Education and the Middle-Class Crisis - Carrol Quigley
Extracted from the book “Tragedy and Hope”, inserted in the chapter “The United States and the Middle-Class Crisis.(pag. 1274 and following ones)."In his farewell report the Chairman of Harvard's Admissions Committee, Wilbur Bender, summed up the problem this way:
"The student who ranks first in his class may be genuinely brilliant or he may be a compulsive worker or the instrument of domineering parents ambitions or a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want. Or he may have focused narrowly on grade-getting as compensation for his inadequacies in other areas, because he lacks other interests or talents or lacks passion and warmth or normal healthy instincts or is afraid of life. The top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar fellow. The adolescent with wide-ranging curiosity and stubborn independence, with a vivid imagination and desire to explore fascinating bypaths, to follow his own interests, to contemplate, to read the un-required books, the boy filled with sheer love of life and exuberance, may well seem to his teachers troublesome, undisciplined, a rebel, may not conform to their stereotype, and may not get the top grades and the highest rank in class. He may not even score at the highest level in the standard multiple choice admissions tests, which may well reward the glib, facile mind at the expense of the questioning, independent, or slower but more powerful, more subtle, and more interesting and original mind."
These remarks bring us close to one of the major problems in American culture today. We need a culture that will produce people eager to do things, but we need even more a culture that will make it possible to decide what to do. This is the old division of means and goals. Decisions about goals require values, meaning, context, perspective. They can be set, even tentatively and approximately, only by people who have some inkling of the whole picture.
The middle-class culture of our past ignored the whole picture and destroyed our ability to see it by its emphasis on specialization. Just as mass production came to be based on specialization, so human preparation for making decisions about goals also became based on specialization. The free elective system in higher education was associated with choice of a major field of specialization, and all the talk about liberal arts, outside electives, general education, or required distribution were largely futile. They were futile because no general view of the whole picture could be made simply by attaching together a number of specialist views of narrow fields, for the simple reason that each specialist field looks entirely different, presenting different problems and requiring different techniques, when it is placed in the general picture.
This simple fact still has not been realized in those circles that talk most about broadening outlooks. This was clearly shown in the influential Harvard Report on General Education (1945). As one reviewer of this document said, "It cost $40,000 to produce (the report) and a better answer could have been found by buying one of the books of Sir Richard Livingstone for $2.75."
This remark is equally mistaken on the opposite side, a fact that shows that the solution can be found only by all parties freeing themselves from their preconceptions by getting as familiar as possible with the diverse special areas in a skeptical way.
Means are almost as difficult as ends. In fact, personal responsibility, self-discipline, some sense of time value and future preference, and, above all, an ability to distinguish what is important from what is merely necessary must be found. simply as valuable attributes of human beings as human beings.
Neither America nor the world can be saved by a wholesale re-creation of African social realities here in consequence of our rejection of the middle-class outlook that brought us this far. Here we must discriminate. We have an achieving society because we have an achieving outlook in our society. And that achieving outlook has been, over the last few centuries, the middle-class outlook. But there are other achieving outlooks. An achieving society could be constructed on the aristocratic outlook, on the scientific outlook (pursuit of truth), on a religious basis, and probably on a large number of other outlooks. There is no need to go back to the middle-class outlook, which really killed itself by successfully achieving what it set out to do. But parts of it we need, and above all we need an achieving outlook. It might be pleasant just to give up, live in the present, enjoying existential personal experiences, living like lotus-eaters from our amazing productive system, without personal responsibility, self-discipline, or thought of the future. But this is impossible, because the productive system would itself collapse, and our external enemies would soon destroy us.
We must have an achieving society and an achieving outlook. These will inevitably contain parts of the middle-class outlook, but these parts will unquestionably be fitted together to serve quite different purposes. Future preference and self-discipline were originally necessary in our society so that people would restrict consumption and accumulate savings that could be spent to provide investment in capital equipment. Now we no longer need these qualities for this purpose, since flows of income in our economy provide these on an institutional basis, but we still need these qualities so that young people will be willing to undergo the years of hard work and training that will prepare them to work in our complex technological society. We must get away from the older crass materialism and egocentric selfish individualism, and pick up some of the younger generation's concern for the community and their fellow-men. The unconventionality of this younger group may make them more able to provide the new outlook and innovation every society requires, but they cannot do this if they lack imagination or perspective.
Above all, we must bring meaning back into human experience. This, like establishing an achieving outlook, can be done by going backward in our Western tradition to the period before we had any bourgeois outlook. For our society had both meaning and purpose long before it had any middle class. Indeed, these are intrinsic elements in our society. In fact, the middle-class outlook obtained its meaning and purpose from the society where it grew up; it did not give meaning and purpose to the society. And capitalism, along with the middle-class outlook, became meaningless and purposeless when it so absorbed men's time and energies that men lost touch with the meaning and purpose of the society in which capitalism was a brief and partial aspect. But as a consequence of the influence of capitalism and of the middle classes, the tradition was broken, and the link between the meaning and purpose of our society as it was before the middle-class revolution is no longer connected with the search for meaning and purpose by the new post-middle-class generation. This can be seen even in those groups like the Christian clergy who insisted that they were still clinging to the basic Christian tradition of our society. They were doing no such thing, but instead were usually offering us meaningless verbiage or unrealistic abstractions that had little to do with our desire to experience and live in a Christian way here and now.
