The Educational Base for a National Culture


By PROF. BOYD H. BODE, of The Ohio State University

Delivered at the fifteenth annual meeting of the American Association for Adult Education New York City, May 20, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 540-542.

THE topic for discussion this evening is so phrased as to raise the whole question of the relation between education and culture. Which is cause and which is effect? To the casual observer it might seem more appropriate to speak of national culture as a base for education, rather than the other way around. The history of education supports the view that culture has always dominated education; or at any rate, it has appeared to do so. Moreover, we have the testimony of distinguished educational philosophers to the effect that the function of education is to preserve our culture and not to create it. What then is the justification for the intimation that education may be a base for national culture?

It would hardly be disputed, I think, that our public schools are more concerned with perpetuating our culture than with creating a new design for it. First of all, they teach the things that are necessary to carry on our mode of living, as, for example, the three R's and commercial subjects and home economics and industrial arts. Furthermore, they try to meet certain conventional requirements, such as proficiency in spelling and grammar and the requirement of being reasonably well informed in certain areas of subject matter. Lastly, they undertake to foster loyalty to the ideals of liberty and equality of opportunity, together with reverence for the Constitution and our various institutions; in a word, they assume responsibility for perpetuating what is sometimes designated as the American way of life. This sense of responsibility is also exhibited in what they refrain from doing. They are careful to avoid dangerous topics, such as evolution and socialism and sex. It appears, therefore, that in the case of our own schools national culture is the base for education and not the reverse.

This, however, does not tell the whole story. The fact that there are dangerous topics is significant. There would be no need of worrying about evolution if respect for scholarship and for scientific attitude were not embodied in our national culture as well as the tradition of supernaturalism.

Socialism or communism would not be regarded as dangerous if the idea of, say, social security and extensive regulation had not become a part of our national culture, along with the belief in private enterprise and the profit motive. The topic of sex would not be so loaded with dynamite-in fact sex would not be recognized as a fact of nature at all—if we were still living in a Victorian culture, instead of a culture within which tradition and creed are fighting it out with their enemies. Our present day culture is a state of unstable equilibrium. It is a house divided against itself. Its various components are constantly in one another's hair. From one point of view or another, the world is perpetually going to the dogs. In other words, our culture is in a state of transition, with everybody trying to give it a push in the direction in which he thinks it should go.

This situation has a direct bearing on our schools. If we were a totalitarian state, we should enjoy the advantage of having at hand a central authority which would set the pattern for our national culture and thus designate the values that are to receive special protection. Being a democracy, however, we seem obliged to leave this important matter to local agencies, such as school boards, chambers of commerce, the churches, the D. A. R., the Ku Klux Klan, labor unions and the American Legion, with occasional intervention from without in the form of legislative enactment. Each of these agencies is contributing in its own way to the remaking of our cultural pattern. What our national culture is to become is being decided day by day in all the schoolrooms in the land. Education is both a product of our culture and a base for the culture that is to be.

The various pressures which are brought to bear on our schools are naturally not all pointed in the same direction. If they were, the future of our national culture could be charted in advance. But in that case we should perhaps cease to be a democracy. At any rate, there is a widespread notion that democracy is a kind of arena in which every creed or cult or doctrine has the right to fight it out with its rivals, as long as it observes certain rules of thegame. Government, according to this view, is essentially a referee, whose function it is to maintain order and to see that there is no hitting below the belt or slugging in the clinches. But if so, then we are presumably about as democratic right now as we can ever hope to be. From this standpoint, about all that education can contribute towards the ideal of a democratic national culture is to keep alive this conception of government and of law and order.

Perhaps some such conception of democracy is not altogether a caricature of what was meant by democracy at an earlier period in our national history. The idea of liberty was apparently associated intimately with the idea of protection against interference, and particularly governmental interference. However that may be, democracy has come to mean considerably more than this at the present time. In the first place, it seems clear, if we may take our political orators at their word, that government must do considerably more than collect the taxes and keep the peace. It is expected to step in with a positive program for promoting the common good. This is conceded on all hands. Secondly,—though here the point is perhaps not quite so clear—the common good which is to be thus promoted must have a content or quality which lifts it off the level of benevolent paternalism. We would not say, for example, that Bismarck, who did pioneer work in providing social security for the laboring class, thereby gave evidence of becoming democratic in his old age, any more than a farmer can be said to become more democratic if he begins to take better care of his horses. We are concerned about social improvement, but not along these lines. If there is any yearning in this country for a Bismarck to take over the job of managing our national affairs, this yearning is at most only sporadic. Democracy means something over and above all this in our national culture. As Lincoln said long ago, government must be of and by, as well as for the people.

