The Essentials of Education

An educator intent on reaching the adult as well as the undergraduate, a classicist who draws his understanding from the Greek as closely as from the modern man, SIR RICHARD LINGSTONEis President of Corpus Christi College,Oxford. Recently he visited twenty-one American universities, and the essay which follows has for its basis a lecture he delivered at the American International College at Springfield, Massachusetts.



A TRAVELER who studies the menu on a transatlantic liner or, indeed, in some American hotels has a paralyzing sensation. There is so much to eat — far more than he can possibly digest. One sometimes has the same feeling about education, which also offers an enormous bill of fare. Almost any dish can be found in it, from Greek to stenography, from music to economics. How are we to choose from this bewildering profusion? What dishes ought we to order if we wish not merely to fill ourselves up, but to get the nourishment necessary to a healthy life, to become really educated people?

That question cannot be answered without asking and answering another — what is education for? If that problem were suddenly put to pupils in school, or to students in college, or even to their parents, I doubt if all of them could, on the spur of the moment, give a clear and convincing reply. Most of us are educated because our parents wish it, or because attendance at school is a habit of our society, or because it is compulsory, or because it is apparently necessary to success in the world. But these, though at the moment they may be conclusive reasons for desiring education or at any rate submitting to it, will not by themselves secure our getting from it what it has to give; and if we go to school or college with no more definite reasons at the back of our minds, we are likely to rise from our meal there replete perhaps but ill-nourished. Let me, therefore, start by asking what we should seek in education. In answering this question, I shall ignore important but lesser objects of it, in order to concentrate on the most important of all.

Get hold of the catalogues of the colleges in the United States. You will find courses in innumerable subjects. Is there any common feature in these courses? Is there any aim which all of them have? I think that there is a common feature and that every course given has a similar aim. They all aim at the first-rate; the purpose of every course is to help the student to learn what is first-rate in the particular subject which he studies. If it is a course in English, the aim is that he should know what is good English; if it is a course in agriculture, that he should know the best methods in farming; if it is a course in cookery or in dressmaking it is to show the pupil how to cook or to make dresses really well. The same is true of a course in any other subject — its aim is to show what is first-rate in that subject. This is the common thread that runs through all education. Whether we are teachers or students we ought to get firmly in our minds the idea that whatever else may come by the way, education will be incomplete and unsatisfactory if it fails to give a clear view of what is first-rate in the subject studied. Otherwise we may have got some knowledge, but we shall not have got education.

Here then is a first answer to the question, what is the aim of education? Its aim is to know the first-rate in any subject that we study, with a view to achieving it as nearly as our powers allow. If we could fix this firmly in our minds, we should not stumble through a variety of lessons, lectures, and books like a drunk man, only partially aware where we are or what we are doing. We should cease to think that we go to school or college to pass examinations or to secure degrees or diplomas or to satisfy our teachers, though these may be and are incidental and limited objectives. We should have brought order into our education by realizing its true aim and we should have deepened in our minds through practice the sense that a worthy purpose in life is the desire for excellence, the pursuit of the first-rate.

So far, so good. But a very important question remains unanswered. We should desire excellence, pursue the first-rate. But in what fields? The difficulty with education, as with life, is that it has so many fields. One would like to know the firstrate in all of them, but that is impossible for the limited mind and energy of man. Which, then, are the most important fields — or, narrowing the problem further, which are those in which every human being ought to know the first-rate? These should enter into the education of all.

The most obvious field is our job in life, our vocation in the usual sense of the word. Clearly, whatever it is, we ought to know the first-rate, the best methods to employ. In this field of vocational education, the modern world does well: we have a conscience about it or, at any rate, a sense of its importance; our provision of vocational education is good, and in engineering or medicine, commerce or technology, nursing or hotelkeeping, or any other of these activities which make up material civilization, we believe in quality, in the first-rate; we have a clear idea of what it means and we often achieve it. I shall, therefore, say nothing more about vocational studies. It is perhaps the only branch of education in which we are entirely successful, and there is no risk of its being ignored.

An educated man should know what is first-rate in those activities which spring from the creative and intellectual faculties of human nature, such as literature, art, architecture, and music. I should like to add science and philosophy, but in these two subjects it is difficult for any but the expert to estimate quality, and many educated people have not the close knowledge necessary to judge work in them. On the other hand everyone has close and daily contact with the other four. Architecture surrounds him in every city, literature meets him on every bookstall, music assails his ears on his radio set and from every juke box; and art in its protean aspects of form and color is a part of daily life. The architecture may often be bad, the literature and music often puerile, the art often undeserving of the name; but that is all the more reason why we should be able, in all of them, to distinguish good from bad.

To judge by the literature offered us in hotel bookstands and by most of the music played on the radio and by juke boxes, we might be more discriminating in these fields than we are. If it be said that music and art and literature are not essentials of life but its frills, I would reply that, if so, it is curious that they are among the few immortal things in the world, and that, should a man wish to be remembered two thousand years hence, the only certain way is to write a great poem or book, compose a great symphony, paint a great picture, carve a great sculpture, or build a great building. If you have any doubts about this, consider why long-dead people like Plato and Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Raphael, Ictinus and Bramante, are remembered today.

