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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The Danger to Humanist Education

page 51

The Danger to Humanist Education

Lord Melbourne once startled a dinner party by displaying an intimate knowledge of the early Christian fathers. The incident throws a curious light on the mind of one of England's lesser statesmen, a man best known for his witty and cynical sexual immorality. It has also a nostalgic flavour, a recherche du temps perdu, when the dominant figures of the European hierarchy were steeped in classicism, and humanist education was within sight of its nemesis in the form of universal literacy. If the Melbournes of earlier centuries were socially conservative, they upheld also a tradition of intellectual tolerance and of a wide culture which was the mark of a gentleman.

The significance of the anecdote becomes more clearly apparent when we contrast the position of the humanist scholar of the 18th and 19th centuries with his position in the present year.

Among the marks of the humanist are a love of learning for its own sake, intellectual tolerance, and a strict regard for intellectual honesty. Contrast them with the qualities of that form of enlightenment which is dominant among the literate classes of the new nations, such as Russia, India, Japan and the United States of America. There, popular education is utilitarian; it is fiercely intolerant of ideas opposed to the national myths; its criterion of intellectual truth is too often conformity with the economic and political aims of the dominant classes. Those who believe in such crude historical fictions as "national self-determination" and "the class-war," are ever alert to suppress the independent scholar who dares to expose their fallacies.

It would be stupid to assert that there was ever a time in Europe when complete intellectual tolerance existed. But neither was there a time when Europe was anti-intellectual. Conflicts of opinion were between scholar and scholar, lawyer and lawyer, theologian and theologian. The man of education was an intellectual aristocrat, and even as a persecutor, he was an idealist. Humanism survived into the 19th century, partly because its bitterest opponents were scholars themselves. The combination of intellectual competence and cynicism which marked Nazi biology and jurisprudence, and which still marks the Russian approach to the arts, is a product of the mass age.

It is not the case that the "new" educations are the legitimate children of the old European classical culture, nor that there will develop out of them a more tolerant culture. The two growths have different historical origins and are directed towards different ends. The older education was that of a relatively leisured elite, a learned semi-aristocratic body of knowledge and opinion which ultimately benefited mankind through the actions of individual humanists. The new education is that of mass man, whose policy is to use the knowledge of quantitative science for the purposes of a barbarian. Its factual content may be enormous, but it is not illumined by a spirit of intellectual honesty. In the hands of a moral barbarian, it is a threat to civilization.

Modern propaganda techniques have conveyed this literacy to enormous masses of people, and in its crudest form, to precisely those masses who have been previously untouched by European thought. By reason of their number, their economic constriction and their primitive vitality, they threaten to hold the balance of power in the modern world. The global community is now so closely knit, that unless international harmony is established in a very short time, the newly-literate races must inherit the mastery of the earth, an event which will mean the extinction of European humanism, since humanism and the modern literate barbarism cannot co-exist in a warring world.

It is characteristic of tyranny that it cannot tolerate any flaw in its supremacy. Having obtained power in face of opposition it bends all its forces to the task of retaining that power. Its other objects are secondary, and are ultimately directed towards the prime object, survival. The humanist tolerates peaceful differences of opinion; indeed he encourages them if his humanism is mature, in the hope of attaining to a more advanced synthesis. The tyrant resents them, and must destroy them because intellectual independence threatens his peace of mind, his self-esteem, and above all his security. He must "make windows into men's souls." He will tolerate only those forms of education which cry "Hosannah" to him and his policies.

There is no tyrant more arbitrary than he who governs mass man by force, and it is by force that the masses must seize control of the world and be themselves governed. If, then, as seems likely, the intellectual traditions of Europe go down before the vast, rawly-educated, extra-European communities, the members of the free universities of the world can look forward to the snuffing-out of their culture, and to being themselves proscribed as enemies of the People. Nor will the victors escape destruction. The wreckage will be complete, page 52 for the abstruseness of much vital modern knowledge on which civilization depends, is concentrated in the heads of comparatively few men. Ortega y Gasset, in The Revolt of the Masses, quotes with his own approval, an opinion that the simultaneous execution of a handful of selected men would result in the destruction of modern society. It is not unlikely that such an event will occur, and that, with the great minds of the world, will perish also the Melbournes of this age, the undistinguished men who love learning for its own sake.

D. N. Y. Olsen