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

Concluding this review with the final lecture in the series. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here, Lecture III here, Lecture IV 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.

This final lecture is also written as one run-on paragraph, this one nearly 3 pages long; clearly, these are outlines or note.

Let’s summarise our current state after Lecture IV: Harris believes all ‘substantial education,’ which he defines as the rote training and thoughtless inculturation every child in every culture receives, reduces the student to an ‘automata,’ careful to accept cultural premises and follow acceptable cultural paths. He tacitly dismisses the idea that a child could learn to think for himself, and accepts some form of tabula rasa: the idea that a child might already be himself, and thus not a clean field for indoctrination, is never considered.

In Hegel-speak, a substantially educated child has his individuality ‘subsumed’ into the culture. Such a one will have surrendered his individuality in order to belong. Harris then proposes a second educational principle, which frees the student’s individuality from this subsumption (while simultaneously not freeing it – hey, it’s Hegel!): learning to be an Hegelian. Only Hegelians, in Harris’ view, possess the tools to address society’s problems.

This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.

Here we find the traditional Hegelian and especially Marxist abuse of the word ‘scientific’ to mean ‘untestable and poorly-defines assertions that I’d really like to be true.’ We know Harris means this, because he calls this an ‘education of insights’. Hegel places insights – direct infusions of truth into the soul, not subject to logic nor testable by experiment – above and beyond the reach of the little people and their math and science and technology. It is by insight, for example, that the enlightened Hegelian sees the Spirit unfolding and coming to know Itself through History. Thus progress is not a measure of net relative advances, if any, over time, but is instead Progress, a god-like force moving us ‘forward’. This is all very scientific.

Another aspect of scientific education is that it must be doled out a spoonful at a time by experts – here he echos Pestalozzi and Fichte – lest the child get the crazy idea that he can figure stuff out on his own, and become unmanageable. We see here the foundation of our dumb-them-down system that does everything possible to exclude or trivialize parental involvement.  Harris praises textbooks as the perfect tools to this end.

So, after the first two lectures, we are to understand that we all are automata except insofar as we’ve been enlightened, the sole measure of this enlightenment being our agreement with Hegel and his acolytes like Harris. Our schools need to be run by professionals, who alone are able to properly ration out knowledge, and who will take great care that their charges remain docile.

After an excursion through Kant and some more blank slate nonsense in Lecture III, Harris gets to the point in Lecture IV: the little benighted people need to be lead by the good and enlightened people, a sort of revolutionary vanguard, as it were.

LECTURE V. February 4th, 1893.  HERBERT SPENCER AND WHAT KNOWLEDGE IS OF MOST WORTH.  (found here.)

In Herbert Spencer, the return to nature means the study of natural  science, and this becomes the great thing. But natural science is only the  instrument with which we conquer nature. Everybody becomes filled with the idea of progress by it, for we see that nature as it is, existing in time  and space, is conquered by inventions and made to serve man. There was never a more unscientific book made than Spencer’s essay on education ; for while he praises science, he does not apply it to a study of education as it  is and has been. To do this he ought to study the genesis of the course of study and explain its functions. The unscientific person takes things as they are, and cares not for their origin. To study things from a scientific standpoint means to take an inventory of them to find the process in which  they are being produced ; to connect them with other things ; to see things in their causal process. He does not understand the system of education as it exists, because he does not know the educational value of its branches. The education he proposes for us is for the purpose of complete living; but  what is Spencer’s definition of this complete living? Spencer does not take education as the genesis of man’s spiritual life, but merely as something useful for showing how to care for the body and perform the lower social functions as the tool of life, the instrument by which life is preserved.

More specifically Hegelian criticism. All current action is to be judged by its place within the Spirit’s unfolding both now and in the future. I have little knowledge of Spenser’s educational theories and would likely find them appalling based on what little I do know, but Harris’s critique here hangs on Spenser not being Hegelian enough, which I would take as a complement.  Sure, sound education is first and foremost education toward spiritual growth. Hegel’s idea of spiritual growth is hardly anything I’d sign up for.

Now  suppose the definition of complete living to be, to elevate each individual so that he can take advantage of the life and experience of his race. Then  he would find complete living to involve the initiation into the civilizations of the past that furnish the elements out of which our own civilization is formed.

