1. Incidental Education and Pedagogy
To be educated well or badly, to learn by a long process how to cope with the physical environment and the culture of one’s society, is part of the human condition. In every society the education of the children is of the first importance. But in all societies, both primitive and highly civilized, until quite recently most education of most children has occurred incidentally. Adults do their work and other social tasks; children are not excluded, are paid attention to, and learn to be included. The children are not “taught.” In many adult institutions, incidental education is taken for granted as part of the function: families and age-statuses, community labor, master-apprentice arrangements, games and plays, prostitution and other sexual initiation, religious rites and churches. In Greek paideia, the entire network of institutions, the polis, was thought of as importantly an educator.
Generally speaking, this incidental process suits the nature of learning better than direct teaching. The young see real causes and effects, rather than pedagogic exercises. Reality is often complex, but the young can take it by their own handle, at their own times, according to their own interest and initiative. Most important, they can imitate, identify, be approved or disapproved, cooperate and compete, without the anxiety of being the center of attention; there is socialization with less resentment, fear, or submission. The archetype of successful education is infants learning to speak, a formidable intellectual achievement that is universally accomplished. We do not know how it is done, but the main conditions seem to be what we have been describing: adult activity is going on, involving speaking; the infants are only incidental yet they participate, are attended to and spoken to; they play freely with their speech sounds; it is advantageous to them to make themselves understood. Finally, according to Jespersen, children pick up their accent and style from the gang of other children; it is their uniform, the way they appoint themselves.
Along with incidental education, however, most societies also have institutions specifically devoted to teaching the young. Such are identity rites, catechism, nurses and pedagogues, youth houses, formal schooling. I think there is a peculiar aspect to what is learned by such means rather than picked up incidentally. But let me emphasize strongly and repeatedly that it is only in the last century in industrialized countries that the majority of children have gotten much direct teaching at all, and it is only in the past few decades that formal schooling has been extended into adolescence and further. E.g., in the United States in 1900 only 6 percent went through high school and 1/4 percent through college. Yet now formal schooling has taken over, well or badly, very much of the more natural incidental education of most other institutions.
This may or may not be necessary, but it has consequences: these institutions, and the adults in them, have correspondingly lost touch with the young, and the young do not know the adults in their chief activities. Like the jails and insane asylums, schools isolate society from its problems, whether preventing crime, curing mental disease, or bringing up the young. And to a remarkable degree vital functions of growing up have become hermetically re-defined in school terms: community service means doing homework, apprenticeship is passing tests for jobs in the distant future, sexual initiation is high school dating, and rites of passage are getting diplomas. Crime is breaking school windows, and rebellion is sitting-in on the Dean. In the absence of adult culture, there develops a youth sub-culture.
Usually there has been a rough distinction in content, in what is learned, between incidental education and direct pedagogy. Ordinary social activities that do not exclude children tend to be matter-of-fact, and children taking part without anxiety can be objective, if not critical. But pedagogy, whether directed by elders, priests, or academics, deals with what is not evident in ordinary affairs; it aims to teach what is more abstract, intangible, or mysterious, and the learner, as the center of attention, is under personal pressure. All social activity socializes its participants, but pedagogy socializes deliberately, according to principles, instilling the morals and habits which are the social bonds.
There are, of course, two opposite interpretations of why pedagogy wants to indoctrinate, and in my opinion both are correct. On the one hand, the elders, priests, and schoolteachers are instilling an ideology to support their system of exploitation, including the domination of the old over the young, and they have to make a special effort to confuse and mystify because the system does not recommend itself to common sense. At present, when formal education swallows up so much time of life and pretends to be practical preparation for every activity, ideological processing is especially deadly. Those who succumb to it have no wits of their own left and are robots.
On the other hand, there perhaps are vague but important wisdom and abstractions that must be passed on, which do not appear on the surface in ordinary occasions and which require personal attention, special pointing, repetition, and cloistered reflection. Thus, champions of liberal arts colleges say that, one way or other, the young will pick up contemporary know-how and mores, but the greatness of Mankind—Hippocrates and Beethoven, Enlightenment, Civil Liberties, the Sense of the Tragic—will lapse without a trace unless the scholars work at it. I sympathize with the problem as they state it and I will return to it; but in fact I have not heard of any method whatever, scholastic or otherwise, to teach the humanities without killing them. Myself, I remember how at age twelve, browsing in the library, I read Macbeth with excitement, but in class I could not understand a word of Julius Caesar and hated it; and I think this was the usual experience of people who read and write well. The survival of the humanities has seemed to depend on random miracles, which are becoming less frequent.