What is this additional element or trait? Here we strike the realm of intangibles, and the going becomes harder. The nature of this distinctive quality becomes clearer if we observe its extension into other, non-political fields, such as industry, and the home and the school. Democracy emphasizes the idea of cooperation, of understandings and agreements, of the sense of solidarity based on community of interest. It prizes these relationships as something worth while on their own account, because they mean a certain expansion of personality. In brief, democracy means a distinctive quality of living—a quality which is sometimes referred to in religious phraseology as the brotherhood of man.

A statement of this general character finds ready acceptance everywhere among the American people. As an ideal democracy is divorced from considerations of race or color, or of creed or dogma or tradition. It represents a value that springs directly from the soil of everyday experience. In order to accept it as a value we need not commit ourselves to any metaphysical doctrines concerning the nature of the universe or of man or of the social order. Democracy is a tub that stands on its own bottom. As a value of this kind it has a definite place in our national culture. However much we may differ among ourselves, there is for us such a thing as a common life which has intrinsic value and to which every decent person has some measure of sensitiveness. And so, whatever else we may be, we are generally disposed to claim that we are believers in democracy.

In so far as there is sincere concern to promote this quality of living, this claim is justified. The question that is becoming urgent at the present time is the importance which is to be assigned to this belief in democracy in the whole context of our individual and social living. Assuming thatwe all believe in democracy, we still have to face the question of what we are to do when this value conflicts with other values. It is through conflicts that the depth and the extent of this belief is put to the test. The Puritans, for example, are reputed to have been a well-disposed people who believed in democracy, but when the presence of dissenting Quakers in their midst compelled them to make a choice between preserving this quality of living and preserving the purity of their religion, they ruled against democracy. For them democracy was not a way of life, but a postscript to other values. What is it to us as a people? There are at present constantly recurring conflicts between this conception of democracy and traditional conceptions of property rights, of governmental functions, of liberty, and of right and wrong. The question of what democracy is to mean is urgent because events have made it so. Up to the present we have managed to get along without making a decision or without even thinking very clearly about democracy. We have not been compelled to decide whether democracy is essentially a sentiment of amiability and goodwill, or an inclusive and independent way of life.

The war in Europe is a disturbing indication that the organization of society must be extensively revised if civilization is to survive. Perhaps our domestic difficulties have a similar import, with respect to our tradition of democracy. We can scarcely expect the American people at the present time to set up the ideal of democracy, i. e., a certain quality of present living, as a final court of appeal when there are conflicts of values and when decisions as to policy have to be made. The shock would be too great. But we can reasonably urge that the concept of democracy requires re-examination. It seems clear that our earlier notions of democracy have been outgrown. Democracy in a modern world must become a way of thinking and acting which the average man carries over into all the important areas of life. This obviously makes it a problem for our schools. We are committed to a program of mass education. We are obliged to make provision for the non-academic type of mind as well as for the other kind. A democratic system of education must be all things to all men. But however diverse the range of interests may be that has to be taken into account, our schools are duty bound to deal with all of them in a context of reference to the problem of democracy. The only alternative for them is to become a tool for special interests.

What I mean to say is not that our schools should begin to preach a gospel of democracy of this kind or of any other kind. They are not to serve as agencies of propaganda of any kind. Their task is rather to assist young people in gaining a unified outlook on life. At present they fail conspicuously at just this point. A cynic might even argue that the schools do their utmost to confuse them. Our young people are asked to believe both in supernaturalism and in the naturalism of science; in the doctrine of competition based on the profit motive and in the rotarian gospel of service; in the academic ideal of self-cultivation as represented, for example, by Matthew Arnold and by various and sundry unworldly professors, and also in the cult of what William James once called the bitch-goddess success. They are given to understand that democracy is a fine ideal, but with no intimation that this ideal may interfere seriously with anything that they already believe. If all this adds up to a consistent plan for living, no thanks are due to our schools. If we deal with democracy as a distinctive and competing way of life, all the basic questions of our day come to a focus. Education then becomes a process of building what has been called a "frame of reference" for the guidanceof belief and conduct. The frame of reference which any particular student constructs for himself may be democratic or it may not be. In any case a program of this general character makes the school an institution through which democracy becomes conscious of itself.

