Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hutchins and Dewey: Lessons for Education in a Material Society

An item in the news this week caught my attention.  As the Washington Post reported it,  Apple, now one of the largest corporations in the world, used a series offshore "entities" to avoid paying U.S. taxes on billions of dollars that it earned overseas.  While this kind of thing is fairly common among U.S. corporations, the Apple example was unprecedented because the overseas "entities" had no staff and no physical presence, according to Senate staffers.  Apple responded by saying that it paid all of the taxes due to the U.S., and that what it was doing was perfectly legal.  The real question, both sides seem to agree, is whether it should be legal.  What should be the obligation of a corporation to the society in which it operates?

The debate illustrates a dilemma that has become very visible in today's society:  What is the role of government in a democratic society?  Corporations have become increasingly powerful forces in our governmental processes these days.  The Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to finance political campaigns is one example.  Apple's ability to legally hide otherwise taxable income from the citizens of the U.S. is another.  There seems to be a growing tension between social responsibility and material greed, a tension that could undermine the basic social contract on which democracy rests.

These are not new tensions.   In April 1941--as Europe was already at war and months before the U.S. joined in--University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins gave a series of lectures that were later collected in a book, Education for Freedom.  He noted the increasing materialism of American society, what he described as the doctrine "that material goods are an end in themselves" (p. 40) and that "the state is valuable if it helps to maximize profits, but is apparently to have little part in economic life beyond this and beyond fulfilling functions which are too big or too unprofitable for private enterprise” (p. 41).   What he said seventy years ago sounds awfully current today.

Hutchins, who had already established himself as an advocate for higher education reform, was alarmed by the broader, moral implications.  He wrote:
The state is not an end in itself, but a means to the virtue and intelligence, that is the happiness, of the citizens. It is held together by justice, through which it cares for the common good.  The common good, in fact, is little but justice most broadly conceived:  peace, order, and an equitable distribution of economic goods. Since the state is charged with responsibility for the common good, and since the production and distribution of material goods are one aspect of the common good, the economic order must be subordinate to the political order (p. 45).
The implication, he said,  is that “every act of every man is a moral act, to be tested by moral, and not by economic, criteria” (p. 46).   The individual's ability to assert moral power is critical, according to Hutchins.  "If we can no nothing about society," he said,  "if we can have only opinion about it, and if one man’s opinion is as good as another’s, then we may decide to get what we irrationally want by the use of irrational means, namely force” (p.31).

The move toward materialism had very direct implications for higher education, in Hutchins' view.   ". . .The aim of education is wisdom and goodness," he wrote, adding, "Studies that do not bring us closer to this goal have no place in a university .  .  . If you deny this proposition, you take the responsibility of asserting that a rational view of the universe and one's role in it is no better than an irrational one or none at all" (p. 26-27).  The implications for the curriculum were clear:  "If, then, we are to have standards of social criticism and social action, and if they are to be anything but emotional standards, they must result from philosophical and historical study and from the habit of straight thinking therein" (p. 29).

Hutchins' solution was an extension of the "Great Books" curriculum that he had proposed for Chicago in the 1930s.  It was that "education be concerned first of all with ideas, with principles, with the abiding and the permanent" (p. 57)--the "cultivation of intellectual virtues" that "can be accomplished through the communication of our intellectual tradition and through training in the intellectual disciplines" (p 60).  The vehicle he proposed was a two-year general education baccalaureate degree emphasizing study of
. . . the great thinkers of the past and present, scientific, historical, and philosophical.  It means a grasp of the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics; reading, writing, and figuring.  It does not, of course, mean the exclusion of contemporary materials.  They should be brought in daily to illustrate, confirm, or deny the ideas held by the writers under discussion" (ibid.).
John Dewey had explored similar terrain in his 1915 book, Democracy and Education, but emphasized the idea that education, while it may use materials from the past, is about the present.   Noting that "an individual can live only in the present," Dewey argued:
The study of past products will not help us understand the present, because the present is not due to the products, but to the life of which they were the products.  A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise.  And the mistake of making the records and remains of the past the main material of education is that it cuts the vital connection of present and past, and tends to make the past a rival of the present and the present a more or less futile imitation of the past (p.75).
 "The present, in short," Dewey added, "generates the problems which lead us to search the past for suggestion, and which supplies meaning to what we find when we search" (p. 76).  This led Dewey to a "technical definition" of education:  "It is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience" (ibid.).

What does this look backward mean as we look forward to the future of American higher education?  Two additional quotes from Hutchins may help to set the stage: 
"The American educational system will be engaged in the cultivation of whatever is honored in the United States" (p. 49).  
"The alternatives before us are clear.  Either we must abandon the ideal of freedom or we must educate our people for freedom" (p. 17).
First, it is worth noting that, while some things have not changed, others have.  There are many reasons why education today has become so focused on material benefits--on preparing people for work.  Not the least is that we no longer live in a world of nation states, but instead in a global economy where technology has eliminated many geographic boundaries, so that competition for talent has never been greater.  American society needs a better trained workforce in order to compete for jobs at all levels.  That said, if Hutchins is correct that every act must be judged as a moral act, not an economic act, then we must also prepare our citizens for moral action in the increasingly complex culture in which the new work takes place.  How do we use the lessons of the past to inform present and future actions?  How do we educate people for freedom? 

A first step is to free the general education curriculum from the old discipline-centered "breadth and depth" distribution model that was adopted early in the Industrial Revolution.  Over the decades,  that system has come to be focused more on how the academic community defines itself and less on how the world itself works.

A second step is to replace the "breadth and depth" system with a highly interdisciplinary problem-centered curriculum that brings history, philosophy, and the social and physical sciences to bear on understanding the nature of today's society and the role of the individual in that society.  This curriculum must begin with a clear sense of purpose.  As Dewey suggested, it must use the experiences of the past and contextualize them around current problems to give students the ability to direct the course of their own subsequent experience.

A third step is to incorporate the social and, to use Hutchins' phrase, the moral purpose of the general education curriculum into the professional curriculum.  This can be done through research projects and problem-centered capstone experiences that require students to explore the social and moral implications of their new professional knowledge on the community around them.

For public institutions--land grant universities, state colleges and universities, community colleges--and private institutions that accept state/federal financial aid, the key step is to recognize our continuing obligation not only to individuals and their future employers, but to citizens in general, who have invested, through their taxes, in our mission.  Otherwise, the concerns of Hutchins and Dewey--that democracy will succumb to materialism--may well prove true.


Dewey, John.  Democracy and Education.  New York: The Free Press, 1966.
Hutchins, Robert M. Education for Freedom.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944.

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