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

Continuing this review. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here, Lecture III here. Going into more detail than usually is possible, including just pasting the the entire lecture below, because of Harris’s importance in advancing compulsory state schooling, and the lectures are short enough to admit of it.

One more after this one. Another lecture written as one run-on paragraph. This one, more than the previous, appears to be just an outline or notes. I’d assume there was a lively discussion period afterwards?

LECTURE IV. January 25th, 1893. ROUSSEAU AND THE RETURN TO NATURE. REVOLUTIONARY PROTEST. (found here.)

The time of Louis XIV: the nobles attracted to Court and to a life of gayety, neglecting their estates and wasting the fruits of toil in riotous living ; the laborers deprived of the advantage of the directive power of the nobility fail in power of production. The French Revolution is the result. Rousseau its prophet ; he proclaims a return to nature. “Nature,” a word of ambiguous meaning; human nature versus physical nature; human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual. Nature in time and space is under the dominion of necessity, everything constrained to be what it is by outside forces. Human nature is an ideal, and when realized it has the form of freedom and self-determination, each man a law unto himself and each one engaged in helping every other one, for by this each one helps himself. Rousseau appealed to nature in everything. What we call civilization was to him a mere artificial form. His plea was to be natural, come back to the point where nature leaves you. Rousseau came from Switzerland to France, and at an opportune time for him ; for there was a great ferment of ideas at this epoch. He was struggling along in Paris, barely securing a livelihood, when there came the offer from the Academy of Dijon of a prize for an essay on the progress of the arts and sciences, whether it has tended towards the purification of morals and manners. The negative side suggested itself more forcibly to him, as he was better fitted for it by his mode of living and morals, and by his literary style, and he found himself at once a “censor of civilization.” This essay was soon followed (1752) by one on the origin of the inequality among men. The great tension produced by the artificiality of the civilization of the Court life of the time had caused men to become anxious to get back to a simplicity of living, and Chateau briand painted the charms of the forest life of the Indians. In this reaction the meaning of civilization is ignored. Man emancipates himself from drudgery and compels nature by the forces of his intellect to feed and clothe him. The “Social Contract” followed (1762) this with an attack on the authority of the State; and in the same year his Emile undermined the School and the Church : and so he attacked all the social institutions one after another the family, civil society, the Church and State. He proposed to sweep all away by summoning them before the bar of his individual judgment and condemning all. In the opening paragraph of his Emile he declares that everything which comes from nature is good, while everything degenerates in the hands of man. The antithesis of civilization is savagery, and Voltaire wittily exposed the fallacy of Rousseau’s teaching in his letter accepting the book. He said “never has anyone employed so much genius to make us into beasts. When one reads your book he is seized at once with a desire to go down on all fours.” External authority is a perennial necessity for man in his immaturity. An appeal to nature is always a piece of jugglery with words. In mere nature we have matter and force. Everything inorganic is made by some external influence. But organic nature is the opposite of inorganic. The plant has the power of assimilation, and the animal the further powers of locomotion and feeling, or ability to select or choose its surroundings. In man this is still further increased by recollection and memory, by which the mind makes over its impressions. To do his duty properly he must look to higher things, and in ethical ideas the human becomes transcendental. The moral man acts as though the sole being in the world is humanity. No natural instinct is admitted as having validity against the moral law. If we adopt the doctrines of material nature and yield to our feelings and impulses, we remain animals. But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility, and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture.

Harris is an Hegelian:

With Brockmeyer and other of the St. Louis Hegelians, he founded and edited the first philosophical periodical in America, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867), editing it until 1893. It promoted the view that the entire unfolding was part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic, as theorized by Hegel.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Torrey_Harris

It is said that Harris, as the United States Commissioner of Education, tried to make Hegelianism the official philosophy of American compulsory schooling. He only succeeded in making it, as dumbed down(!) by his incorrigible idiot child Marx, the *unofficial* philosophy of American schooling.

