What Is It All About?

I

THE first president of the University of Chicago was accustomed to tell freshmen that education consisted not in an accumulation of facts, stowed away in the memory, or in the mastery of some technique whereby one might manipulate nature, possibly to one’s own profit; but rather in the formulation of an explanation of things, including one’s self. He used to say, ‘If a man has reached the age of twenty-five without a fairly good theory about life, or the age of thirty without a settled philosophy of life, no matter how much else that man may know, he is an ignoramus.’ Nothing wiser than this, or less in accord with the practice of this present moment, was ever said by an educator: that an educated man is one who has worked out a way of looking at life which seems to him valid, and, by implication, that the business of an educational institution is to help him to do it. Particularly Dr. Harper believed this to be the function of the college, which deals with men and women at the time when their powers of generalization and synthesis are most freely and competently at work.

We hear a great deal about student revolt, student criticism of education. Most of this talk is uninformed. Unhappily, most students are not in revolt. They swallow what is taught them with a despair-provoking readiness. With conformity to type they sleep through their college years as a formal preliminary (to be, if possible, alleviated by athletic achievement, fraternity affiliation and play) to the serious business of life, which last they are all too apt to define as accumulating goods and avoiding difficult decisions. Such students, whose presence is due to almost every reason except a desire for intellectual maturity, are present in all colleges in large numbers. Their opinions about education do not matter. For the most part they have no such opinions. The real critics of collegiate methods among undergraduates are in the minority; but it is an intelligent and increasingly vocal minority. The National Student Federation is one spokesman for it; on every campus such students, when not artificially repressed, are developing local mouthpieces. Increasingly these students, who are blundering about in an endeavor to find out what they really find lacking, are beginning to say that what is wrong is that the colleges are not helping them to develop an interpretation of life, that they are not furnishing assistance in the answering of the question, ‘What is it all about?’

In this they are undoubtedly correct. Our modern colleges for the most part are concerned with little more than the study of things and techniques. They are the complacent heirs of two hundred years of the scientific method — that method which bids men experiment with what can be observed and what can be done. It is a good method, as far as it goes; only a fool would belittle it. The more facts we know, the more rich and deep may become the mind which has digested them; but facts alone, until they are digested, are not merely unnourishing: they are apt to clog the intellectual colon. It is also true that we must have skills of various sorts; but skills alone are not sufficient for a people: they may even become a menace, unless they are purposefully, intelligently, and socially correlated. It is the digestive and correlative parts of knowledge which are in most American colleges conspicuous by their absence.

We have too largely abandoned philosophy. We have even degraded the word, until it has come to mean to most people merely a sort of sophistical playing with abstract ideas. Philosophy is properly defined as ‘a knowledge of general principles as explaining facts and existences.’ We are not at the moment, in our institutions of higher learning, paying much attention to explaining anything. As a result we are turning out physicians with no philosophy of health; lawyers with no philosophy of ethics; captains of business with no philosophy of industry; parsons with no philosophy of religion; and, in vast numbers, educators with no philosophy of education. Even the basic principles of sound political economy are unknown or unheeded. We adopt a tariff policy which no reputable economist approves and then seek to correct its most glaring injustices by a farm-relief bill equally contemptuous of sound economic thought. Because we have no philosophy of government, we have an emasculated party system. Our two major parties are almost indistinguishable, because both have substituted expediency for general principles. In international affairs we are not merely hated for our wealth, but quite generally despised for ineptness due to a strange obtuseness toward obvious elements of the philosophy of government. We are by way of becoming the most efficient people on earth and the most blundering. We seem to suppose that success in production implies wisdom in use, a mistake characteristic of all superficial persons.

This might not be wholly bad if the technicalization of education, its confinement to facts and processes, applied only to the training of that vast majority of ordinary persons who are incapable of facing at first hand the why of anything; if we were producing, out of the few who are potentially competent in thought, men of balance and brains; and if we were making it plain that to such men belongs the right to lead. Instead, we take our more brilliant men and women, the ones who get well into higher education, and capitalize their ability merely to make of them better specialists, more competent technicians. Anybody who will make a study of collegiate curricula and methodology during the past quarter of a century will see that plainly enough. We are thus helping to foster generally the absurd notion that people who can do things, or who know facts, are thereby made capable of moulding thought and directing social policies. We are encouraging the belief that any man who is a storehouse of information or who can perform efficiently is fitted to share in the control of humanity; that the better he knows or can do something in particular, the more capable he is of sound generalization.

