The University II: What Is a Liberal Education?

The Reforming of General Education

by Daniel Bell
Columbia, 320 pp., $7.50

A primary measure of the condition of our universities at the present time is the increasing uncertainty among its leaders, even after several decades, about the success, or even the aims, of general education. Of course there are technical reasons, as Professor Daniel Bell explains in his book, The Reforming of General Education, why it has been increasingly difficult in an age of competitive specialization and spreading bureaucracy to staff general education courses with first-rate teachers. The blunt question is: who wants to teach general education? Nor have cleverer students, dazzled by the professional and material opportunities open to students who distinguish themselves in their major subjects, been quick to acknowledge the virtues of courses that lead nowhere and anywhere, and do not seem quite serious or respectable because they are non-professional. But apart from all “technical” problems, profound ambiguities in the leading aspirations of general education have, from the beginning, made it difficult to decide what standards are appropriate in judging the success or failure of general education.

In part, as I suggested in the first part of this essay, the aim of general education in the university has been to preserve at least some of the values traditionally ascribed to liberal education. But there are other, often extraneous, reasons both for the rise of the general educational movement and for the forms it has taken. As Professor Bell emphasizes in his account of the “original assumptions” of the movement, “…general education at Columbia was the result of a curious mixture of parochial, sociopolitical, and philosophical motives.” What was true at Columbia, where many of the early experiments in general education occurred, was true elsewhere. At Columbia John Erskine’s famous General Honors course, which proposed to read and discuss one classic a week, became the prototype of humanities courses later given on a hundred campuses. Its quasi-humanistic aim was (as the anthropologists say) to “enculturate” students who had not hitherto been exposed to “the great tradition.” On the other side, the course which at Columbia was later called “Contemporary Civilization” had as its progenitor two courses, one in “War Issues” and the other in “Peace Issues,” that were introduced during the First World War by socially and politically oriented members of the philosophy and history departments. Courses of this type, now usually taught under the auspices of social scientists, were, as Bell says, “an open and frank acknowledgement of the direct responsibility of…[the colleges] to the stated democratic needs of society.”

MORE SURPRISINGLY, the “humanistic” great books course also had a predominantly social and political bias, although in contrast to the embryonic “C. C.” course it presented, according to Lionel Trilling (to whom Bell dedicates his book), “a fundamental criticism of American democratic education” and, presumably, society. This social and political emphasis persisted as the general education movement spread, first to Chicago and, after the Second World War, to Harvard. Bell fancies, however, that both sides of the dialectic were strenuously presented only on Morningside Heights. At Chicago the prevailing Aristotelianism and Thomism imparted to general education “the flavor of an aristocratic critique of the democratic,” whereas Harvard’s program (at least as set out in its over-rated “Red Book,” General Education in a Free Society) was a response to the obligation, assumed in the name of democracy, to provide young citizens with “some common and binding understanding of the society which they will possess in common.” Perhaps there are grains of truth in all this, although to someone like myself who has taught courses in general education both at Columbia and at Harvard, it seems a vast over-simplification of reality. For one thing, even when conceived in political terms, the attitudes conveyed through courses in “the classics” are both more various and more complex than Bell suggests; more important, their concern is frequently with quite different dimensions of individual or collective life. More important still, the primary interest in the many general education courses in the humanities, including the one at Columbia, is not, at least in my experience, “ideological” at all (the term is Bell’s, but it is employed in this book in a common non-pejorative sense quite at variance with his writings on “the end of ideology”). If official theories of general education are too often full of crass ideological directives, many teachers in the humanities happily ignore them. What concerns them are the durable intrinsic interests of literature and philosophy themselves: with their power, that is, to delight the spirit, to enliven the imagination, to refine and clarify discourse, and to bring to the whole mind a fuller sense of its inventiveness, singularity, and freedom.

BELL’S DETAILED ACCOUNT of the development of general education at Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard is inevitably flattened out in his recapitulations of the “original assumptions” which he ascribes to all three programs. He is aware, moreover, that there has always been a discrepancy between the statements of those who formulate educational programs and the practice of those who teach in them. Nevertheless, Bell’s recapitulation remains a useful point of departure for discussions of prevailing tendencies. In the case of a historian who is also a reformer, such a summary of working principles also sets in relief what he regards as of abiding importance. And for a reformer who is in no sense a revolutionary, it provides a useful context for his own limited proposals for change.