Finally, unlike incidental learning, which is natural and inevitable, formal schooling is a deliberate intervention and must justify itself. We must ask not only is it well done, but is it worth doing and can it be well done? Is teaching possible at all? There is a line of critics from Lao-tse and Socrates to Carl Rogers who assert that there is no such thing as teaching, of either science or virtue; and there is strong empirical evidence that schooling has little effect on either vocational ability or citizenship—e.g., Donald Hoyt, for American College Testing, 1965, found that college grades have no correlation with life achievement in any profession. At the other extreme, Dr. Skinner and the operant-conditioners claim that they can “instruct” for every kind of performance, they can control and shape human behavior, as they can do with animals sealed off from the ordinary environment; but they are careful to say they do not “educate” in the sense of developing persons (whatever that might mean). It is disputable whether human children are good subjects for this kind of instruction in any society we like to envisage.
In the middle, the main line of educators, from Confucius and Aristotle to John Dewey, held that, starting from the natural motives of the young, one can teach them good habits of morals, arts, and sciences by practice; the learners take on a “second nature” which they can then use by themselves, they are not simply programmed. And on various theories, Froebel, Herbart, Steiner, or Piaget have held that such teaching is possible if it addresses the child’s powers in the right order at the right moments. But sociologists like Comte or Marx seem to say that the background social institutions and their vicissitudes overwhelmingly determine what is learned, so it is not worthwhile to think about pedagogy, at least as yet. I will not pursue this discussion here—my bias is that “teaching” is largely a delusion—but we must bear in mind that such fundamental disagreements exist.
2. The Scholastic
Turn now to actual formal schooling in the United States, the country most technologically advanced (but the story is not very different in other developed and developing countries, including China and Cuba). The school system, expanding and increasingly tightly integrated, has taken over a vast part of the educational functions of society, designing school-preparatory toys from age two and training for every occupation as well as citizenship, sexuality, and the humanities. Yet with trivial exceptions, what we mean by School—namely, curriculum generalized from the activities of life, and divided into departments, texts, lessons, scheduled periods marked by bells, specialist teachers, examinations, and graded promotion to the next step—is a sociological invention of some Irish monks in the seventh century to bring a bit of Rome to wild shepherds. It is an amazing success-story, probably more important than the Industrial Revolution.
At first, no doubt it was a good thing for wild shepherds to have to sit still for a couple of hours and pay strict attention to penmanship and spelling. And mostly it was only aspiring clerics who were schooled. By an historical accident, the same academic method later became the way of teaching the bookish part of a couple of learned professions. There is no essential reason why law and medicine are not better learned by apprenticeship, but the bookish was clerical and therefore scholastic, and (perhaps) any special education containing abstract principles was part of the system of mysteries, therefore clerical, and therefore scholastic.
This monkish rule of scheduled hours, texts, and lessons is also not an implausible method for giving a quick background briefing to large numbers, who then embark on their real business. Thus Jefferson insisted on universal compulsory schooling, for short terms in predominately rural communities, so children could read the newspapers and be catechized in libertarian political history, in order to be citizens in a democracy. Later, in compulsory urban schools, the children of polyglot immigrants were socialized and taught standard English, a peculiar dialect, so they could then try to make good in an economy which indeed proved to be fairly open to them in the long run. The curriculum was the penmanship, spelling, and arithmetic needed for the business world. Naturally, forced socialization involved drastic cultural disruption and family fragmentation, but perhaps it was a good solution—we have yet to see how it works out.
The context of schooling at present, however, is entirely different. The monkish invention is now used as universal social engineering. Society is conceived as a controlled system of personnel and transactions—with various national goals, depending on the nation—and the schools are the teaching machine for all personnel. There is no other way of entry for the young. And teaching tries to give psychological preparation in depth. Schooling for one’s role, in graded steps, takes up to twenty years and more and is the chief activity of growing up; any other interest may be interrupted. The real motivation for a five-year-old’s behavior, thus, is geared fifteen years in the future.
In highly productive technologies like ours, of course, which do not need manpower, a more realistic interpretation is that the social function of long schooling is to keep the useless and obstreperous young away from the delicate social machine, to baby-sit and police them. Yet it comes to the same thing. Whether by accident or design, the schools are not like playgrounds or reservations; rather, the texture of school experience is similar to adult experience. There is little break between playing with educational toys and watching ETV, being in grade school and the Little League, being in high school and dating, being in college and drafted, being personnel of a corporation and watching NBC. It is a curious historical question whether the schools have been transformed to the model of business organization, or the adult world has become scholastic, with corresponding arrested maturation. The evidence is that up to about 1920, business methods had a preponderant influence; but since 1945 the school monks have increasingly determined the social style and adults have become puerile.
Since the trend has been to eliminate incidental education and prepare the young deliberately for every aspect of ordinary life, we would expect pedagogy to become secularized and functional. Yet radical students complain that the schooling is ideological through and through. The simplest, and not altogether superficial, explanation of this paradox is that scholastic mystery has transformed ordinary adult business. Society is run by mandarins, the New Class.
