If an ardent progressivist or experimentalist, or functionalist, were to describe a traditionalist, he would probably come through with a picture like this:

He is a medievalist. He arrogates authority to himself because of something he calls reason. But you must know that this reason of his is anything but the scientific verification of evidence. It is a sort of hypostatization of his own a priori and factually unsupported personal opinion. He is a blind conservative. He talks such jargon as mental discipline, formal discipline, memory, faculty psychology, transfer of training, ancient languages, and good grammar. He talks also of the training of the mind, as though the mind were an insoluble entity and thinks of that mind, not as an active principle of dynamic energy, but as a warehouse that must be stuffed full of data. He seems never to have discovered along with the late Professor Dewey that “mind is primarily a verb” if, indeed, it be distinguishable at all from experience itself, and that man is a gregarious animal whose natural habitat for growth is society. He ignores the environment and the situation, and ignores our actual needs for life-adjustment and for swift adaptation to the changing needs of a changing society. He likes to quote the oldtimers; Pope, for instance: “The proper study of mankind is man,” or Roger Ascham: “Learning teacheth more in one year than experience in twenty.” He is that sort of fellow who might have a place in a closed universe, the closed society and mind of medieval Europe; but since modernity has opened up, we shall have to abandon Ascham in favor of Pater who said, “Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the end.”

Such is the cartoon that a nettled progressivist of the New Education might draw of a traditionalist education. Now, what is the portrait like, what is such traditionalism really like?

Its main feature, I think, its leading idea, is its idea of man. That idea is, frankly, a religious and philosophical one. Traditionalism knows, of course, that man is natural, and that in this nature he is a creature subject to the laws and circumstances of the natural order. But traditional education is insistent that man is an horizon in which two worlds meet, the natural and the spiritual. And it holds that it is in his spiritual character that man’s characteristically human nature consists.

I call attention to some of the major traditionalist emphases, some of those, namely, in which there is often a clash with the emphases of the New Education.

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Knowledge Or Ability?

Let me put the first one this way: Knowledge is more important than ability. Because it is by truth, by reality, by revelation, that man’s mind is formed, patterned, and fulfilled, traditional education holds that content is important, that subject matter matters. Now this idea that an organized program of studies, representative of reality, representative, too, of a hierarchy of importances, should be followed out in schools and colleges, is an idea which is under formidable threat in American education. In some states we have in recent years made an arrangement, known as a college agreement plan, by which the colleges of the state are asked to agree that they will admit students from high schools irrespective of the content and organization of courses pursued. The idea is: not what a student has had, nor in connection with what he has had it, but what ability he generated in handling it. That’s animal training—you can do it with a horse. History? No, couldn’t see any use in it. Foreign languages? Look, I’m going to be a business executive; I can hire a Mexican if I have to know Spanish. Science? A little physiology. English? Yeah, I had some of that. But the grade is good. The boy must have handled his social attitudes skillfully. What can you do with him in college? Why, whet some more ability, of course.

Traditional education never operated that way. “The crucial error,” says Robert M. Hutchins, “is that of holding that nothing is more important than anything else, that there can be no other order of intellectual goods … nothing central, nothing peripheral, nothing basic, and nothing superficial.” Nothing but method, technique, ability, and training, without any mastery of basic instrument-knowledges, without any discipline in either scientific or philosophical-theoretical thinking, and without any confrontation of the student by that world of history and culture in which the mind can realize and universalize itself and fulfill its humanness. “In such conditions,” says Hutchins, “the course of study goes to pieces, because there is nothing to hold it together.” It does. Lacking the principle of the underlying unity of all knowledge, the curriculum breaks the bounds of rational system and spreads out over phenomena. Scales, hierarchies of importance go by the board. Mr. Tenenbaum, biographer of Kilpatrick, exponent in turn of Mr. Dewey, records this experience: [“I have] seen a class of 600 and more graduate students in education, comprising teachers, principals, superintendents, vote their opinion in overwhelming numbers, that Greek, Latin, and mathematics offered the least likely possibilities for educational growth; and with almost the same unanimity they placed dancing, dramatics, and doll playing high on this list in this regard.” The curriculum goes to pieces. I suggest that traditional education with its imitation of nature, its intrinsic respect for reality, rightly insisted on a rationally determined content and organization of courses. It was right in preferring natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and divinity to courses in practical skills, in social attitudes, in community values, and in “character education.” It is reality that patterns the mind; it is truth that forms and fulfills.