The first two of the four traditional assumptions which Bell ascribes to general education have objectives that lie well beyond the customary round of scholarly activities. The leading assumption, which he identifies as “ideological,” is that university students should not only be made aware of the unifying needs and common practices of American society but also that they should be instilled with “a sense of common tasks, though not necessarily a single purpose.” Here, says Bell, the operative term is “consensus,” a word which, he carefully tells us, was in use at Chicago long before it became a hallmark of the Johnson administration. But for general educators also, be it noted, the concern is with a national consensus; nor, in spite of the reference to unifying needs and common practices and tasks, are any specific limiting terms placed upon it.

Does this mean that, in Bell’s view, exponents of nationalist ideological consensualism in general education have been prepared to instill in their students a respect for the prevailing versions of American ideals, regardless of their content? Some part of the answer to this question may be implicit in Bell’s account of the second extra-mural assumption of the General Education Movement which he lists simply under the heading of “Tradition.” This assumption, whatever else may be said for or against it, plainly contravenes the blank-check consensualist ideology which is all too prevalent in our day. What “the tradition” has represented is an effort to provide students with a better grasp of the history of the wider Western civilization and culture of which our own remains a variant. But the concern of general education with that history is by no means the historian’s professional interest in it. On the contrary, its highly selective aims, as Bell describes them, are to develop the student’s sense of “recurrent moral and political problems of men in society,” and more particularly to chart for him “the travails of the idea of freedom” and to “instill” in him the idea of “civility.”

Bell curiously neglects to remark here that such a use of “history” and “the tradition” is itself largely ideological. But how well do the ideas of “liberty” and “civility,” so recurrently emphasized in “G. E.” courses, apply to many other “ideological” aspects of the tradition? Consider for example the pervasive nationalism and scientism which, since Plato, have dominated our academic ideas of learning and knowledge. Indeed, how deeply reflected are these very attitudes in the preoccupation with general ideas of liberty and civility. And consider the counter-traditions of fideism and anti-rationalism represented by such writers as Augustine and Luther, by Rousseau and (on one side) Hume, by Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, William James, and the existentialists. In many general education courses, I believe, it has been the developing dialectic between the attitudes or ideas represented in these traditions which for many students has proved the truly instructive and civilizing thing. Again, consider the revolutionary ideals inscribed in the terms “fraternity” and “equality,” and in the troubled aspirations commonly ranged under the head of “romanticism,” specifically the passionate yearning for all that lies beyond city life, the whole “mighty being” of Wordsworth, and behind it the idea of nature variously associated with such names as Goethe, Rousseau, Spinoza, the Stoics, and Ecclesiastes. Such phases of human culture, admittedly ambiguous and blurred, are deeply veined through the whole Western tradition. They are also represented in the syllabuses of general education courses everywhere. Nor are they treated by all exponents of the tradition as merely a dark underside, covered with festering sores of rebelliousness, primitiveness, incivility, and mysticism, to be understood by wellgroomed students in the way that certain liberals have always understood their critics. Many teachers of general education believe, I think rightly, that such concerns and affections are irremovable aspects of the dialectic of human existence which, as such, are deeply reflected in our tradition as they must be in any tradition, or ideology, capable or worthy of survival.

BUT OF COURSE the main virtue of “the tradition” for many of us has always belonged to another level of educational interest: that is, its immense virtue as a repository, not just of “ideas,” “ideals,” and “commitments,” ethical, political, or otherwise, but also of artistic, literary, and religious, as well as philosophical and scientific, achievements—actualizations and consummations of the mind’s powers of creation and invention—which are perennially absorbing on their own account to any teacher or student worth his salt.

But this is not all. Professor Bell is aware of the difference between understanding the idea of liberty and an actually liberated person. And elsewhere in his book he remarks upon the substantive liberating effect of studies in which an attempt is made to raise the student’s interest from the particular theory at hand to more general conceptual or methodological issues. Yet in this crucial résumé of the common assumptions of general education, it is only the ideas of liberty and civility and the recurrent ethical and political idea of “man in society” which come to his mind.

