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American Education and the Culture

by Sterling M. McMurrin - 1961

The task that confronts American education continues to grow in breadth and difficulty as our nation experiences unprecedented change and mounting crises in both its domestic and international life. The increasing urbanization and industrialization of our society and the complexities arising from the new technologies are making large demands for better education for our citizens, not only for the satisfaction of vocational and professional needs, but also for a more just ordering of our society and for the achievement of intelligent and cultivated living.

THE TASK THAT confronts American education continues to grow in breadth and difficulty as our nation experiences unprecedented change and mounting crises in both its domestic and international life. The increasing urbanization and industrialization of our society and the complexities arising from the new technologies are making large demands for better education for our citizens, not only for the satisfaction of vocational and professional needs, but also for a more just ordering of our society and for the achievement of intelligent and cultivated living.

Added to these considerations is the enormous increase in the world's knowledge, an increase that continually opens up new areas of inquiry and investigation and that has a way of generating a larger thirst for knowledge as well as an expanding need for it. And the new role that education plays in relation to our foreign policy, in affecting our status among nations and as an instrument in international politics, is increasingly affecting the quality and character of our educational establishment.

Adapted from an address delivered on 6 June, 1961, in New York City before the convocation of Teachers College, Columbia University.


It is now entirely clear that we are entering into an era in the life of our culture in which education must take on a new importance and a new meaning and in which our commitments to it in both human and material resources must greatly exceed anything known in the past. For it is clear that the age of our comfort and simple security lies behind us. Our future is in a world of permanent danger in which whatever is most precious to us as individuals and as a nation faces daily the possibility of catastrophic destruction and is at all times threatened by those large and small events that in various and insidious ways may erode our freedom and otherwise affect the quality of our lives. It is no longer possible for us to rest easily in the faith that because we are on the side of righteousness, our nation and our culture must inevitably prevail, that whatever may be the disposition of our individual talents and efforts, the future of our society is guaranteed. There are no guarantees, and without a more adequate cultivation of our human resources and deployment of our collective effort, righteousness will surely fail, and we will fail with it.

However pleasant and peaceful our world may appear to us at this moment, it is against this portentous background of continuing social, political, and cultural crisis, in which we are threatened internally by bigotry, irrationalism, cynicism, complacency, and despair, and externally by an inordinate increase in the power of the totalitarian states and by the prospect of an apocalyptic destruction, and where the decision will be determined by the balance of human commitment and of disciplined and creative intelligence, that we must define the meaning of education in our society. And it is against this background that we must view our profession as educators, judge the quality of our competence, the extent and depth of our resources, and the strength of our personal commitment. In the entire history of mankind, there has not been a more difficult, demanding, or ultimately more important task than now faces the teachers of our nation.

It is the historic role of our educational institutions to be in various direct and indirect ways the chief bearer of our culture. It is here that the great volume of our knowledge is housed, and it is from here that it is disseminated. More than anywhere else there is found here the cutting edge of intellectual inquiry that advances our substantive store of knowledge. And here also is found a large measure of that dispassionate critical intelligence that must judge our accumulations from former generations, hold fast to the good, yet keep us free from the tyranny of the past. It is the task of the schools and the universities to be the chief source and focus of the continuing effort of a people to understand, appreciate, criticize, and perpetuate their culture. This certainly is a task that now rests heavily on all teachers, administrators, and research scholars.

Our country is engaged in the difficult assignment of discerning and clearly defining what have come to be called the national goals. The task is difficult because it has been our habit, proper to a democracy, to think in terms of the individual and, except in times of the gravest danger, to avoid orienting our institutions to issues that relate to the totality of our society. But now the necessity of gaining national and international perspectives on the meaning and proper function of even traditionally local activities is clearly upon us, and nowhere is this necessity more acute than in education. Indeed, in its general educational program, America seems now to be entering upon the major test of democracy, to judge the foundation assumption of political democracy, that there is a coincidence of what is good for the individual with what is good for the total society. To establish in fact the justification of this principle will place large demands upon the best minds among us and is a responsibility that must seriously engage the abilities of teachers and school administrators in both immediate effort and extensive planning.

It is now the primary business of our schools, colleges, and universities to protect the sanctity of the individual, to insure his integrity against the impact of the great social and political weight of the nation. As never before he must be encouraged in his uniqueness, his creativity, his spirit of intellectual adventure, his moral courage, and his aspirations. But at the same time, it is essential to fulfill the large goals of a nation that has become the bastion of freedom in a threatened world and which now must marshal its total energy in creating of itself a citadel of such strength that it cannot fail.


This is not to propose that we emulate the totalitarian states in the manipulation and regimentation of our people to satisfy the manpower needs of our economy. Such practices would inevitably entail a loss of freedom that would erode the very foundations of our democracy. The quality of our society will be protected only as we maintain a genuine individualism that encourages and in various ways rewards independence in thought and action. But it is true, nevertheless, that unless we invest the individual with a sense of civic purpose and dedication and cultivate in him a genuine internal intellectual and moral discipline, we will fail to bring to our nation that full strength that it now so desperately needs.

Fortunately, our educational institutions are already moving toward a more adequate meeting of the new responsibilities entailed by this dimension of grave national and international need. If they are to succeed in fully satisfying this obligation, they must in general have increased understanding, confidence, and material endowment. We have cause to believe that this increase will be forthcoming. The nation is arousing from its lethargy and comparative indifference in this matter and is beginning to sense the seriousness of our less than full commitment to education.

But still we face, nevertheless, the dangers of complacency, of a business-as-usual attitude. From our local perspectives, we are not always free from the temptations of a provincial posture toward the functions proper to our educational institutions. Much too often, we forget that quantity in education is not a guarantee of quality.

