The Education of James Conant and Paul Goodman

Two Modes of Thought: My Encounters with Science and Education

by James B. Conant
Trident, 96 pp., $3.95

Shaping Educational Policy

by James B. Conant
McGraw Hill, 134 pp., $3.95

Each of these books is about education and costs $3.95. They have little else in common. The detailed, practical knowledge of the inter-relationships among state, federal, and private Beureaucracies as they attempt to influence educational policy, which Dr. Conant exhibits in Shaping Educational policy seems hardly to have affected is Two Modes of Thought. And neither author shows any interest in the educational phenomena that the other treats as central. There is not a line in Conant’s work to suggest that he is even aware that a student spends actual years in school and is affected personally by the experience and ennui that constitute the curriculum—that this is his life, and the only sort of life the state authorizes him to have. Conant’s conception of the educative process is as empty as a lunar landscape has been, up to now; there are certain features, and these are sharply drawn, but there are no people and if there were there would be nothing for them to breathe. Goodman, on the other hand, simply dismisses the administrative apparatus that fully occupies Conant in Shaping Educational Policy as the unnecessary evil that makes up The Organized System. He knows what it does, but is too contemptuous of it really to care how it works; he sketches it in vividly but without much verisimilitude, like landscape in a fifteenth-century painting of Saint Sebastian Tormented by Doubts and Serpents.

But those doubts and serpents are there, even if Goodman has taken less than classical pains to portray their habitat and fine anatomy. Goodman is a poet, of course; and Compulsory Mis-Education exactly fits Marianne Moore’s definition of a poem as “an imaginary garden with real toads in it.” As a gardener, he is unimaginative. There is too little planning and diversity among his plots. But he is trust-worthy in what really counts in gardening. Goodman understands growth, and cares about it; knows which poisons and harassments will stunt it and are therefore literally intolerable. Conant either does not know this or does not care. Certainly, his books suggest that he has had every opportunity to learn.

Conant is not a poet; he is a scientist. The two categories are not, however, mutually exclusive, but highly complementary, as Goodman makes clear in his occasional references to the humanistic functions of science, and his complaints that these are just the functions that the National Science Foundation and Dr. Zacharias neglect. In discussing Two Modes of Thought Dr. Conant, though he writes with clarity and obvious intelligence, is at a certain disadvantage. He is not, and has never been, bemused; and he evidently does not know what he has missed. He writes as if the muses did not exist.

Two Modes of Thought is the seventh volume of The Credo Series. The preceding volumes are certainly not the work of intellectual rebels or dissidents. But each of them is by a man comparable in stature to Conant, whose work is informed by a certain wry philosophy that lies…

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