From a moral point of view, the virtue of the entire tradition of liberal education has been in the liberation of the mind and soul of the student himself. In fact, one’s whole feeling about Bell’s summary would change if the concern for consensus and for ideology were put (where teachers, confident of their own vocation and of the inherent dignity of liberal education, instinctively put it) in its natural and legitimate second or third place, and if first place were reserved for the actual development of free and civil beings, capable of making up their own minds about the value of national societies, ideas of liberty and civility, and the rest. What interests us in the case of Socrates are not just his highly ironical discussions of the golden ideas, but a personal embodiment of them, which, through Plato’s art, takes possession of us as it took possession of Plato himself. Again, from the standpoint of extractable doctrines of civility and freedom, Montaigne offers us even less than Socrates. Nor does this matter. What Montaigne presents to us, through his continually shifting discourses with himself, is not an idea of civility but a highly civil mind struggling toward its own true freedom. When all has been said and done, what “we” hope for, what makes our impossible task one worthy of Virgil himself, is that when we withdraw, what will bid us farewell is not just a scholar or idea man, but the semblance of a free human being. Is this not the one commencement in which we have a deep wish to take part? And after all, is this not the true reason why we have refused to turn general and liberal education over to the secondary schools so that the institutes for advanced study can provide faster, more efficient, drier runs for future careerists and service men—men, that is to say, all too like ourselves?

Bell discusses the third and fourth assumptions of general education, in more intramural terms, under the headings of “Contra-specialism” and “Integration.” Now “Contra-specialism” is an accurate enough term for the purpose, and indeed correctly conveys a major intention of general education. But it can be misleading, and certain weaker manifestos have undoubtedly confused specialism with something very different: with the concern, that is, for exact knowledge or for detailed understanding of a particular science or art. In this latter sense, and at a certain stage, as Bell acknowledges, specialization is both necessary and laudable, and any general education program which opposed it would be doomed, and rightly so. Like scientism and professionalism, specialism is another thing altogether: it is a profound malaise that afflicts both teachers and students in the humanities quite as much as it does their scientific brethren. In the form described by Bell, specialism is that “religion of research” which German universities bequeathed to their uncritical American emulators in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Intensified by the inducements of technological industry and the insatiable demands of the national government, it is indeed the only religion now visible on most campuses.

AGAINST SPECIALISM, as Bell himself puts it, “The rallying cry…[has been] humanitas.” But because he describes the evil of specialism, against which liberal education as a whole is a continuing protest, in too narrowly academic terms, the rallying cry is deprived of its full meaning. For the religion of research in our age is but one form of the vocationalism and professionalism that pervade our entire educational system. It is also a manifestation of that narrowness and exclusiveness which we object to in “the bureaucratic mentality” that blankets our whole institutional life. Liberal and general education are attempts, all too feeble, to make teachers and students aware not only of human concerns but of responsibilities and rights more ultimate and more pervasive than those defined by any special job of work, academic or otherwise. And it has been the endless, often thankless, task of college and university teachers committed to liberal education to illuminate and, if possible, strengthen all those primordial forms of action, of speech and art, of sympathy and passion, that serve to offset the countless sources of alienation of men from their lives and from one another which are the symptoms of the term “specialism.”

A closely related point has to be made regarding the fourth premise of general education which Bell places under the rubric of “integration.” In fact, Bell’s way of describing the demand for “integration” (which is accurate enough, God knows) as well as his own suggestions for meeting it, contain some of the very evils which the anti-specialist aims of liberal education are intended to correct. Certainly, integration of some kind is wanted. The question is, what? In Bell’s account the sources of disintegration are also conceived intra-murally as the fabulous increase of scientific knowledge and the accompanying proliferation of fields, sub-fields, and non-fields of scholarly inquiry. Correspondingly, the remedy has been sought in an “interdisciplinary approach” which, at least in general education courses, “emphasizes the broad relations of knowledge, rather than the single discipline.”

