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Existential Education

by Donald Cowan - 1981

Peter Abbs, a highly persuasive lecturer in education at Sussex University, has buckled on armor to challenge society-in the United States as well as Britain-through a radical revisioning of the aims of contemporary education. The three books here under review set forth the present state of his challenge: first, a bill of particulars against a civilization dominated by a voracious industry and, second, a proposal for correction through the establishment of a single small college devoted to the formation of teachers capable of raising up a new, truly human, generation.

Schools of all sorts, from nursery schools to graduate schools, state-owned or independent, are social institutions, established for the benefit of society and maintained for its preservation. One of the benefits that schools are implicitly charged to render is the ongoing reform of the society that maintains them. True, this reformation is envisioned by the supporting community as occurring in small increments headed toward the direction in which society intends to be moving; when the attempted reform runs counter to that established current, the benign sponsorship is less readily forthcoming.

Peter Abbs, a highly persuasive lecturer in education at Sussex University, has buckled on armor to challenge society-in the United States as well as Britain-through a radical revisioning of the aims of contemporary education. The three books here under review set forth the present state of his challenge: first, a bill of particulars against a civilization dominated by a voracious industry and, second, a proposal for correction through the establishment of a single small college devoted to the formation of teachers capable of raising up a new, truly human, generation. This modest proposal is enlarged to embrace an array of such colleges by the time of the most recent of the three books, and one senses a further expectation: that the large universities, frustrated by their own banality, will in time fragment into small coherent units modeled on this first shy prototype.

The purpose of learning, which for society is social and functional, is for the individual primarily the joy of the process itself. The effect of learning is an internal transformation; the person is different after the act from what he was before; and, further, he is aware of that difference, possessing a feeling of increased value. The process of achieving that state-the experience of learning-is one of bursting through the mundane into a new revelation, an o altitudo experience in which the landscape takes on a heightened appearance. The human kind desires this experience, seeks it, is driven toward it from infancy on, although schools and perhaps life itself tend to suppress it as a person matures. Peter Abbs has been headed for this intense, transformative education, one senses, from the start.

In the first of these books, Autobiography in Education, Abbs seeks to overcome what he calls the “pathology of boredom” in our schools by establishing the center of education in the individual person and his quest for identity. It is in the relation between self and culture that learning finds its most fertile ground, he maintains, and this relation he sees most fruitfully explored in autobiography-the subjective discipline of “reflecting on and recreating the personal past.” One makes, as it were, a work of art out of one’s own life, coming thereby to understand and value it. “I discovered with a certain alarm,” Abbs remarks, “that imagination will change outward events in order to articulate an essential truth.” In what amounts to a practical guide for teachers, Abbs sets up the conditions for those who would make use of his suggestions. Saint Augustine is taken as the first to conceive of autobiography as spiritual evolution; in his Confessions, “deeds are not recounted because they occurred, but because they represent stages of spiritual growth.” Thirteen and a half centuries later, as Abbs points out, autobiography was made popular by the next great innovator in that form, Rousseau, whose ardent explorations of his inner development established a veritable cult of childhood throughout Europe. Abbs would have students read excerpts from these and other autobiographical works-by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mill, Jung, and others-and then, with a tutor, begin the difficult process of giving form and shape to their own past experiences. Abbs’s book contains an anthology of excerpts from the famous autobiographies and a collection of student writings demonstrating the success of the method, as well as an excerpt from his own life. It is not surprising to learn from his account that he felt in his youth a vocation to the priesthood. This first book is the creation of a teacher who has approached his demanding art as a, vocation, and the later books as well grow quite naturally out of what he has learned in the sacerdotal service of his calling.

By the time of his second book, Proposal for a New College, written jointly with Graham Carey, Abbs has considerably enlarged his concern. It is not so much now the apathy of students and the training of their teachers to which he gives his attention as the survival of culture itself. He speaks of the urgent need for a college that by its habits and practices might help “usher in that post-industrial society on which the continuation and development of life must now depend.” Such a college, he maintains, “sympathetic to historic culture, drawing on present creative energies and anticipating the shape of things to come,” ought to attract talented teachers who can no longer “teach with heart in the bureaucratic and mass institutions in which they find themselves unwillingly imprisoned.” But his ideal college would be no “open university,” disembodied and cloisterless. At the heart of Abbs’s small college in the countryside would be walls-walls protecting the intense activity of learning going on at the center, engendered, as he says, by a sustained relationship between teacher and student. His college would be concerned with philosophical ideas, with the discipline of forms provided by the humanities, and with scientific inquiry. It would eschew careerism, pragmatism, and trivia. “The delicate study of symbol and meaning would. . . be the focal point of our college’s academic and creative studies.”