Even on its own terms, this is not working well. Schooling costs more than armaments. It does not in fact prepare for jobs and professions—e.g., evidence compiled by Ivar Berg of Columbia shows that dropouts do as well as high-school graduates on that level of jobs.1 It does not provide peaceful baby-sitting and policing. Instead of an efficient gearing between the teaching machine and the rest of the social machine, the schools seem to run for their own sakes, accumulating bluebooks; there is a generation gap; many of the young fail or drop out and others picket. Predictably, the response of school administrators is to refine the processing, to make the curriculum still more relevant, to enrich the curriculum, to add remedial steps, to study developmental psychology for points of manipulation, to start earlier, to use new teaching technology, to eliminate friction by admitting students to administrative functions.
But social engineering is uneducational in principle. It pre-structures behavior and can become discriminating, graceful, and energetic only if the organism creates its own structures as it goes along.
In the long run, human powers are the chief resources. In the short run, unused powers assert themselves anyway and make trouble, and cramped powers produce distorted or labile effects. If we set up a structure that strictly channels energy, directs attention, and regulates movement (which are “good things”), we may temporarily inhibit impulse, wishing, daydreaming, and randomness (which are “bad things”); but we also thereby jeopardize initiative, intrinsic motivation, imagination, invention, self-reliance, freedom from inhibition, and finally even health and common sense. It is frequently said that human beings use only a small part—“2 percent”—of their abilities; so some educators propose much more demanding and intellectual tasks at a much earlier age. And there is no doubt that most children can think and learn far more than they are challenged to. Yet it is likely that by far the greatest waste of ability, including intellectual and creative ability, occurs because a playful, hunting, sexy, dreamy, combative, passionate, artistic, manipulative and destructive, jealous and magnanimous, selfish and disinterested animal is continually thwarted by social organization and perhaps especially by schooling. If so, the main purpose of pedagogy at present is to counter-act and delay socialization as long as possible. Our situation is the opposite of the seventh century; since the world has become scholastic, we must protect the wild shepherds.
The personal attitude of school-teachers toward the young is problematic. I can understand that adults are protective and helpful to small children, and that professionals, in graduate schools, want apprentices to carry on; but why would grown-ups spend whole days hanging around adolescents and callow collegians? Sexual interest makes sense and must be common, but it is strongly disapproved and its inhibition makes a bad situation. Traditional motives have been to domineer and be a big fish in a small pond. The present preferred posture seems to me to be extremely dishonest: to take a warm interest in the young as persons while yet getting them to perform according to an impersonal schedule. Since from the teacher’s (or supervisor’s) point of view the performance is the essence, with failure the relation can quickly degenerate to being harsh for their own good or hating them as incorrigible animals. I do not see any functional way to recruit a large corps of high school teachers. With incidental education there is no problem. Most people like the young to be around and to watch them develop, and their presence often makes a job more honest and less routine, for they are honest and not routine.
Current high thought among schoolmen, for instance the National Science Foundation and the Harvard School of Education, is to criticize the syllabus as indeed wasteful and depressing, but to expand the schools and make the programming more psychological. Since the frontier of knowledge is changing so rapidly, there is no use in burdening children with knowledge that will be outdated in ten years, and with skills that will soon be better performed by ubiquitous machines. Rather, they must learn to learn; their cognitive faculties must be developed; they must be taught the big Ideas, like the Conservation of energy. (This is exactly what Robert Hutchins was saying forty years ago.) Or more daringly, the children must not be taught but allowed to discover; they must be encouraged to guess and brainstorm rather than be tested on the right answers. But are these suggestions bona fide? Perhaps, as Gregory Bateson has speculated about dolphins and trainers, and as John Holt has illustrated in middle-class schools, learning to learn means picking up the structure of behavior of the teachers. The young discoverers are bound to discover what will get them past the College Boards, and the guessers and dreamers are not free to balk and drop out for a semester to brood, as proper geniuses do. And what if precisely the big Ideas are not true?—Einstein said that it was preferable to have a stupid pedant for a teacher, so a smart child could fight him all the way.
I think the pedagogic reasoning of Harvard and the N.S.F. is something like this: though knowledge changes, the function and the style of science are fixed. But this is an ideology of a political structure that, hopefully, is even more in flux than knowledge is—at least let us hope that 80 percent of Federal money for Research and Development will not continue to be used for military science. We can survive with our present science, but not with our present Science. Unless the “cognitive faculties” become more magnanimous, philosophical, and prudent than they are at present, it is a waste of money and effort to plan for ten years from now at all. But the only pedagogy that I have ever heard to teach magnanimity and feeling is Wordsworth’s: the beauty of the world and simple human affections. So we are back to the wild shepherds.