Now, the primary and defining belief of Hegelians is that they’re smarter and, most importantly, more enlightened than everybody else. They worship the power they lack but feel they deserve. Therefore, in their world, ignorant masses need (and deserve) to be lead into the glorious future by better people: “…the laborers deprived of the advantage of the directive power of the nobility fail in power of production. The French Revolution is the result.” Catch that? One might suspect that Harris is not entirely on board with America’s idealized egalitarianism. Also, I’m thinking there might be a few more tiny steps between indolent French counts and marquis neglecting to guide the farm hands and the Committee for Public Safety decapitating nuns. But hey, I’m not an Hegelian.

Following right on the heels of this vigorous & evidently double-jointed self back-patting (1) and not so subtle petulance about not being in charge is the idea of Progress: there’s this universal plan, see, under which the Spirit (2) reveals itself to itself inevitably through History. Through, of course, the ministration of enlightened Hegelians such as Harris, whose belief in the inevitability of Progress doesn’t seem to extend far enough to stay the hell out of imposing it on others.

Rousseau is a manifest idiot. Figures he’d be the prophet of the murderous idiocy of the French Revolution.

Now we get to the hardcore Hegelianism:

“Nature,” a word of ambiguous meaning; human nature versus physical nature; human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual. Nature in time and space is under the dominion of necessity, everything constrained to be what it is by outside forces. Human nature is an ideal, and when realized it has the form of freedom and self-determination, each man a law unto himself and each one engaged in helping every other one, for by this each one helps himself.

Digression: Generally, the world, or ‘Nature,’ can be understood according to two general steps. The base level is either/or, as succinctly stated in the Law of Noncontradiction. The next level is both/and, and is perhaps best expressed in the Schoolmen’s advice: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.” Using these two steps, one first establishes what is logically necessary and what is common experience, and moves from there to what might be (conditionally) true about the world. The Church, for example, has for centuries issued anathemas and proclaimed dogmas as a first step, then seemingly splits hairs when considering the application of those dogmas and anathemas. Science works the same way: the definitions and assumptions are necessarily dogmatic; data collection is always thoroughly hedged in by the assumptions and definitions; conclusions are always conditional. In both cases, we may yearn for more forceful and unconditioned conclusions, but the careful thinker is not likely to give us them.

Hegel strove for a third way: he wanted a dialectic within which everything is conditional – nothing ‘is, everything is ‘becoming’ – where violations of the Law of Noncontradiction were never resolved but rather suspended in the synthesis, where the currently unknowable workings of the Spirit create a new reality in its unfolding through time.

If this sounds like bafflegab, that’s because it is. It’s meant to fend off – summarily dismiss, really – the sort of careful dissection of questions which is the hallmark both of the Aristotelian/Thomist schools and science insofar as science works. (3) Hegel, and Marx much more so, are simply nonsensical. They contradict themselves in word and deed at every step. But since they know they’re right – what superior individual does not? – these contradictions must not be valid. Therefore, etc.

Here’s where Harris gets evil: “…human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual.” Under the both/and approach, one would distinguish as follows: it is the inalienable dignity of men as individuals that gives any meaning to the institutions within which man finds himself; yet it is true that men are formed and most fully realized within these institutions: marriage, family, village, state and church. Under Harris’s formulation, one would focus all efforts on changing institutions (sound familiar?): change the institution – school, in Harris’s case – and thus change the individuals.

One of the things naive supporters of more centralized control over people – progressives, socialists, Marxists (but I repeat myself) – seem unable to imagine is that this control, once established, will not long remain in the hand of the avuncular and well-intentioned as they imagine the Bern to be, but will in short order end up in the hands of Pol Pot. That’s the lesson of small ‘h’ history; that’s why capital ‘H’ History seeks to ignore and rewrite it.

Another historical aside: throughout the history of philosophy, there have been camps promoting multiple truths that need not gibe, and those after the beloved Emerson Cod: “The truth ain’t like puppies, a bunch of them running around, you pick your favorite. One truth… and it has come a knockin’.”

