Men or Machines?


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University, New York City

Delivered at the Opening of the 191st Academic Year of Columbia University, September 27, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 755-756.

THE widespread discussion of the educational process which is now going on throughout the nation gives evidence of much misunderstanding and confused thinking. The truly educational process in any form is and must be one and the same in respect to its ideals and the guidance which it offers toward achieving them. It may, of course, be multiform in respect to its methods and its content.

Liberal education takes precedence over every other form of instruction. It must always be dominant. Vocational training or instruction, which is something quite distinct from education, should always follow the ideals and methods of liberal education and be subordinate to them. If, on the other hand, liberal education be even crippled, much less abandoned, then no matter how successful vocational training may be, its products will not be men but machines.

The factors in carrying on a liberal education are the home, the school and the church. It is because the home is so often overlooked and neglected as a fundamental educational influence and because excessive responsibility is put upon the school without the aid and cooperation of the family that there are so great and so many shortcomings in the education of today. What is now popularly described and discussed by the grandiloquent term juvenile delinquency is, in fact, chiefly the result of the lack of home training. Good manners and sound morals on the part of the young must have their foundation and their beginnings in the discipline offered by the home. It is only under such conditions that the school may, when the time comes, take on and successfully establish its share of responsibility for the strengthening and continuance of this necessary discipline and training.

No more reactionary influence has come into education than that which is oddly described as progressive education. This plan of action or rather non-action would, in its extreme form, first of all deprive the child of his intellectual, social and spiritual inheritance and put him back in the Garden of Eden to begin all over again the life of civilized man. He must be asked to do nothing which he does not like to do. He must be taught nothing which he does not choose to learn. He must not be subject to discipline in good manners and sound morals. In other words, he must be let alone to do what he likes in this amazing twentieth century world in order that what has been called his individuality may grow naturally and without guidance or discipline. It is just such fantastic doctrines as these which explain so much of that which goes on day by day and which both shocks and alarms truly civilized human beings.

We are unfortunately brought face to face almost daily with convincing evidence that skillful training in some specific vocation is often assumed to be an acceptable substitute for liberal education. Nothing could be farther from the fact. In the Middle Ages the constructive thought of Europe chose the Trivium—grammar, logic and rhetoric—and the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy—to be the instruments with which to lay the foundations of liberal education as it was then understood. Centuries later these subjects were superseded by the study of languages and literatures, of history and of philosophy. Afterwards the fundamental principles of natural science were added as well as the history and basic thought of the world's economic organization and life. It is not only, however, the subject matter of instruction which constitutes liberal education, itis still more the spirit in which this subject matter is presented and the lessons which are drawn from that interpretation. Of outstanding excellence in presenting the foundation of a liberal education are the three courses offered for years past by the Faculty of Columbia College—Contemporary Civilization, Humanities, and Science, the like of which should be offered in substance, at least, to every college student in the land.

The rise of democracy has greatly increased the problems of liberal education as well as the difficulty of making sure that its point of view and underlying principles are at least the basis and guidance of vocational training. No matter how skillful in his calling a vocationally trained human being may be, he will remain merely a machine unless there is added to his skill some conception of what civilization means, and of the part played in the world's intellectual life by the liberal arts and sciences as well as by the subject matter of his own occupation.

It is customary to focus all educational discussion upon the problems presented by the school, the college and the university, but this is not enough. Full account must also be taken of the influence of the circumstances under which life is carried on, of the conditions of gaining a livelihood and of the opportunities which are offered by personal growth and development in the social and economic order of our time. It remains perfectly true, as has often been said, that the liberally educated human being will look backward for understanding and guidance and not merely for purposes of imitation. The power of science is producing day by day amazingly perfect machines which appear almost able to take the place of human intelligence. Of this the recently completed "automatic sequence-controlled calculator" is an outstanding example. It is of vital importance to remember that machines however excellent are only machines, and that the human being who copies them or endeavors to imitate them in any guise is preparing for a machine-made life. The man who is not a machine will read and reflect. He will reason and ask questions. He will turn to the world's wisdom in order to get help for the elevation of the plane on which his own life is to be passed. If a practical plan can be worked out by which all training shall rest on liberal education even though limited, as a foundation, then we shall be opening the door toward progress in the world such as we have never yet been able to achieve. We must not turn from the education of men to the making of machines. Assurance must be given that our educational system will do all that is possible to make liberal education in some form, however limited in time, the foundation as well as the ideal of all training of any kind. This will reduce to a minimum the number of skilled human machines who have never risen to be really men. Our constant aim must be men and not machines.