A Century of Higher Education
reviewed by Marvin Bressler - 1964
A sociologist with a trained taste for philosophy, Princeton's Dr. Bressler finds scholarship and style in three recent and important books on the social foundations of present-day education in America. But he also detects an aridity, a desperation, in these volumes that leave ominously open the question of how much appeal reason may enjoy as an educational guide to modern salvation. Is it possible that intellect, like love, is simply not enough?
During a half-decade of post-sputnik tristesse, the partisans of the new austerity and the defenders of the Establishment monopolized the great debate on education and rent the air with recrimination. The conflict was waged on the scorched earth that is bound by reconstructionism on the left and perennial-ism on the right. The work of Welter, Brickman and Lehrer, and Kimball and McClellan are contributions to a more responsible and subtle dialogue that explores the impact of education on both the public and the private worlds that human beings really inhabit.
Welter is interested in education as a political force and Kimball and McClellan in its influence on personal philosophy, but they are linked in a kinship of aspiration and intellectual style. These authors wear their erudition lightly, handle ideas nimbly, and treat language with a grace that is rare in scholarly discourse. But learning and a suave manner thinly veil personal involvement and a complex and serious reliance on disciplined intelligence as a crucial element in social and personal salvation.
Welter's definition of education includes both formal schooling and the whole array of "informal" agencies of instructionpress and pulpit, library and lyceum, Grange meeting and Congressional hearing. His exploration of the idea of education, so conceived from early colonial precedents to the present, leads him to conclude that a "belief in popular education has been the archetypal element in our political thinking." The boldness of this declaration is die more remarkable because with rare and presumably trivial exceptionsold guard Federalists, pro-slavery theorists, occasional reactionariesthis fundamental commitment has been shared by all the schools of political and social theory that are represented in his study.
Welter explicitly rejects the thesis that ideas are "passive accomplices of personal and group interest," and he insists that American democratic thought has characteristically sought "enlightenment of the people for expansive rather than restrictive reasons." We are nevertheless treated to numerous instructive instances of the line of descent that leads from interest to ideology to institutional strategy.
CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERAL
At the risk of doing violence to Welter's richness of scholarship and the subtlety of his argument, we may readily identify the two most prominent imputed functions of education as end points on the classic conservative-liberal continuum. The conservative impulse was strengthed by a variety of sacred and profane commitments and by the support of neutral scholarship. It sometimes relied on the routine sociological observation that a complex society requires mechanisms of social control and perhaps more often on naked motives of class interest, personal safety, and undisguised fear of the masses.
An essay in an 1838 issue of American Education combines all of the more extreme elements of the conservative stance:
Let any man dwelling in the United States, consider this fact: that he is living in the midst of some millions of human beings, having strong bodies, strong wills, clear heads, and mighty passions; let him consider, further, that these millions suffer him to pursue his business, and sleep quietly at night, because they see it to be their interest, or feel it to be their duty to do so, but that, as soon as they cease to see their interest, or feel their duty, they may pull his house about his ears and hang him upon the nearest tree;and he will feel, to his heart's core, the necessity of wide-spread moral and religious education to his own safety.
The conservative emphasis on education as an instrument for the preservation of order and the maintenance of hierarchy was obviously incompatible with the interests of workingmen, farmers, social reformersof any who spoke for the disenchanted and dispossessed. The liberal opposition cherished education as the most promising means of broadening the base of political intelligence, of facilitating the circulation of the elite, of removing the barriers that impeded equality and social justice. As Welter points out, for nearly a century after the age of Jackson, democratic theorists "treated popular education as the one sure cure for contemporary social and political evils."
The most durable preoccupation of nineteenth century political thought, then, was the nature and limits of popular rule. The Spencerian thunder of William Graham Sumner could intermingle with the gentle musings of an Edward Bellamy, but each was dedicated to the basic proposition that every theory of society was also a theory of education. The solidity of this conception was shattered by the historical events and the intellectual discoveries of the recent past. The doctrine of "anarchy with a schoolmaster" is plainly no substitute for extensive governmental participation in the affairs of men; Bentham's reasonable citizen judiciously wrestling with the hedonistic calculus has been consigned to the vast subterranean depths where psychoanalysts dwell and the emergence of Orwell's Big Brother is regarded by many as a genuinely plausible prophecy.
