no system will produce educated and self-controlled men; but we shall also realize that the least that we can do is to insure that the system shall be, not a hindrance, but an aid to the attainment of that difficult end. Lectures and curricula and examinations we must have; but the knife must cut away the countless entanglements which we have so thoughtlessly built up. To mention one point only, scores and hundreds of courses are offered each year; and all fields of learning have thus been split into sections and sub-sections. The degree, as we know, is awarded to a student when he has ‘passed’ some sixteen of these fragmentary courses. What chance has such a student to put forth the effort of attention to past and present on which his self-mastery depends? His time is frittered away in the performance of petty fractional tasks; the whole weight of the system encourages him to memorize, and his occasional attempts to add understanding to memory are baffled by the apparent lack of relation between one series of facts and another.

Worst of all is what happens to the student when he approaches the study of the past. We have seen what critical importance must be attached to such study, provided that it consists in an attempt to grasp the experience of the past and to make it one with our own experience; and we know therefore that the calling of the Humanist is a high and difficult calling. How then has the Humanist—the teacher of history and of literature, of Latin and Greek and philosophy—fulfilled his duty of interpretation of the past?

It must be said that the Humanist has every reason to practice the virtue of humility, and to set about mending his ways. Little by little, the worship of science and the methods of quantitative analysis and of external measurement have spread throughout the humane disciplines and have sapped their vitality. The past is the record of the struggle of the human spirit to win dominion over external nature and to win dominion over external nature and to win dominion over itself. The history of man’s relations to external nature is therefore but a portion of that record; and I tis not the more important portion. Keenly interested as we must be in the history of science, it is the other half of the record which is of first importance; and it is the function of the Humanist to deal with the other half, to tell the story of the human spirit in its strife for self-mastery. And since that story has not been one of unbroken progress, since the victories won have always been incomplete, and since the failures have stained the world with blood and suffering, it becomes the duty of the Humanist to take account of the failures as well as of the victories, to show us how men have slipped into unconsciousness and barbarism as well as how men have sometimes achieved a partial vision and a partial liberty. For human life continues, and the failures of which men have been guilty in the past are our failures also.

But during the last century humanism has been perverted by the almost universal worship of science; and the quantitative methods which have served men so admirably in the measurement of matter have been imported into the study of art and literature, history and philosophy. These methods, misnamed scientific, are no more capable of dealing with the human spirit and its history than a bayonet is capable of ‘civilizing’ the man into whom it is thrust. They assassinate the spirit, and leave only the body behind. In the majority of our histories, and even in the study of art and literature, these methods have done their perfect work; and in place of the living organism, they have given us a huge body of dead facts, linked together by a facile determinism, or restored to a semblance of life by some mad and private thesis of the author. So, for example, Mommsen turned his history of the Roman Republic into a glorification of absolute military monarchy; and his genius cannot blind us to the fact that he thus lent his genius to the service of evil. So, for example the ‘scientific’ students of Homer seized upon two immortal poems, analyzed them into distorted and writhing fragments, and then assured a naïve world that these fragments had no author. There would be no end to the accumulation of such folly, if the Humanists were to continue the employment of such methods; and it would be a waste of time to enumerate examples. The libraries are full of examples; and under them the history of the human spirit is buried.

We shall therefore say to the Humanist that he has misconceived his duty. He should be the last of men to preach a gospel of quietism; he should be the last of men to obstruct change, provided that it be made in the direction of self-control. For change in that direction is always accompanied by an effort to understand the past, and such change is of the very essence of humanism.

It is the lack of that effort, it is the blind contempt of the past, which, united with the worship of science, stamps the proposals of Mr. Flexner as an assault upon liberty; and it is quite true that educational ‘reform’ of that sort would also be a disaster.

But it is also true that genuine reform is desperately needed; and before our educational system can furnish us the help that it should, the Humanist must learn to practice humility, to abandon his faith in the mechanical and quantitative methods which belong to science, and to set about the task of reinstating the past in the present. If the Humanist will do his part, he will not be always on the defensive against the attacks of the materialist; instead, he will fight for a positive end, the primacy of the human spirit. Otherwise, the humane disciplines will perish one by one; since it is not Latin and Greek alone which are now in danger, but our whole understanding of the past.