by Albert Jay Nock

Excerpted from The Theory of Education in the United States (1932).

The subject that I am appointed to discuss is the theory of education in the United States. This discussion has its difficulties. It brings us face to face with a good many serious disappointments. It calls for the re-examination and criticism of a good many matters which seemed comfortably settled, and which we would rather leave undisturbed. The most discouraging difficulty about this discussion, however, is that apparently it cannot lead to any so-called practical conclusion; certainly not to any conclusion, as far as I can see, which will at all answer to the general faith in machinery as an effective substitute for thought, and the general reliance upon machinery alone to bring about any and all forms of social improvement.

If Socrates had come before the Athenians with some fine new piece of machinery like a protective tariff, workmen’s compensation, old-age pensions, collective ownership of the means of production, or whatnot – if he had told them that what they must do to be saved was simply to install his piece of machinery forthwith, and set it going – no doubt he would have interested a number of people, perhaps enough to put him in office as the standard-bearer of an enlightened and progressive liberalism. When he came before them, however, with nothing to say but “Know thyself,” they found his discourse unsatisfactory, and became impatient with him.

So if a discussion of our educational theory could be made to lead to something that we might call “constructive” – that is to say, something that is immediately and mechanically practicable, like honor schools or a new type of housing or a new style of entrance examinations – one might hope to make it rather easily acceptable. There seems no way to do this. The only large reforms indicated by a thorough discussion of the topic are such as must be put down at once as quite impracticable on general grounds, and the minor mechanical changes that are indicated seem also impracticable on special grounds, besides having the appearance of uncertain value and therefore being unlikely to command interest.

Yet notwithstanding this rather barren prospect for our discussion, one thing may perhaps redeem it from absolute sterility – which is that we are presumably always better off for knowing just where we are, and for being able to identify and measure the forces which are at play upon us. I do not wish to adduce too depressing a parallel in saying that diagnosis has value even in a hopeless case. Hopelessness in many cases, for instance in cases of incipient tuberculosis, as you know, is circumstantial, and circumstances may change; it is almost never flatly impossible that they should change. Diagnosis, then, has obvious value when it shows only that in those circumstances the case is hopeless; and even when it reveals the case as hopeless in any circumstances, it affords at least the melancholy satisfaction of knowing just where one stands.

We may observe then, in the first place, that our educational system has always been the object of strong adverse criticism. No one has ever been especially well satisfied with it, or well pleased with the way it worked; no one, I mean, whose opinion was at the same time informed and disinterested, and therefore worth attention. Late in the last century, Ernest Renan said that “countries which, like the United States, have set up a considerable popular instruction without any serious higher education, will long have to expiate their error by their intellectual mediocrity, the vulgarity of their manners, their superficial spirit, their failure in general intelligence.” This is very hard language, and I do not propose, for the moment, that we should undertake to say how far its severity may be fairly regarded as justifiable.

I may, however, ask you to notice two things: first, the distinction which M. Renan draws between instruction and education, and second, his use of the word intelligence. We shall not lay down a definition of education in set terms here at the outset of our discussion; I think it would be more satisfactory if, with your permission, we should gradually work toward the expression of our idea of what education is, and of what an educated person is like. It is sometimes, indeed often, difficult to construct in set terms the definition of an object which we nevertheless recognize at once for what it is, and about which we have no possible manner of doubt. I could not to save my life, for instance, make a definition of an oyster; yet I am sure I know an oyster when I see one. Moreover, in looking at an oyster, I can point out a number of differentiations, more or less rough and superficial, perhaps, but quite valid in helping to determine my knowledge. So in gradually building up an expression of our idea of education, we find the distinction drawn by M. Renan especially useful.

Perhaps we are not fully aware of the extent to which instruction and education are accepted as being essentially the same thing. I think you would find, if you looked into it, for instance, that all the formal qualifications for a teacher’s position rest on this understanding. A candidate is certificated – is he not? – merely as having been exposed satisfactorily to a certain kind of instruction for a certain length of time, and therefore he is assumed eligible to a position which we all agree that only an educated person should fill. Yet he may not be at all an educated person, but only an instructed person. We have seen many such, and five minutes’ talk with one of them is quite enough to show that the understanding of instruction as synonymous with education is erroneous. They are by no means the same thing. Let us go no further at present in trying to determine what education is, but merely take note that it is not the same thing as instruction.

Let us keep that differentiation in mind, never losing sight of it for a moment, and considering carefully every point in the practice of pedagogy at which it is applicable. If we do this, I venture to predict that we shall turn up an astonishing number of such points, and that our views of current pedagogy will be very considerably modified in consequence. An educated man must be in some sort instructed; but it is a mere non distributio medii to say that an instructed person must be an educated person.

An equally useful distinction comes out in M. Renan’s use of the word intelligence. To most of us, I think, that word does not mean the same thing that it means to a Frenchman, or that the word Intelligenz means to a German. To a Frenchman like M. Renan, intelligence does not mean a quickness of wit, a ready dexterity in handling ideas, or even a ready accessibility to ideas. It implies those, of course, but it does not mean them; and one should perhaps say in passing that it does not mean the pert and ignorant cleverness that current vulgar usage has associated with the word.

Again it is our common day-to-day experience that gives us the best possible assistance in establishing the necessary differentiations. We have all seen men who were quick-witted, accessible to ideas, and handy with their management of them, whom we should yet hesitate to call intelligent; we are conscious that the term does not quite fit. The word sends us back to a phrase of Plato. The person of intelligence is the one who always tends to “see things as they are,” the one who never permits his view of them to be directed by convention, by the hope of advantage, or by an irrational and arbitrary authoritarianism. He allows the current of his consciousness to flow in perfect freedom over any object that may be presented to it, uncontrolled by prejudice, prepossession, or formula; and thus we may say that there are certain integrities at the root of intelligence which give it somewhat the aspect of a moral as well as an intellectual attribute.

Besides having laid up the benefit of a couple of extremely valuable fundamental distinctions, we are now perhaps in a position to discern more clearly the force of M. Renan’s criticism of our educational system. Some 10 or 15 years after M. Renan made these observations, we find a curious corroboration of them which is especially worth citing because it was made by one upon whom no suspicion of superciliousness can rest. Walt Whitman was “the good grey poet” of the common life, the prophet of the social mean. His love for America and his faith in its institutions may, I believe, be admitted without question. His optimism was robust and obtrusive; one might call it flagrant.

Yet we find him reflecting with great severity upon “a certain highly deceptive superficial popular intellectuality” which he found existing in our society of the late 1870s. He goes beyond this to say that “our New World Democracy,” whatever its success in other directions, “is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary and aesthetic results.”

M. Renan was a foreigner and an academician, and his criticism, we may say, is to be taken subject to discount; he could not be expected to appraise properly the spirit of America. Well, but, here we have Whitman who was just the opposite of a foreigner and an academician, who is accepted everywhere and by all as of the very spirit of America – here we have Whitman bearing out M. Renan’s criticism at every point.

What is an educational system for, one may ask, if not to produce social results precisely opposite to those which M. Renan testified before the fact, and Whitman testified, after the fact, were characteristic of our country? If our system, then, could do no better than it was doing, it should be forthwith taken in hand and overhauled.