In this centering on the meaning of democracy, education obviously becomes a base for our national culture. A clearer perspective will be gained on the meaning of democracy, and our national culture will change correspondingly. What will happen in the long run if students are seriously confronted with the problem of deciding whether democracy is to be accepted as a whole way of life or as secondary to other values is a matter of faith. A sincere belief in democracy implies the faith that democracy will eventually win out if the issue is brought out clearly into the open. At any rate, it cannot win on any other terms. It cannot have recourse to propaganda, for the spirit of propaganda is hostile to the spirit of democracy, for whatever purpose it may be employed. Moreover, it makes a mockery of our faith in the common man. This faith cannot be very deep if we proceed on the theory that he is bound to go wrong unless we, in our wisdom, make sure beforehand that his choice will be of the right kind.

There is not time for detailed elaboration. But a word should be added to indicate how this point of view relates to that of Dr. Hutchins. If I understand Dr. Hutchins correctly, there are some important agreements. Dr. Hutchins would doubtless agree that life, to be significant, must have a center. In Plato's language, an uncriticized life is not worth living. The basic concern of education, accordingly, is to enable the individual to achieve a unified outlook or a comprehensive and reasoned way of life. Moreover, Dr. Hutchins would, I am sure, repudiate any suggestion that the thinking of our young people should be fenced in so as to protect them against error. There is no assurance that we are sufficiently competent ourselves to tell the difference between truth and error to undertake anything of the kind. It is quite unlikely that the younger generation will mess things up worse than we have done if they are permitted to draw some conclusions of their own.

Whether Dr. Hutchins would agree with my diagnosis of our national culture I am unable to say. But at any rate his remedy for whatever it is that ails us is very different. Instead of directing our attention to the question of what it is that we really believe about democracy, he recommends the study of the classics, and particularly of the ancient classics. This is done on the theory—unless I misunderstand him—that the master minds of the past anticipated all the basic problems of the present. The classics, therefore, are the key to wisdom. In his own language, what we need is to learn to read.

Let us examine this in terms of our present discussion. The Greeks had a problem of democracy, but it was not our problem. From the nature of the case, it could not be the same. Greek civilization, as we all know, was founded on slavery, and it maintained a robust contempt for the practical arts. Both Plato and Aristotle have gone on record on this point. The chief occupation of the free man, therefore, was to cultivate his own mind, to seek self-perfection, He was, indeed, concerned to protect his spiritual freedom against tyranny on the part of government or ecclesiasticism or tradition. In this sense—and it is an important sense— the great minds of ancient Greece were democratic. But democracy as that quality of life which grows out of the cultivation of common interests and purposes is quite another matter. The Greeks certainly never proposed this kind of democracy as a pattern for culture. As far as I am aware, they never even thought of discussing it. Concentrating on the classics, therefore, is not a method of solving our problem but a device for avoiding it.

The point at issue it not whether the classics are worthy of study, but how we should proceed in this business of education. Our problem is our own, and we must deal with it in its own terms. It is essentially a problem of reinterpretation, a problem on which history can shed light but for which it offers no solution. Learning to read is not the answer, unless reading is a kind of magic for taking rabbits out of an empty hat. Even if we assume that the classics have all the answers, we are still not out of the woods. The classics present no consistent body of doctrine; as a matter of fact, there is as much disagreement among them as there is in the Republican party about their next platform. So we are still left with the problem of deciding on our own way of life. If we refuse to make this decision in terms of present-day living and present-day issues, our only alternative apparently is to have recourse to something called metaphysics.

Perhaps a word should be added with regard to what is sometimes called the classical tradition in education. This tradition is not primarily a doctrine but an attitude towards life, an attitude that derives its chief inspiration from the ancient classics. It carries over into modern life the old familiar dualism between utility and culture, by arguing, in effect, that we should drop all talk about the democratization of industry and demand instead that industry be required to provide the means and the leisure for self-cultivation according to the ancient pattern. The merit of this view is that it proposes a reasonably definite way of life. Whether it is an adequate view is another matter; and there is certainly no justification for the supercilious implication which so frequently goes with it that objections to this view come from souls that are incapable of higher things.