Here, Harris is proposing that there’s a material world of complete determination, and a spiritual world where, once idealized human nature is realized, everyone will be perfect little saints. Not one world of matter and form, but two worlds where different truths prevail. Subtle, but important: rather than a man striving to be personally better as a creature comprising an inseparable and essential body and soul, Gnosticism has crept back from the dead: the body is evil, only the soul is good. Gnosticism has proven many times over the centuries to ba an idea tending inexorably toward misery.

We have thus arrived at a situation that should sound very current and familiar: we are to focus our attention on changing institutions, which, once conformed to the enlightened ideas of the elect, will produce perfect, happy little people. Remember, enlightenment means never having to listen, let alone explain yourself, to the unenlightened – they just won’t understand! (This also conveniently absolves the enlightened from having to personally behave themselves, since their personal behaviour has no effect by definition: Weinstein can rape away and Gore and AOC can jet around like rock stars, just so long as they mouth the right platitudes in favor of *institutional* change.)

After thankfully disposing of Rousseau – hey! Stopped clock got one right! – Harris turns back to his own naive mysticism:

External authority is a perennial necessity for man in his immaturity. An appeal to nature is always a piece of jugglery with words.

That he considers man immature is almost a tautology; that he considers appeals to human nature ‘jugglery’ is an appeal to more Hegelian and especially Marxist nonsense: while Hegel merely denies any permanence to our understanding of human nature – it’s unfolding along with the Spirit, and is always becoming, never being – Marx just flat out denies the existence of human nature: it’s a social construct, man.

He and his will be happy to provide the external authority needed by us immature people until the point at which we are mature: by definition, when we agree with Harris. Not quite fair: when we agree with Harris, we will be counted among the enlightened and allowed to indulge our tyrannical jones over the less enlightened and sit at the Kool Kids Table until the Spirit is done unfolding itself. Not kidding: Harris worked his whole adult life to make the schools the instrument of the Enlightened.

He succeeded.

To do his duty properly he must look to higher things, and in ethical ideas the human becomes transcendental. The moral man acts as though the sole being in the world is humanity. No natural instinct is admitted as having validity against the moral law. If we adopt the doctrines of material nature and yield to our feelings and impulses, we remain animals. But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility, and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture.

Ethical ideas are spiritual. Natural instincts are controlled by morality. Going with feels is to remain an animal. So far so good. “But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility,” This sounds sensible, out of context “… and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture. OK, so we yearn to fulfill our divine destiny, which can be realized through – school? We’ll school kids so that they will change the culture? To bring about the Hegelian Valhalla?

What could possibly go wrong?

One more lecture to go.

  1. How do they not pull a muscle?
  2. Hegel may not have invented the practice of renaming old ideas in order to sound smart and hip, but he certainly advanced the art: here, anybody else would say ‘God’, but that turf had already been worked over pretty good by the Salvation History folks, most prominently Augustine. In contrast to Hegel’s Spirit unfolding and coming to know itself History, Salvation History posits, on the one hand, a God Who reveals Himself to us over time and on the other a lamentably realistic view of secular history as one long tragic train of failure punctuated every now and then by a passing victory, until, in the end, we all lose – and then Jesus comes! Hegel wanted God embedded, as it were, with the forward troops in a long march to Victory! Marx’s eschatology, all but indistinguishable in outline from traditional Christian eschatology
    excepting that that God person has been renamed History, reflects this persistence.
  3. The irony here: Hegel, writing in the early 19th century, assumes Progress is so completely obvious that his task is to explain the origins and workings of that Progress. In doing so, he dismisses scientists, mathematicians, and technologists as the little people, those who need to use logic and reason as traditionally understood – not *real* philosophers like Hegel, who have transcended all such crutches. Problem: the only really obvious progress has been made by precisely those scientists, mathematicians and technologist Hegel dismisses. Everything else we might want to call progress is highly debatable, to say the least. He saws off the branch he’s sitting on.
Advertisements

Author: Joseph Moore

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

One thought on “Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure IV”

  1. I’ve seen this line in practice: “Now, the primary and defining belief of Hegelians is that they’re smarter and, most importantly, more enlightened than everybody else.” Many of my political philosophy professors certainly fell into this camp, especially the one who tried to teach Hegel and Gramsci. She positively oozed an air of superiority.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s