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PART 5: On Teaching and Learning - Paul Heyne, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion 
“Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, edited and with an Introduction by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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On Teaching and Learning
“The Nature of Man”: What Are We After?*
A university is a place where all knowledge is divided into equal segments, each offering three hours of credit. These segments are controlled and dispensed by autonomous divisions within the university known as departments. Departments are dominated by scholars, a term used to describe people who have spent long years and arduous effort acquiring a certificate of competence in one or two of these segments and the privilege of requiring students to attend their lectures. Students are people usually between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two for whom the university is said to exist. It is the duty of a typical student at a typical university to apply himself, over a four-year period, to about forty of these segments. At the end of this time, assuming reasonably faithful application, the student is rewarded with a diploma. The scholars are rewarded with prestige, income and long summer vacations. Departments are rewarded with research funds, additional secretaries and larger offices.
The course upon which you have now embarked, “The Nature of Man,” is the product of many factors and many people, but chiefly of a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs caricatured in the preceding paragraph. The old ideal of a liberal education has retreated steadily in the twentieth century under the onslaught of specialized sciences, vocationalism, the democratic belief that everyone is entitled to an education, and the bureaucratic pressures of a highly organized society. The retreat has at times become a rout.
“The Nature of Man” course is part of a counterattack. One of its aims is to make a beginning at the task of unifying knowledge once more, in keeping with the vision enshrined in the very name university. Another aim is revealed in the formal title of the course, Liberal Studies 1303 and 1304. Liberal studies are studies which liberate, which free the mind from the shackles that ignorance imposes.
Does all this sound just a bit utopian? Do you begin to suspect that there may be more hope than substance in the course? If not, then take another look at that title: “The Nature of Man.” The whole of human nature, in just two of those three-credit segments, suitably distilled for freshmen, is a fairly ambitious goal. If dissatisfaction was the seed-bed in which this course sprouted, naive optimism may well have been the sun and rain that brought it to its present stage.
The course-ridden, artificially segmented, and departmentalized system of education which rules the modern university has at least this to commend it: its courses deal for the most part with well-defined, manageable subject areas, and are taught by people trained to competence in that area. But “the nature of man” is not a manageable topic; the subject area cannot even be adequately defined in two semesters; and there is probably no one on this or any other campus who is really competent to teach a course with that title.
Critics of the course have suggested that “The Nature of Man” has not only failed to achieve a unification of knowledge; it has degenerated at times into a hopeless hodgepodge of disconnected truths, half-truths, and trivia. Others have protested that it has not liberated the mind of the student so much as it has substituted new prejudices for old. Are these criticisms valid?
Let us pass that question and instead ask another. Do these criticisms have to be valid? Is “The Nature of Man” course an attainable ideal? The answer might depend upon you.
You are beginning a year-long exploration of a vast and bewildering terrain. “The problem of human nature,” Hannah Arendt once wrote,
seems unanswerable in both its individual psychological sense and its general philosophical sense. It is highly unlikely that we, who can know, determine, and define the natural essences of all things surrounding us, which we are not, should ever be able to do the same for ourselves—this would be like jumping over our own shadows.1
But “jumping over our own shadows” is exactly what we shall try to do. We shall try to understand the nature of a being who tries to understand his own nature. It is a “troublesome prospect,” in the words of Michael Polanyi; for we shall “have to go on reflecting ever again on our last reflections, in an endless and futile endeavor to comprise completely the works of man.”2
But if the terrain is bewildering, it has at least been charted by many hands. Man has always been interested in his own nature, and we are the heirs of centuries of investigation and speculation. The wealth of sources, however, may be more of an embarrassment than a blessing. In his Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer writes:
No former age was ever in such a favorable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature. Psychology, ethnology, anthropology, and history have amassed an astoundingly rich and constantly increasing body of facts. Our technical instruments for observation and experimentation have been immensely improved, and our analyses have become sharper and more penetrating. We appear, nevertheless, not yet to have found a method for the mastery and organization of this material. When compared with our own abundance the past seems very poor. But our wealth of facts is not necessarily a wealth of thoughts. Unless we succeed in finding a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth, we can have no real insight into the general character of human culture; we shall remain lost in a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity.3
Do we have such a clue, such a leading thread? Without some principle of organization we shall certainly be guilty on the first count mentioned above, guilty of introducing more confusion than unity into the student’s reflections upon human nature. But there is an equal and opposite danger. Every principle of organization is necessarily exclusive. As Robert Oppenheimer observed shortly before his death, “Every science sees its ideas and order with a sharpness and depth that comes from choice, from exclusion, from its special eyes.” Why should we choose one pair of eyes rather than another? Is there any single perspective on man that does not conceal more of importance than it manages to reveal? So the second count of the above indictment also hangs over us: we do not want to substitute one set of prejudices for another, but rather to liberate the mind of the student from the shackles of ignorance.
