Education for the Modern World



I WILL start from some familiar phrases. “ We need a modern education for a modern world.” “We have to prepare our youth to live in contemporary society and face its problems.” Such sayings, at first hearing, put heart into us. Their blunt common sense immediately commends itself, and they seem to point straight to the curriculum we need. And then come second thoughts. Certainly we must educate our youth to face the problems of the day. But what precisely are they, and which are the most important? Certainly we should have a modern education for a modern world, but what is the exact meaning of “modern”? In what sense is our world modern — that is, different from the world of a thousand or two thousand years ago? If uttered without much thought, as they often are, these plausible phrases may be only lullabies to put a problem to sleep.

Two letters to me throw some light on the questions asked in the last paragraph. One was from a professor of pathology, who in late life had been reading Plato in translation. “I am still reading Plato,” he wrote. “It is remarkable to meet the vague ideas that knock about one’s head succinctly stated, and that at a date about two and a half millennia ago; not to mention all the other things of which one has never thought at all.”

The other letter was from an old school friend who wrote about his son in Burma, since killed. He says: “I remember Jim telling me in one of his letters how, when not actually engaged in fighting, he would sit in his dug-out and read Plato by the light of an improvised oil lamp. In another he spoke of always reading, before going into action, these two passages from Plato’s Apology: ‘A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living and dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong acting the part of a good man or a bad’; and, ‘Whatever a man’s place, whether he has chosen it himself or been placed there by his commander, there he should remain in the hour of danger — he should not think of death or of anything but disgrace.’”

Strange and significant — these lights, lit so long ago, burning undimmed in the Burmese jungle and in the face of death! Clearly we must be careful about the word modern, which has two different meanings. It may mean contemporary in time; in this sense Plato and Epicurus, Shakespeare and Montaigne, are not modern. It may mean contemporary in spirit; in this sense, they are — Plato and Epicurus perhaps more modern than Shakespeare and Montaigne. Modernity is a question not of date but of outlook.

After these cautionary remarks about the use of the word modern, let us consider what education is needed to prepare us for the contemporary world, Here it is essential to be clear what the problems of the modern world are and which are the most important.

Superficially they seem to fall under two main heads. On the one hand are the social problems of our complex civilization — its trade and commerce and economics, its local and central government, its foreign contacts and international relations; and on the other is the vast field of science and applied science. It would seem that our education should equip us to deal with these two sets of problems, that its two main departments should be the social sciences and the natural sciences. Such an education would, it appears, cover the main needs of the modern world. Is this so, and would such an education be adequate?


FIRST consider what, for want of a better phrase, I shall call an education based on the social sciences. “It would be well,” says a recent book on the curriculum, “ if teachers made a conscious effort, both by the selection of material included in their courses and by their manner of handling it, to make clear to their pupils how a modern society is run and organized.

All our citizens should have some knowledge of the ways in which natural forces are harnessed, materials transformed, goods manufactured and distributed, public services organized, paid for, and controlled, the City and the State governed. They should, to some extent, understand what forces are at work changing and shaping our economic life and our social customs.” Here surely is a modern education for the modern world. Is not this what we want?

I do not feel so confident. I may be unduly skeptical in thinking that, except in the hands of those rare teachers who can make any subject attractive, the average pupil would be bored by studying the organization of a world which he has not yet really entered, with which he has had very superficial contacts.

There are, however, other criticisms that I should make on such a curriculum. It is in itself a large order, but it omits still more than it includes; nothing is said of religion, languages, art, music; and even science, literature, and history are ignored, except in so far as they might be incidental to the subjects studied. Unless we are to drop these, is there any hope of escaping from an overcrowded curriculum? And overcrowding, in education as in housing, means ill health, and turns the school into an intellectual slum. Life in such a slum breeds a disease, common, serious, and often overlooked. It does not teach the pupil the meaning of knowledge. It must almost inevitably consist of superficial information — there is no time for more. Smatterings make life interesting and have their uses; but their use is limited, and they are the more dangerous because they incline us to think that we know when we do not know.

Uneducated people are a danger to the world, but they are not so dangerous as a less recognized menace —the half-educated, who have learned enough to express an opinion on subjects which they do not really know, but have never learned to be aware of their ignorance. Such people are familiar pests in every department of life, and a main duty of education is to diminish their number. It cannot do this by giving the knowledge required — omniscience is not a practical aim — but it can show people what knowledge is, so that they are aware when they do not possess it, and it achieves this in a very simple way: by seeing that the pupil studies at least one subject in the curriculum so thoroughly and so far that he knows what knowledge is and how much industry, thoroughness, precision, and persistence it demands, if we are to have even a distant sight of it.

