General Education: Isaiah Berlin

Education, even if it cannot by itself knock down the barriers by which human beings are divided, should at any rate not add to them. Whatever else the task of education, it should not drive the intellect and the imagination of students into channels that seem to become narrower as our century grows older; consequently, it should do everything possible to make it easier for those engaged in one discipline to understand the methods, achievements, hopes, ambitions, frustrations, the intellectual and emotional processes, of those working in other fields. The obstacles to this are familiar: the disparity of subjects and methods, the fact that some persons are temperamentally uninterested in, or unfitted for, uncovering the secrets of nature; or disinclined to investigate how men came to be what they have become; or averse to, or incapable of, analysing the concepts and categories of thought or imagination, or reflecting critically on what is and what is not worth doing or thinking or being. Moreover, students do need to be qualified for professions, and this entails some degree of specialization, without which there can be no skills or knowledge or, save in exceptional cases, any intellectual discipline at all.

None the less, wider knowledge is worth striving for. It is not necessary to believe that all knowledge always makes men happier or freer or morally better. The applications of modern science, it may be argued, have increased oppression, danger, misery in some spheres, as well as vastly diminished them in others. It need only be accepted, firstly, that the discovery of the truth is a great good in itself; and secondly, that the only real remedy for the evil consequences, whether of ignorance or of knowledge, is more knowledge: clearer understanding of what is involved, of what is worth pursuing, of means and ends, consequences and their value. Unless men are given the chance to find out what kind of world they live in, what they have made, are making, and could make of it—and this can only be done if they have some notion of what other men are thinking and feeling and doing, and how and why—they will continue to walk in darkness and be faced by the unpredicted and sometimes appalling consequences of one another’s activities—faced by this beyond the degree which seems inescapably imposed on us all by our imperfections. The fact that we are never likely to know enough is no reason for not seeking to know as much as we can; to settle for less than this is gratuitous defeatism: blind surrender to forces which can be controlled.

The difficulties are not insuperable. Alliances between cognate subjects in British universities—say politics and economics, or history and literature, or philosophy and physics, or those other recognized combinations which our less hidebound academic establishments permit—have always been feasible. But more doors can be opened: even if the student cannot be expected to proceed through more than a very few of these-and he would usually be ill-advised if he did—he can at least be encouraged to look out upon vistas which would do much to liberate him from the narrow confines in which at present he seems to be expected to exist. Much waste and nonsense can be avoided, and much positive harm too: in particular, liability to systematic misunderstanding of others and of oneself, and of one’s world past and present, and, connected with this, philistinism, much (often resentful) boredom, irrational fears and hatreds of forms of knowledge (and of life) which are felt to be alien, puzzling, and therefore hostile, with a consequent tendency to absurdities in theory which at times lead to barbarities in practice.

The educational problem is not new: it has been in the forefront of interest since at least the days of Comenius. The last three centuries are full of controversy about what it is that will produce the widest understanding, the fullest human life. Such controversy has been particularly lively in the United States; and if the general education courses or ‘core subjects’ provided in a good many American universities are not examples of unqualified success, this does not mean that we should not appreciate the difficulties or the achievements of the educators of, say, Harvard or Chicago or Columbia, in particular their eagerness to make it possible for students to escape out of ancient strait-jackets towards a freer intellectual life. The mere proliferation of remedies is a symptom of the reality of the disease.

In what follows I shall assume that to understand the world in which we live is (for the reasons given above) good rather than bad; that most men cannot achieve this without much conscious effort or, as a rule, without help, in particular the help of teachers; and therefore such obstacles to this process as indolence, ignorance, dogmatism, obscurantism, active dislike of the intellect and rational argument, hatred of novelty, and especially jealous fear of neighbouring disciplines suspected of expansionist ambitions, are vices to be exposed and fought. I shall assume also that human beings are in general entitled to have be exposed and fought. I shall assume also that human beings in general entitled to have their capacities for thought and feeling developed even at the cost of not always (or even often) fitting smoothly into some centrally planned social pattern, however pressing the technological demands of their societies; that public virtues and social peace are not necessarily preferable to, still less identical with, the critical intellect, the unfettered imagination, and a developed capacity for personal relationships and private life. To these ends education, and in particular university education, can and should be a powerful means, or, at least, not a positive hindrance.