Something like that is apt to be the real meaning of what we frequently hear called ‘a democratic higher education.’ The assumptions behind it are that a democracy is a government under the leadership of everybody, that everybody can learn something even if he cannot become a real thinker, and that for social welfare the college must conform to this natural and unimportant limitation. But in the long run government, even if its form of ultimate control be democratic, must be under the leadership of the wise, the balanced, the people who see life whole; and the ordinary man is rarely capable of such thinking. Only a relative few have the mental equipment necessary and they must be trained to use it. That training is the chief business of higher education. If, in the effort to teach all men something, we forget to train some who shall deliberately face everything, we shall produce a defective, blundering, leaderless, and inevitably futile State.

II

The intellectual mediocrity of our people to-day, mostly due to this defective system of higher education, is nowhere more plainly to be seen than in those crowd inhibitions and prejudices which seriously threaten freedom of teaching in America. It is an astonishing thing that in state after state of our Union there should be determined efforts under way to forbid imparting knowledge of such uncontrovertible facts as that the world is older than Hebrew writings would seem to imply and that man’s physical body has developed by emergence from lower forms of life. It is even more astonishing that anyone should suppose that this effort is led by intelligently religious persons. It is not the trained leaders of religion, the men who are truly educated, the men capable of digesting facts, who are seeking to pass these laws. The agitation is due to nothing so much as to the queer notion that any practical man’s opinion about things philosophical and speculative is as valuable as any other man’s. It is the man who supposes that because he can do something — farm, saw and hammer, wield a piece of machinery, run a local store, organize an industry — he is a competent thinker who is thus making America the laughingstock of the world. No one with a mature philosophy of humanity supposes that man’s dignity irreparably suffers by the discovery that he is intricately and wonderfully made. No man with a sound philosophy of religion thinks that it detracts from the dignity of God to say that he took his time in making the universe. No man with a thoughtful philosophy of government maintains that it is the business of the State to confine schools within the limits of preconceived and popular ignorance. No one with a sane philosophy of education declares that it is right to turn man’s mind from truth, however discovered. These endeavors would be amusing if they did not reveal to what extent the falsely democratic dogma has destroyed among us respect for trained intelligence.

Not only is this disparagement of general thought conducive to mediocrity and muddle-mindedness in general; it is also hindering the advance of science itself. Such leading figures as Millikan and Lodge and Whitehead and Thomson and Pupin are uttering what is coming to be the general conviction of those who dwell on the scientific Olympus when they say that scientific advance is no longer facilitated by overdevotion to methodological research; that what is necessary now is an interpretation of science, a restatement of philosophy which shall synthesize observable facts and processes both with man’s inner spirit and with essential reality. Men whose scientific eminence can be denied by nobody are beginning to insist that man, the observer, is not merely one of the things observed; that between the observer and the observed must be established unity, lest scientific thought prove sterile and weariness and despair attack and conquer the spirit of man. They are willing to see not merely that poetic aspiration without science produces a sentimental inanity, but also that scientific method without poetic aspiration is almost sure to produce a cynical insanity.

It is a reflection of all this which appears in the demands of our more vital youth. What, they ask, is the use of knowing an immense number of facts about the world and its behavior unless one also knows something about the relation of that behaving world to one’s own spirit, something of the meaning both of it and of one’s self? That they are not being helped in the development of any such correlation is to them plain and increasingly distressing.

The usual institution of higher learning finds it easier to ignore this problem than to face it, because the facing of it inevitably involves religion. Religion in its higher and more intellectual sense is concerned with the adjustment of a man’s own inner life to the outer world and the adjustment of both to ultimate purpose. However else one may define God, he is at any rate the Everlasting Why. The moment one seeks an ultimate purpose with which one may relate one’s self, that moment one is making a religion. It may appear to be an individual and peculiar religion, if the experiment seems unique; or, if one’s ponderings bring one into alignment with the life experiments of those who have established some recognized religion, it may involve the acceptance of that recognized religion. Now religion, be it individual or conventional in its content, is if honest a troublesome, upsetting, controversy-breeding sort of thing, disruptive of academic calm, destructive of professorial aloofness. The usual academic man feels toward it the same sort of distaste which the Georgian gentleman was apt to feel toward ‘enthusiasm.’ Even in colleges not prohibited by state control from giving religion real consideration it is always the easier course to ignore religious interpretation and to bid the students confine their attention to less probing thinking, to the examination of facts and behavior. But this ignoring of religion is fatal to the real purpose of education. Facts and behavior are dead stuff until man begins to interpret them; and that interpretation is bound to become a religious activity. It is religion in colleges that the increasingly rebellious undergraduates miss, even though that is not a phrase they themselves are wont to use.