A common fault of some modern forms of education is that they fail to provide this perspective, and it is a major weakness of the social studies curriculum that it diffuses itself over a multiplicity of enormous problems, contents itself with a cursory view of them, and neither leaves time nor realizes the need for thorough and intensive study of any one. There is a much more serious weakness in this type of education, to which I will return later. Meanwhile I pass to consider the claims of an education based on natural science.


ASECOXDARY education based on the attempt to introduce the pupil to the social sciences inevitably leads to smatterings and superficiality and fails to give him an idea of the meaning of knowledge. No such criticisms can be made against a school curriculum based on science, for it necessarily involves exact and intensive study in at least one field. Further, though science and the scientific attitude are more than two thousand years old, applied science and technology are the most characteristic features of modern civilization, and their development, resting on pure science, has transformed the conditions of human life and apparently become its mistress and hope. An obvious conclusion is that, in keeping with this transformation, education should be transformed, that the weight should be thrown in the scale of science. It is a natural conclusion; but is it true?

Let me begin by saying that obviously science is one of the great achievements of man, and one of his noblest activities; that it offers the world almost boundless opportunities; and that, in its applied form, it is the most important new force in the present world. From this I should draw two practical conclusions: that we shall need in the future to produce a larger proportion of persons trained in its theories and its skills; and that everyone should have a clear sense of its significance and power in life.

Having said this, let me pass to the limitations of science. It seems at first sight to have none. I went recently into a laboratory in my own university, whose members were scattered all over the country and outside it on government business. One was doing statistical work for the Ministry of Home Security with 150 people under him, one was in the Far East in connection with chemical defense, one in Italy with the Medical Research Council Wound Shock team, one doing research for the RAF. In the laboratory I saw work in process on malaria, on jaundice, on wound therapy, and some secret work on gas warfare which has also yielded results of apparent importance for the treatment of venereal disease. These were the activities of one department in one university, to be multiplied, if one wishes to realize the total effects of science, a millionfold.

Add to these practical results of science the atmosphere of which one is aware in any good laboratory, the enthusiasm, industry, and patience, the ingenuity and burning intellectual life which drive the machine and in turn are generated by it. These scenes of practical power and beneficent activity are also homes of the great human virtues. Is it surprising if for a moment one feels that nothing else is worth study, nothing else matters, that science and her children are masters of all the kingdoms of the world and of the glory of them ?

Then come second thoughts. Since 1914 we have fought two destructive wars. Science can explain much of the methods by which they were waged, but it tells us almost nothing of their causes, nor does it suggest how such disasters can be prevented. Clearly there are realms where its writ does not run.

It has equally little to say about those creations of the human spirit which alone are immortal, great literature or great art. When we read Homer or Dante or Shakespeare, listen to a symphony of Beethoven, gaze at the Parthenon or the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, science has little light to throw on what we feel or why we feel it. More goes to produce the effect of Leonardo’s Last Supper than a wall surface, a variety of paint, and the physical constitution of the human eye; Beethoven’s symphonies are not merely the wood and metal and catgut and waves of air, through which they pass into audible sound. Robert Bridges has admirably expressed these limitations of science: —

What kenneth she

Of color or sound? Nothing; though science measure true Every wave-length of ether or air that reacheth sense, There the hunt checketh, and her keen hounds are at fault; For when the waves have passed the gates of ear and eye All scent is lost: suddenly escaped the visibles Are turned to invisible; the fine-measured motions To immeasurable emotions; the cypher’d fractions To a living joy that man feeleth to shrive his soul.

How should science find beauty?

Science is dumb if we ask it to explain the greatest human works or emotions or experiences,

. . . exultations, agonies,

And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind:

all that Shelley was thinking of when he wrote: —

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates, . . .

This ... is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Here we are in a mysterious yet familiar world which belongs to religion and poetry, but not to science. Yet these things, as well as atoms and elements and cells, are part of the world.

Further, science is not her own master. What she does for us depends not on her but on us. She comes with poison gas and atomic bombs in one hand, with anesthetics and penicillin in the other. She gives, but is indifferent about our choice or use of her gifts. It is not her fault if we choose the atomic bomb; the choice is ours, not hers. The words right and wrong are not in her vocabulary; their derivation must be sought in some other language.

The experience of Socrates still holds true. “As a young man,” he says, “I had an amazing passion for the branch of knowledge known as natural science — to know the causes of things, why they come into being, why they are destroyed, why they exist!” But these studies first fascinated and then left him disillusioned; the scientific account of the universe seemed to him accurate so far as it went, but inadequate and partial; he complained that the materialist rejected any spiritual explanation of the world, and then in effect invested nature herself with spiritual powers; and, in his absorption in scientific study, he felt that he ran the risk of “ losing the eye of my soul. I was afraid that my soul might become altogether blind, if I looked at things with my eyes or tried to grasp them through the medium of the senses.” Other methods were needed to seek “the truth of what is.”