If we are to achieve that high quality of education that we should demand of ourselves and to which we should dedicate our resources, we must occasionally remind ourselves that our past local isolations are gone; the isolation of our nation is gone; what we do here and now has importance not only for our immediate community, but for the entire country, even the entire world. Above all, we must convince ourselves that nothing short of genuine excellence in our educational pursuits is good enough for our people or will satisfy our obligations to our society. That excellence will not be achieved short of an unlimited appreciation of the deadly seriousness of our national predicament and a full commitment of our material and human resources to education as our best hope of not only contributing to an eventual security for ourselves and the globe, but of creating a culture that in every way measures up to the high quality of which we are capable.

Here, certainly, is a large and ominous responsibility that now devolves upon those of us who are responsible for education. It is not enough that we do as well as has been done in the past. Now in the presence of a great and unknown peril, we must achieve a degree of competence and strength that requires us to marshal our talents and our energies with a stern determination. We have with a shameful prodigality wasted our human resources through neglect and indifference by failing adequately to orient our educational establishment to the needs of our society and by all too often educating our children and youth in a manner that sacrifices excellence to average attainment, thereby betraying the very principle of democracy.


There is much in our educational tradition and achievement of which we can be justly proud. Much of the best talent of our people has been invested in education, and on the firm foundations of a determination to serve all the people, we have created an educational establishment in which we can take great pride. For here are found countless institutions of high merit and many of surpassing excellence. At their heart are the great teachers and great scholars who are the chief movers of our intellectual life. But our schools suffer inevitably the weaknesses of our society, and the dangers of the world in which we now must live demand their improvement at every point for the strengthening of our society. We cannot afford the complacency that thrives on a recognition of past accomplishments. We can afford only the rigorous criticism that is essential to any institutional or civic progress.

It is not an easy thing to create a high tradition of education, and in the face of today's new social forces of suspicion, reaction, and irrationalism, it is not easy to maintain one. There are numerous factors, both within and without our educational institutions, that inevitably result in tensions and strains that in various ways and degrees threaten to breach the intellectual freedom that is the foundation of our educational establishment and quite certainly the chief glory of our culture. Without that freedom much that is most precious in our society would be lost.

As educators, we must be steadfast in our loyalty to our nation and its precious ideals and resist persuasion by those who would define loyalty in terms of narrow and selfish interest, who fail to recognize the true character of our predicament among the nations, or who are insensitive to the world responsibilities that history has now imposed upon us. And we must not be deceived by those among us who are themselves lusting for power and dominion over their fellow men. Such pressures, often brought to bear on teachers as persons and our schools as institutions, represent only perversions of the precious ideals of our republic.

We must resist with great strength those ugly forces in our society, destructive of unity and confidence and directed to the engendering of personal suspicion and an undermining of civic trust. We must resist those who insist that to fight communism we must embrace fascism. Tyranny is tyranny, whether it is of the right or left. Today there are new accusations of disloyalty, and there is new talk of special oaths and tests of loyalty. This could be the beginning of a new moral confusion in the public mind that might well compromise the jewel-like quality of our intellectual freedom.

Our present condition is not a simple crisis of any particular ideal. Rather, in the words of the great Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, it is "a crisis of the (liberal) ideal itself. It is a bewilderment, a degeneration, a corruption, a perversion, of the moral sense, of that moral enthusiasm which ennobles the individual life and glorifies the history of humanity." We have no more precious possession than our intellectual freedom. That freedom has given to American academic life its most firm foundation and has guaranteed to it the high quality of its achievements. That freedom must be protected with care. Should it be lost, then all is lost.


A central focus for intellectual freedom is the university. Only those who have been inducted into the life of a university can fully appreciate the enormous supply of knowledge and talent and cultivated judgment that is lodged in a university faculty. And perhaps only they have gained a full grasp of the immeasurable value that such an institution has for its community.

A university traffics in ideas. And therefore it is an exciting and dangerous place. Those who are afraid of ideas would be well advised to stay away from universities. They are not a compatible environment for any man who is afraid to think, who is offended by a persistent attempt to understand human experience, who prefers dogmatism to evidence and irrationalism to disciplined reason, or who, whatever his pretenses, is really afraid of knowledge or has contempt for learning and is determined to nourish and protect his parochial prejudices.

Universities are made for those who have neither dulled nor prostituted their natural endowment of reason and fine sensitivity, in whom intellectual curiosity is alive and viable, who love knowledge for its own sake as well as for its uses, whose moral capacities invite analysis and perspective in the judgment of value, and who possess that artistic and intellectual irritability that is necessary to genuine creativity. Universities are made for those who have a taste and talent for the life of the mind, who have a determined sense of responsibility to themselves and a commitment to the good of their community, their nation, and the world. Those precious and indescribable resources, which only a university with its vast command of knowledge and creative talent can provide, inspire and facilitate not only a high degree of learning and the skills that attend it, but also that discipline of intellect that is an essential ingredient of genuine morality, of artistic awareness, and of spiritual strength. If the university is properly demanding and exacting, its students may have a rough time. But with the world threatening to collapse around us, a university is no place for pleasure seekers, and even the best intentioned may fail. For those who persist to the end, however, and who fasten their energy and commitment upon the purpose and meaning of education—the achievement of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect—there should be a strengthening and refinement of those high qualities of the moral and spiritual life that with knowledge are the mark of a man's humanity and the measure of his culture. These are the qualities that must adorn the lives of all those who are committed to the search for truth, the cultivation of disciplined reason, and the achievement of the public as well as the private good.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 63 Number 1, 1961, p. 35-39
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3059, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:13:06 PM

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