This sounds good, having children learn about past civilizations, until you see it in an Hegelian context: past civilizations are mere illustrations of the Spirit’s march through History. One would not be permitted by Hegel to dwell too much on how our modern age has in many ways lost the excellence of past cultures – e.g., Greek excellence, Roman honor, Medieval logic, Renaissance conceptions of beauty  – and failed to replace them with anything of equal value, let alone exceed them. Hegelians have no place in their schema for genuine admiration of the past, which is just prelude to an ever more glorious present and future.

Spencer thinks that the first business of the child is to know physiology ; the next is the selection of a vocation or trade, which leads to training for citizenship ; and last of all he puts relaxation and amusement, in which he includes literature and art. Now, Aristotle characterized man as the symbol-making animal. Human nature has to be expressed by symbols. The poets of a people first paint the ideal, which makes civilization possible. Literature furnishes the most essential branch of education, so far as its function is to help the child into civilization. Man sits in the theatre of the world (as Plato tells us) and sees the shadows of men and events thrown on the curtain before him. Behind him and out of his sight is the Great Leader, who is making these shadows. From them he draws his ideals, but ideals are potentialities, not realities. Self-activity, the freedom of the soul, is made possible by the institutions of society, the family, civil society, State and Church. We must not confound the mere school with these other great institutions of civilization. In the family are learned the mother tongue, habits, and nurture. Civil society teaches him his vocation; the State, his duties as citizen ; and the Church shows him his place in the divine plan of the universe. Spencer calls education the subject which involves all other subjects, and the one in which they should all culminate. But some one has better said that school education is the giving to man the possession of the instrumentalities of intelligence. By his school education he does not attain all education, but he gets the tools of thought by which to master the wisdom of the race.

OK, sure, pretty common understanding, although the glossing over of “church” Mere Christianity style fails to address the real, passionate disagreements people have over what constitutes a proper church. This, I suppose, would be an area Harris would expect the little people to be lead by their betters.

There are, then, three epochs  of school education elementary, secondary and higher. The first or elementary stage is the opening of the five windows of the soul. (1) Arithmetic is the foundation of our knowledge of nature, by which we measure  and count all things inorganic. When its first principles are mastered the child begins to want to combine the organic with the inorganic, and then we come to another window (2), that of elementary geography. The distribution of animal and plant life is learned, and the child begins to peep  into the organization of things, the growth of plants, and the formation of the continents and the earth. Thirdly, he learns to read and write, and gets a glimpse into literature. The original colloquial vocabulary learned at home, variously estimated at from 300 or 400 to 3,000 or 4,000 words, deals  only with commonplace things. But the school takes this colloquial vocabulary as a key and opens up the great reservoir of literature in books, initiating him into a higher class of words, expressive of fine shades of feeling and thought. Thus, to his own vocabulary are added those of great writers, who have seen nature from a different point of view, and presented their thoughts  in gems of literary style. Literature lifts up the pupil into the realms of human nature and discloses the motives which govern the actions of men. Yet Spencer puts this last in his course of study. After learning all science has to give, after learning one’s trade and the care of his body, he would then, if there is leisure, permit literature and art. But literature is the greatest educator we have. It has made possible newspapers and periodicals and books, with pictures of human life and of the motives governing  our actions. The fourth window of the soul is grammar, wherein we have a glimpse of the logical structure of the intellect as revealed in language. The fifth window is history (that of his own country), wherein he sees revealed the aspirations of his countrymen, his own nature, written out in colossal letters ; and these five studies should make the elementary education of the student.

Here the Pestalozzian approach is clear: the expert decides the child shall learn Arithmetic first, and not go on to anything else until it is mastered; then  basic Geography, and only once this is mastered, reading and writing; then Grammar, then the History of his own nation.

Well? Anyone who has been around kids knows that no two are alike, and that one may take to math like a fish to water at age 5, while another will find it baffling into adulthood. Lumping kids together by age, a barbaric practice championed by Harris and his predecessors, makes it certain that the first kid is going to be bored out of his mind and the second baffled and confused. Sure, in some Pestalozzian, anti-Fichtean dream world each kid gets all the attention he needs and moves ahead at his own pace. Sure. History shows how well the graded classroom model has approached that ideal. If education were the goal, it might; but since control is the goal, it won’t.