But of course there is an underlying problem that earnest teachers, also at Harvard and in the N.S.F., are concerned about: how are the young to learn to cope with the complicated technological environment? Perhaps it is a mistake to look for a scholastic solution; I think this was the mistake of Dewey’s earlier attempt to domesticate industrialism by learning by doing in school. In the first place, we older people must notice that the environment is not nearly so arcane to the young as it is to us. I have been astonished at how some of my hippie friends, inveterate dropouts, can design computer circuits. One learned it in the Army, another in an insane asylum, another just picked it up. What else would the young experience, and learn, except the actual environment? A child who can’t count can always make change for a dollar. There is a poignant dilemma specific to a child, but in order to make it clear to himself the teacher makes it incomprehensible to the child.
New topics require new symbols and may even, though I have yet to be convinced, require new patterns of thinking. But schoolteachers inevitably decide that these must be taught in graded steps from “the” elements that they were brought up on, and theorists of cognition exhibit the same wooden attitude in adding new levels of abstraction. (Sometimes there is a flurry of simplification like New Math.) If we start from actual experience, however, we find that it determines its own elements. And long ago, Kropotkin beautifully solved the cognitive problem of levels of abstraction when he said: you can explain any scientific proposition to an intelligent unlettered peasant if you yourself understand it concretely. I could add, if you don’t understand it concretely, are you sure it’s relevant to teach?
Let me put this another way. Two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant exhaustively and accurately mapped the territory that our new cognitive theorists are exploring in fragments and with occasional blunders.2
But Kant showed that our intellectual structures come into play spontaneously, by the “synthetic unity of apperception,” if we are attentive in real situations. They certainly seem to do so when infants learn to speak. The problem of knowing is to have attentive experience, to get people to pay attention, without cramping the unifying play of free intellectual powers. Schools are bad at this; interesting reality is good. On the other hand, according to Kant, to exercise the cognitive faculties abstractly, in themselves, is precisely superstition, presumptuous theology. He wrote all this in The Critique of Pure Reason, which I would strongly recommend to the Harvard School of Education.
3. Progressive Education
Progressive education is best defined as a series of reactions to schooling that has become rigid, in order to include what has been repressed in growing up. It aims to right the balance. It is a political movement, for the exclusion of a human power or style of life is always the sign of a social injustice; and progressive education emerges when the social problem is breaking out. Put more positively, an old regime is not adequate to new conditions, any new energy and character are needed in order to cope. What the progressive educator discovers as the nature of the child is what he intuits will work best in the world, and the form that progressive education takes at each time is prophetic of the next social revolution. Thus, a rosy history of progressive education would look like this:
Rousseau was reacting to the artificiality and insincerity of the court, the parasitism of the courtiers, the callous formalism, and the pervasive superstition. Apart from its moral defects, this way of life had become simply incompetent to govern, and a generation later it abdicated. The French Revolution was confused by the invasions and the Terror, not implicit in Rousseau, but Rousseau’s vision was really achieved in the first decades of the American republic, where the ideal of education and character, to be frank and simple, empirical, self-reliant, and proudly independent, could have been drawn from Emile. In fact, Emile was also drawn from the Americans.
John Dewey was reacting to the genteel culture irrelevant to industrialized society, rococo decoration, puritanism that denied animal nature, self-censored literature, individualism of the tycoons, rote performance imposed on common people and children. And again, after a generation, by the end of the New Deal, this moral vision had largely come to be: most of the program of the Populists and the Labor movement was law; education and culture (among whites) had become utilitarian and fairly classless; the revolution of Freud and Spock was well advanced; censorship was on its way out; there was no more appliqué decoration; and there was all manner of social organization rather than individualism.
A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, our recent form of progressive education, has been a reaction to social-engineering, the trend to 1984, as Orwell came to call it: obedience to authoritarian rules, organizational role-playing instead of being, destruction of community by competition and grade-getting, objective knowledge without personal meaning. Since, for children, getting to class is the immutable nature of things, to make this a matter of choice was to transform reality. And to the extent that there was authentic self-government at Summerhill and small children indeed had power, the charisma of all institutions was challenged. And again progressive education has been prescient: the evidence is that we may yet have a universal shambles, but we will not see the society of 1984. The slogans and style of dissident youth around the world are like a caricature of Summerhill—naturally a caricature because they have not yet been assimilated into social change: participatory democracy, do your thing, don’t trust anybody over thirty, drop out of the system. Summerhill’s affectionate family of autonomous persons is a model for all pads, communities, and tribes. The sexual freedom exists that Neill approved but could not legally sanction. Careless dress has become a common uniform.
Before I discuss what is wrong with this history let me mention the criticism that contemporary progressive education is a middle-class gimmick (though Pestalozzi did his work and Montessori her best work with the outcast). The black community, especially, resents being used for “experiments.” Poor children, it is claimed, need to learn the conventional ropes so they can compete for power in the established system, or even can con the system like hipsters. Therefore black parents demand “quality education” and expect their children to wear ties.