It should be understood that this does not mean that collegiate teachers ought to give to students a set of cut and dried religious interpretations to be swallowed by them without personal experiment. No religion is worthy to any man until he has himself thoughtfully accepted it as a legitimate expression of ultimate truth. What ought to be done for the groping student is to present to him the religious interpretations of the ages and ask him to use them as possible keys to the understanding of material and life. Do things make sense in terms of this or that theology? Others have found that they do; but until they have been experimented with they are, for any individual, at best only hypotheses backed by a tremendous cumulation of past testings. No religion with any self-respect will hesitate to submit to such personal tests, nor does such testing imply on the part of devotees a necessary doubt as to the ultimate validity of that religion. Youth has no resentment against dogma as such; it has usually sense enough to perceive that dogma is only a synthesis of pragmata. What youth does object to is being asked to accept dogma on such external authority as denies the necessity of his personal experimentation upon the basis of that dogma.

III

The particular field where this compounding of facts and purpose most needs at the moment to be made is that of experimental psychology. Partly because the main task above indicated has been neglected, our students have avidly turned to this newest of the sciences. With some brilliantly exceptional cases, they are therein being taught a great deal about how the brain acts and next to nothing about the significance of that action. They are all too apt to conclude that there is no significance to be discovered. Indeed their instructors frequently tell them so. Thoughts seem to them merely functional, behavior entirely a reflex from physical stimuli. The answer made by psychology to the student’s life problem is more and more the statement that there is no problem to be solved; that man is merely a portion of the mechanistic universe. He has in no real sense free will and can in no real sense be held either morally or intellectually responsible. In the end this involves the suicide of thought itself; for there is nothing which really reasons, and therefore in no rational sense can there be either obligation to think or, indeed, possibility of thinking. That this or something very like it is the position to which undergraduates are coming by scores and hundreds every year no candid observer of collegiate life will deny. It is this which makes our younger generation unique. As a man thinks, so is he. To contend that our young people are no different from young people in former generations is to substitute blind optimism for common sense. They are different. They have concluded that responsibility is a silly idea, unscientific, impossible.

Inadequately guiding youth in the development of a vital philosophy, we are sending forth graduates with diffused minds, scarcely fit to take command of their own lives or to coöperate in the development of a social state; drifters into conformity and essential human futility; easy victims to specious crowd psychologies; followers of what seem easy ways out; bolshevist or fascist in every attitude. They esteem themselves only creatures of their environment and so they tend to become just that. They have little or no perception of standards — of truth, beauty, or goodness; they have no goals of purposeful perfection with which to estimate values or by which to gauge achievement. All these things are to them relative — relative not to absolutes but to expediency. Truth means to them little more than a body of observable facts; beauty, conformity to fashion; goodness, doing the things that will make one comfortable or popular. Out of our most able youth, capable of high adventure, we are manufacturing mental and ethical jellyfish.

This could be stopped if intelligent rather than either bigoted or sentimental opinion could be aroused and focused upon the colleges. There is something about academic pursuits which makes educational authorities themselves unaware for the most part of what is happening to students. A prominent Western university president, for example, a notable scientist, expressed himself last autumn as not believing that contemporary scientific instruction in colleges was making despairing cynics out of the better students, because, forsooth, science had never made him cynical or despairing, but, on the contrary, full of hope and the impulse to adventure. He knew nothing of the student temper in his own institution. He had never, as a matter of fact, analyzed even himself. He failed to recognize that he was not merely a scientist but also a highly poetic philosopher, and that he was living almost wholly on his intuitional resources — resources which were not at all essentially tied up with his science. It is no exaggeration to say that few professional educators realize the portentous condition of the student mind and soul. Pressure should be brought to bear upon these gentlemen by informed opinion generally. The colleges must be persuaded kindly or forced by student demand or coerced by wise benefactors to resume their philosophic function.

That resumption must inevitably come about. The time will arrive again when a university will be, not so much a place where a universe of facts is observed, but rather a place where men ponder universals. A college need not be in the least afraid to teach modern science, but it must not be content to stop there. Science is only a way to dig out rough material, stuff which can be articulated only by philosophers. The correlation in each student’s life of the scientific method and the facts it discovers for us, on the one hand, and the age-long spiritual aspirations and interpretations which constitute religion, on the other hand, is the proper determining purpose of the college. Its religious activity cannot consist merely in conducting some devotional exercises in the chapel or in giving courses on the literary value of the Bible. In all the teaching, in every lecture room, seminar, laboratory, there must be the subconscious thought: ‘No facts observed here are worth anything until the students have assimilated them, digested them, interpreted them. It is men and women that we are teaching — not these bits of knowledge. There are ultimates of which all this is only a reflection. Unless our teaching is enabling both us and our students more to understand the ultimates, that teaching is a waste of time.’

This, surely, is humanistic education in its only valid sense — an endeavor to turn out men who are not merely informed but also fit with unified purpose to deal with human life.