Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure I

Turns out my man William Torrey Harris never wrote a book on his philosophy of education, but after the manner of Fichte, delivered himself of a lecture series on the subject. Given in 1893, they are a mercifully short series of mercifully short lectures. Harris gave 5 short lectures. I’ll take them one at a time.

LECTURE I. January 7th, 1893. THE LITERATURE OF EDUCATION

It’s tempting to quote the lecture entire, as it is so short. Instead, please go read it at the link provided, if you’re interested.

Harris begins with a brief description of how various cultures educated their children, with a variety of goals in mind:

The first and most important of all educational literature is that showing the ideals of a people the literature on which they are brought up generally the sacred books which reveal what the people regard as divine ; consequently what is the highest ideal to be realized. China, for example, has Confucius and Mencius, showing the family as the type of the social whole. These writings furnish the contents of the mind of the Chinese minute observances of etiquette ; how to behave towards one’s elders and superiors in rank ; towards one’s inferiors or juniors ; towards one’s equals. Chinese schools are almost exclusively devoted to filling the memory of the pupil with the ethical maxims of these sacred books, so that the mind shall be full of family etiquette. The aim of Chinese education was to teach the young how to behave ; that of the Persians, how to ride, shoot, and speak the truth a faculty not much thought of by the Hindus. The Persian differs from the Buddhist in that the latter wishes to get rid of the world, while the former attempts to conquer the real. The Phoenicians, again, furnish a contrast to Chinese education. Their object was to wean the child from the family ; whereas the Chinese endeavor to educate the young so that they will become submerged in the family. The Phoenicians aimed to create a love of adventure. Their children were educated in myths. The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade. The Greeks were imbued with the new world-principle of a spiritual and beautiful individuality. They thought more of the games which they practised in the evenings on the village green than of the tasks by which they earned their bread. They learned history and geography from the second book of Homer’s “Iliad.” They thought not of commercial education, like the Phoenicians, but of that heroic individual who furnished a beautiful ideal. Later on, Greek education became more scientific and more reflective. The Roman concentrated his whole mind on the will. He went beyond the circle of his city, and studied to cause even foreigners to live under the same laws with himself. Freedom meant more to him than to any of the Asiatic nations. It meant the power of the individual to hold, alienate, and devise property.

It’s tempting, and perhaps justified, to dismiss this as just more Hegelian claptrap. Instead, I’ll attempt to show how it is Hegelian claptrap. First, much of what he says is true. Different cultures do educate their children differently. Hegel-style is to start with truisms, to which any challenge will appear as nit-picking pedantry. But among the truisms, stick in some stuff that sounds like what you’ve already introduced but does not in fact stand on the same common-sense foundation. Thus, we can accept the notion that the Chinese build their culture on family, since it doesn’t contradict anything the typical educated Westerner knows about China. We then slip in stuff about Phoenician education, about which, to my knowledge, very little is known. I mean, I have read a good bit about Greek educational practices, and the documentary evidence before 500 B.C. is very sparse. Much more Greek writing survives than Phoenician. Therefore, it would be curious bordering on fantastic if there somehow existed substantial historical support for any theory of Phoenician educational practices.

Curious, I googled ‘Phoenician Education’ and the first thing that popped up was this:

Education
Based upon their way of seeing the world (cosmogony), the Phoenicians focused on fulfilling their mission of being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.

Not that this proves anything, but this site at least isn’t pointing at any writings. Following the same approach as Harris, we back into what their educational goals were based on their ‘cosmology’ and what they did, which is presumed to result from that cosmology, then extrapolate way, way past the data to imagine they were motivated by a desire to fulfill a ‘mission’ of ‘being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.’

Here, again, we see the fell effect of Hegel and Marx: the atomic explanation is rejected out of hand in favor of the vast, irresistible movement of Spirit and History. The atomic explanation, built up from what the units of society – people, families – do without any reference to presumed inexorable historical forces, might be that successful trade lead to more successful trade, and that kids grew up in families and cities engaged in trade, leading to educated opinions about everything from ship building to accounting getting passed on and refined from generation to generation. Hegelians/Marxists refuse to admit such explanations, as History or Spirit are dogmatically assumed to exist as the cause of all things, people being mere double-predestined puppets.

And this is before we note that there’s nothing in the behavior of the actual Phoenicians we know about to make us imagine they were motivated by much of anything beyond an immediate desire to get and hang onto wealth and power, and show off their wealth and power. People being people, in other words.

We do know that the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders. We can, perhaps, use this fact to support the claim: Phoenicians were sailors and traders, therefore their educational practices may have been directed toward producing traders and sailors. Or, more likely and humbly, their educational practices did not prevent a good number of men becoming sailors and traders.