An excellent illustration of our dilemma is provided by a problem which has plagued a large number of the students who have passed this way before you. The nature of man is a question to which religion addressed itself centuries before science came into existence. In the Judaic-Christian tradition, man stands at the pinnacle of God’s creation. According to the book of Genesis, God formed man from the dust of the ground, breathed life into him, and thereby called him into being “in the image of God.” Here is a view of man’s origin, nature, and destiny that has infused and vitalized whole civilizations for thousands of years. And still today it provides for many the most authoritative and definitive introduction to the nature of man. Any theory of man that calls this foundation into question is automatically condemned by some as an assault upon the foundations of belief and an attempt to destroy the essential dignity of man.
When the careful and patient observations of biologists began to provide, in the nineteenth century, a massive accumulation of evidence that all life was linked in a developmental chain, and that man himself had evolved slowly over millions of years from less complex forms of life, many protagonists of religion attacked their work as an impious fraud. A monumental battle erupted between “science” and “religion,” a battle that raged undiminished into the twentieth century and continues to reverberate in many quarters today. It is a battle that may even be fought in your own mind as this semester proceeds. And the danger that it raises is the danger of a premature perspective.
The scientific evidence for biological evolution is enormous. The logic and the observations upon which the theory rests conform to the highest standards of scientific method. It would be most inconsistent for anyone living in this culture, so heavily informed by and dependent upon the accomplishments of science, simply to dismiss the theory of evolution out of hand. No one of us can provide you, of course, with a criterion for absolute truth. You will always be free to accept or reject any set of presuppositions. And knowledge of any kind does rest ultimately upon presuppositions.
But there is more to the matter than that. Presuppositions provide the foundation for understanding and the integration of knowledge; but they are also capable of blinding us to larger visions, more inclusive perspectives, to ways of viewing the world that might be more adequate because they take new as well as old truths into account.
A liberal education liberates. But liberty is often a fearful prospect. Sometimes what men call faith is not so much a confidence born of conviction as it is a shelter behind which to hide. We are trespassing here on a profound and mysterious domain. But is it not true that faith must inform and not conceal? That it must unlock the universe and not spirit it away from view? That the God of Genesis has not really been accepted as the Creator if He has been confined within arbitrary categories of human thought?
Many would reply that this is all beside the point. But here is the crux: in a university nothing may be rejected in advance as beside the point. All perspectives must be admitted. A university is true to its essence when it is committed to but one principle: That there is more to be seen than has yet been seen. We try to hold truth in the little buckets of our understanding. But it keeps flowing over. A university is committed to that ceaseless overflowing, to the endless task of fashioning new and ever more adequate containers for the comprehension of that which is ultimately beyond comprehension.
But all of this may tend to give the impression that “The Nature of Man” is throughout an impartial quest after truth, without any limiting horizons of its own. That is hardly the case. Important things have been said about the nature of man by philosophers, poets, psychologists, and a host of others all viewing the question from different and sometimes radically different perspectives. In this course they will not all be given an equal opportunity to state their case and convince us of what they have seen. Some additional points of view will be entertained in the second semester; but in the first semester, as you will soon discover, only those will be heard from who call themselves scientists.
Does that mean, however, that we are not engaged in an impartial search for the truth? Is science not committed to the quest for truth, let the chips fall where they may?
“Science is a sacred cow,” as Anthony Standen has remarked, and it is difficult to point out its limitations without being accused of intellectual impiety. Yet it needs to be said that particular sciences, while they may well be committed to the search for truth, all operate within their own limiting perspectives. Each has its own way of approaching problems and its own peculiar set of questions to be asked. And scientists in one field are sometimes quite intolerant of the suggestion that other perspectives might have equal validity.