What are the characteristics of our time to which education should be made relevant? Let me add one or two further truisms. Educational needs spring from the pattern formed by the permanent—or, at any rate, relatively widespread-needs of human beings, modified by the predicament of the particular society in which they live. To understand his needs a man must know something of the times he lives in-here is a truism if ever there was one; yet it tends to be ignored or else interpreted too narrowly. When the present century comes to be viewed from some relatively remote and calm perspective—say a century or two after our time, if humanity survives till then—our age, it seems to me, will be notable not for a revolution in the visual arts and sensibility, like the Italian Renaissance; nor for the rise of bold and ruthless individualism; nor for optimistic faith in the new weapons of reason and empirical science; nor for the achievements of poets, painters, composers and novelists; nor for belief in the liberating powers of science or democracy; nor for mounting expectation of universal peace, harmony and the progress of all mankind under the rule of a wise, beneficent and gradually widening elite. It seems to me more likely that the salient characteristics of our age will be attributed to two phenomena: on the one hand, the Russian Revolution and its consequences; and, on the other, the unparalleled progress of natural science and its applications to human lives. These developments of western civilization have dwarfed all others, and have radically altered and are still transforming the entire world. Yet to some degree they are in conflict with one another. On the one hand they have led to increased belief in reason, and, in its name, in destruction of privilege rooted in irrational convictions, resistance to traditionalism and to transcendent and impalpable values-all that goes by the name of the faith of the Enlightenment. This has given birth to egalitarian principles and practice; to demands for recognition and general self-assertion by the victims of the old order-the claims of individuals, classes, age groups, submerged nations, races, minorities; democratic revolt against the very notion that human beings should (whether or not they can) be moulded by paternalist or any other authoritarian groups; violent rejection of the notion that men should be manufactured like bricks for social structures designed by, or for the benefit of, some privileged group or leader; the desire for the breaking of chains and throwing off of burdens which inspires every revolution in some degree, and militates against the elitist notion that societies or states are works of art to be shaped by statesmen-leaders—a class or group of master minds. This is one trend. On the other hand, the very same forces, both scientific and social, make for rational organization; for the rationalization of production, distribution, consumption; and consequently for concentration of power and centralization as the most effective method of getting things done. And this, as the early socialists all too clearly foresaw, leads to the creation of new hierarchies of technical experts, ‘engineers of human souls’, deliberate creators and moulders of the ‘new man’, the emergence of the Massenmensch-of the reduction of men to ‘human material’; to the ‘life of the anthill’, with all its, by now, notorious consequences of the mechanization, alienation, dehumanization, of entire societies, manipulated by hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) persuaders, of technocratic or commercial despotism. And as a result of this, a reaction inevitably follows-various forms of passionate protest, pleas for return to a more human life, to ‘organic’ society, Gemeinschaft; sometimes fed by backward-looking fantasies, at other times fired with dynamic nationalist or racist passion equally menacing to individual liberty or the free use of the imagination and the critical faculties. Or again, the reaction may take the form of indignant defence of menaced individual values, or of a romantic rebellion against ‘the machine’ or ‘the system’, by anarchists, students, artists, men in revolt not disciplined by knowledge who wish to opt out of conventional social life or any ordered existence-beatniks, hippies, flower children, irrationalist radicals, terrorists, devotees of the use of purifying violence against a corrupt society, or alternatively of total rejection of power; or yet again, by various Marxist and quasi-Marxist oppositions (most of all in their ‘revisionist’ or ‘humanist’ forms).

But if men are to be enabled to control their lives in the light of knowledge of what it is that they are dealing with, and not simply to regard disturbing changes of this kind with mere bewilderment, or fatalistic resignation, or fanaticism, or the disdain of the elect, or a self-destructive desire to surrender to the irresistible, it is desirable that the young, in particular, should be furnished with weapons against such helplessness. They should be given sufficient knowledge both of the genesis of the new order which is rising, and of its character; and since a dominant element in this order is constituted by the vast, swift progress of the natural sciences, and of the consequences, intended and unintended, of simultaneous advances on scientific and technological fronts, they must acquire some understanding of it if they are to exercise a degree of conscious control over it. These may be social issues, and the sociology of the role of the sciences in human lives may seem remote from, say, questions which preoccupy theoretical physicists. But the vast amount of ignorance about what technology is, about its relation to pure research, about the degree to which its methods transform men including scientists, and finally what is common and what is not, to scientific, and literary, and critical or historical thought, is so great (and growing) that this alone puts both statesmen and the elected representatives of the people, and the electorate itself, at the mercy of experts, who are often themselves, at best, one- eyed. This situation breeds systematic misunderstanding, and leads to the accumulation of power by the experts-scientific middlemen—whom the awe of both public and politicians renders relatively immune to democratic control. It is absurd to regard this state of affairs as irremediable. The irresistible, as Justice Brandeis once observed, is often simply that which is not resisted. This may seem a merely utilitarian reason for a programme of general education in universities, but it is nevertheless a crucial one for mankind at large. If to it are added the claims of disinterested intellectual satisfaction, and the exhilarating pro- spect of understanding the forces at work in one’s world, it offers, to say the very least, sufficient reason for supposing that such a programme is worth attempting.