Hence Bell’s emphasis on “the centrality of method” as a way of understanding the “principles of disciplines.” But a concerted understanding of methods of inquiry, while it may serve for integrating the scholarly activities of the academic man, may still leave him, even as an intellectual being, a complete shambles. What is so curious, if Bell’s account is right, is that exponents of liberal and general education have here played directly into the hands of those for whom the university should become a scientific institute, a place for the integration of master problem-solvers who will replenish the cadres of technicians, scientists, and university professors on whom the security and prosperity of the national society so directly depend.

The fact is that no one with a voice sufficiently commanding to make himself heard has questioned prevailing notions concerning the nature of educational problems of integration, of which the modern university is merely the most conspicuous breeding ground. Nor is the reason far to seek: Most of us who participate either occasionally or as a regular course in general education programs are university men ourselves, that is to say, academicians who, however reluctantly and unbelievingly, have been trained to be, and are, functionaries of the very system which general education is meant to counteract. All our manifestos, Red Books, and reports on the need for the reform of general education bear witness everywhere to this fact. We too—we scholars—have conceived the educational problem of integration as the problem of integrating professorial minds of the sort we know all too well. Nor are we alone in this. From Plato to Whitehead, who once claimed that a sufficiently thorough study of mathematics and logic could itself provide a liberal education, our academic sages have continually sought to counter specialism and disorder with a more methodical understanding of the conceptual schemes and the principles of inquiry at work within the curriculum of academic studies itself.

WHAT WE MUST RETURN TO, however, is the Socratic assumption that an integrated mind, fully awake to its own more ultimate concerns and aware of its own human possibilities, is, at all stages of its educational development, more than an intra-cranial meeting place for the disciplining of disciplines. Knowledge of forms of scholarly inquiry and learning will serve at best only to relate those same investigations to each other. But the contemporary university student needs and demands something else as well. To be sure, he wants help toward an understanding of the connections between, say, the methods of physical science and those of sociology or between the findings of the economic historian and those of the historian of English literature. He wants also to know the wisdom that may lie in the study of such connections. He wants not only to tie the academic strands together, but to tie his knowledge of them and their methods back into his developing experience as a human being. He wants to know what they portend as forms of life, both for him and for his kind. What he gets, however, is mainly an integrative ideology for the social class into which he is being initiated; a system of rules for the self-identification and unification of the university men themselves. This has its virtue; among other things, it provides the emblem of a great potential collective power. But this is a lesser virtue, I believe, than a university should aspire to. And it is partly for this reason that the original assumptions of general education demand reexamination and revision.

Bell is by no means uncritical of these assumptions. In particular, he opposes the contention that there is an inviolable core—whether of great books or values or ideas—which every liberally educated person must know, and, knowing, make his own. Unlike the original general educators at Chicago, he has no preformed notions either of the good society or the good life. And he would replace indoctrination in a bogus philosophia perennis with the polymathic sophistication and self-consciousness that comes from a developed sense of history and method. Bell puts it succinctly when he says, in defense of the liberal arts college against those advanced thinkers who consider it a waste of time, that the college “can be a unique place where students acquire self-consciousness, historical consciousness, and methodological consciousness.” In a world in which all moorings have been washed away, what the student needs nowadays is not an anchor, for which he no longer has any use, but a pair of compasses, a strong keel, and a first-rate set of pumps.

The only trouble—and it is a weakness that may be inherent in all such points of view—is that Bell’s memory is so short. He defends the self as the subject of a liberal education. Yet in practice the self always seems to disappear in a forest of methodology. Consider the following statements culled from the same page as the statement quoted above: “What I shall argue…is that in this day and age, and even more in the coming day and age, the distinctive function of the college must be to teach modes of conceptualization, explanation, and verification of knowledge” (my italics). Or again, “I strongly believe that historical consciousness is the foundation of any education…” (my italics). Such pronouncements recur again and again. Meanwhile, what has happened to consciousness of the self? Well, an account like Bell’s gives us only a kind of advanced sociological consciousness whose educational need is to “balance” the abstract with the concrete, the general with the particular, the method with its applications, but avoids like the pox anything resembling a developed philosophy of human culture or of life.