Alfred North Whitehead, who has reflected with extraordinary wisdom and perception upon the role of science in the modern world, once wrote:
Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the late Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, founded upon a naive faith. What reasoning it has wanted, has been borrowed from mathematics. . . . Science repudiates philosophy. In other words, it has never cared to justify its faith or to explain its meanings; and has remained blandly indifferent to its refutation by Hume.4
Whitehead was in no sense anti-scientific. The paragraph immediately succeeding the one just quoted defends the necessity of the scientific revolt against the excessive and suffocating rationalism of the High Middle Ages. Against the power of abstract reason science erected the criterion of empiricism, of careful observation and the repeatable experiment. The fruits of its revolt are all about us, in such diverse and comfortable forms as antibiotics, central air-conditioning, and the jet airplane. But empiricism always presupposes some very particular way of looking at things. It takes a lot for granted.
It may be correct to say that the criterion of truth in science is observation. In order to be able to apply this criterion widely, however, science strives to divide phenomena into separable parts: to dissect, reduce, simplify. Make no mistake about it; knowledge has been acquired in this fashion, knowledge that is power, the power to predict and control. But this kind of knowledge has no claim to be the final truth. And in the study of man, are we willing to assert that the power to predict and control is identical with the knowledge of man’s nature? Can science even explain to us why it is that man engages in science?
The anthropologist Loren Eiseley used to search for the secret of life in autumn strolls through the fields. He once wrote:
It is really a matter, I suppose, of the kind of questions one asks oneself. Some day we may be able to say with assurance, “We came from such and such a protein particle, possessing the powers of organizing in a manner leading under certain circumstances to that complex entity known as the cell, and from the cell by various steps onward, to multiple cell formation.” I mean we may be able to say all this with great surety and elaboration of detail, but it is not the answer to the grasshopper’s leg, brown and black and saw-toothed here in my hand, nor to this field, nor to the subtle essences of memory, delight, and wistfulness moving among the thin wires of my brain.5
It is a matter of the kind of questions one asks. And there are many questions that science has no interest in asking. But that does not always stop it from proposing answers. So once again we must be on guard against the temptation of a premature perspective.
One of the authors whom you will be reading late in the semester speaks of the scientist as someone “under tremendous temptation to practice the art of caricature,” especially when man is the object of his study:
Like anyone else, the scientist prefers victory to defeat. He wants to work with facts that can be controlled, with determinants that can be determined, with outcomes that can be predicted and measured. He wants to arrive at general concepts and general relationships, searching out the lawfulness beneath the multitude of surface events. In consequence of this bias, the scientist is inevitably disposed to deal selectively with human nature.6
The philosopher Paul Weiss has aptly summarized the dangers:
We must be on guard against the error of unwarranted subtraction. . . . The attempt to show that men are subject to the same laws that govern other beings, combined with the claim that the scope of natural science is universal and its mastery complete, has inclined modern thinkers to subtract from men their characteristic life, desires, hopes, feelings, values, and mind. As a result they have viewed men as little more than inanimate physical things. Having sacrificed man at the altar of an arbitrary theory, such a view can hardly shed light on human needs, goals, concerns. A philosophy which speaks of the human as though it were dead or subhuman can but provide an excuse for ignoring the problems of men.7
Those who were responsible for designing this course are aware of these dangers. But that is no guarantee that we have always avoided them, much less that the perspectives urged in this course as an aid to the understanding of man are adequate. Reflect for a moment upon the theme chosen for the first semester, adaptation. It is certainly a useful theme, for it offers an approach to the phenomenon of man that opens up new avenues of understanding and brings novel insights into high relief. But while it reveals it also distorts. Consider the contrasting opinion of Lecomte du Noüy:
Whereas adaptation blindly tries to attain an equilibrium which will bring about its end, evolution can only continue through unstable systems or organisms. It only progresses from instability to instability and would perish if it only encountered perfectly adapted, stable systems.8
But enough has been said on the subject. Our aim has not been to uproot your faith, but to encourage an attitude without which this course must necessarily fail. If knowledge is to be unified or brought together into a coherent and meaningful whole, we must acquire perspective. But every perspective is a potential tyranny. When a discipline comes to maturity, Paul Weiss has warned, “it begins almost at once to become traditional and soon or late itself presents an obstacle in the way of truth. . . . The chains of today were forged by free men yesterday.”9
The attitude which we are urging is a mixture: a passion for integration, order, coherence, without which the course can become trivial and meaningless, but conjoined with an openness of mind and temperament that might best be described as continual amazement.
Whitehead has said it far better:
There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.10
Researchers and Degree Purchasers*
I’ve been teaching for slightly more than twenty years at a state-owned, taxpayer-supported university. The vast majority of the students with whom I talk believe that the primary function of our university is to teach undergraduates. I’ll give long odds that most of the taxpayers in the state, those who pay our salaries and maintain the pleasant facilities in which we work, hold the same belief.
