The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Education and the Individual
Richard M. Weaver (from The IR Orientation Issue)

The greatest school that ever existed, it has been said, consisted of Socrates standing on a street corner with one or two interlocutors. If this remark strikes the average American as merely a bit of fancy, that is because education here today suffers from an unprecedented amount of aimlessness and confusion. This is not to suggest that education in the United States, as compared with other countries, fails to command attention and support. In our laws we have endorsed it without qualification, and our provision for it, despite some claims to the contrary, has been on a lavish scale. But we behold a situation in which, as the educational plants become larger and more finely appointed, what goes on in them becomes more diluted, less serious, less effective in training mind and character; and correspondingly what comes out of them becomes less equipped for the rigorous tasks of carrying forward an advanced civilization.

It is an educational breakdown which has occurred. Our failure in these matters traces back to a failure to think hard about the real province of education. Most Americans take a certain satisfaction in regarding themselves as tough-minded when it comes to successful ways of doing things. But in deciding what is and is not pertinent to educating the individual, far too many of them have been softheads.

An alarming percentage of our citizens, it is to be feared, stop with the word "education" itself. It is for them a kind of conjuror’s word, which is expected to work miracles by the very utterance. If politics become selfish and shortsighted, the cure that comes to mind is "education." If juvenile delinquency is rampant, "education" is expected to provide the remedy. If the cultural level of popular entertainment declines, "education" is thought of hopefully as the means of arresting the downward trend, People expect to be saved by a word when they cannot even give content to the word.

SOMEWHAT better off, but far from sufficiently informed and critical, are those who recognize that education must, after all, take some kind of form, that it must be thought of as a process that does something one can recognize. Most of these people, however, see education only as the means by which a person is transported from one economic plane to a higher one, or in some cases from one cultural level to another that is more highly esteemed. They are not wholly wrong in these assumptions, for it is true that persons with a good education do receive, over the period of their lifetime, larger earnings than those without, and it is true that almost any education brings with it a certain amount of cultivation. But again, these people are looking at the outward aspects and are judging education by what it does for one in the general economic and social ordering. In both of these respects education is valued as a means of getting ahead in life, a perfectly proper and legitimate goal, of course, but hardly one which sums up the whole virtue and purpose of an undertaking, which, in a modern society, may require as much as one quarter of the lifespan. Education as a conjuror’s word and education viewed as a means of insuring one’s progress in relation to his fellows both divert attention from what needs to be done for the individual as a person.

Education is a process by which the individual is developed into something better than he would have been without it. Now when one views this idea from a certain perspective, it appears almost terrifying. How does one go about taking human beings and making them better? The very thought seems in a way the height of presumption. For one thing, it involves the premise that some human beings can be better than others, a supposition that is resisted in some quarters. Yet nothing can be plainer, when we consider it, than this fact that education is discriminative. It takes what is less good physically, mentally, and morally and transforms that by various methods and techniques into something that more nearly approaches our ideal of the good. Every educator who presumes to speak about his profession has in mind some aim, goal, or purpose that he views as beneficial. As various as are the schemes proposed, they all share this general concept of betterment. The teacher who did not believe that his efforts contributed to some kind of improvement would certainly have lost the reason for his calling. A surface unanimity about purpose, however, is not enough to prevent confusion and chaos where there is radical disagreement about the nature of the creature who is to be educated.

If man were merely an animal, his "education" would consist only of scientific feeding and proper exercise. If he were merely a tool or an instrument, it would consist of training him in certain response and behavior patterns. If he were a mere pawn of the political state, it would consist of indoctrinating him so completely that he could not see beyond what his masters wanted him to believe. Strange as it may seem, adherents to each of these views can be found in the modern world. But our great tradition of liberal education, supported by our intuitive feeling about the nature of man, rejects them all as partial descriptions.

THE VAST majority of people conscious of this tradition agree that the purpose of education is to make the human being more human. Every generation is born ignorant and unformed; it is the task of those whom society employs as educators to bring the new arrivals up to a certain level of humanity. But even with this simple statement, we find trickiness in the terms. The word "human" is one of varying implications. In estimating what constitutes a complete human being some persons today are willing to settle for a pretty low figure. To some of them, as previously noted, he is nothing more than an animal in an advanced state of evolution. His brain is only a highly developed muscle, useful to him in the same way that the prehensile tail is to the monkey; his needs are a set of skills which will enable him to get his sustenance from nature, and his purpose is to enjoy himself with the minimum amount of anxiety and the maximum amount of physical satisfaction. Others go somewhat beyond this and insist that in addition to his requirements as an animal, man has certain needs which can be described as social, intellectual and aesthetic, and that these in turn require a kind of education which is not limited to practical self-survival. Others go beyond this and say that man is an incurably spiritual being—that he is this even when he says he is not—and that he cannot live a satisfying sort of life until certain ends which might be called psychic are met. Man has an irresistible desire to relate himself somehow to the totality, to ask what is the meaning of his presence here amid the great empirical fact of the universe. Many feel that until this question receives some sort of answer, none of the facts of life can be put in any kind of perspective.

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