Sunday, October 18, 2009

Readings from Robert M. Hutchins' "Education for Freedom"



The complexity of the modern world makes lifelong learning imperative. The relative leisure and opulence of the developed countries make lifelong learning possible.
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Education provides the great peaceful means of improving society.
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It is probable that the most "practical" education will prove to be a theoretical one. Habituation to routine will be valueless, or even a handicap. What is wanted is the ability to face new situations, to solve new problems, and to adjust to new complications.
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It is a basic right of the individual that his mind should be developed as far is it proves itself capable of expansion. It is also a basic necessity of the community that this should be done. The ideal is that everybody should have a basic education. Opportunities to provide this will vary with circumstances. Within the resources of the community, nobody should be excluded. It should not be assumed that anybody is incapable.
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In the advanced countries, the aim of education for all and the superficiality and mediocrity that may accompany it may produce an educational system largely devoid of content, emphasizing time spent, amounts memorized, credits acquired, and certificates, diplomas, and degrees received. Under these circumstances, education becomes a personnel system, sorting our prospective employees for employers.
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In some places the solution has been to let (students) do what interests them. Since the pursuit of their interests can only accidentally be equivalent to education, the result has been irrelevance and triviality.
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It is impossible to tell whether the attempt to educate everybody can succeed. It has never been tried. In the United States, the attempt has been, not to educate everybody, but to get everybody into school and keep him there as long as possible.
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In the last fifty years the hours of labor in the United States have been reduced by about a third, and the working life has been shortened at both ends. The time thus set free has been transferred, with almost mathematical exactitude, to commercial television programs, the quality of which is appalling. [ed.: this essay was written in 1963]
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Two things are missing in the United States, both of which are essential to education for freedom. They are liberal education and centers of independent thought and criticism. Both of them require that education should be taken seriously. It cannot be regarded as a means of accommodating the young until we are ready to have them go to work. It cannot be looked upon as a means of certifying neophytes for trades or professions. It must be thought of as the prime preoccupation of the community, the only way in which the community and the individuals who compose it can come to understand and achieve the common good.
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The liberal arts are the arts of freedom. To be free a man must understand the tradition in which he lives. A great book is one which yields up through the liberal arts a clear and important understanding of our tradition.
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We have been so preoccupied with trying to find out how to teach everybody to read anything that we have forgotten the importance of what is read. Yet is obvious that if we succeeded in teaching everybody to read, and everybody read nothing but pulp magazines, obscene literature, and Mein Kampf, the last state of the nation would be worse than the first. Literacy is not enough.
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When we remember, too, that it is only a little more than fifty years ago that the "average man" began to have the chance to get an education, we must recognize that it is too early to despair of him.
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The President of Dalhousie has correctly said, "Over most of Europe the books and monuments have been destroyed and bombed. To destroy European civilization in America you do not need to burn its records in a single fire. Leave those records unread for a few generations and the effect will be the same.
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We must, by reconstructing our own lives, begin the reconstruction of economic, social, and political life. This means that we must reconstruct education, directing it to virtue and intelligence. It means that we must look upon economic activity, not as the end of life, but as a means of sustaining life, a life directed to virtue and intelligence.
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The standard curriculum still rests on reading. It is probably fair to say that most of the pupils who have failed up to now were pupils who could not read. ...It is doubtful whether they should rush into a vocational curriculum as an alternative to one that requires reading.
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I suggest that the cultivation of the intellectual virtues can be accomplished through the communication of our intellectual tradition and through training in the intellectual disciplines. This means understanding 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.
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In a university we should have students interested in study and prepared for it. ...Nobody has ever complained that college students work too hard. On the contrary, it is supposed that football and fun have consumed a large proportion of their waking hours. It has even been suggested that the course of study places so slight a strain on the energies of students that they are compelled to fill up their time with diversions which, if not intellectual, have at least the merit of being strenuous.
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The proper task of education is the production of (free) minds. But we can now see that we are not likely to produce them by following the recommendations of the more extreme of those called progressives in education. Freedom from discipline, freedom to do nothing more than pursue the interests that the accident of birth or station has supplied may result in locking up the growing mind in its own whims and difficulties.
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Candid and intrepid thinking about fundamental issues - in the crisis of our time this is the central obligation of the universities. This is the standard by which they must be judged. This is the aim which will give unity, intelligibility, and meaning to their work. This is the road to wisdom.
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With the whole world in flames we must raise a standard to which all honest and right-thinking men can repair, to which embattled humanity can rally. It is the standard of freedom, truth, and reason. To the forces of brutality, chaos, and ignorance the university opposes the power of righteousness, order, and knowledge. Upon the triumph of that power the survival of Western Civilization depends.

Robert Maynard Hutchins
--Education for Freedom

2 comments:

  1. Ryan, I so appreciate your sharing these thoughts from Hutchins. When he goes beyond the simple fact of school to raising fundamental questions about why we might want our kids to be *in* school, he is clearly trying to push us to see the nature of the educational process in broader perspective. At the same time, I think his caution about our bold experiment in universal education still applies. There's no shortage of people ready to bemoan the supposedly terrible state of education in our country, but it's easy to forget that the scope of the challenge we embraced is huge. It seems to me that if we bring ourselves back to this orientation, it leads more organically to addressing the very real problems of public schooling in the 21st century, and thinking about the social and human missions of school as well as the educational mission.

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  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree with you (and Hutchins) about the value of focusing on education's aims and ultimate goals. In a sense, beginning our thinking about education with the question of what we want students to get out of their K-12 education and the question of what it means to be an educated person is the ultimate form of "backward" or goal-oriented design. If every classroom activity and homework assignment is rigorously questioned and evaluated in the light of a vision of education's ultimate goals or aims, the result will be a more exciting and meaningful school experience for students.

    Thanks for reading,
    --Ryan

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