It is not, I surmise, mere modesty or caution that leads Bell at the outset of his long chapter on “The Need for Reform: Some Philosophical Presuppositions” to disavow any claim to present here “an ordered philosophy.” When he tells us that what he offers is not an exploration of “the ‘ultimate grounds’ of belief about the nature of man and society,” nor “an exercise in dogmatics—theological or pedagogical.”—but only a sketch of “presuppositions” that have guided his own educational investigations, the impression conveyed is of one who has not simply put away vain and childish things, but who has felt no stronger philosophical need than to “make explicit the compound of prejudices, opinions, and values that have guided this inquiry.” Sufficient unto the day the inquiry thereof.

BUT IF BELLEAN self-consciousness tends to be dissipated into historical and methodological consciousness, historical consciousness itself tends, in a manner that would have delighted Hegel, to be absorbed into methodological consciousness. Bell, who has a positive horror of thoughts about last, or first, things, wants history, but he wants it without laughs or tears, without birth or death, without any of the finalities of which it is also a record. What he seeks, for educational purposes at least, is a history of middle distances that keep their place as contexts of inquiry and do not distract the student—or teacher—from the bustling foreground of contemporary institutional life upon which his own inquiring eyes are trained. Perhaps this is why, despite Bell’s laudable demand for the “wider vistas” which the study of histories and cultures other than our own can give, the perspectives of history in his treatment always seem foreshortened. And it is partly for this same reason that he sometimes imputes to academic arrangements and programs of fairly recent origin a deeper significance than they really had at the time, yet also, paradoxically, fails to perceive in them possibilities of reconstruction that might occur to some one less preoccupied with the immediate situation of scholarly inquiries and procedures.

Nowhere is this tendency more strikingly in evidence than in the educational significance which Bell finds in the grand trivium of the latter-day American university: the (natural) sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. For many academicians, including Harvard’s reforming Doty Committee, this trivium is merely a matter of administrative convenience (reinforced perhaps by the accumulating pressures of academic power politics). Accordingly, they treat it with scant respect as an educational principle. For Bell, however, there is lodged within the trivium an implicit rationale which not only justifies the traditional triadic division of general education courses (of which students are commonly required to take at least one in each main area), but the basis for a proposed reform of the whole modern liberal arts curriculum. This rationale, needless to say, is methodological. Thus, in Bell’s view what the trivium represents when properly understood is three grand “strategies” of inquiry; from these he derives three characteristic principles of learning with which all university students should be thoroughly familiar.

Bell’s major innovating idea, therefore, is that the indispensable education, which a liberally endowed university college alone can adequately provide—whether in courses conducted under general education auspices or in the more specialized offerings of academic departments—should be a continuous, increasingly sophisticated training in the methods of inquiry and learning which the (natural) sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities respectively exemplify. Bell’s account of these strategies is admittedly impressionistic. The strategy characteristic of mathematics and the natural sciences is said to be “sequential” or “linear,” moving from axioms to theorems, from hypotheses to their deducible consequences, and from simpler ideas and subject matters to those that are more complex. In part, what Bell has in mind here are developed scientific systems like those found in Euclidean geometry and Newtonian Mechanics. In part also he has in view such organized sequences of studies as the young mathematician runs through in moving from algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus to differential equations and the rest.1 In the social sciences, on the other hand, both inquiry and learning move crab-wise by something called “linkages” in which “the understanding of one kind of phenomenon cannot be self-contained but is possible only by an understanding of linked contexts within a social system.” Thus, to take one of his examples, elements of economic policy can be grasped only in a political context, the understanding of which, in turn, involves a conception of the social community. In the humanities, the method of knowledge is said to be “concentric.” Here, as he puts it, a few major themes—the nature of tragedy, the varieties of life, the discovery of the self—are returned to again and again for ever more enlarged comprehension of their “meanings.”

