Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/October 1910/The Distinction Between the Liberal and the Technical in Education

1579450Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 October 1910 — The Distinction Between the Liberal and the Technical in Education1910Percy Hughes




THE terms liberal and technical do not distinguish two types of educational practise, but two tendencies in and functions of any part of the educational process. For at the present time any type of liberal education includes of necessity education for efficiency in some art, in the broadest sense of that term; while the existent types of technical education involve training that goes far to realize liberal ideals..

But, in any education, the tendency to emphasize the technical at the cost of the liberal function of that education is confronted with the reciprocal striving of the liberal tendency and ideal to maintain its ancient eminence and prerogative. The technical aim is to fit the individual to take his place in the social scheme of toil through efficiency in some art, whether it be teaching or engineering, medicine or "business" The liberal purpose is the realization in each individual of the highest manhood, of those ideals of character and personality which alone make the toil and sacrifice of society meaningful and worth while. It is possible that these two tendencies should cooperate and indeed proceed' along identical lines of educational effort now, as they have done in times past. But it seems that under modern conditions which the school can neither at once change nor at all afford to disregard, the demand for technical efficiency is necessarily antagonistic to liberal; aspiration—not indeed at all points, but in many respects.

I believe that it is of the greatest importance clearly to formulate and contrast these two tendencies in modern education, so that, in answer to the perfectly clear and exceedingly insistent demands for technical efficiency, there may be set forth ideals of liberal education' which shall be well understood by all interested in education, and shall' appeal to all as imperative and urgent.

Disregarding, therefore, accidental, partial and temporary phases of liberal education, we note, in the first place, that in styling an education liberal we thereby associate it with liberalism in politics, in philosophy and theology, and in men's personal relations to each other. In each case liberalism seems fundamentally to denote freedom, that is, the conditions that make for the development and realization in each individual of that character and personality which is his true nature. A similar argument leads to the conclusion that the technical in education is directed toward efficiency in some art. (Here the term art is used in its original and broadest sense, to include any method of action that is recognized and adopted as the means appropriate to achieve some definite, specific purpose.) We may then conclude that an education is liberal in so far as it makes for manhood and personality, technical in so far as it makes for efficiency in some art. And we proceed to consider why it is that at the present time we find the liberal opposed to and contrasted with the technical trend of education.

In ancient Athens the aim set before each citizen was, fundamentally, to be a good citizen; and in mastering that art he realized also personality and manhood. Here the technical and the liberal in education seemed in perfect accord. And it was so in the Rome of Cicero and Quintilian, when the education of the orator was looked on as the fullest development of personality. And, in primitive and medieval Christianity, the fullest realization of the soul in that life-long education which should bring salvation in the knowledge and love of God was the very education which should fit the man also for the one supreme art, the extension of God's kingdom here upon earth. So too the knight, the warrior of the medieval system, could not distinguish the education which should make him a perfect knight, from that which should make him a perfect man.

During the renaissance there appeared and flourished a type of education which had in view the cultured gentleman, rather than the perfection of any art to which he might or might not apply his powers. 13ut even here the liberal was not contrasted with the technical, though in later times there developed from this renaissance ideal the still persistent concept of a "gentleman" who might best attain culture when aloof from the general life of toil. But what is most noteworthy in the renaissance, whether we consider its birth in the free Italian cities, its culmination in Luther and Bacon, or its close in Milton, is not unworthily summed up in the ideal of education which Milton himself thus expressed: "I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform, justly, skillfully and magnanimously, all the offices both private and public of peace and war." Still then it was thought that a man might attain efficiency in every art and therein find his perfect freedom and full realization.

The sense of opposition between the liberal and the technical in education is not to be found in Huxley or in Spencer, who best express to us the scientific in contrast with the humanistic vision of liberal education. Indeed, both these men were criticized, even in their own day, for failure to see that to be "in harmony with nature" or to strive after a comprehensive knowledge of the various fields of science is not the best preparation for most occupations, and is indeed hardly possible in view of the necessity for the thorough acquaintance with some limited field of science and knowledge which modern conditions seem to demand.

For, as the development of the sciences has led to the elaboration and multiplication of the arts, and to consequent specialization in each field of art, even the gifted man finds himself forced to abandon the scientific and humanistic aspirations which have been identified with a liberal education, in order that he may attain some small success in a selected realm of practical art and achievement. Without for the present assuming that such specialization does indeed mean dwarfing and distorting of personality, we clearly have to recognize that it introduces a new factor into the situation, which at least tends to turn technical education from liberalizing paths, or seems to do so.