In my opinion, this criticism is wrong-headed. The scholastic evidence, for instance the Eight Years Study, shows that the more experimental the high school, the more successfully the graduates compete in conventional colleges when it is necessary. And more important is that, since black children do not get the same reward as whites for equal conventional achievement—for instance, a white high school graduate averages the same salary as a black college graduate—it is better for the blacks not to be caught in an unprofitable groove, but to have more emotional freedom, initiative, and flexibility, to be able to find and make opportunities. That is, black communities should run their own schools, and they should run them on the model of Summerhill. This has indeed been the case with the sporadic Freedom Schools, north and south, which have a dose of Neill by direct or indirect influence. But of course freedom is incalculable. My guess is that children, if free to choose, at least up to the age when they are muddled by the anxieties of puberty, will choose black and white together, quite different from their parents’ politics and prejudices. (To be sure, it has not been the doing of black parents that the schools are not integrated.)
I don’t agree with the theory of Head Start either, that disadvantaged children need special training of their intellectual faculties to prepare them for learning. There seems to be nothing wrong with the development of their intellectual faculties; they have learned to speak and they can make practical syllogisms very nicely if they need to and are not thwarted. If they have not learned the patterns to succeed in school, the plausible move is to change the school, not the children. But the trouble might be just the opposite, as Elliott Shapiro has suggested, that these children have been pushed too early, to take responsibility for themselves and little brothers and sisters, and their real problems have been too insoluble to reason about. They can reason but there’s no use to it; it’s psychically more economic to be stupid. What they need is freedom from pressure to perform, and of course better food, more quiet, and a less depoverished environment to grow in at their own pace. These are what the First Street School on the Lower East Side in New York tried to provide—modeled on Summerhill.
What is really wrong with our history is that, in their own terms, the successes of progressive education have been rather total failures. The societies that emerged in the following generation, fulfilling their programs, were not what the visionaries hoped for. Jacksonian democracy, as described by Tocqueville, was very different from the Old Regime, but it was hardly the natural nobility of Emile (or the vision of Jefferson). It lacked especially the good taste, the fraternity, and the general will that Rousseau hankered after. Dewey’s pragmatic and socialminded conceptions have ended up as the service university, technocracy, labor bureaucracy, and suburban conformity. But Dewey was thinking of workers’ management and education for workers’ management; and like Frank Lloyd Wright, he wanted a functional culture of materials and processes, not glossy Industrial Design and the consumer standard of living.
The likelihood is that A. S. Neill’s hope too will be badly realized. It is not hard to envisage a society in the near future in which self-reliant and happy people will be attendants of a technological apparatus over which they have no control whatever, and whose purposes do not seem to them to be any of their business. Indeed, Neill describes with near satisfaction such success-stories among his own graduates. Alternately, it is conceivable that an affluent society will compound with its hippies by supporting them like Indians on a reservation. Their Zen philosophy of satori was grounded originally in a violent feudalism, of which it was the spiritual solace, and it could prove so again.
How to prevent these outcomes? Perhaps, protecting his free affectionate community, Neill protects it a few years too long, both from the oppressive mechanistic world and from adolescent solitude (it is hard to be alone in Summerhill). And it seems to me that there is something inauthentic in Neill’s latitudinarian lack of standards—e.g., Beethoven and rock ‘n roll are equivalent, though he himself prefers Beethoven—for we are not only free organisms but parts of mankind that has historically made itself with great inspirations and terrible conflicts. We cannot slough off that accumulation, however burdensome, without becoming trivial and therefore servile. It seems clear by now that the noisy youth sub-culture is not only not grown-up, which is to the good, but prevents ever being grown-up.
4. The Present Moment in Progressive Education
It is possible that the chief problem in the coming generation will be survival, whether from nuclear bombs, genocide, ecological disaster, or mass starvation and endless wars. If so, this is the present task of pedagogy. There already exist wilderness schools for self-reliance and it has been proposed to train guerrillas in schools in Harlem. The delicately interlocking technologies of the world indeed seem to be over-extended and terribly vulnerable, and the breakdown could be pretty total. But let us fantasize that this view is not realistic.
My own thinking is that
(1) Incidental education, taking part in the on-going activities of society, should be the chief means of learning.
(2) Most high schools should be eliminated, with other kinds of communities of youth taking over their sociable functions.
(3) College training should generally follow, not precede, entry into the professions.
(4) The chief task of educators is to see to it that the activities of society provide incidental education, if necessary inventing new useful activities offering new educational opportunities.
(5) The purpose of elementary pedagogy, through age twelve, is to protect children’s free growth, since our community and families both pressure them too much and do not attend to them enough.