Where are we to begin? Merely to preach, merely to encourage scientists to study history or sociology or philosophy, or the great works of man—the classics of literature and art; or (as has been suggested often enough) simply to encourage students of literature or sociology to grasp the methods and the goals of molecular biologists or solid state physicists, seems plainly useless. Useless, because it does not work. Natural scientists may be bored by, or have no time for, Homer or Michelangelo (even if some among them, not nearly as few as is commonly supposed, were and are highly civilized human beings).

Historians and students of literature find it difficult to understand expositions of scientific disciplines. What can be done is something different. To assist scientists or mathematicians towards some understanding of how historians or critics arrive at their judgements (which involves an uncertain but indispensable type of imaginative insight), and how they justify them (an exercise in logic, although at times an unorthodox kind of logic), however it is done, is at once more feasible and far more intellectually valuable than an attempt to ‘civilize’ a chemist by dwelling on the properties of The Divine Comedy, or of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or of the Agamemnon, or to try to talk a Greek scholar into taking a canter past the principal landmarks of elementary physiology or theory of numbers. The problem is one of grasp of mental processes, what Whitehead correctly calls adventures of ideas, not of throwing up hastily constructed bridges between ‘cultures’. If this task is to be performed, it can be accomplished not by precept but only by example—by the discovery or training of teachers of sufficient knowledge, imagination and talent to make the student see what they see: an experience which, as anyone knows who has ever had a good teacher of any subject, is always fascinating, and can be transforming.

How, it may be asked, is this to be achieved? By what educational reform? The notion that the picture of the world had changed, and that education must change with it, presented itself dramatically to the first advocates of ‘modern education’ and led to excesses which hold lessons for reformers. In the eighteenth century more than one philosophe urged radical reform of education in the direction of reason and enlightenment. The study of dead languages, of history (save as a collection of cautionary examples of the follies, crimes and failures of mankind), of the field of the humanities in general, must be discontinued forthwith, and the new instruments for the discovery of truth—natural sciences (including the social ones from which much was expected), and the inculcation of civic principles of a utilitarian kind, must immediately be substituted. This, for example, was the programme of conscientious French reformers, Helvetius and his friends, and to some degree of Condorcet. This unhistorical radical positivism, understandable enough during the ancien regime in France (or indeed in Germany, Italy or Spain), provoked a violent reaction on the part of the insulted human spirit, of the neglected life of the imagination. This led to the Romantic rebellion; a return to the study of the past, the remote, the peculiar, the irrational, the uncharacteristic; to the rejection of systems, generalization, symmetry, timeless serenity, rationality itself; to the cult of eccentricity and ugliness, as expressions of the revolt of the passions against the ‘cold’ classifications and abstractions practised by the natural sciences. The lumieres were accused of spreading darkness: of closing the mind to insight into the inner life and of promoting the atrophy of the will and the emotions, and thereby philistine attitudes to the great masterpieces of art and thought and religious feeling. It is, in part, this nineteenth-century war between the advocates of the humanities and of the sciences, in which intransigent positions were taken, that led finally to a situation which can only be called neither peace nor war—something like a condition of armed neutrality between scientific and humane studies, with an ever widening gulf between them, which it is the business of modern education, if not to abolish, at least to narrow.

Can this be done? It was I think Tolstoy who once observed that what a man perceives clearly—really clearly—he is able to expound simply: and that what is clearly understood (even, I suppose, if it is false) can therefore be communicated by a teacher to a pupil of average responsiveness. He believed that allegations of the impossibility, or acute difficulty, of communicating the technical details of a discipline to untrained minds (not that he thought this particularly important in comparison with central moral truths—the grasp of the real ends of life—but this is not relevant here) were, as often as not, due to the fact that the teacher sought to conceal from himself that he did not begin to see the wood for the trees. Tolstoy was convinced that the salient features of any problem can always be conveyed; and that pleas of difficulty, although sometimes well founded, too often disguised the mentor’s own intellectual confusions and insecurity. This, as so much in Tolstoy, may be vastly oversimplified; but again as so often in the ideas of this devastating thinker, it expresses a disagreeable truth. If even a few serious and imaginative teachers with a knack for clear exposition tried to convey what they knew to students on the other side of the barrier, and persisted until they obtained a response, he could not believe that the results would be disappointing. And in this, I strongly suspect, he was right.