I have argued that no one has a right to feel himself educated if he does not know what is first-rate in his daily occupation and (so far as this is possible) in those fields where the creative and intellectual powers of man are revealed. But there is another job much more difficult than teaching or nursing or business or medicine, in which we are all concerned — the job of living; and there surely, as much as in any other pursuit, we need to know what is firstrate. Is not our education very incomplete if we do not know what is excellent in human nature and in life; if in that field we are taken in by second-rate, shoddy stuff? Here our age is far less successful than in medicine, or engineering, or the sciences.

We need clearer standards; or, to put it more simply, we need to have a clearer idea about the distinction between first-rate and second-rate, between good and bad, in conduct and in life. Ignorance on this vital subject is written all over modern civilization. Our age contains a great deal of good — as much perhaps as any age. But I doubt if there has ever been an age in which good and bad were so mixed together and the public as a whole so lacking in standards by which to distinguish them. The tares grow with the wheat and the difference between wheat and tares escapes notice. If anyone thinks that I am exaggerating, let him look at our films and, even more, at our advertisements, our radio, and at many of our newspapers. Those responsible for some of these do far more harm than any murderer; for the films, the radio, the press are among the chief influences which form the public view, impressing on it the view of life which they embody.


BUT where does one learn what is first-rate? The only way to learn it is to meet it. A medical student will learn something from seeing a great surgeon in the operating theater, or a great doctor in the hospital wards, which all the textbooks in the world cannot tell him. If anyone wishes to know how to teach, let him go and see a great teacher in the classroom; if he wishes to know what good painting or good banking is, let him search out the best examples he can find in them. In any field the only way to learn what is first-rate is to see it. And the same surely is true in life itself. If we wish to know what the good life is we must make the acquaintance and, if possible, keep the company of t hose who have known its meaning and, better still, of those who have lived it. But who are they? And where shall we meet them ?

It is in order that we may meet them, that what we call the humanities come into the curriculum. They are the subjects which deal with man. But there are humanities and humanities; the word is vague, embracing many subjects; theology, philosophy, literature, history , anthropology, psychology, languages, politics, and social studies; even economics and geography, Clearly they differ widely and are only united in virtue of one element common to all of them — they are concerned with man. But it is a formidable list — enough to burst any curriculum and to overwork any brain.

We must choose among them and decide which of all this multitude is the most important for our purposes. All have their value for one purpose or another. If, for instance, we are going to deal with primitive people, we must have some familiarity with anthropology; if we are going into politics or business, we must have some knowledge of economics. All these subjects in one way or another throw a light on man and his goings on. The least human of the humanities at least glances at man. But we are looking, not for the subjects which glance at man or throw side lights on him, but for those which show him full face, and, moreover, show him at his best, so that we can know what he is, at his best. And here such subjects as psychology or economics or anthropology, important as they are in other ways, give no real help. In them we see only a fragment of ourselves, a part of human nature and not the best or the most characteristic part. If we wish to see man full face, it is to religion, literature, and history that we must turn.

Of religion I will not speak; admittedly in its highest forms it contains the purest and finest archetypes of human excellences, though it can be “taught” (as it was to me at school) with almost no reference to these aspects of it. Its surprising neglect in much of education shows how little we are concerned to hold up to our pupils the noblest examples of living.

Of the other two, history and literature, the former is perhaps the less illuminating. It is not so personal as literature. Mainly, it is the record of man as a social being, making societies which grow ever more complicated; it is the record of the fortunes of these societies, their successes and failures, the storms which shattered them or which they rode out, the wisdom and folly, the virtues and vices, of the officers and the crews of many ships of the state. But it becomes more personal in its biographical aspects, and there we may find light on human nature and its excellence.

If we are to find it, mere passive reading of a biography is not enough. We must go to it with questions, taking some famous man and asking what he owes to his heredity, to his environment and to the circumstances of his time, and to his education in the narrow sense of the word. (To the last I am afraid it will be found that in most cases the debt is small.) Note what are the decisive moments in his life, what opportunities he seized or missed; his difficulties and how far he overcame or was baffled by them; his successes; his mistakes and failures; what he did and what he failed to do; his contribution to his age and its importance at the time — and afterwards; his qualities and defects; whether he had the long sight to view problems sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of all time and all existence, or only the short sight which suffices to deal with the immediate needs of the hour; whether he is significant for all ages or merely for his own. Then, in order that greatness may not be confused with goodness, ask whether or not, in Plato’s words, “he arrayed his soul in the jewels proper to its nature, justice and temperance and courage and truth.”

If, however, we wish to see man, as I put it, full face, it is to literature that we must turn. There we hear him talking aloud to the world, but really talking to himself, putting on paper the feelings that come to him, so that in literature is recorded every thought, every vision, every fancy, every emotion that has ever passed through the human mind. What a record! Is there any better way of learning what men are, so far as it can be learned from books and not from meeting human beings; and, however good our opportunities of meeting them, a lifetime of human contacts could not give us as wide an experience of human nature as literature can give.