They’re quite wrong, of course. Almost all of the faculty appointments in the university are made on the basis of research potential, not teaching potential. Tenure and promotion are granted on the basis of contributions to research in the discipline where the faculty appointment is held. A very few faculty members are appointed specifically to be teachers—I’m one of those few at the University of Washington—but good teaching, even excellent teaching, will not by itself gain anyone tenure at my university. In today’s circumstances, with so many more candidates than positions, universities can afford to make satisfactory teaching a necessary condition for tenure. But even the very best teaching is not a sufficient condition.
Why do so many people think that universities such as mine and yours are primarily educational institutions rather than what they are in fact, research institutions? Inattentiveness is part of the answer. Faculty and administrators have no great interest in correcting the public misapprehension; what they don’t know can’t hurt us. Moreover, since most of us believe that the best undergraduate education occurs in a research context, we don’t find anything dishonest about claiming to be effective schools of education while always aiming at becoming more effective schools of research. But does the best education for intelligent undergraduates in fact take place at institutions dedicated primarily to research? Would it perhaps be desirable to separate undergraduate education from faculty research?
While I was in the process of preparing this talk, I decided to pull down from my shelves The Aims of Education and Other Essays by Alfred North Whitehead, a book that I first read years ago and have re-read several times since. I wanted inspiration for my task, and no one inspires me as well as Whitehead. As I read I was surprised to discover that every major idea I wanted to examine with you today had originated in one or another of Whitehead’s essays. So I decided to be honest and use quotations from Whitehead as the text for my talk. Here is the first one, speaking to the issue I have just raised.
The universities are schools of education, and schools of research. But the primary reason for their existence is not to be found either in the mere knowledge conveyed to the students or in the mere opportunities for research afforded to the members of the faculty.
Both these functions could be performed at a cheaper rate, apart from these very expensive institutions. Books are cheap, and the system of apprenticeship is well understood. So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any reason for existence since the popularisation of printing in the fifteenth century. Yet the chief impetus to the foundation of universities came after that date, and in more recent times has even increased.
The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence.1
“[U]niting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” We aren’t exactly doing that. But before complaining, I want to take a look at the undergraduate students who come to our universities.
I teach the history of economic thought once a year to undergraduates, and at some point in the course I always assign the section in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations that he titled “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth.” Three-quarters of it talks about universities and colleges. My students love it. It generates the most lively discussion of the term. They come to class with Volume II of The Wealth of Nations under their arms ready to launch an attack on their university and most of its faculty in the name of Adam Smith.
They find Smith witty and wonderful as he argues that faculty members have no incentive to teach well because their salaries do not depend in any way on how well they teach. They positively exult in Smith’s claim that wherever teachers do execute their duties in a tolerably effective way, students never neglect their own obligations. But I always have to point out to them—I’ve never had any students notice it on their own—that Smith’s proposals for educational reform at the college and university level call for abolishing the “privileges of graduates.” This means that schools will not issue transcripts that employers can use as screening devices, which in turn implies that a college degree, as distinct from a college education, will have no value on the job market. “How many of you,” I ask, “would be here today if successful performance in this class did not lead to a degree that you thought would help you land a job you want?” I get more sheepish grins in response to that question than professions of interest in learning.
I have not seen any empirical studies. I haven’t looked for any, because no amount of data collected by others could offset the testimony of my own experience, which says that the vast majority of those who enroll in our universities today have done so to purchase a degree. And so teaching in our modern universities takes place primarily between researchers and degree purchasers.
That raises the possibility of an interesting contract, one to which we would never explicitly consent but into which we are already implicitly sliding: The faculty will give the students high grades and little work if the students will give the faculty decent teaching evaluations and otherwise leave them alone to pursue their research.
Aside from the morality of such a bargain, we have to be concerned about the third party, the taxpayers who support all this. I do not believe that most taxpayers understand or appreciate the value to society of an institution that exists primarily to encourage research. Medical research they understand and will fund if pressed. But not research in the humanities. Attitudes toward the social sciences and natural sciences fall somewhere in between, but mostly toward the humanities end of the continuum. I infer this from the glee with which most people greet the topics of research projects when enterprising newspaper or television commentators decide to publish a list of dissertation titles. Universities are luxuries that wealthy societies ought to support because it is good to maintain places where people are paid to push speculation as far as it can be made to go in every direction. But our democratic societies will not long support universities, I predict, if the word gets out that they are not educating students but merely granting them a meaningless certification.