IN THIS INSTANCE, however, some of the difficulties of Bell’s scheme begin to emerge. At times the aim of learning appears to be the enlarged appreciation of imaginative literature and art; at other times, however, his emphasis is upon scholarly learning about such works and, more particularly, upon historical and critical writing which may give “the student a sense of how an imaginative work relates to its own time and how its enduring qualities transcend that time.” Just what qualities are these? Are they still essentially, or primarily, qualities of felt experience, qualities that exist for the joy and rejuvenation they may directly yield? Or are they qualities that are significant to the savant, the social scientist, or the historian interested in recurrent patterns of culture and social organization? One is just a bit disturbed by such a statement as the following: “If the intellectual need of the Humanities course is for historical context, the intellectual need of a Contemporary Civilization course is for ‘historical explanation’ ” (italics mine). By Bell’s own admission, the student of the humanities, or his professor, resorts perforce to the extrinsic linkages of social science and history. But are these the only intellectual needs or forms of learning which Bell takes to be involved in our recurrent “linked” encounters with literature or art or music or philosophy? If so he is simply mistaken. Not merely the senses and feelings but the whole cultivated mind is continuously involved in the primary recreative act of appreciating the line of action in, say, Hamlet or The Divine Comedy, in the modulations, thematic transformations, and the returns of a Mozart sonata, or in the complex, interactive spatial and functional relationships of a great building. I agree with Bell (and behind him, Trilling), against certain of the lesser “new critics,” that if you don’t from time to time go “outside” the poem you are likely to miss valuable clues as to what is “inside.” For what is inside is not a perdurable open-faced “object,” but a system of meanings, a symbolic action, a movement of words, the sense of which is not “given” in the way that some foolish philosophers have supposed “sense-data” to be given.

Still, if Bell’s reforms succeed, the student’s work of art will be absorbed increasingly into a great chain of socio-historical links, and, by the end of his senior year, he won’t be able to tell Hamlet from the interpretations which scholarly inquiries about the play presumably provide. And if the reply is made that literary and critical-historical concerns are both legitimate—as indeed they are—and, in principle, mutually reinforcing, Bell’s emphasis, so far as collegiate education is concerned, remains heavily upon “the centrality of method,” “the strategy of inquiry,” and the now fashionable “meta” studies which constantly analyze but never face the forms of artifice that shape our existences as men.

Compared with the inert, simplistic rationalism of someone like Cornell’s President Perkins, Bell’s pluralist account of methods of inquiry and learning is a pearl of greatest price. But when one looks closely, he continues to wear the stigmata of the rationalist and the academician for whom knowing about things, rather than knowing them ever more appreciatively and discriminatingly, is the main achievement to be hoped for from the higher forms of learning. Most of his specific innovations, it seems to me, would reinforce attention to contexts of inquiry rather than to experienced realms of being. To talk continually about strategies of inquiry and methods of knowledge is entirely appropriate to the respective contents of the existing trivium, all of which, including the so-called humanities, are dominated by the religion of research. But it will not do at all for a liberated discipline in which, especially at the highest levels of learning, the knowledge to be sought is not entirely a technologically useful theoretical knowledge about correlatable and manipulatable objects, natural, organic, or social—valuable as this can be. Nor will it do for a philosophy of learning and knowledge, and hence of education, which has worked itself free from the rationalist’s obsession with the logic of scientific explanation and with methods of theoretical problem-solving, illuminating as these can also be. What is wanted, I suspect, is not a theory of knowledge, as this term has largely been used since before Descartes, but something quite different: it begins by talking of modes or ways of knowing in quite ordinary senses of the term, which represent not only the achievements of positive science but all of the characteristic ways of handling and doing things that, when they succeed, we call knowledge.

TO SUCH A VIEW, let me add, Professor Bell, who is a pragmatist to the tips of his prose, should readily assent. Here and there, in fact, Bell himself provides us, although only in passing, with some clues to the approach I have in mind. For one thing, he sees in part that the issue, even in the university, is not simply that of teaching versus research, but also of one form of teaching (and hence learning), which is geared to the forms of achievements over which scientific research presides, versus others which are geared to other forms of achievement, such as moral, aesthetic, and (I should add) religious and philosophical understanding. These too are modes of knowledge. But the virtue of moral understanding, for example, does not consist in an ability to describe and predict, and hence to manipulate things, but to guide our choices and actions in our dealings with persons. Again, Bell sees, and indeed insists, that the achievement that humanistic knowledge may represent is the achievement of those fulfilled and significant experiences of reality, including works of art, which often go by the overworked term “appreciation.”

