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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 at and constitutes its core. Mr. Justice Douglas is one of these, as is Moses Hadas. Dr. Conant’s thought is too carefully blended to be called wry. In view of the editor’s pompous claim that “the symbol of The Credo Series is the eye of Osiris, it is the inner Eye,” the reader is likely to be astonished at Conant’s opening disclaimer:

As a volume in The Credo Series, this book might be expected to deal with the set of beliefs which have guided my actions during the fifty years since I graduated from college [italics mine]. As a matter of fact I have found it impossible even to start on such an undertaking for two reasons. In the first place, there have been too many sharp discontinuities…It is true that all through these years, four themes were entangled—chemistry, Harvard, Germany and education. But I am completely unable to answer such questions as the following: Why did I leave chemistry for educational administration? Why did I retire from the presidency of Harvard at the age of sixty in order to become High Commissioner in Germany? Or why, after four years in Germany, did I choose to make a study of the American comprehensive high schools? Frankly, I am always skeptical of writers who attempt to answer such personal questions. The answers provided seem to be rationalizations after the event…. I might attempt to reconstruct the guiding principles in each of my four careers—chemist, college president, diplomat, self-appointed investigator of public education. But my doubt as to the validity of any such reconstruction is the second reason which prohibits the enterprise at the start. In place of it I shall present, as my intellectual credo, a personal analysis of the way it seems to me people tend to formulate their ideas.

Five pages further on, Dr. Conant states:

I must anticipate my final conclusion, for such a conclusion is essentially what has become my educational credo….

A free society requires today among its teachers, professors, and practitioners two types of individuals: the one prefers the empirical-inductive method of inquiry: the other the theoretical-deductive outlook. Both modes of thought have their dangers; both have their advantages. In any given profession, in any single institution, in any particular country, the one mode may be underdeveloped or overdeveloped; if so the balance will need redressing. Above all, the continuation of intellectual freedom requires a tolerance of the activities of the proponents of the one mode by the other.

This, then, is the distillation of Dr. Conant’s beliefs. How pure they must have been to have left, after seventy years, so little residue! The book, following this prefatory statement, is devoted to a meandering exploration of various examples of the interplay between these two types of inquiry as Conant has observed them. The approach is anecdotal, and quite interesting. There is a chapter relating the case-method of instruction in Harvard Law School, and later in the School of Business there, to the Anglo-American tradition of legal precedent and common law, in contrast to the more deductive system of European code law, which seems to me first rate and original. The examples Conant draws from science are, however, frequently jejune and sometimes simplified to the point of caricature; as in the way he treats the photochemistry of catalytic action in showing how theory was related to practice in the search for the compounds to be used as antiknock agents in gasoline.

There can be no doubt of the validity or relevance of the distinction Conant makes between empirical-inductive and theoretical-deductive modes of thought; or that he is right in considering the first of these to have been, and to have remained dominant in all forms of American intellectual enterprise. The recommendation in the book’s final chapter that

The mutual respect between empiricist and theoretician should be developed, and at the same time ruthless criticism should be encouraged. At least, this is my firm conviction.

provides an appropriate climax to what has come before; and seems sound. One is happy to do what one can.

The most serious limitation—crippling even to so slight a work as Two Modes of Thought—is Conant’s treatment of his dichotomy as exhaustive. This is what I meant when I said that he writes as if the Muses did not exist. He simply leaves out any approach to truth or perception that is neither empirical nor theoretical but felt, empathic, intuitive. A very practical cat, he does not call anything by its ineffable name. This puts him a cut or two below Sir Charles Snow, whom he otherwise resembles. They are alike in combining successful careers in science and government administration; in their keen interest in the law which they discuss more vividly than they do their own professional fields. Both believe that intelligent, moderate compromise is not merely necessary to practical accomplishment, but is itself the heart of virtue. Both are men of good will of the kind so necessary to the conduct of any successful enterprise, however wicked. Both prefer the intellect to the passions; and impoverish the intellectual quality of their writing by this preference. But Sir Charles’s novels at least defer to the existence of evil, though he is very ill-at-ease in its presence. He is no poet, but he knows what poetry is; when he writes of The Two Cultures he speaks intelligibly of each, though he does not profess to speak the last word on either. His concept of humanism far transcends Conant’s “theoretical-deductive outlook”: yet Conant uses his concept as if it, too, provided a key to all human knowledge and experience that lie beyond the scope of empirical investigation.

Goodman, the poet, is more perceptive in acknowledging the special claims of science:

An even stronger reason for teaching science, and one the NSF does not talk about, is its austere morality, accuracy, scrupulous respect for what occurs. (I myself never learned this and have always regretted it.) This, I think, is the heart of what Huxley, Veblen, and Dewey meant by the scientific ethic.

But in this passage he does himself too little honor. Few authors, indeed, write with more scrupulous respect and concern for what occurs. Goodman is an untidy writer and sometimes, in a tender-tough way, an offensively seductive one, but there is certainly nothing unscientific about this. Most scientists direct such charm as they command at more specialized readers than he does; but nearly all now accept that it is improvident to embark upon a major research project without first doing one’s best to lay a foundation.