Thus my argument for better teaching of undergraduates becomes an argument for the maintenance of research universities. But before proceeding let me insert another quotation from Whitehead.
It must not be supposed that the output of a university in the form of original ideas is solely to be measured by printed papers and books labeled with the names of their authors. . . . In every faculty you will find that some of the more brilliant teachers are not among those who publish. Their originality requires for its expression direct intercourse with their pupils in the form of lectures, or of personal discussion. Such men exercise an immense influence; and yet, after the generation of their pupils has passed way, they sleep among the innumerable unthanked benefactors of humanity. Fortunately, one of them is immortal—Socrates.
Thus it would be the greatest mistake to estimate the value of each member of the faculty by the printed work signed with his name. There is at the present day some tendency to fall into this error; and an emphatic protest is necessary against an attitude on the part of authorities which is damaging to efficiency and unjust to unselfish zeal.
But when all such allowances have been made, one good test for the general efficiency of a faculty is that as a whole it shall be producing in published form its quota of contributions of thought. Such a quota is to be estimated in weight of thought, and not in number of words.2
Let’s return now to Whitehead’s bold claim: “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” How can that possibly occur in an institution where the students have no interest in the faculty’s research and the faculty have little interest in sharing it with them? There is no hope, of course, if we are satisfied with the present situation and have given up all expectation of ever doing better.
The fading of ideals is sad evidence of the defeat of human endeavor. In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom, in modern colleges our humbler aim is to teach subjects. . . . I am not maintaining that in the practice of education the ancient were more successful than ourselves. . . . My point is that, at the dawn of our European civilization, men started with the full ideals which should inspire education, and that gradually our ideals have sunk to square with our practice.
But when ideals have sunk to the level of practice, the result is stagnation.3
As an incurable idealist, I believe we can avoid stagnation and disaster. How? Whitehead suggests a way:
The only avenue towards wisdom is by freedom in the presence of knowledge. But the only avenue towards knowledge is by discipline in the acquirement of ordered fact. Freedom and discipline are the two essentials of education. . . . I call the first period of freedom the “stage of Romance,” the intermediate period of discipline I call the “stage of Precision,” and the final period of freedom is the “stage of Generalisation.”4
I think we are failing above all at the stage of Romance. Our students for the most part have no interest in what we are doing because we have not tried hard enough to arouse their interest in our basic disciplines. Here is Whitehead stating what seems to me an obvious truth about education that elementary and secondary teachers cannot afford to deny but which we have blatantly disregarded at the level of tertiary education.
There can be no mental development without interest. Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension. You may endeavor to excite interest by means of birch rods, or you may coax it by the incitement of pleasurable activity. But without interest there will be no progress.5
We have all sat in faculty rooms or clubs and complained about the students who would rather watch television than read John Locke or whatever it is that they neglected last night. But why in the world should we expect them to find Locke’s Second Treatise more interesting than Spin City with its Canadian lead actor? Is it natural for 18-year-olds to wonder how the coercion of some by others, or what we call government, can be justified, and to open Locke in pursuit of an answer to that question? It is quite unnatural.
I teach introductory microeconomics, which has a miserable reputation among most of those who have encountered it or only heard about it from others. When people at parties find out that I teach the principles of economics, they often grin and say, “I had that once. I don’t remember a thing about it.” Or “I had that once and I hated it.” I think I know why. It’s because it is usually taught by people who have completely neglected the stage of Romance. Whitehead once more:
The first procedure of the mind in a new environment is a somewhat discursive activity amid a welter of ideas and experience. It is a process of discovery, a process of becoming used to curious thoughts, of shaping questions, of seeking for answers, of devising new experiences, of noticing what happens as the result of new ventures. . . . Now undoubtedly this stage of development requires help, and even discipline. The environment within which the mind is working must be carefully selected.