I HAVE dwelt at some length on science in order to illustrate the danger of flying to phrases like “a modern education for a modern world” without thinking what they mean. Though the development of science is the most characteristic and in some ways most important feature of our civilization, yet how incompletely it covers life, how much remains outside its sway and range, to how many of our needs and problems it has nothing to say! The “ modern world ” is only partly modern, and the most important things in it existed millennia before Darwin or Faraday or Rutherford. Applied science, or technology, and new techniques in government and economics are only the changing dress of a human nature that changes all too little. Each age must learn to wear its peculiar dress and be familiar with its own techniques. But it must not be so fascinated with these as to ignore more permanent things. Show your pupil Vanity Fair, since he must live in it; but let him be at least as familiar with the Delectable Mountains. It is the weakness of rich and complicated societies like our own that they tend to live in externals, to concentrate on the techniques of their life. But education, while it must provide for these, can only base itself on them at the expense of neglecting more important things. Such an education will produce mere technicians. By a mere technician I mean a man who understands everything about his job except its ultimate purpose.

The complaint that I should make about those who wish to base education on the social or physical sciences is that they are aware of some needs of our time but not of its greatest need. Education has many tasks — training the intelligence, widening the mind and enlarging its interests, teaching the techniques on which modern civilization is based. But it may do all this and never reach our central problem. What raises man above the savage? His inventions, his science, the work of his engineers and chemists? We have only to consider recent history to see that these things do not necessarily civilize men and may be consistent with a lower level of humanity than that of any savage tribe. If economics, science, technology, and organization were all that were needed, there was nothing wrong with Germany. It is not our material civilization that is defective; it is ourselves. The real issue is whether men are to be ruled by power, pleasure, the latest bright toy which they have created, or by goodness, beauty, reason.

The more power science puts into our hands, the greater opportunities for evil as well as for good. A poor man, a poor world, are limited by their poverty in the amount of harm they can do; as their wealth increases, their power to do harm increases. We live in a world where our power gives us the chance of doing unlimited harm, and we need an education which teaches us not merely how to use that power but how to use it well. To build up in every man and woman a solid core, really and fully human, which will resist the attrition of everyday existence in our mechanized world — that is the most difficult and important task of school and university.

Barbarian tribes destroyed the Roman Empire. There are no such tribes to destroy modern civilization from outside. The barbarians are ourselves. The great modern problem is to humanize man, to show him the spiritual ideals without which neither happiness nor success is genuine or permanent, to produce beings who will know not merely how to split atoms but how to use their powers for good. Such knowledge is not to be had from the social or physical sciences.


I HAVE criticized the idea of an education based on either the social or the physical sciences. Now let me contrast with those two types an education which apparently is far less concerned with modern life, but which contained more of the vitamins which the mind and spirit require — the education given under the old classical curriculum. It had (besides deficiencies in the actual teaching from which no education will ever be free) grave weaknesses. The worst was that it was given indiscriminately to those for whom it was suited and those for whom it was not. Another great weakness was that in many cases it left boys in ignorance not only of science, but (what is far more serious) of the importance of science in the world. This defect could have been easily avoided without any loss to the classics, and indeed with a gain to the understanding of Greek thought, in which science and mathematics from the first played an important part.

Having said so much, let me return to the classical education as I knew it. (I must apologize for being personal, but one knows best what one has oneself experienced.) I learned Greek and Latin pretty thoroughly and enough French and German to read those languages; as much mathematics as I have ever needed; history, some of which was well taught but none which left any deep impression on an immature mind; “divinity” mostly in such a form that it gave me no knowledge of either religion or Judaism or Christianity, being largely concerned with the probable dates of some New Testament writings and with close attention to the explanation of such phrases as “the abomination of desolation”; and some chemistry and other science, which was so taught as to leave nothing behind except a memory of totally wasted hours and a bitter sense of ignorance of a great subject. Such was secondary education in a great school in late nineteenth-century England. Not a word of any of the subjects which the authors of The Content of Education mention as indispensable. Yet I believe that this education, with all its weaknesses, was infinitely better than the one which they propose.

It may be called narrow. Except for the gap in science — a gap for which the teachers rather than the curriculum were to blame — I do not think so. Of course I left school ignorant of many things desirable and important to know. To complain of this is to be guilty of the deadly heresy that education must be completed in school and university, that this is our last chance of learning, and therefore that we should be forcibly crammed with all the food of knowledge needed for the journey of life. That heresy, often unconsciously held, leads to educational damnation. The true faith is that education should send us out into life knowing thoroughly something which is itself first-rate, knowing how to learn, and interested in life.