Unfortunately, very few people, even highly regarded experts on the subject, have any very clear idea of what is the tradition of the West or how it is based on the fundamental need of Western Civilization to reconcile its intellectual outlook with the basic facts of the Christian experience. The reality of the world, time, and the flesh forced, bit by bit, abandonment of the Greek rationalistic dualism (as in Plato) that opposed spirit and matter and made knowledge exclusively a concern of the former, achieved by internal illumination. This point of view that gave final absolute knowledge ... was replaced in the period 1100-1350 by the medieval point of view that derived knowledge from the tentative and partial information obtained through sensual experience from which man derived conceptual universals that fitted the real individual cases encountered in human experience only approximately. Aquinas, who said, "Nothing exists in the intelligence which was not first present in the senses," also said, "We cannot shift from the ideal to the actual." On this epistemological basis was established the root foundations of both modern science and modern liberalism, with a very considerable boost to both from the Franciscan nominalists of the century following Aquinas.
The Classical world had constantly fallen into intellectual error because it never solved the epistemological problem of the relationship between the theories and concepts in men's minds and the individual objects of sensual experience. The medieval period made a detailed examination of this problem, but its answer was ignored when post-Renaissance thinkers broke the tradition in philosophy because they felt it necessary to break the tradition in religion. From Descartes onward, this epistemological problem was ignored or considered in a childish way, as if the medieval thinkers had never examined it. Today it remains as the great philosophic problem of our age. Irrational Activism, semanticism, and existentialism flourish because the present century has no answer to the epistemological problem. In fact, most contemporary thinkers do not even recognize that there is a problem. But Bergson's rejection of intelligence and his advocacy of intuition was based, like the Irrational Activism whence it sprang, on recognition of the fact that the space-time continuum in which man generally operates is nonrational. The whole existential movement was based on the same idea.
Semanticism tried to solve the problem, in a similar fashion, by bringing the infinitely varied and dynamic quality of actuality into the human mind by insisting that the meaning of each word must follow the dynamics of the world by changing every time it is used. All these movements tried to reject logic and rationality from the human thinking process because they are not found in space-time actuality. But the tradition of the West, as clearly established in the Christian religion and in medieval philosophy, was that man must use rationality to the degree it is possible in handling a universe whose ultimate nature is well beyond man's present rational capability to grasp. This is the conclusion that the success of the West in World War II forces the West and the world to recognize once again. And in recognizing it, we must return to the tradition, so carelessly discarded in the fifteen century, which had shown the relationship between thought and action.
Alfred Korzybski argued (in Science and Sanity) that mental health depended on successful action and that successful action depended on an adequate relationship between the irrational nature of the objective world and the vision of the world that the actor has subjectively in his head. Korzybski's solution, like most other thinkers over the last two generations, has been to bring the irrationality of the world into man's thinking processes. This solution of the problem is now bankrupt, totally destroyed at Hiroshima and Berlin in 1945. The alternative solution lies in the tradition of the West. It must be found, and the link with our past must be restored so that the tradition may resume the process of growth that was interrupted so long ago.
Korzybski, Bergson, and the rest of them are quite correct - most of man's experience takes place in an irrational actuality of space-time. But we now know that man must deal with his experience through subjective processes that are both rational and logical (using rules of thought explicitly understood by all concerned); and the necessary adjustments between the conclusions reached by thought and the confused irrationalities of experience must be made in the process of shifting from thought to action, and not in the thinking process itself. Only thus will the West achieve successful thought, successful action, and the sanity that is the link between these two.
As a result of this rupture of tradition, the thinkers of today are fumbling in an effort to find a meaning that will satisfy them. This is as true of the contemporary babbling philosophers as it is of the younger generation who fumblingly try to express Christ's message of love and help without any apparent realization that Christ's message is available in writing and that generations of thinkers debated its implications centuries ago. The meaning the present generation is seeking can be found in our own past. Part of it, concerned with loving and helping, can be found in Christ by going back to the age before his message was overwhelmed in ritualism and bureaucracy. Part of it can be found in the basic philosophic outlook of the West as seen in medieval philosophy and the scientific method that grew out of it.
The problem of meaning today is the problem of how the diverse and superficially self-contradictory experiences of men can be put into a consistent picture that will provide contemporary man with a convincing basis from which to live and to act. This can be achieved only by a hierarchy that distinguishes what is necessary from what is important, as the medieval outlook did. But any modern explanation based on hierarchy must accept dynamicism as an all-pervasive element in the system, as the medieval hierarchy so signally failed to do. The effort of Teilhard de Chardin to do this has won enormous interest in recent years, but its impact has been much blunted by the fact that his presentation contained, in reciprocal relationship, a deficiency of courage and a surplus of deliberate ambiguity.
However, the real problem does not rest so much in theory as in practice. The real value of any society rests in its ability to develop mature and responsible individuals prepared to stand on their own feet, make decisions, and be prepared to accept the consequences of their decisions and actions without whining or self-justification. This was the ideal that the Christian tradition established long ago, and in consequence of its existence, our Western society, whatever its deficiencies, has done better than any other society that has ever existed. If it has done less well recently than earlier in its career (a disputable point of view), this weakness can be remedied only by some reform in its methods of child-rearing that will increase its supply of mature and responsible adults.
Once this process had been established, the adults thus produced can be relied upon to adopt from our Western heritage of the past a modified ideology that will fit the needs of the present as well as the traditions of the past. And if Western culture can do that, either in America or in Europe, it need fear no enemies from within or from without."