No one, I suppose, has ever proposed or initiated a new sort of school without an accompanying expectation that the small mustard seed there planted will eventually shade the world. Such expectations are of course bound for disappointment. Health does not enjoy the exponential infectious spread characteristic of illness. Nor are small ripples in an isolated pond likely to generate waves of imagination and wisdom sufficient to flush the Augean stables of the gods of utilitarianism and system. Nonetheless, small schools, existing for a short time, seemingly without great issue, have had long-lasting effects. One need not go back to Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum to find worthy predecessors for Abbs and Carey’s venture. They point to the twelfth-century Cistercian monastery at Rievaulx in Yorkshire, to Ruskin College at Oxford, to the Bauhaus in Germany, and to Black Mountain College in this country (he gives a thumbnail sketch of each as a sort of apologia for the plan to be presented). It is apparent that neither Newman’s Idea of a University nor the Hutchins-Adler experiment at Chicago with its offspring, St. John’s of Annapolis, fits the proposal (nor, also, I would add, does the University of Dallas of the sixties and seventies, though it comes closer), not so much because of a different idea about curriculum as because what Abbs and Carey envision is more an intellectual commune than a college. They would have little separation between study and work and very little hierarchy, with students and faculty participating more or less equally in governance and domestic duties, and the plan of studies “created through collaborative discussions by all those who are going to teach it.” The great classic texts, as I understand the scheme, would be present as background and reference but would rarely be the direct subject of inquiry; rather, important works of more recent vintage would provide the occasion for discourse. In the discipline of cultural history, for example, such works as Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine, Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man, and Suzanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key would occupy the forefront. The student would be engaged, during the same time span, in a creative discipline such as art, pottery, or music, and would participate in discussions of ecology in conjunction with farm work, the baking of bread, or the making of furniture. Ideally, the separation of work, play, and study would disappear: Learning would be wholly integrated.

The role of science in education remains an enigma for the humanist. To teach it as philosophy, as history, even as a set of paradigms, misses the essential action of science. For it is not cumulative, as Abbs assumes, but residual. The artifacts it develops belong only briefly to the discipline in which they arise; their utility quickly disappears and their residue remains to form the ever-moving body of science. Its nature is firsthand and innocent. It is this primitive experience, not its past glories, that makes science a participating member of the liberal arts. Abbs does not really tangle with this direct, poetic experience of science, as do few other educational theorists. Ortega and Whitehead are notable exceptions. But surely there is more work to be done with this aspect of education in our time, if people are not to be left at the mercy of scientific popularizers or of the high priests themselves, whose words ordinary well-educated persons are ill equipped to understand.

Abbs comments in the subsequent book that Proposal for a New College was dismissed as utopian. There is, of course, a touch of such a quality in any description of an ideal realm. Writing is a different medium from doing, but it has its own purpose. It is not so much a call to action as it is to thought, imagination stirring imagination. Surely there must be some realm in which a whole federation of imaginary colleges exchange their several excellences in recognition of their founding visionaries. But some do come to earth. Up in Merrimac, New Hampshire, for instance, Thomas More Institute (to speak of Utopia), the brainchild of two brilliant and dedicated professors, has recently moved into a pre-Revolutionary house on a small plot of ground with a handful of students who pursue a life not unlike that which Abbs has outlined, though the curriculum is perhaps more rigorously classical. Such creations are important to the body of education, refreshing it, testifying to the fecundity of spirit still available when the shells dry out and the forms crack up.

In the later book, Reclamations, Abbs has largely abandoned the commune idea in favor of the more general and more fundamental “intellectual community.” The real value of his thinking becomes apparent in his discussion of “existential education.” Abbs is a teacher of teachers. He is convinced that only that person who is wholly formed in his own individuality has the authority to teach the young. The emotions must participate equally with reason in the intellection of experience if life is to be lived in any holistic sense, and yet, Abbs maintains, our entire schooling system, on either side of the Atlantic, is designed to suppress the passions. His ambition for the little volume he sets forth “is to reclaim the subjective dimension, to bring the neglected life of feeling and imagination into the educational process until the process itself becomes an expression of human wholeness.”

