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

LECTURE II. Saturday, January 14, 1893. PROBLEMS PECULIAR TO AMERICAN EDUCATION. (found here. Lecture I review here.)

Harris begins his second lecture by describing what he means by ‘substantial education’:

There are two kinds of education. The first may be called substantial education, the education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge. It is this education which the child begins to receive from its birth. This sort of education is education by authority that is, the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight into the reason for its being so.

At this point, I had to check whether Harris was married and had children. A quick perusal of the interwebs reveal that he married his childhood sweetheart, but if they had any children, the sources fail to mention it. Why this is relevant: the idea that children accept everything on authority could hardly be held by anyone who ever raised children. It’s a variation on tabla rasa, as if kids are waiting around for authority figures to lecture them, and accepting the lecture without criticism, and otherwise don’t learn anything. Anyone who has raised children can see that, starting from birth at the latest, the vast bulk of learning is done by the child on his own initiative. He absorbs the assumptions of the adults around him, to a large extent, without criticism, but any adult who has tried the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach will quickly see how much adult authority figures into what children accept without question.

It is this education by authority, the education of the past, that the modern or second kind of education seeks to supersede. This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.

The man here using the word ‘scientific’ was heavily into phrenology and late 19th century psychology, among other things, so what he means by ‘scientific’ is clearly not ‘that which can be objectively verified through observation’ but rather more along the lines of ‘what my smart friends and I believe.’ This is relevant, since the advocates for progressive, modern, compulsory schools have long claimed their approach was scientific. That word they keep using – I don’t think it means what they think it means.

“The education of insight” is a very interesting phrase. Part of Hegel – a part most beloved by Marx – is the idea of speculative philosophy being a growing, progressing series of insights. Philosophy doesn’t advance through hashing things out via observations and logical deductions, but rather the Spirit/History reveals the next stage via revelation to the enlightened few. These revelations are called ‘insights’ and contradict the unenlightened stage of History currently prevailing, until both are subsumed and suspended in a new synthesis. The curious part: those lacking the insight cannot understand those who have it. Under Hegel, at least, the insight will slowly spread out from the chosen prophets until the consciousness of mankind is raised – or something. Marx is all about exterminating the unenlightened as the means by which enlightenment spreads.

Here Harris is talking about what normal people call understanding. Does a kid understand what he is taught (insight) or merely parroting what he’s heard (authority)? It would seem Harris is thinking schooling can impart insight in a non-authoritarian manner. Kids who in his view have become mindless automata via accepting everything they know on authority, will at some point, somehow be brought to the freedom of individuality (1) through – compulsory standardized schooling!

When this kind of education is acquired, it frees the individual from the authority of the other. Under the system of education by authority when told, for instance, that the sum of three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, this will be blindly believed only as long as authority sanctions this belief; but when an insight into the reason for this geometrical truth is obtained, no change of authority is able to make the individual doubt.

Really? Harris imagines a teacher, with grim authority, simply telling a kid that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles, and the kid just buying it, no questions asked. The kid, having been told this, simply does not or cannot try to understand it? I did not think math instruction had universally ‘advanced’ to this point as of the late 19th century. Nowadays, of courses, grade school teachers of math who understand or even just don’t loathe math are the exception.

I think, rather, that kids are curious, and try to understand things, at least until it is beaten out of them by a decade or two of schooling. It’s not a switch waiting for some enlightened adult to throw.

But there is this danger in the system of education by insight, if begun too early, that the individual tends to become so self-conceited with what he considers knowledge gotten by his own personal thought and research, that he drifts toward empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority. It is, therefore, necessary that this excessive conceit of self which this modern scientific method of education fosters, be lessened by building on the safe foundations of what has been described as the education of authority. The problems of the reform movement centre, therefore, on the proper method of replacing this authoritative or passive method of education by education through self-activity.

This is the thing about education theorists such as Fichte, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Mann and here Harris: they frame the problem wrong. Harris really thinks that a kid who learns how to exercise his curiosity in a constructive way is going to be conceited and unmanageable? The result of this is “empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority”? Again, did this man know any children? Somehow, a kid who sees Euclid’s proof that the sum of the angles in a triangle add up to two right angles is going to get conceited, if he sees it too early? Or might he not gain a respect for the genius of ancient Greek geometry, and an appreciation of rigorous reasoning?