Another influence seems more obviously and directly to turn technical education from liberal ideals, viz., the fact that most arts now demand for their prosecution great sums of money. For this and for other reasons, no doubt, all arts have come to be looked on as in the first place parts of "business," and are followed and studied chiefly from the business point of view, in which the first consideration is to do that for which people will pay, and to make a profit. "Business" itself may be called an art; perhaps the art of money-making. But, while of other arts it often is true that they require of the efficient artist that he be very much of a man, no one claims, I believe, that the art of money-making "functions" very successfully in the enlargement and ennobling of personality. And, however much we may urge the student and worker in any field of art, other than that of money-making, to find within his work his reward, and to place the excellence of his art above all considerations of gain, we must admit that that view of technical pursuits is taken by but few men, save for "those brief moments when men are at their best."

Granting then the liberalizing potentiality of any technical education we may fairly inquire whether, in the presence of these two factors, extreme specialization, and the exaltation of money-making, the liberal tendency in and function of education is not greatly neglected and harassed. But in such an inquiry I would avoid the view-point of those who stand primarily as defenders of an ancient order of things, of an excellence the vision of which has bestowed upon them, but which is rarely granted to those who attain intellectual maturity under present conditions. The conception of a liberal education, that it stands for freedom, for the spontaneous realization in each individual of what in the fullest and truest sense he is, such a conception summons us to the unbiased study of the individuals born into the world as it now is, in order that we may afresh determine with their aid, for ourselves and for them, what means to adopt in order that the best in each of them may come to light. Yet, in thus adapting the liberal ideal and aspiration to present conditions, we of course reject neither the classic nor the scientific springs of culture.

It seems to me that evidence of an actual opposition between the liberal and the technical in education is found in three distinct evils which pervade the activities of society; and in each case it seems to me that the remedy for the evil lies only in adhering to and establishing the ideal of liberal education.

It is regarded as the business of the technically trained man to give people what they want, if they will pay for it. He is not expected to judge, or to be capable of judging, whether what is thus done makes for the development of human nature and personality. A shipbuilder is not expected to judge whether the object for which he builds the ship—war, it may be, or contemptible luxury—is a worthy object; the skilled advertising agent is not blamed if he collects money for the publication of a magazine much worse than useless, but permitted by law; the bridge-designer is not expected to see that his designs are executed under conditions that make for the safety and welfare of the workmen; the automobile manufacturer is not censured for the construction of machines ill adapted to run according to law, but excellently suited to break the law and to put other people to discomfort and in danger; the newspaper editor is not blamed for the destruction of acres of noble spruce trees sacrificed to the production of a "comic" supplement.

Even though we ask of the preacher and the teacher, of the physician and the scientist—yes, of the lawyer and the politician—that they have regard to the welfare of men in their several lines of art, and though such technical training as all these men may receive is not without reference to this liberal aspect of the professions they are to follow, yet we have to recognize that none of these professions is free from the general principle that people should get what they are willing to pay for, and not much else. And it must be confessed that in every line •of technical education, with the partial exception of the training for teaching and the ministry, what little insistence there is upon the importance of the liberal conception of life and art, is not accompanied by thorough instruction in determining what ideals of manhood and personality are worthy and well founded. On the study of what things are of real worth much has been written (outside the literature of "revelation") which compares in solidity and scope of treatment with the best that the mathematician and the physicist have achieved in their fields of science. But the study of these teachings is at present largely neglected, and seldom systematic or continuous.

From the liberal standpoint the highest development of a man's personality involves the sense of a thoroughgoing responsibility for what he does, and the determination to decide for himself, so far as possible, whether what he does is, in its results upon human welfare, worthy of himself. No man surely is called free who acts without appreciation of the significance of his acts. It is therefore the liberal ideal that a man must seek himself to be the first judge of his own acts, as to whether in the last analysis they are right or wrong. The conception that a man may do whatever he is paid to do, provided his acts do not come under the effective censure of the state, is no more liberal than it is lovely. It seems to be the neglect of the liberal ideal that has brought us face to face with our present condition in which talented and trained men are swifter to do evil than the will of the people is found ready to check the evil through laws.

The first element, therefore, of the liberal as distinguished from the technical function of education, at the present time, is that men trained for any art should know and fully recognize what things in life are of greatest worth, and should acquire the habit of acting according to that conception; especially in their own fields or art. While history, literature and philosophy seem to be the subject-matter through which such education may be given, it is obvious that their association with technical pursuits would need to be made much closer than is usual, if the aspect of liberalism which I have described is to be realized.