Pretentious rhetoric, deliberate or compulsive obscurity or vagueness, metaphysical patter studded with irrelevant or misleading allusions to (at best) half understood scientific or philosophical theories or to famous names, is an old, but at present particularly prevalent, device for concealing poverty of thought or muddle, and sometimes perilously near a confidence trick. Nevertheless, the increasing effort to drag in scientific notions into the realms of art or ideology, or literary ones into those of the sciences, is itself a pathetic symptom of the craving to bridge a gulf. Impostors, both literary and scientific, or poorly equipped popularizers offer counterfeit commodities because there is a mounting demand for the genuine article, and their shameful activities are as good an index as any to what many in their societies need and search for as best they can. The proposition that education cannot help, that good money cannot drive out bad, seems to me defeatist nonsense: the history of thought from the Greeks onwards testifies against it.

Everyone knows what effect even the informal casual talk of a gifted, enthusiastic and sympathetic schoolmaster can have upon his pupils, both for better and for worse. A capacity for discovery and invention, for basic research and original work, is not always allied to either a desire or a gift for teaching. But sometimes it is. There are times when middlemen—those who understand something and tell others, like Voltaire with his not very perfect exposition of Newton, or, a century and a half later, those other great vulgarisateurs, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, in their own highly imaginative way-have an immensely liberating effect. There is no reason why this kind of exposition should not be integrated into academic disciplines, without woolliness or dilution or superficiality or degradation of learning; provided that those who are engaged in it are themselves of sufficient intellectual calibre, and believe in their task, and do not regard it as a chore and a bore to be performed only as an obligation to the age and society in which they live, as a peripheral and undignified labour involving a loss of time that might otherwise be dedicated to their own original work.

I do not mean to imply that a gift for exposition is as valuable as capacity for original thought, still less that all academic disciplines are of equal intrinsic or pedagogical worth. To maintain that they are, is a vulgar educational egalitarianism which does violence to the truth and harm to educational practice. A gifted expositor can put life into virtually any topic: nevertheless there are indices of intellectual power. The academic value of a subject seems to me to depend largely on the ratio of ideas to facts in it. ‘Interplay’ would doubtless be a better word than ‘ratio’ to indicate the relationship; nevertheless the latter brings out more clearly the danger of underrating the component of ideas, whether intuitive, empirical or logical (i.e. deductive, hypothetical-deductive, inductive, etc.). Thus, in subjects where the factual component is virtually non-existent, e.g. in logic or pure mathematics, expertise infallibly connotes a high degree of intellectual power. Whatever may be thought of the value of these disciplines, it is plain that only a very gifted man can be a good pure mathematician or a good logician. It could be argued that an accurate account of the rise and fall of export figures for Danish cheeses during a given decade of the nineteenth century might offer material useful to an economic historian capable of valuable original work in his field, or function as an illustration for some new and revolutionary technique for estimating economic change. Consequently the labours of the expert on the sales of Danish cheese might well be more socially useful than an elaborate topological fantasy. Nevertheless our respect for the specialist on cheeses is not high; we value his work but not him; and the sole reason for this is the low content of ideas—hypotheses, powers of reasoning, capacity for general ideas, awareness of the relationship of elements in a total pattern, etc.—in such painstaking but intellectually undemanding work. If the interplay of ideas and facts in subjects so disparate as, say, economic history and theoretical chemistry as a branch of applied mathematics, or in social psychology and metallurgy, could be compared by someone who knew one of these subjects well and professionally, and the other through the illumination obtained from a good teacher, this alone would be an enormous source of intellectual exhilaration and profit: it would make a student of this type not only feel, but be, far more at home in the intellectual world of his time. It is the capacity for rising to a clear perception of structures of thought and knowledge, of their similarities and differences, of their methods of discovery and invention and their criteria of truth and validity; above all a grasp of their central principles—and therefore of what is the nerve and muscle and what the surrounding tissue in any human construction, what is novel and revolutionary in a discovery and what is development of existing knowledge—that lifts men intellectually. It is this that elevates them to that power of contemplating patterns, whether permanent or changing, buried in, or imposed on, the welter of experience, which philosophers have regarded as man’s highest attribute; but even if they are mistaken in this, it is surely not an unworthy goal for what we like to call higher education.

Isaiah Berlin (1975) ‘Oxford Review of Education,’ Vol. 1, No. 3.


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