The existentialists blaze the way for Abbs. He traces their descent from Heraclitus through Augustine, Pascal, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Marx and Engels, Nietzsche, and a host of contemporaries. “At its best,” notes Abbs, “the existential tradition has been a passionate attempt within Western philosophy to find the lost unity of mind within body, of the ideal within the real, of eternity within time.” Existentialism is not a system, is, in fact, antisystematic. Immediate existence provides the point of knowing, but no preset pattern dictates the way: It must be created at the moment. “If we are to adopt an existential philosophy of process in education,” Abbs points out, “it means that one of the tasks of the teacher is to create a milieu in which the young can often generate their own questions and explore ways in which to answer them. . . . [The teacher] is committed to developing a fidelity to experience and the crystallization of experience through symbolic form.” Perhaps the major concept of existentialism is that of authenticity in experience-the distinction between things that ring true and those that ring false. Pedagogy directed toward an ability thus to discriminate is quite obviously not a matter of technique. Rather, the teacher must himself have acquired the quality’ of authenticity, an inner identification with his discipline that gives him the authority to speak for it.

It is the awareness of the importance of authenticity that causes Abbs to ask why we have not developed an existential education. He places the blame on a Cartesian outlook that has served, for the last three centuries, to certify knowledge. The essence of this outlook is the elimination of feeling as a component of thought, a rejection of intuition in favor of a certifiably analytic procedure. But meaning is essentially emotional, a matter of belief. Conviction may indeed arise from analysis in certain instances, but since a logical argument always operates within a limited arena of postulates, not all of which are stated or known, argument does not compel belief. A person reaches for belief by whatever handles are available until some stage of adequacy ensues; then the analytic process is brought into play as a critique of belief, completing it, revising it, occasionally invoking a reexamination that leads to rejection. But if conviction persists, it may be the logic that must be revised. Certainly science has advanced in such a fashion; physicists quite generally ascribe their sense of the validity of a new proposition to the “beauty” of the insight, adjusting logic to conform to what is newly perceived as form.

This metaphysical sense-manifesting itself as taste and judgmentis recognizably the wellspring of action, the governor of decision making, in the day-to-day world. Parenthetically I would note that computers, in taking over the operation of logic, increase the responsibility of the aesthetic and spiritual sense within the decision maker. Yet our schools do little to develop this sense and certainly give no hint of its practical importance.

Abbs would correct this situation by devoting much of the curriculum at all levels-at least a third of it-to the expressive “disciplines,” which he defines as

the active teaching of the arts as a doing and as a making, as practice rather than theory. The disciplines of art, dance, music, poetry, literature, film are expressive, because their distinguishing mark is that they seek to give personal form to actual or imaginative experience, an experience which is generally inspired by, or in some way impelled by, the power of emotion. (P.4)

That the habit of thought so engendered would penetrate all the disciplines is implicit in Abbs’s prescriptions. It is not quite so apparent that the opposite movement of analysis into expression is also implicit, but one could assume so in view of his desire for an integrated, holistic experience.

The purpose of learning is hydraheaded, its multiple motives contradictory, fractious, in battle for mastery within the person. Only when some hierarchy of order is established does the learning process take on organic unity. That unity is truncated when utilitarian ends are placed in dominance-those that Abbs calls “functional.” Psychic motivations that have to do with individual satisfaction then become nonessential, regarded as decorations on life, or amusements. The functional ends are the purposes a commercial society emphasizes in its schools, in keeping with their nature as social institutions. The person thereby becomes a product of commerce, his aesthetic sense reduced to consumerism, his self-esteem to success in the marketplace. The resultant society, however, is not long viable. It heads for its own destruction. It lacks, says Abbs, an adequate metaphysics.

Let us admit that industry has become the whipping boy for humanistic thinkers, just as the church once was, and for much the same reason: It has been the sponsor and patron of art, of science, and of education. In that role, however, it comes in time to a control damaging to cultural institutions when it seeks its own ends rather than those it is commissioned to protect. When raw power takes over, governance loses its authenticity.

However accurate such an analysis may be, it is quite likely that present economic society will run into insurmountable barriers seemingly independent of its metaphysical defects. The physical limits to growth now at last coming into public consciousness are adamantly real and, together with the apparent asymptotic nature of productivity, will put an end to the long-standing expansion of wealth. The question then arises: Is there any way to capitalize a no-growth economy? Not, it would seem, by any scheme wherein everyone comes out a winner. It may be, as Christopher Dawson once remarked, that industrialism is only an episode in Western history. Some searching questions need to be asked, particularly by those of us committed to political democracy and the free enterprise-free market economy. What is the fundamental basis of society? Is it at odds with individual satisfaction? Perhaps, as Abbs suggests, we are indeed in need of an adequate metaphysics, one that will rearrange the hierarchy of the purposes of learning in our schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 1, 1981, p. 121-127
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10680, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 1:12:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Donald Cowan
    Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
    Donald Cowan,physicist, was president of the University of Dallas from 1962 to 1977. He has taught at Vanderbilt, Texas Christian, and the University of Dallas.
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