Meanwhile, empirical studies, speaking in the awesome name of science, confide inside tips on managed news, controlled votes, balanced tickets and the entire dreary catalogue of the corruption of the political process. It is not strange that contemporary political thought tends to regard the educability and rationality of the electorate as problematic. Indeed of the two formulations now most in voguecountervailing power and leadershipone entrusts democratic decision-making to an invisible hand and the other to an aristocracy of talent. Neither dignifies mass education by assigning it the status of a major variable. Welter's estimate that "we have virtually conceded the failure of democratic political education to serve its intended purpose" seems just.
The collapse of nineteenth-century verities does not portend any retreat from the basic American commitment to popular education. The disillusion in the political efficacy of education has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in emphasis on careerist training and the insistence that opportunity must be accessible to talent. And as the contributors to A Century of Higher Education testify, our record in this respect has been generally impressive.
The American educational Establishment consists of an extensive network of institutions that are characterized by every conceivable variant of function, auspices, and mode of control and are sustained by complex patterns of governmental, voluntary, and private financing. Brickman may wonder in his introduction whether American institutions of higher learning may not be "overreaching themselves in all directions at the same time," but Willis Rudy notes with gratification that "the impact of democracy . . . generated an almost irresistible drive for the popularization of opportunities for learning and . . . that by the mid-point of the twentieth century, more equality of opportunity for post-secondary training existed in the United States of America than in any other part of the world."
Welter presumably rejoices in the new proliferation of educational opportunities, but he deplores the total abandonment of the older conception of education as a viable influence in the political arena. He proposes that "contemporary American attitudes towards democracy and democratic education suggest that our social thought may have gained sophistication without gaining wisdom." Rational deliberation remains the sine qua non of our national existence; the decisions reached in the marketplace of power and the councils of the elite always require ratification or at least passive consent by an informed electorate. A democratic theory that is not truly pluralistic is impoverished, for as Welter says, "we may recognize the group basis of our national life, acknowledge the irrationality and weaknesses of a democratic electorate, and accept the necessity of political leadership, yet insist at the same time that some kinds of popular education are indispensable to a democracy because some kinds of popular intelligence are necessary."
If Welter is persuaded about the positive functions of popular intelligence, Kimball and McClellan undertake the more venturesome task of defining its parameters. They propose nothing less ambitious than a philosophy of education that "is appropriate for our times." The authors are impressed by the need to resolve the perennial paradox of American life: the alienation of large numbers of individuals from a society that is palpably a marvel of energy and order. The functions of educational philosophy is to identify and overcome the sources of this malaise and to develop the "commitments" that will make assent to American promise and achievement possible.
ANALYSIS VS. SENTIMENT
According to Kimball and McClellan, the philosophies that have responded to this challenge have in the main invoked the nostalgic symbols of our agrarian past or engaged in romantic protest againts intrinsic and inescapable features of any industrial society. Since sentimentality is not analysis, such philosophies are simply irrelevant.
Commitment, to paraphase a famous aphorism, is the recognition of necessity. It can occur only if the schools provide the child with the intellectual equipment to pass from the ad hoc adjustments of the nuclear family to the supersystems of the corporate world. The nature of the adult's relation to this world is indirect, cognitive, partially participative, and symbolically constructed. To understand it, he must master the disciplines of logic and mathematics, experimentation, natural history, and esthetic form. Thus armed, he will comprehend the opportunities of his social universe and be prepared to pay its costs.
Commitment, then, includes first and foremost the disciplines by which it can be known. But as Kimball and McClellan concede, "they are terrifying disciplines, for they permit no ultimate certainty, no relaxation into the 'oceanic feeling' of being at one with the entire universe. Their findings enlarge and change at a dizzying pace; today's most basic theories become uninteresting special cases tomorrow."
A charming chasidic parable has it that a renowned rebbe had occasion to remind his assembled disciples that exposure to the rationalistic sophistries of the great Maimonides would not only jeopardize their ecstatic comprehension of God but might actually remove them from His presence. The tzaddik found the method of dialectical confrontation especially threatening. In a Guide to the Perplexed, he warned, they would first encounter dangerously persuasive exegeses of agnostic dissent and only later incontrovertible proof of the Almighty's existence. What man studying at twilight could be certain that he would have mastered the refutation before the exhausting struggle with the intricate logic of heresy would jog him into unwilling sleep? True, upon awakening, he could again set the universe aright, but who for the sake of arid casuistry would consent to spend an entire night outside the orbit of God?
Welter and Kimball and McClellan might answer that the rational process is a more exacting discipline than faith. It remains to be seen whether the schools can educate a generation of men who rise to meet the morning content to resume an intellectual voyage without promise of arrival, without certainty, without safety, without gods.