Harris then lays down a ‘must have’ : “The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this form of statement reminds me of the Von Daniken books I read as a tween, wherein he’s always making statements about how this or that must have been caused by space aliens. Even back then, this triggered a ‘must it have?’ reaction on my part. Also note the word ‘calculated’ – Harris wants to imagine that the education of Phoenician youth was something somebody calculated, and that these calculations resulted in choosing adventurous myths as the curriculum. In other words, he anachronistically imposes what he is up to on people living millennia ago in very different cultures (Punic culture was not homogenous over time and space. No culture is.)

And so on. Dubious claims, some fairly outrageous, most often taking the form of generalizations easy to square with the idea that Spirit or History is *causing* people to do things, are tucked in between truisms and bland deductions. This also sets up a field rich in opportunities for Motte and Bailey defences: when you question something doubtful, your interlocutor can defend something obvious nearby. That’s for when they don’t just dismiss you as unenlightened, which is Hegelians and Marxists favorite argument.

This first lecture contains the infamous quotation, which in context doesn’t sound nearly as ominous on first pass:

Education is meant to give one an insight into the genesis of these things, so that he can detect an element of each in the threads of his civilization. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in every civilized nation are automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom. This is the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual under his species. The other educational principle is the emancipation from this subsumption. This is subordinate, and yet, in our time, we lay more stress upon it than the other. Look at the French Revolution. What a prodigious emancipation that was.


Harris is asserting ALL ‘substantial’ education reduces 99% of EVERYBODY to automata. What makes such education ‘substantial’ is the content – this is Hegel-speak – which, as he has shown above, varies from civilization to civilization. He then allows for one other, subordinate, educational principle: escape from this subsumption of the individual. More Hegel: contradictions are said to be suspended and subsumed in a synthesis, which syntathis become the thesis for the next movement of the dialectic. So: individuals have wants and needs (thesis); so does the society within which those wants and needs are best met (antithesis). The individual is subsumed as an automaton in the synthesis, which is a society to which he sacrifices (and yet does not sacrifice) his individuality for the sake of having existence and meaning. The next step, which is subordinate in that it stands upon the society (synthesis) created in the previous subsumption, is for the individual to understand and somehow be emancipated from his status as an unconscious automaton, while at the same time remaining suspended as automaton.

Harris sees this emancipation as the movement of the Spirit in our current phase of History. In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, he’s not very explicit or concerned about the millions of deaths that resulted from the French Revolution and the wars it gave birth to, but rather sees a ‘prodigious emancipation.’ Pay no attention to the Committee for Public Safety!

Conclusion: in context, this quotation remains terrifying, just not in the exact sense in which I have seen it used, and have used it myself.

Comenius taught the emancipation of the individual from the printed page. Spencer says that the modern school system is all wrong, and has a tendency to get away from science and cause students to waste time over the dead languages. Emancipation has now become the important side of the educational question. But the student of advanced education must first avail himself of the wisdom of the race, and learn how not to be limited by it. He cannot progress unless he is a free man, for he must not be so much subsumed that he cannot investigate scientifically, and with safety to himself, all problems that present themselves.

The goal for education Harris sets out in this first lecture is for a student to first learns his own culture, with all its rules, standards and aspirations, and then get free enough from them to investigate scientifically (i.e., as an Hegelian) all problems that present themselves.

Sounds nice. A decade after Harris gave these lectures, Woodrow Wilson addressed a graduating class from Princeton’s School of Education, explained how the schools need to fit the vast bulk of people for labor. The little people must forgo the luxury of a liberal education (which is at least plausibly what Harris has in mind) in order to be fitted to do their jobs. Wilson is clear that this whole emancipation thing is not for everybody – automata is the end-state for the masses.

Next up: Lecture II – Problems peculiar to American Education.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure I”

  1. Well, we do know that 17th, 18th and 19th century Brits were great traders and sailors, so 17th, 18th and 19th century British education must have been directed toward producing traders and sailors. Just like the Phoenicians. Right, Harris?

    1. It is really stunning, when one reads Marxists and Hegelians, just how much crap gets thrown out there without a blush as if it’s stone certain truth, when it’s really wild untethered speculation.

  2. Look at the French Revolution. What a prodigious emancipation that was.

    For some reason this reminded me of a great scene from the British sitcom Yes, Minister, in which Minister Hacker gives a speech that starts out:

    It is a very great pleasure to be here with you all today. You know, things are changing fast. We live in a world of change. The silicon chip is changing our lives. The quality of life is becoming more and more important: the environment, conservation, the problems of pollution, the future of our children and our children’s children, these are today’s issues.

    The joke ends up being that it’s just meaningless boilerplate he uses as the introduction for every speech, whether it’s for the Architectural Association or a City Farm.

    I think part of it is the parallel between Harris’s use of the French Revolution and Hacker’s use of the silicon chip — it’s the only thing that actually anchors the claims to a real time, and provides some specific evidence, and yet it’s also not really all that relevant to anything that will be discussed, except by a sort of vague analogy.

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