Let me review the arguments for this program. We must drastically cut back the schooling because the present extended tutelage is against nature and arrests growth. The effort to channel growing up according to a preconceived curriculum and method discourages and wastes many of the best human powers to learn and cope. Schooling does not prepare for real performance; it is largely carried on for its own sake. Only a small fraction, the “academically talented”—between 10 and 15 percent according to Conant—thrive in this useless activity without being bored or harmed by it. It isolates the young from the older generation and alienates them.
On the other hand, it makes no sense for many of the brightest and most sensitive young simply to drop out or confront society with hostility. This cannot lead to social reconstruction. The complicated and confusing conditions of modern times need knowledge and fresh thought, and therefore long acquaintance and participation precisely by the young. Young radicals seem to think that mere political change will solve the chief problems, or that they will solve themselves after political change, but this is a delusion. The problems of urbanization, technology, and ecology have not been faced by any political group. The educational systems of other advanced countries are no better than ours, and the young are equally dissenting. Finally, it has been my Calvinistic, and Aristotelian, experience that most people cannot organize their lives without productive activity (though, of course, not necessarily paid activity); and the actual professions, services, industries, arts and sciences are the arena in which they should be working. Radical politics and doing one’s thing are careers for very few.
As it is, however, the actual activities of American society either exclude the young, or corrupt them, or exploit them. Here is the task for educators. We must make the rules of licensing and hiring realistic to the actual work and get rid of mandarin requirements. We must design apprenticeships that are not exploitative. Society desperately needs much work that is not now done, both intellectual and manual, in urban renewal, ecology, communications, and the arts, and all these could make use of young people. Many such enterprises are best organized by young people themselves, like most of the community development and community action Vocations for Social Change. Little think tanks, like the Oceanic Institute at Makapuu Point or the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, which are not fussy about diplomas, have provided excellent spots for the young. Our aim should be to multiply the path of growing up, with opportunity to start again, cross over, take a moratorium, travel, work on one’s own. To insure freedom of option and that the young can maintain and express their critical attitude, all adolescents should be guaranteed a living. (The present cost of high schooling would almost provide this.)
The advantage of making education less academic has, of course, occurred to many school people. There are a myriad of programs to open the school to the world by (1) importing outside professionals, artists in residence, gurus, mothers, dropouts as teachers’ aides; and (2) giving academic credit for work-study, community action, writing novels, service in mental hospitals, junior year abroad, and other kinds of released time. Naturally I am enthusiastic for this development and only want it to go the small further step of abolishing the present school establishment instead of aggrandizing it.
Conversely, there is a movement in the United States, as in China and Cuba, for adolescent years to be devoted to public service, and this is fine if the service is not compulsory and regimenting.
It is possible for every education to be tailor-made according to each youth’s developing interest and choice. Choices along the way will be very often ill-conceived and wasteful, but they will express desire and immediately meet reality, and therefore they should converge to finding the right vocation more quickly than by any other course. Vocation is what one is good at and can do, what uses a reasonable amount of one’s powers, and gives one a useful occupation in a community that is one’s own. The right use of the majority of people would make a stable society far more efficient than our own. And those who have peculiar excellences are more likely to find their own further way when they have entry by doing something they can do and being accepted.
Academic schooling can be chosen by those with academic talents, and such schools are better off unencumbered by sullen uninterested bodies. But the main use of academic teaching is for those already busy in sciences and professions, who need academic courses along the way. Cooper Union in New York City used to fulfill this function very well. And in this context of need, there can finally be the proper use of new pedagogic technology, as a means of learning at one’s own time, whereas at present this technology makes the school experience still more rigid and impersonal.
Of course, in this set-up employers would themselves provide ancillary academic training, especially if they had to pay for it anyway, instead of using parents’ and taxpayers’ money. In my opinion, this ancillary rather than prior schooling would do more than any other single thing to give black, rural, and other “culturally deprived” youth a fairer entry and chance for advancement, since what is to be learned is objective and functional and does not depend on the abstract school style. As we have seen, on the job there is no correlation between competence and years of prior schooling.
But this leads to another problem. Educationally, schooling on the job is usually superior, but the political and moral consequences of such a system are ambiguous and need more analysis than I can give them here. At present, a youth is hired for actual credentials, if not actual skill; this is alienating to him as a person, but it also allows a measure of free-market democracy. If he is to be schooled on the job, however, he must be hired for his promise and attended to as a person; this is less alienating, but it can lead to company paternalism, like Japanese capitalism, or like Fidel Castro’s Marxist vision of farm and factory-based schools (recently reported in New Left Notes). On the other hand, if the young have options and can organize and criticize, on-the-job education is the quickest way to workers’ management which, in my opinion, is the only effective democracy.
University education—liberal arts and the principles of the professions—is for adults who already know something, who have something to philosophize. Otherwise, as Plato pointed out, it is just verbalizing.