. . . In no part of education can you do without discipline or can you do without freedom; but in the stage of romance the emphasis must always be on freedom. . . . [A] block in the assimilation of ideas inevitably arises when a discipline of precision is imposed before a stage of romance has run its course in the growing mind. There is no comprehension apart from romance.6
A romantic course in introductory microeconomics is possible, necessary, and not really all that hard to construct. But that construction will not occur, will not even begin in the absence of a conviction that freedom in an introductory course is more important than discipline. I’m picking on economists because these are the people with whose habits I’m most familiar; but I know that what I’m describing occurs in other academic disciplines. We construct introductions to our fields on the assumption that everyone in the class will go on to acquire a Ph.D. in the subject. So there’s no need to arouse their interest in the subject, to give them a reason for studying it beyond the necessity of passing our examinations, to persuade them that knowledge of this subject can provide the zest of life. We have no time to waste on such entertainments. The students must begin learning. They must at once begin mastering those techniques that will be required in the next course. We ruthlessly ignore the fact that, as Whitehead regularly insisted, enjoyment is the natural mode by which living organisms are excited toward suitable self-development. We prefer to rely on non-corporal forms of the birch rod.
I am absolutely convinced that the first course in economics and, I suspect, in every other academic discipline, should be directed almost exclusively toward raising interesting questions and suggesting ways in which the discipline can be used to generate interesting responses. I don’t know how many times I have cut off exciting discussions with the excuse, “We have to move on.” Even I, who know better, cannot always resist this urge to move along toward my goal, to turn the students to what I am interested in no matter how effectively that stifles a growing interest on their part. There is such a thing as “off the track,” and “off the track” is not always as interesting to the better students as it is to those whose limitations of experience or intellect have drawn them off onto a stale route. That is why some discipline is required even at the stage of romance. A good introductory course is not just a bull session. But we don’t need to be told that, because we only err in the direction of bull sessions when we have not prepared for the class. Good preparation for an introductory class requires constantly asking, What will arouse their interest, fire their curiosity, set them to wondering, stimulate that satisfying “I begin to see”?
What should come next?
But when this stage of romance has been properly guided another craving grows. The freshness of inexperience has worn off; there is general knowledge of the groundwork of fact and theory: and, above all, there has been plenty of independent browsing amid first-hand experiences, involving adventures of thought and of action. The enlightenment which comes from precise knowledge can now be understood. It corresponds to the obvious requirements of common sense, and deals with familiar material. Now is the time for pushing on, for knowing the subject exactly, and for retaining in the memory its salient features. This is the stage of precision. This stage is the sole stage of learning in the traditional scheme of education, either at school or university.7
It is an essential stage. But it will not succeed if it is not preceded by the stage of romance. Whitehead continues:
During the stage of precision, romance is the background. . . . The organism will not absorb the fruits of the task unless its powers of apprehension are kept fresh by romance.
. . . To speak the truth, except in the rare case of genius in the teacher, I do not think that it is possible to take a whole class very far along the road of precision without some dulling of the interest. It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative.
But this admission is not to condone a brutal ignorance of methods of mitigating this untoward fact.8
One method of mitigation is to know exactly what you want to accomplish and to aim at it directly and quickly.
A certain ruthless definiteness is essential in education. I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts to worry his pupils with memorising a lot of irrelevant stuff of inferior importance. The secret of success is pace, and the secret of pace is concentration. But, in respect to precise knowledge, the watchword is pace, pace, pace. Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it.9
No one can make Intermediate Microeconomic Theory as interesting as Introduction to Microeconomics. There will be unavoidable boring stages in the process of education. But we should not celebrate that fact or suppose that our genuine dedication to the pedagogical task is proved by our willingness to force our students through tedious experiences.
What is worse, we no longer insist that our students actually master the material appropriate to the stage of discipline. We seem to be too disciplined at the first stage, when freedom and romance should dominate, and far too slack at the stage of discipline and precision. I suspect this growing tendency to let students escape without actually having mastered the materials is one consequence of the unholy bargain I mentioned earlier. We don’t want to be seen as ogres. We don’t want to set definite standards when no one else seems to be doing so. What difference does it make after all whether they learn this or not? It’s their problem if they come to the next course and aren’t adequately prepared. But what this means is that at the next stage our students will not be able to enjoy the freedom and the satisfaction that comes from the application of material they have mastered. Our failure to be thorough at the stage of discipline and precision almost guarantees failure at what Whitehead calls the stage of generalization.
But before moving on to that I want to emphasize once again what Whitehead says about definiteness, halfheartedness, and pace. Simple truths. All teachers should scratch them on their desktops, wooden or computer. Know what you want to teach. Teach it forcefully. Move along. “The watchword is pace, pace, pace.” Think about it.