A second respect in which, I think, the liberal in education needs sharply to be contrasted with the technical drift in modern education, may be styled "appreciation." In some occupations, it is true, there is a strictly technical necessity that a man must grasp the scientific, social and esthetic significance of his task, if he is to do his work well; but in countless other lines of technical achievement, from the work of a factory hand to that of a railway president, it is idle to assert that a proper appreciation of these aspects of his work is essential to his technical success. And, indeed, it is essential that a man's appreciation of the meaning of his work should be cherished quite independently of any possibility of use and reward; though of course if the reward come, all the better. Freedom and the adequate realization of personality require that a man's work "have meaning to himself." Let him see within his work, in Dewey's words, "all that there is in it of large and human significance," and he will not be the slave of tomorrow's promised smiles.

There is no "job" that does not present innumerable phases of interest, and problems for investigation to the mind trained in physics and chemistry, none that is not linked in a hundred ways with all the problems and needs of the social organism, and with the history of man's effort and advance, his folly and despair. There is no task, I suppose, in which the eye and ear trained to appreciation may not detect features of beauty and romance and mystery. And to the philosophic mind the very monotony of the toil is linked with the tireless movement of ocean and planet, while the spirit that endures it is felt to be kin and near to the will and temper of heroes in all ages.

The habit of thus associating the richness of history, romance and science with one's daily work is found in some men, and is a source in them not only of technical efficiency, but of strength and joy. How little is such genuine liberalism fostered by the aristocratic conception of culture as a means of occupying leisure, or by our actual practise of dissociating the study of history, literature and philosophy from the common tasks of to-day! Perhaps the remedy lies partly in the introduction of industrial training into our schools, perhaps in the more common employment of teachers who have worked in shop and factory and office.

The third way in which under present conditions the liberal in education stands opposed to the technical, is in the recognition of individuality, the right of each individual to "yield," in Emerson's words, "that peculiar fruit which he was created to bear." In place of each man adjusting himself to his environment, which, technically speaking, means the present or anticipated demands of the buyer, Emerson invites the individual to "plant himself indomitably upon his instincts and there abide," for the huge world will come round to him. However exaggerated the language, the conception is fundamentally the liberal conception, viz., that the end of all our activities is nothing but the bringing to flower and fruit the highest perfection of which each man is capable. Whereas the technical view at present is to look on the individual as part of the machinery by which the "world's work" is done, that is, service is rendered for which people can be got to pay, the liberal view is to insist that the world's work is the cultivation of the garden of human life, and the best service a man can render is to offer the world the finest fruits of his own personality. Liberalism bids the man take counsel of his own spirit rather than of the market, and prophesies that in maintaining his stand in the face of the world he will gain a deeper insight of the essential harmony between himself and it, while lifting life to a higher scale of intensity and idealism.

By thus starting from the simplest possible conception of liberal education, as education for freedom, for the realization of personality, we escape from a narrow tradition, and from a false antithesis to industrial ardor and efficiency, and are left free to judge for ourselves wherein under present conditions true personality consists, to note without prejudice what evils the technical emphasis in education actually tends to nourish, and to devise under constantly changing conditions new ways for the protection and furthering of the liberal ideal. Clearly the defense of the liberal in education is not merely a matter of insisting on certain courses of study traditionally styled liberal; but, if I have correctly analyzed the situation, it is to cherish certain ideals and to train in certain habits, viz., in the evaluation of one's conduct in terms of its effect upon character, in the appreciation of the interest and beauty that actually is present in our work, and in counting individuality, patient and prudent independence, of more significance than the world's approval or reward. Subsidiary to such ideals the classics, ancient and modern, have indeed their place, which is side by side, however, with modern science, in all its branches, and the alert observation of living men and existent things, which are at least as important instruments to such liberalism.

The reformation which thus appears necessarly would be furthered, in my opinion, by the formation in each school and university of one or more associations of instructors for the professed, deliberate and persistent study of the means through which the liberal spirit and purpose may be preserved and increased, first in themselves, second in the world at large, and finally in the student body. For liberalism can not be very effective in the curriculum until it is born again in our hearts and in the world at large. Few instructors seem to be less liberal, in the fundamental significance of the term, than many teachers of the subjects which are traditionally styled liberal. Personally, I look with most hope towards those young men who are conscious of the need without being committed by tradition and profession to any particular way of meeting the need, men, who, having their eyes fixed upon the industrial world as the place where men really live, earnestly ask themselves how the boys who are to toil there may take with them from home and school the habitual recognition that the ultimate aim of all modern industry is nothing but the exaltation of manhood, the free realization in individuals of the ideals of manhood.