Of course all literature does not give us a portrait of human excellence; it shows us human nature but not necessarily, or always, human nature at its best. And just as in history one must distinguish between greatness and goodness, and not be dazzled by the genius of a Napoleon or a Bismarck, a Hitler or a Lenin, into ignoring the evil which they did and which lives after them, so in literature and art one must avoid a similar mistake and not allow the genius of a writer to blind us to what is unworthy or inadequate in his vision of life. For our purpose, which is to know the best in human nature, we must turn to the writers that show it. Fortunately — and it can hardly be accident — the greatest writers have also the noblest vision.


MERELY from an academic point of view, merely as a matter of curiosity, it is natural to wish to know what is first-rate. But also it has its practical uses for the conduct of our own lives. I do not say that to know the first-rate is the same thing as to achieve it. Unfortunately it is not. Everyone knows what the Roman poet meant when he said, “Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor — I see what is best and I approve it. I follow what is worse.” And Saint Paul says much the same thing when he says, “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” Yet the people we live with in literature and history, in the world of thought, do affect our outlook and even our conduct, just as the people with whom we live in our homes or our daily work affect it. Evil communications corrupt good mores, but good communications improve them. There is an element of truth in Disraeli’s words: “Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.”

Further, without these studies, we shall never know what the world is really like. Our education tends to be superficial. I am not using the word in a bad sense. I only mean that much of it is concerned with the surface of life and tells us nothing of its depths. The surface is very important; we need the skills and knowledge required to cope with the immediate problems of our day. We need economics and social studies and anthropology and the rest. But important as they are, they do not take us down to the ultimate issues and realities of life; they are superficial.

Literature itself can be superficial and much of it is so. Noel Coward or Hemingway is superficial compared with Shaw. Shaw is superficial as compared with Dante or Shakespeare, who show us greater depths in human nature than we shall find in these lesser men. I am not suggesting that we should not read Shaw or Coward. I only say that unless we are content with a superficial view of life, we should also read writers who have deeper and longer views, who will open our eyes and keep them open to realities to which they are apt to grow dim.

The tenseness and strain of our daily occupations favor short sight. We have to focus our eyes on the business of the moment, and the power of long vision is easily lost. But man needs a long vision in life and should view it through bifocal spectacles. Through one lens he sees the immediate business of the moment; otherwise he will not do that business well. Through the other he sees life and our occupations and himself in the light of what Plato calls all time and all existence.

If anyone asks what these words mean, he has only to visit the Lincoln Memorial at Washington and read the inscriptions on its walls: the Gettysburg speech and — even more — the magnificent close of the Second Inaugural; or, more simply, he can read them in any good library. Let him then ask himself if these words do not take us below the surface of political life down to permanent issues. Politicians in all countries are continually making speeches; few of them are of this kind; it would be better for the world if they were. Lincoln was a man with bifocal vision, a practical statesman, dealing ail the time with the day-to-day problems of politics and war. Yet he was a man who at the same time saw them in the light of eternal issues. The feeling which these words of Lincoln give is given in one way or another by all great literature — by the Bible, by Plato and the great Greeks, by Dante, by Shakespeare. They enlarge our vision. Read them, make them your companions through life; otherwise you may live on its surface and forget its dept hs.

Surely it is a tenable philosophy that when we meet goodness and greatness we are in the presence of something fundamental in the universe — solid ground that remains firm whatever convulsions shake the world. Surely it is in them that one meets the real human being. Another side of man is real too — the dark, petty, sensual side, where his quarrels and jealousies and hates and greeds and passions take their rise. But if I had to find the essential characteristic thing in man I should not find it, like Marx, in the economic animal—or, like Freud and many modern novelists, in a sexridden phantom; I should find it in man straining his eyes to catch sight of the vision of a better world, and to incorporate what he can see in the life of himself and his society. Is not that the real human being? And when you consider history, is it not through men and women of this type that the progress most worth making has come about? Are not these the lines on which the world has advanced and will continue to advance towards something better?

We need, said Burke, in his stately language, to auspicate all our proceedings with the old warning of the Church, “Sursum corda — Lift up your hearts.” But how, from the levels of our ordinary lives, our average minds, can we raise ourselves, if only for a space, to heights beyond our own capacity, even beyond our normal vision? The answer is that we can raise ourselves on the shoulders of those who have walked on higher levels. What unaided we could not do we can do by their help.

Religion is the greatest instrument for so raising us. It is amazing that a person not intellectually bright, perhaps not even educated, is capable of grasping, and living by, something so advanced as the principles of Christianity. Yet that is a common phenomenon. It is not, however, in my province to talk about religion, but rather to stress the power which great literature and the great personalities whom we meet in it and in history have to open and enlarge our minds, and to show us what is first-rate in human personality and human character by showing us goodness and greatness. Any education which neglects that is incomplete and a very inadequate preparation for life.