We have now come to the third stage of the rhythmic cycle, the stage of generalisation. There is here a reaction towards romance. Something definite is now known; aptitudes have been acquired; and general rules and laws are clearly apprehended both in their formulation and their detailed exemplification. The pupil now wants to use his new weapons. He is an effective individual, and it is effects that he wants to produce. He relapses into the discursive adventures of the romantic stage, with the advantage that his mind is now a disciplined regiment instead of a rabble. In this sense, education should begin in research and end in research. After all, the whole affair is merely a preparation for battling with the immediate experiences of life, a preparation by which to qualify each immediate moment with relevant ideas and appropriate actions. An education which does not begin by evoking initiative and end by encouraging it must be wrong. For its whole aim is the production of active wisdom.10
I won’t presume to add anything to that. But I do want to discuss one more supremely important issue before opening the floor to your comments. And again Whitehead supplies my text. Consider these remarks from the title essay of The Aims of Education:
And I may say in passing that no educational system is possible unless every question directly asked of a pupil at any examination is either framed or modified by the actual teacher of that pupil in that subject. The external assessor may report on the curriculum or on the performance of the pupils, but never should be allowed to ask the pupil a question which has not been strictly supervised by the actual teacher, or at least inspired by a long conference with him. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions, and could easily be allowed for under the general rule.11
A growing frustration in my country with the ineffectiveness of our schools has generated a demand for standard examinations. Whitehead warns against them. He knew about the danger of teaching to the examination and how incompatible this was with any philosophy of education that aimed to impart wisdom, or arouse the zest of life, or unite the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. Here are some of his further comments on the general subject:
The best procedure will depend on several factors, none of which can be neglected, namely, the genius of the teacher, the intellectual type of the pupils, their prospects in life, the opportunities offered by the immediate surroundings of the school, and allied factors of this sort. It is for this reason that the uniform external examination is so deadly. . . . [S]uch examinations have their use in testing slackness. . . . [But i]t kills the best part of culture. When you analyse in the light of experience the central task of education, you find that its successful accomplishment depends on a delicate adjustment of many variable factors. The reason is that we are dealing with human minds, and not with dead matter. The evocation of curiosity, of judgment, of the power of mastering a complicated tangle of circumstances, the use of theory in giving foresight in special cases—all these powers are not to be imparted by a set rule embodied in one schedule of examination subjects.12
External examinations do have their use, he admits, in preventing slackness. But the slackness against which he warns is not the slackness of the student, nor even the slackness of the teacher, but the slackness of the school. Consider the following:
Primarily it is the schools and not the scholars which should be inspected. Each school should grant its own leaving certificates, based on its own curriculum. The standards of these schools should be sampled and corrected. But the first requisite for educational reform is the school as a unit, with its approved curriculum based on its own needs, and evolved by its own staff. If we fail to secure that, we simply fall from one formalism into another, from one dung-hill of inert ideas into another.
. . . When I say that the school is the educational unit, I mean exactly what I say, no larger unit, no smaller unit. Each school must have the claim to be considered in relation to its special circumstances. The classifying of schools for some purposes is necessary. But no absolutely rigid curriculum, not modified by its own staff, should be permissible. Exactly the same principles apply, with the proper modifications, to universities and to technical colleges.13
As an active participant in efforts to improve the elementary and secondary schools of my own city, I have often been challenged to define a good school. I have learned to say that a good school is any school controlled by professionals who work collegially to further a shared vision. I don’t want parents or taxpayers or school boards or students to be in charge of schools, although they are certainly entitled to a veto at some stage. Parents exercise a veto, for example, when they decline to enroll their children. But I want professionals in charge. The professionals, however, must behave collegially. That means they must know and care what others in their school are doing and be willing to correct what is wrong and to support what is strong in their colleagues’ behavior. This will require courage. It will also require a shared vision.
When this conception of a good school is applied to colleges and universities, it carries an implication that faculty members at my university vehemently reject. I experienced that vehemence once when I suggested at a meeting of the university’s general education committee that effective undergraduate education was being throttled by the power that the disciplines exercised over it. Because every student must choose to major in one of the disciplines, fulfillment of the requirements for a major tends to dominate the design of each student’s curriculum. But those requirements are increasingly controlled by the assumption that the student majoring in a subject intends to continue with post-graduate work and acquire at least a master’s degree and preferably a Ph.D. in the subject. In this way undergraduate education at our universities is becoming pre-professional education for students who lack both the interest and the ability to become professionals.