The point is simply this: Such forms of knowledge are correlated not with “subject-matters” or classes of phenomena, with which existing liberal structure is largely preoccupied, but with different ways of relating ourselves as knowers, and hence as learners, to that which we “know.” Thus the sort of knowledge, of which theoretical natural science is the paradigm, relates primarily to activities concerned with out relations to (what we regard as) things. The same is true, of course, of much that goes by the name of knowledge in the more “behavioral” branches of the social sciences and in the humanities, although still perhaps confusedly and unsystematically. However, the sort of knowledge with which social scientists and historians like Bell himself are mainly concerned is precisely not a knowledge of men as “phenomena,” as Kant called them, but something entirely different: a knowledge (as Bell puts it, albeit inadequately) of “the differentiations and variations of human actions.” Here the knowledge aspired to is an understanding of the reasons why, and not merely how, human beings act as they do, individually and in groups, together with the characteristic forms of motive and the recurrent modes of practice that pertain to their work, their experience, and their lives as men: that is, as actors, office-holders, sons and lovers, and above all as persons.

Finally, when Bell tells us that “knowledge—and understanding—in the humanities is gained not by the solution of abstract puzzles which may be logically independent of personal experience, but precisely through experience,” it is plain, I think, that “knowledge” here represents only an achievement which enables us to do what is required for experiencing, for example, works of imaginative literature and art, (including history and science when these are approached as creative works of human art and imagination) and not simply as propositions to be verified or as explanations to be applied in the manipulation of objects.

THE TASK OF RECONSTRUCTION, so far as liberal education is concerned, is indeed to discern within the trivium different modes of knowledge, and hence of learning. But these are not properly based upon strategies or methods of scholarly inquiry, much less upon classifications of subject matters which invariably wind up conceiving and treating their “objects” as phenomena. Accordingly, the forms of sophistication which higher-level courses in general education ought to provide is not just a better grasp of modes of scientific concept formation and theory construction, meta-theoretical studies of the logic of explanation, and the like, all of which have as their aim a better comprehension of ways of coping with phenomena of various sorts. They should seek, first of all, to differentiate among those major forms of activity that serve to absorb and delight the minds of men: our dealings with physical objejcts; our relations with human (and other) persons; and our engagements with those creations of the imagination of which works of art and literature are merely the most conspicious. Only in relation to them do we then begin to see what the point might be in giving an account of those specific forms of achievement that go by the names of knowledge and of learning. Only then does it become worth while, or even possible, to distinguish accurately among the skills required for each of them—for the explanation and prediction of phenomena including the human organism, which in systematic form is called scientific method; secondly, for determining the various ends of human action and for appraising the condition of their fulfillment, which is what we call moral or practical knowledge, or, more simply, wisdom; and, finally, for discerning those moving possibilities of experience inherent in “objects” of human consciousness, which, in one form, albeit misleadingly, is sometimes called critical or aesthetic understanding. Such forms of knowledge are not all, or exclusively, products of inquiry or research, but they are none the less precious. Nor, in their higher forms, can they be readily acquired without the help of informed and gifted teachers, able to guide perception, to develop attitudes and enlarge sympathies, and to impart skills, as well as to explain facts.

To understand what such activities of the mind involve, however, and what the forms of knowledge required for successful participation in them, nothing would be more useful, in my opinion, than an enlightened philosophical study of the primary forms of human utterance, the “logical” geography of the several main “universes” of discourse, and, accordingly, the characteristic sorts of things we do, not only with words, but with other important modes of expression, in talking and thinking about natural phenomena, in our responsible conduct toward persons, and in forming and appreciating discussions of things worthy of our attention, our admiration, and our love for their own sakes. Such a study, however, is a far cry from courses in “logic, methodology, and semantics” which are sometimes taught by departments of philosophy.