To provide a protective and life-nourishing environment for children up through twelve, Summerhill is an adequate model. I think it can be easily adapted to urban conditions if we include houses of refuge for children to resort to, when necessary, to escape parental and neighborhood tyranny or terror. Probably an even better model would be the Athenian pedagogue, touring the city with his charges; but for this the streets and working-places of the city must be made safer and more available than is likely. (The pre-requisite of city-planning is for the children to be able to use the city, for no city is governable if it does not grow citizens who feel it is theirs.) The goal of elementary pedagogy is a very modest one: it is for a small child, under his own steam, to poke interestedly into whatever goes on and to be able, by observation, questions, and practical imitation, to get something out of it in his own terms. In our society this happens pretty well at home up to age four, but after that it becomes forbiddingly difficult.
I have often spelled out this program of incidental education, and found no takers. Curiously, I get the most respectful if wistful attention at teachers’ colleges, even though what I propose is quite impossible under present administration. Teachers know how much they are wasting the children’s time of life, and they understand that my proposals are fairly conservative, whereas our present schooling is a new mushroom. In general audiences, the response is incredulity. Against all evidence, people are convinced that what we do must make sense, or is inevitable. It does not help if I point out that in dollars and cents it might be cheaper, and it would certainly be more productive in tangible goods and services, to eliminate most schools and make the community and the work that goes in it more educational. Yet the majority in a general audience are willing to say that they themselves got very little out of their school years. Occasionally an old reactionary businessman agrees with me enthusiastically, that book-learning isn’t worth a penny; or an old socialist agrees, because he thinks you have to get your books the hard way.
Among radical students, I am met by a sullen silence. They want Student Power and are unwilling to answer whether they are authentically students at all. That’s not where it’s at. (I think they’re brainwashed.) Instead of “Student Power,” however, what they should be demanding is a more open entry into society, spending the education money more usefully, licensing and hiring without irrelevant diplomas, and so forth. And there is an authentic demand for Young People’s Power, their right to take part in initiating and deciding the functions of society that concern them—as well, of course, as governing their own lives, which are nobody else’s business. Bear in mind that we are speaking of ages seventeen to twenty-five, when at all other times the young would already have been launched in the real world. The young have the right to power because they are numerous and are directly affected by what goes on, but especially because their new point of view is indispensable to cope with changing conditions, they themselves being part of the changing conditions. This is why Jefferson urged us to adopt a new constitution every generation.
Perhaps the chief advantage of incidental education rather than schooling is that the young can then carry on their movement informed and programmatic, grounded in experience and competence, whereas “Student Power,” grounded in a phony situation, is usually symbolic and often mere spite.
5. Mankind and the Humanities
Finally, let me go back to a very old-fashioned topic of educational theory, how to transmit Culture with a big C, the greatness of Man. This is no longer discussed by conventional educators and it was never much discussed by progressive educators, though Dewey took it increasingly seriously in his later years. In our generation, it is a critical problem, yet I cannot think of a way to solve it. Perhaps it is useful to try to define it.
The physical environment and social culture force themselves on us, and the young are bound to grow up to them well or badly. They always fundamentally determine the curriculum in formal schooling; but even if there is no schooling at all, they are the focus of children’s attention and interest; they are what is there. Dewey’s maxim is a good one: there is no need to bother about curriculum, for whatever a child turns to is potentially educative and, with good management, one thing leads to another. Even skills that are considered essential prerequisites, like reading, will be learned spontaneously in normal urban and suburban conditions.
But humane culture is not what is obviously there for a child, and in our times it is less and less so. In the environment there is little spirit of a long proud tradition, with heroes and martyrs. For instance, though there is a plethora of concerts and records, art museums, planetariums, and child-encyclopedias, the disinterested ideals of science and art are hardly mentioned and do not seem to operate publicly at all, and the sacredness of these ideals no longer exists even on college campuses. Almost no young person of college age believes that there are autonomous professionals or has even heard of such a thing. Great souls of the past do not speak to a young person as persons like himself, once he learns their language, nor does he bother to learn their language. The old conflicts of history do not seem to have been human conflicts, nor are they of any interest.
The young have strong feelings for honesty, frankness, loyalty, fairness, affection, freedom, and other virtues of generous natures. They quickly resent the hypocrisy of politicians, administrators, and parents who mouth big abstractions and act badly or pettily. But in fact, they themselves—like most politicians and administrators and many parents—seem to have forgotten the concrete reality of ideals like magnanimity, compassion, honor, consistency, civil liberty, integrity, justice—ruat coelum, and unpalatable truth, all of which are not gut feelings and are often not pragmatic, but are maintained to create and re-create Mankind. Naturally, without these ideals and their always possible and often actual conflict, there is no tragedy. Most young persons seem to disbelieve that tragedy exists; they always interpret impasse as timidity, and casuistry as finking out. I am often astonished by their physical courage, but I am only rarely moved by their moral courage.