The standard defense of the major is that colleges and universities ought not to graduate dilettantes. Students must master at least one subject. But most students are not doing anything of the sort, because the faculties of the various disciplines are for the most part unwilling to do more than lay down formal requirements. They are not willing to invest the time, thought, and trouble to design, implement, monitor, and enforce realistic and coherent requirements. They rarely teach the courses they require. They know only rumors about what goes on in them. And when they see undeniable evidence that the requirements are not producing the desired results, they basically do not care. They are not rewarded for caring. The research projects that interest them are so distant from undergraduate education that they would not know what to do if they did start to care.
The problem is a difficult one. Because faculty receive appointments and gain promotion for accomplishments in their disciplines, they are politically as well as intellectually attached to these disciplines. They see the power of their departments as their first and perhaps only line of defense against a sinister administration. I have never understood why administrators are presumed to have interests in opposition to those of the faculty. The general interests of the faculty, it seems to me, are completely shared by the typical university administration. Of course, insofar as the central administration is held responsible for the welfare of the institution as a whole, it will and should question projects that strengthen some departments or divisions by weakening others or by destroying functions that are central to the success of the university though of marginal importance to the faculty in individual disciplines.
One such function is undergraduate education. I do not think it can be revived and therefore I do not think it will survive within the current institutional structure of our research universities. And since I fear that taxpayers, legislators, and philanthropists will not continue to support research universities that do not teach undergraduates, I predict years of famine not far ahead for those who now occupy or hope to occupy research positions within our major universities.
I have been extremely fortunate in being allowed to spend most of my life working within research universities despite my eccentric credentials and idiosyncratic interests. The tolerance of these institutions for eccentricity and idiosyncrasy is a major reason why I love them and, more importantly, a principal source of the benefits they generate for societies that can afford them, as ours surely can.
No one designed the modern research university. It just evolved. And that is a major reason for its successes. Most major social institutions are like economic systems: they cannot be designed or centrally planned. They must evolve if they are to be successful. Social institutions evolve as members of the relevant society pursue their own interests and thereby produce novel situations to which others respond in the pursuit of their own interests, thereby generating further novelty, and so on. This evolutionary process produces complex institutions marvelously adapted to the needs of those who participate in them. But the process can also lead its participants merrily along the road to suicide, because such processes are characteristically blind to the larger context.
I don’t expect universities to change in any ways that are not consistent with the interests of those who comprise them, and that means principally their faculties. What I hope for is an enlargement of interests, perhaps set in motion by the recognition that our present course, for all its past success, portends tragedy for the institutions that have served most of us so well. If we can enlarge our interests, think at least a little more grandly of our vocations, we may come to raise and discuss the question: What do we really want?
Whitehead has written:
The ultimate motive power, alike in science, in morality, and in religion, is the sense of value, the sense of importance. It takes the various forms of wonder, of curiosity, of reverence, or worship, of tumultuous desire for merging personality in something beyond itself. This sense of value imposes on life incredible labours, and apart from it life sinks back into the passivity of its lower types. The most penetrating exhibition of this force is the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realised perfection.14
The question now is whether our universities still harbor that force, that motive power, in sufficient strength to preserve themselves.
[* ] Unpublished typescript of an introductory lecture for a Southern Methodist University course, The Nature of Man, September 1968. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.
[2. ] Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man (London: Routledge and Paul, 1959), 11.
[3. ] Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man, 40-41.
[4. ] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 17.
[5. ] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 207.
[6. ] Robert W. White, Lives in Progress, 23-24.
[7. ] Paul Weiss, Nature and Man, xv-xvi.
[8. ] Pierre Lecomte du Noüy, Human Destiny (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), 70.
[9. ] Weiss, Nature and Man, xi.
[10. ] Alfred North Whitehead, x.
[* ] Unpublished typescript of remarks for presentation at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg under the sponsorship of the Faculty of Arts Teaching Committee, 7 February 1997. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ] Alfred North Whitehead, “Universities and Their Functions,” in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, c. 1929, renewed c. 1957, Free Press paperback edition 1967), pp. 92-93. Page numbers in this chapter refer to this edition.
[2. ]Ibid., pp. 98-99.
[3. ] “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” p. 29.
[4. ]Ibid., pp. 30-31.
[5. ]Ibid., p. 31.
[6. ]Ibid., pp. 32-33.
[7. ]Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[8. ]Ibid., pp. 34-35.
[9. ]Ibid., p. 36.
[10. ]Ibid., pp. 36-37.
[11. ] “The Aims of Education,” p. 5.
[13. ]Ibid., pp. 13-14.
[14. ] “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” p. 40.