Any good education must be narrow. There is, of course, a pernicious, anemic narrowness. But there is a healthy one too. Education prospers by economy, by exclusion. Two principles must be observed in it. The first is that certain subjects (they cannot be more and should hardly be fewer than two) must be studied so thoroughly that the pupil gets some idea what knowledge is. That lesson cannot be learned by studying a large number of things; it demands time and concentration. The second principle is that these subjects should bring the pupil face to face with something great. Nothing — not all the knowledge in the world — educates like the vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.

Now the old classical education satisfied these two principles. Those whom it suited learned two subjects pretty thoroughly, and thereby got a glimpse of what knowledge is and of the price which it exacts, and they met greatness in two great literatures. That is why I think that the education of the past was better — much better — than this attractive and plausible scheme which is to make clear to the pupils “how a modern society is run and organized.”

You are feeling: Yes, but what have Greek and Latin to do with the twentieth century? I might reply that, with Christianity, they are its makers, and that a knowledge of the parents is a considerable help to knowing a child. I might say that fifthand fourth-century Athens and Imperial Rome, in quite different ways, throw more light on our spiritual problems than any other ages, because they have more in common with us. I might add that our age, confused and divided in its aims, could presumably learn something from a view of life as clear, as rich in great achievement as that of Greece. And this view may commend itself the more to some people because Hellenism, though compatible with Christianity, as the history of theology shows, and though, at its highest levels, always associated with theistic belief, is not necessarily dependent on it.


A CLASSICAL education has its dangers, but so has a “modern” one. It is possible to develop myopia from too close attention to a subject, to be so familiar with one’s own age that one cannot judge it. Those who are trained exclusively on “modern studies” sometimes develop such myopia, become too exclusively familiar with their own age to judge it, suffer from a provincialism self-centered, self-complacent, but not self-knowing: for knowledge of self is difficult without a comparison with things and persons different from and better than oneself. It is at least as important to be able to criticize our civilization as to understand it, to stand above it as to live in it, to see it in the setting of all time and as in some Last Judgment it will be viewed. As the Harvard Report justly says, “One of the aims of education is to break the stranglehold of the present on the mind.”

How are you to give the mind this training, to teach it to judge rightly its own age and itself? Only by showing it the greatest things which men have achieved or dreamed. So and only so it will have a standard, an example, an inspiration. The achievements of men can be found in history, their dreams in literature, which comes from, speaks to, and helps to keep alive what, for want of a better word, we call the soul.

Still doth the soul, from its lone fastness high,
Upon our life a ruling effluence send.
And when it fails, fight as we will, we die;
And while it lasts, we cannot wholly end.

The reason why Greek has maintained its place in education is not that, in the unthinking cant phrase of today, it is a vested interest or a survival from the past. Greek has maintained its place because of its value as a food of the soul.

I may seem to have slipped into a plea for the study of Greek. That is not my aim. My plea is for the study of greatness, and of Greek only because it is a supreme example of what is great, and because those who remain ignorant of its literature and thought miss one of the greatest achievements of man. Obviously only a small minority will ever learn the language; though those who do not, but who are interested in the problem of living, should at least read in English the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Republic of Plato. But my real point is that, in one way or another, everyone should see human greatness, the highest, reach and scope of the spirit of man. Education without this, whatever else it contains, remains poor and incomplete. Mankind is engaged in painting a picture which may be called A Design for Civilization, without knowing exactly what it wishes to paint. However good their brushes and pigments, either painters in studios or in life do not succeed unless they have a clear idea of their subject.

To know what it desires to be is the problem about which the modern world is most uncertain and to which (apart from certain groups and individuals) it pays least attention. My suggestion is that the subject of the picture which mankind is trying to paint is a world of human beings as perfect as human nature allows; that our model is, therefore, human greatness and goodness, and that we must start with a vision of these, derived from the only source we know — from the revelation in religion, in poetry, in history itself, of human nature at its best. That study should be the center of all education, for our picture is the work of innumerable craftsmen cooperating on a common work. They will fail hopelessly if they are ignorant of the design; and though their individual skill may vary, they must all be given at least some idea of what they are trying to paint.

The subject of the picture is man at his greatest and best, and when we are clear about this central figure, we can group round it the accessories of its life, the means through which man acts, achieves his purpose, and becomes his fullest self: science, by which he increases his knowledge and control of the universe; politics and economics, by which he creates and regulates the society that will best serve the good life; languages, through which he has access not only to his fellow men but to the collective wisdom of the world; industry and commerce, regarded not merely as means of making money, but, as Plato conceived them, and after him Ruskin, as mothers and nurses that supply mankind with the necessaries of life. These accessories should be seen and studied with continual regard to the central figure and not, as they too often are, be treated as independent forces, each to be elaborated for its own sake without any care for the real subject of the picture. An education of this kind is the modern education that the modern world needs.