And so on. I’m old enough and, after a fashion, smart enough that I got left alone by the teachers for the most part when I was a little kid, because I either knew the stuff or could fake it. Now? from what I can tell, teachers are not allowed to let a kid skate on attention or classwork if he seems OK to them. Nope, conformity is demanded. Control is, after all, at the base and summit of Harris’s ideal.

The secondary education takes up human learning and continues it along the same lines, namely : 1, inorganic nature; 2, organic nature; 3, literature (the heart); 4, grammar and logic (the intellect); and 5, history (the will). Algebra deals with general numbers, while Arithmetic has definite numbers to operate with. Geometry and physics continue inorganic nature, while natural history continues the study already commenced in geography. Then come Greek and Latin, and here is opened up a great field of study into the embryology of our civilization. In the dead language* we have the three great threads running through the history of human progress. The Greek, with its literature and aesthetic art and its philosophy, showing the higher forms of human freedom in contrast with the Egyptian, which showed only the struggle for freedom and never the man separated from the animal and the inorganic world. The Roman, with the continual gaze upon the will of man, seeks the true forms of contracts and treaties and corporations, whereby one man may combine with another, and it essays the conquering of men and reducing them to obedience to civil law, not only external conquest but internal conquest as well. The Hebrew thread is the religious one, which we recognize in the celebration of worship one day each week and in the various holy days. We acknowledge this the most essential thread of our civilization. So, with the secondary education we begin to get the embryology of our forms of life.

As mentioned here, high school education at the close of the 19th century puts virtually all undergrad work to shame. Admission to Harvard at this time merely required a demonstration of basic competence in Greek, Latin and calculus – which a high school student who hoped to go to college could reasonably be expected to have achieved.

Harris seems to support this model, which is quite similar to what I went through at St. John’s College.  He seems confident it will produce exactly the good little Hegelians he invisions all enlightened people to be.

But what if it doesn’t? What if the vanguard decides good little Hegelians are good little Marxists? Then, understanding history, logic, scripture, etc., become positive liabilities if they don’t produce such Marxists. There’s even a risk a student who really learned this stuff might forcefully reject Marx! What if education leads away from, not towards, the glorious revolution?

Best not to take that risk. Stick with basic indoctrination. It’s the only way to be sure.

The higher or collegiate education is the comparative step of education. Each branch is studied in the light of all the others. Natural science  and sociology are investigated ; logic and mental philosophy ; ethics and rhetoric; as well as the philosophy of history and of literature, and the comparative sciences, which furnish the light for the whole method of  higher education. The first, or elementary education, then, is but superficial, a mere inventory ; the secondary insists on some reflection on what has been learned ; and the third, or higher education, is the unity and  comparison of all that has been learned, so that each is explained by the whole. Give the child possession of the embryology of civilization, and his insight into the evolution of civilization is insured.

“Insight” – and there you have it. Harris is naively confident this insight is Hegelian. His Marxist successors excised all the basic stuff because they more wisely understood that all this education could, from their view, go terribly wrong.

Educators have  adopted the course of study as it exists, led by an unconscious or blind  impulse. Herbert Spencer should have investigated and discovered its purpose, which is a far deeper one than he has thought out when he advocates its overthrow for the sake of knowledge that leads to direct self-preservation.

“…led by an unconscious or blind  impulse. ” More Hegel, the Spirit unfolding itself despite men not being aware of what is happening.

  1. Rosenkranz: Paedagogik als System (English Translation, D. Appleton it Co., New York). Third part, treating of the substantial contents of the national education Its sacred books, and the idea that the nation stands for in the history of the world. (Lec ture 1.)
  2. Karl Schmidt : Geschichte der Paedagogik ; gives a much fuller statement of the details of the culture systems of the several nations. (Lecture 1.)
  3. R. H. Quick ; Educational Reformers. (Lectures 2, 3, 4, and 5.)
  4. Pestalozzi : Lienhard und Gertrud. (English Translation, Boston.) (Lectures.)
  5. Herbart; Lehrbuch zur Psychologie. (English translation, tfno York). (Lectures.)
  6. Rousseau : Emile. (Lecture 4.)
  7. Herbert Spencer ; Essay on Education. (Lectures.)

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Author: Joseph Moore

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

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