Their ignorance has advantages. The bother with transmitting humane culture is that it must be re-created in spirit, or it is a dead weight upon present spirit, and it does produce timidity and hypocrisy. Then it is better forgotten. Certainly the attempt to teach it by courses in school or by sermons like this, is a disaster. Presumably it was kept going by the living example of a large number of people who took it seriously and leavened society, but now there seems to be a discontinuity. It has been said that the thread really snapped during the First World War, during the Spanish War, with the gas-chambers and Atombombs, etc., etc. I have often suggested that the logical way to teach the humanities, for instance, would be for some of us to picket the TV stations in despair; but we are tired, and anyway, when we have done similar things, students put their own rather different interpretation on it. We try to purge the university of military projects, but students attack the physical research itself that could be abused (and is even bound to be abused), as if science were not necessarily a risky adventure. They don’t see that this is a tragic dilemma. They seem quite willing—though battening on them in the United States—to write off Western science and civil law.
Yet apart from the spirit congealed in them, we do not really have our sciences and arts, professions and civic institutions. It is inauthentic merely to use the products and survivals, and I don’t think we can in fact work Western civilization without its vivifying tradition. The simplest reason that cities are ungovernable is that there aren’t enough citizens; this happened during the Roman Empire too. It is conceivable that the so-called Third World can adapt our technology and reinterpret it according to other ideals, as was supposed to be the theme of the conference in Havana against Cultural Imperialism; but I read dozens of papers and did not find a single new proposition. Anyway, this does nothing for us. Here at home it is poignant what marvels some people expect from the revival of African masks.
A young fellow is singing a song attacking the technological way of life, but he is accompanying it on an electric guitar plugged into the infrastructure; and the rhythm and harmony are phony mountain-music popularized by Stalinists in the Thirties to give themselves an American image, and which cannot cohere with a contemporary poem. But I can’t make him see why this won’t do. I can’t make clear to a young lady at the Antioch-Putney School of Education that a child has an historical human right to know that there is a tie between Venus and the Sun and thanks to Newton we know its equation, which is even more beautiful than the Evening Star; it is not a matter of taste whether he knows this or not. Yet she’s right, for if it’s not his thing, it’s pointless to show it to him, as it is to her.
It seems to me that, ignorant of the inspiration and grandeur of our civilization, though somewhat aware of its brutality and terror, the young are patsies for the “inevitabilities” of modern times. If they cannot take on our only world appreciatively and very critically, they can only confront her or be servile to her and then she is too powerful for any of us.
Margaret Mead says, truly, that young people are in modern times like native sons, whereas we others use the technology gingerly and talk like foreign-born. I am often pleased at how competent my young friend proves to be; my apprehension for him is usually groundless. But he is swamped by presentness. Since there is no background or structure, everything is equivalent and superficial. He can repair the TV but he thinks the picture is real (Marshall McLuhan doesn’t help). He says my lecture blew his mind and I am flattered till he tells me that L. Ron Hubbard’s metempsychosis in Hellenistic Sardinia blew his mind; I wonder if he has any mind to blow.
I sometimes have the eerie feeling that there are around the world, a few dozen of Plato’s guardians, ecologists and psychosomatic physicians, who with worried brows are trying to save mankind from destroying itself. This is a sorry situation for Jeffersonian anarchists like myself who think we ought to fend for ourselves. The young are quick to point out the mess that we have made, but I don’t see that they really care about that, as if it were not their mankind. Rather, I see them with the Christmas astronauts flying toward the moon and seeing the Earth shining below: it is as if they are about to abandon an old house and therefore it makes no difference if they litter it with beer cans. These are bad thoughts.
But I have occasionally had a good educational experience in the Draft Resistance movement. The resisters are exceptionally virtuous young men and they are earnest about the fix they are in, that makes them liable to two to five years in jail. Then it is remarkable how, guided by a few Socratic questions, they come to remember the ideas of Allegiance, Sovereignty, Legitimacy, Exile, and bitter Patriotism, which cannot be taught in college courses in political science. It is a model of incidental learning of the humanities, but I am uneasy to generalize from it.
April 10, 1969
Reported in New Generation, Winter, 1968. ↩
E.g. J. S. Bruner: “We organize experience to represent not only the particulars that have been experienced, but the classes of events of which the particulars are exemplars. We go not only from part to whole, but irresistibly from the particular to the general.” I should think that primarily we organize experience as part of the experience, and not to represent anything. By and large we start from the confused general or global, and specify it; as Aristotle said, a baby first calls every man Daddy and then distinguishes Tom and Dick. And no animal normally goes from part to whole unless totally baffled by mazes, obsessional neurosis, or schoolteachers. What Bruner means to say, I think, is that to program a computer according to current symbolic logic, we organize “experience” in this way; but this is rather a special function to saddle all children with. ↩