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Object Of Education

That takes us to a second emphasis, a corollary of the traditionalist insistence that content matters. It is this, also greatly threatened by the contemporary educational theory and practice: namely, that the object of education is more important than the subject in the training of the teacher. I mean that in the training of the teacher, history is more important than Johnny. Modern education owes a great deal to the psychological study of the pupil and the correspondingly required methods most effective in teaching him. I, too, blush for some of the crimes committed by stupid traditionalists on the dawning intellect, and the spiritual intuition, and the creative reach, and the aspirations to the freedom of understanding, of the young schoolboy. Shakespeare suffered it out, and spoke afterwards of “the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.” We have learned from some of the moderns that interest is indispensable to learning, though many an ancient, Socrates, for example, including that old Roger Ascham, had guessed as much. But the source of the interest is not the pupil, nor the teacher, but the truth. A man has an affinity for the truth. The teacher must stand before the pupil in the authority of the truth. He begins with insights, not merely with difficulties. He must be educated in truth before he is trained in teaching. Johnny, as an object of known man, is not as important a subject as Homer, and the teacher should know Homer before he knows Johnny, and indeed, in order to know Johnny. The tendency and the fact in our time of some teacher training schools to segregate people who plan to teach from other people, to give them psychology limited to empirically observable data about pupils, and to support this by as many methods courses as there are subjects in the modern curriculum, are well calculated to produce teachers who do not have the authority of mind. For it is the object of knowledge, rather than the pupil, the teacher, or the method, that must do the educating.

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Culture Versus Nature

A third traditionalist emphasis is its predilection for what are called the humanities. As I see it, traditional education considers culture a more important medium for education than nature. It also fosters natural science, of course, for natural science richly rewards the student with a human knowledge of phenomena and of the principles which explain them. But nature as an object of knowledge can be regarded as standing lower in the order of reality than culture as an object of knowledge, for the reason that in this subject the human, the moral, the free, the rational element is itself present. The substitution, therefore, of an exclusively scientific education for a humanistic education, or the subordination of the humanities to the sciences, or the teaching of the humanities as natural sciences—and one or another of these possibilities obtains in many schools—can represent an abandonment of the traditionalist idea of man. The last is perhaps the greatest threat, namely, the naturalization of history, society, politics, law, literature, and the like, by transforming them into studies of natural, cultural, or social circumstance.

Value Of Letters

That point, too, as a fourth consideration, has a corollary, perhaps, in the traditional insistence on the educational value of books, letters, humane letters, great books, classics. These seem to traditionalists to have authority, to be their own embodiments of what a colleague calls the “funded wisdom” of the ages, vital, quickening, redolent of truth, the sort of thing to which mind leaps up in recognition of mind, in which mind enlarges and deepens itself, realizes itself. Of course you can ask on whose authority they are so great. Arnold called them the best that has been said and thought. Huxley in philosophical skepticism turned away from them as being matters of opinion. Huxley said, “Science appeals not to authority,” as humane letters do, “but to nature.” He identified nature with phenomenal, empirically observable reality. He was wrong. First, because nature is not science until mind has intervened. Next, because good mind is a good authority to appeal to. Now the classics are precisely large and comprehensive human readings of life. They chart the course of the human spirit, and exhibit alternative answers to man’s religious and philosophical quest. In them, as Wordsworth said, there is the breath and finer spirit of knowledge, the soul of science, the steady and whole view, the harvesting of history in its concrete actuality. It is just the thing to quicken the mind’s yearnings for fulfillment, to satisfy the inner beholding of truth. To supplant them by experience, life, laboratories, or textbooks, though they may well be supplemented by these, is to denominate something other than knowledge the end of education.