Where Goodman is unscientific, and thereby limited, is in treating his observations anecdotally, rather than as examples of classes of events whose theoretical relationships are not yet fully established—that is, as data. The consequence is that his work seems as predetermined in its course as a sermon. Virtually everything he says about adolescents or the schools could be confirmed by an honest observer, and I believe he is also generally right in his interpretation of what he sees. But his style seems to brook no alternative consideration of what the facts might mean. Certainly, it suggests none. Reading him is rather like listening to a crusading public health official of the last century, demanding that prison camps be cleaned up so as to reduce the frightful incidence of pellagra. People did die horribly of pellagra in such camps, and their death was caused by the squalor in which they were confined. Morally, it is an insignificant detail that the efficient cause of their death was dietary deficiency rather than infection. But theoretically it is highly significant; and unless one is prepared to stop and notice the indications that it might be so, one can learn no more about the disease or a good many others.

Here, in exploring the ambiguous consequences of different structural models, Conant on Shaping Educational Policy is at his best. Goodman would not, I think, agree that this book is about shaping educational policy at all, because it is so conventional that it accepts—or rather ignores—the moral ends of society. Conant is not concerned with moral ends but with what seem to him social needs; his vision of these is neither provocative nor original. But it is sufficient to induce him to write very specifically about the processes of homeostasis and control as they actually operate in the educational systems and among the pressure groups of several states. As might be inferred from Two Modes of Thought, Conant is himself devoted to the case method. He uses it lucidly and well, examining as cases California, New York, and Pennsylvania; with less complete accounts of Illinois and Indiana for moral contrast and horror effects. He provides relevant comparative data, pertinent to his analysis, about the growth and support of diverse educational facilities in every state. And when he is really involved in administration he forgets to be altogether bland. His comments on the Illinois legislature and its role in the rivalry among state educational factions could not be more explicit without becoming actionable.

Some of Conant’s blandness masks, I should judge, a quite coherent social theory and considerable administrative force. His concluding, detailed recommendation for an “Interstate Commission for Planning a National Educational Policy” is not just one more suggestion from one more Committee. Conant, like Sir Charles Snow, knows that committees do work. They provide an arena for actual infighting, a little removed from the necessity for democratic posture; real hatchets are wielded and the results are constructive as well as bloody. The criticism that must be made of his proposal is not that it will make no difference, but that he does not trouble to justify the difference it will make in terms of the actual welfare of youngsters—their individual growth and development, their personal experience. His Commission would address itself to the need for technicians, for immediate employment, to the education of the Negro, and to four other comparably official problems. In the course of time it would come up with recommendations, backed by considerable power and public support, that would tend to remove these issues from the area of immediate conflict, and result in a widespread feeling that education had been improved. The students might possibly be induced to share it. Comprehensive public schooling, if the recommendations of the former High Commissioner are followed, might well become as prosperous as West Germany.

In Shaping Educational Policy, Conant demonstrates a high level of mastery of both the empirical-inductive and the theoretical-deductive modes of thought. Goodman in Compulsory Mis-Education does not make an impressive display of either. He has little to offer his readers except a canny comprehension of what really goes on in schools and of how this affects the human qualities of students; and a fully developed moral sense of man as a social animal, by which to judge, acutely and perceptively, the value of the educational services we constrain ourselves to accept. Like Conant, he makes a number of suggestions for changing educational policy and practice. His suggestions are pertinent, concrete, modest, and inexpensive. As the title of his book implies, he is opposed to compulsory education in the sense of requiring all students to submit to schooling that is as nearly identical as an educational establishment, faced with wide variation in public support and facilities but generally committed to normalcy, can make it. He is certainly not in favor of allowing students to grow up ignorant, even if institutional arrangements more likely to contribute to this end than the schools we have could be envisaged. He makes a strong, circumstantial case for the proposition that present modes of education stultify what they ought to nurture. To improve matters he proposes, for example, to

Have “no school at all” for a few classes. These children should be selected from tolerable, though not necessarily cultured, homes. They should be neighbors and numerous enough to be a society for one another and so that they do not feel merely “different.”

Make class attendance not compulsory…If the teachers are good, absence would tend to be eliminated, if they are bad, let them know it. The compulsory law is useful to get the children away from the parents, but it must not result in trapping the children.

For college, he recommends that “half a dozen of the most prestigious” require a two-year interval between high school graduation and entrance, and that grading be eliminated; graduate schools and employers who knew what they really wanted their applicants to know would have no difficulty assessing them by existing testing procedures, at their own expense, without turning education into a rat-race. None of this is revolutionary, and the proposals with respect to colleges seem to me rather likely to be adopted in part, and on a smaller scale than Goodman recommends. But, as he has pointed out elsewhere, his suggestions are more likely to be dismissed as Utopian, because they do conflict with the existing structure of education and with the actual distribution of power within it—exactly the questions with which Conant deals in extenso in Shaping Educational Policy. Both authors may dismiss my suggestion as Utopian, but I think these two books ought to be read together.

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