READING BELL, I sometimes have the sense that, save when his professorial mind is moving in orbit around the idea and the problems of the national society, he is essentially an eclectic or mannerist, an historicist collector of notions and ideas who has no spiritual homeland to which he wishes to return, no shore of light that he hopes eventually to reach. He is a world traveler, but without a destination. This impression is also reinforced by his fatal invocation of John Dewey’s idea of education for education’s sake.2 In the end perhaps the reason why Bell reverts so obsessively to notions of inquiry and method as binders for his proposed reforms, is that he really has no educational ends beyond the higher, more serviceable learning, of which the existing national university is the repository. But this may also be why, when it comes to the content of his reforms, he instinctively turns to those linkages and sequences with which he identifies the social and natural sciences. In the humanities, for example, his proposals seem invariably to direct the student’s attention to the historical and social contexts of art, to contexts of criticism, to contexts of those contexts, and so on into the night. Of course he hopes and expects that the student will return to a more discriminating, knowledgeable experience of The Marriage of Figaro. But my impression, sadly, is that what the Bellean sophisticate is more likely to return to is a search for still wider and subtler contexts, that he will become in the end only another, more omniscient scholar. Poor Figaro.

Thus, sequence after sequence, link after link, but never really centering, never landing or settling anywhere, Bell’s philosophy of education is for scholars-in-flight whose only home is an international airport. At moments Bell himself seems aware of this danger. But only toward the end of his final chapter, “A Reprise, With Some Notes on the Future,” does he broach the idea that from the university experience there might emerge human beings not only conscious of having sampled the best that has been thought, said, and done in the world, but aflame with a passion for active, creative, perhaps revolutionary emulation. Bell speaks of two “orientations towards the future that divide the intelligentsia today—the technocratic and the apocalyptic.” And he proposes that we educators should at once try to “humanize” a scientific technocracy that seems to have lost its soul and to “tame” the apocalypse. But how? By more suggestive chat about “strategies” of inquiry; by further study of study? Who can believe it?

IN CLOSING, I am bound to say that the idea of a liberal and hence a general education for the university student finally eludes Bell, just as the idea of the university in our time eludes Perkins and Kerr, and, as we have seen, for related reasons. Still, there are intimations in Bell’s compendious book of something better than he actually manages to deliver. I usually find myself on his side when, for example, he opposes the attitudes of those who view the university college as merely a way station on the road to the graduate school. And some of his specific proposals for reform seem to me wise. Wherever he complains against the parochialism and provincialism of the existing system, I am on his side. The study of Western civilization no longer suffices for those who would understand not only the ideas but also the practices of civility and freedom that abound in the contemporary world. Into the main stream of general education, courses must be introduced which answer to this want. Nor does the study of “the classics” suffice in literature or art or philosophy, any more than it does in the sciences. Into the Humanities programs courses must be introduced which deal with recent, possibly even with contemporary, works of distinction. Further, the Humanities programs must include, more centrally and insistently than they have in the past, the study of non-literary arts. Finally, in the sciences courses should be provided in which students may become aware of the revolutionary techniques that contemporary mathematical logic, theory of games, and computer science have made available to the theoretician and the scholar. One day, no doubt, these will be a part of common human understanding. All this plainly requires that general education must not be restricted to the freshman and sophomore years. On the contrary, as Bell rightly insists, it must be continuous if it is to be of any permanent benefit. And his proposal for a “third-tier scheme,” in which each student in the senior year “would ‘brake’ the drive toward specialization” by trying to generalize his experience in his discipline, has merit, even though his particular ideas concerning its implementation seem to me to suffer once more from the same methodolotry which I think is the besetting evil of his book.

Who will make the next try? Someone, I hope, with a wiser philosophy, a more adequate understanding of the indispensable diversities of human practice, a more constant passion to relate what he understands to the ultimate concerns of human existence. It should also be someone less preoccupied than the writers we have considered here with the affairs of the national society and more attentive to the spiritual and intellectual disorders within the American university itself.

  1. 1

    It should be noted, as Bell acknowledges, that he has been much influenced in formulating these proposals not only by Ernest Nagel’s The Structures of Science, which sets out a “logic of explanation in dealing with the nature of scientific inquiry,” but also by Joseph J. Schwab’s The Teaching of Sciences as Enquiry, which, as Bell puts it, “discusses in a wonderfully lucid way the dependence of science upon conceptual innovation, and applies these ideas to problems of teaching.”

  2. 2

    Dewey, let me say, does himself great injustice in this view.