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Three R’S Make Sense

One is not, naturally, going to have access to such funded wisdom in the classics unless one can read. I make it a fifth point. The traditionalist holds that the three R’s make sense. Consider then whether there be not some departure from an idea of the uniqueness of human nature in such an utterance as this, which was addressed by a principal to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He was being progressive with a vengeance: “When we come,” he said “to the realization that not every child has to read, figure, write, and spell … we shall be on the way to improving the Junior High School curriculum. We shall some day accept the fact that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read as that each one must be able to perform on the violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that each girl shall learn to spell than it is that each one shall learn to bake a cherry pie.” Certainly it would seem that when the doctrine of individual difference, of unique aptitude and interest reaches such a point, it cuts itself off from that common core of studies so long held to be the sine qua non of the education of democratic people.

Language As Spiritual Art

The traditionalist, to make another point now, wants foreign languages in education as part of his learning the first R, that is reading. He wants them not for reasons of trade and holiday. He wants them not solely for their utility in research. He wants them mainly because he thinks that an adequately philosophical mind is not possible unless it is disciplined by the rationality or logic of the literature of our civilized West. It wants foreign languages, and particular foreign languages, for Arnold’s reason when he said: “The civilized world (the only kind in which mind can be educated and community is possible) is to be regarded as now being, for intellectual purposes, one great confederation, whose members have for their proper outfit a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity, and of one another.” Presumably this knowledge is not just a knowledge about, but a knowledge of. It is not just information. It is a sharing of mind unified by something like a common idea. This idea forms us. We need it for our self-fulfillment. The best cultures represent that idea best. They would seem to be the Greek, the Roman, the German, and the French. And this too. Language, unless one abstracts it from reality to the point at which it becomes a mechanical signal system, is one of the spiritual arts. It reveals reality, truth: it speaks to mind, mind responds to it. But then there must be no divorce between the sign and the thought signified. Traditional education thought of the two as a unit, so that as Shakespeare said, language can be called the discourse of reason. “I endowed thy purposes with words that made them known,” said Shakespeare. There is rationality in language.

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A final emphasis. The new education makes so much of the social situation. That is good. The older education made much of the social in man also. But at this point we must be careful lest the social become again nothing more than a conditioning environment, such as the soil is to a plant. One does not get humanity, in the sense of the freedom of the human spirit, back into education, by simply assuring himself that the environment is not natural but social. For the social is hardly distinguishable from the natural if one does not acknowledge that society, human society, as distinguished from instinctively gregarious animal groups, is achieved by free consent. There must be interiority of the personal self, personal conscience, deep-seated independence if there is to be society. Hence, as Maritain puts it, the essence of education does not lie in adapting a potential citizen to the conditions and interactions of social life, but in first making man, and by this very fact in preparing a citizen. Otherwise society is a force, and man is its victim.

We Quote:


Editor, The Saturday Review

The young men who designed the government of the United States—many of them were in their thirties—were a talented and influential group of joiners.… The young American giants knew how to put men and ideas together. They connected their spiritual beliefs to political action. They saw no walls separating science, philosophy, religion, and art.—In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, Harper, 1958, p. 1.

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Henry Zylstra, Professor of English at Calvin College from 1947 to 1956, was serving as Fulbright Professor of Comparative Literature at the Free University at Amsterdam at the time of his death in December 1956. He held his Ph.D. from Harvard University, had also studied at Iowa State, and was the recipient of a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1955. This article is an excerpt from a chapter of selected writings recently published under the tittle Testament of Vision (Eerdmans).

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