We see here the outlines of a plan: Harris would have education by authority practiced from kindergarten (he was a big advocate of the kindergarten movement) without any contamination by ‘insight’. The little dears must learn to OBEY. Then, at some later date (Harris was also a huge factor in establishing compulsory high school) such well-trained automata will be ready to accept insights. But this form of education is a synthesis: both the automaton and the free individual exist in a creative tension, neither contradicting nor obviating the other.

So, how do you foster this creative tension, where students are both obedient to authority yet free to gain insights? Text books! No, really:

There is another problem that of the method of study. Germany advises us to teach by oral methods, by giving pieces of information and insight orally by word of mouth. But the American educators have blundered upon what may be defended as the correct method, namely, the text book method. It was merely the outcome of an unconscious trend. The method is of course liable to very serious abuse, but the good points greatly outweigh the bad. It has the advantage of making one independent of his teacher ; you can take your book wherever you please. You cannot do that with the great lecturer, neither can you question him as you can the book, nor can you select the time for hearing the great teacher talk as you can for reading the book. And it is true that nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books.

Germany, implementing Fichte, had as its educational goal to replace the father with the state, on Fichte’s theory that what a child desires more than anything is the approval of his father. It’s a simple matter, per Fichte, to remove the child from the family and replace the authority of the father with the state in the person of a state appointed and certified teacher. Thus trained, the child will be unable to think anything his teacher does not want him to think.

Textbooks, from a German perspective, might interfere with this instillation of blind loyalty to the state, as the kid might learn something without the explicit approval of the state/father. Thus, the student learns only what the teacher explicitly tells them.

While it seems Harris has here in mind more general books, as he explicitly mentions “nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books,” he was himself a producer of what we now call textbooks: books specifically produced for use by school children. It is unclear, at least at this point, what exactly Harris means here. Does he was students to read Euclid and Rousseau, say, on their own? Or does he mean text books to be mere extensions of the teacher’s authority, mere receptacles of approved ‘insight’?

The greatest danger of text-book education is verbatim, parrot-like recitation; but even then from the poorest text-book a great deal of knowledge can be gleaned. Then there is the alertness which in any large class will necessarily be engendered by an intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils in discussing a certain piece of work given in his own words. And then there is the advantage to be found in the fact that with the text-book the child can be busy by itself.

It remains unclear to me what Harris means by text books. Modern textbooks, with the possible exception of some more advanced math and science books, are characterized by predigestion: they have taken the subject and determined what correct thoughts about it are, as evidenced by the presence of questions at the ends of chapters, with the correct answers in the teacher’s edition. Nothing so open-ended as what Harris suggests – “intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils” – if he, indeed, intends to encourage free discussion.

Lastly, there is the problem of discipline. There should be very little corporal punishment ; the milder forms of restraint should be used. The child that is brought up accustomed to the rod loses his self respect, and may become the man who must have police surveillance. Silence, punctuality, regularity and industry are fundamental parts of a “substantial education” as much as the critical study of mathematics, literature, science and history is a part of the ” education of insight.” These two kinds of education, that of authority and that of self-activity, should be made complementary.

One can make the case that Harris is making simple common-sense observations, that kids need discipline enough to be quiet, show up regularly and work hard in order to learn anything, and that these must be inculcated prior to any particular subject matter. He calls this basis ‘substantial education’ and holds that it – discipline and enculturation – make one a mindless automaton. Yet, unless you achieve this level of discipline and conformity, you cannot hope for a liberal education, what Harris calls an “education of insight”.

I hear echoes of Pestalozzi here, where a child is to be lead step by step down a path designed by his teacher, not allowed to move on until a given step is mastered, as well as echoes of Fichte and the Blank Slate contingent. Harris’s prescriptions may sound good, but it flies in the face of experience with actual children. Kids learn different things in different orders at different speeds, and their native curiosity and intellectual capacities vary enormously. Their appreciation for and capacity to conform to behavioral norms, such as when be quiet, how hard and long to work on something, how to pay attention also vary, so that one 6 year old might sit quietly working for an hour with no trouble, while another can’t hold still for 5 minutes.

Self control and cultural norms are learned at home. Fichte saw this as a problem to be solved by the state. Don Bosco, working with boys who didn’t have a home, understood that he must supply some of what his boys lacked in order for them to succeed, but never imagined the home to be the source of all social ills. Rather, he saw the lack of a home as the problem.

Harris clearly seems to think school – and he was huge force in making compulsory, state-run K-12 schools the norm – is the place where civilization is learned, not home. He advocated for the forced removal of American Indian children from their homes, in order to inculcate in them a
“lower form of civilization” suitable for their inclusion in society. For completely benevolent reasons, of course.

On to Lecture III.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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

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