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NONTHEMATIC / Vol. 4 No. 3 (Fall 1937)


Let us pause at that great and lovely word truth, and consider it for a moment. 'What is truth?' is the question put not only by jesting Pilate, but by philosophy itself, by the mind of man taking critical stock of itself. That mind is ready to accept life, admits that life must have the truth that helps and furthers it. Only that is true which furthers life. That principle may stand. But if we are not to abandon morality altogether, and sink into an abyss of cynicism, we must supplement it by the other principle: "only truth furthers life."

The teaching profession has its own peculiar responsibilities. To no other body of men, except the journalists, can freedom be denied with more fatal results. For when, by threat or edict, you require a teacher to teach what he believes to be false or to suppress a portion of what he believes to be true, making the rest not wholly true, then, whether or not his belief is mistaken, you have done a double wrong. You have taken from society data it is entitled to weigh; but, worse still, you have poisoned its soul, for there never yet was a teacher who could teach lies without his students knowing it, and once you apprentice your youth to liars, even though they be liars by duress, you are corrupting the character of a whole generation…"

If I were to offer the gist of all that has been said in this scientific meeting, I would do it in these words: we have given a restatement of our claim to that independence of mind and that awareness of responsibilities without which life is not worth living. This independence is not only the concern of the scholar who desires to be undisturbed in his work. It is the fundamental basis of society. Intellectual freedom is the basis of personal freedom; dogmatic fixation as enforced under dictatorship leads very quickly to the loss of liberty in general.

We are living in a time when the most powerful of political forces are operating to exterminate the poet and artist who by their explorations in the real life of man create or regenerate the values by which alone a society may live on into the future. These same forces are bent on exterminating the intellectual, who sees both sides, who looks into the past and into the future, and therefore alone can effect the compromises and adjustments necessary for the settlement of any issue of far-reaching social bearing. In Russia, Germany, Italy, the case appears to have been decided against the poet and the intellectual. Force meets force, and the heavier force wins.


In modern society the conditions favorable to cultural contact are ever so much greater than those existing in primitive society. First of all, the numbers of individuals constituting each unit are infinitely larger than those occurring in primitive society, and within each group diffusion occurs with the greatest rapidity. Our schools, the commercial exploitation of inventions, are of such a character that new ideas and new objects are distributed with incredible rapidity. Most of these extend beyond national boundaries because international trade and international communication make it impossible for any idea to be confined to a single nation. On the other hand general, structural attitudes find much greater resistance than in the small tribes because the inertia of the enormous masses of the population is much greater than that of a small tribal group.

It is my intention to show that there is not simply an accidental but an essential relationship between mind and migration, that mind in its very nature is migratory and that human mental creativity and man’s migrating power belong together. All kinds of cross-fertilizations of cultures are rooted in this connection. Really, it is more than a connection; it is a basic identity. I want to explain this first by describing the character of mental creativity in general terms, second by enumerating some conditions upon which the cross-fertilization of cultures depends, and third by dealing with the fundamental forms of mental creativity and their different bearings on the cross fertilization of cultures. The general law of life--the togetherness of abiding with itself and transcending itself, of self-domestication and self-alienation--reaches its full strength in the life of man, in his mental as well as social life, or, more exactly, in the unity of both.

The plurality of functions exercised by the intellectual in exile is not inconsistent with unity of general effect, when results are appraised through any selected historical period. Insofar as the events of modern European history are representative of relations in general, it seems reasonable to contend that intellectual exiles play a role which is predominantly reactionary (in the sense of counter-revolutionary) during and immediately after major revolutionary crises. Oftentimes they joined in mobilizing official and public opinion abroad against those who seized power, hence they aided in restricting the scope of the revolution by crystallizing a predominance of power against it. However, as a particular new world movement approaches maturity, the exile may well change his function from counter-revolutionary to revolutionary. With great diffidence, one may characterize their role as that of intensifiers of the contradictions implicit in world development. This seems equivalent to saying that they contribute to the politicizing of social relationships, in the sense that they assist in breaking down the limitations on assertiveness which prevail in different localities…

Since the primary concern of the intellectual in exile is the right use of his freedom, the situation of the modern immigrant intellectual must be defined in terms pertinent to his task: as a challenge to freedom. He may respond to it in many ways. If the significance of national values is misjudged in relation to other values, his productive participation in a new national life is distorted; he sees it either as a conflict of supreme loyalties or as of so little importance that a shabby opportunism results. It is more gratifying to speak of the responses which spring from the right use that the intellectual immigrant may learn to make of his freedom. Experience matures judgment. Familiarity with new facts and new ways of looking at them increases understanding and circumspection. In a sense every immigrant passes through a second period of youth, with its blunders and invigorating hopes, its dangers and slow achievements. To his profit he learns by experience and participation.

What any one human being could produce in the way of ideas by himself -- even conceding for the moment that he could live by himself -- would not be worth thinking about. Thought is a process of raising questions and attempting to answer them. Even when we seem to be 'lone thinkers' we are really an ideal company of some sort, taking the role of others and raising questions with ourselves. Thought arises out of situations that generate conflict and upset routines. It is in the course of movement and migration that the cross-fertilization of cultures takes place, and while social contact does not necessarily and inevitably eventuate in new ideas, it is at least a significant precondition for their emergence.

From Scipio to Cicero [the] cross-fertilization of cultures, the interaction of Greek immigrant intellectuals and Roman noblemen, created not only a new Roman literature in philosophy and drama but a new attitude, which we call humanism. This attitude means correlating all patterns of thinking to the center of human creativeness, and controlling the emotional and impulsive life by reason and spirit. Only such an attitude enables the statesman to gain from philosophy a spiritual and intellectual power which enables him to suffer the adversities of political and social life with calmness of soul, and to be aware, even in the climax of victory and glory, of corruptibility and the recurrent cycles of history.

Once more the western world finds itself in a period comparable to that of the late eighteenth century. And once more we can detect, I think, a tendency to fit materials gathered internationally into a characteristically national structure. We are, as a century and a half ago, on the threshold of a constitutional reformation. But since we live in an age of fierce economic conditionings, the larger process through which we are going is the reformation of our economic constitution.


In 1922, the Fascists came to power in Italy with no program of reforms of their own, but a great desire to accomplish some reform and the power to do it. Giovanni Gentile, one of the foremost philosophers of Italy, was entered into the Fascist cabinet as Minister of Public Instruction and managed to radically transform the failing educational system in less than one year. Resembling American progressive education, the new system revolved around the main idea that the child had to be brought up to realize by himself, in his own terms, his own desire for learning. Every element of indoctrination, therefore, had to be ruthlessly stamped out: a teacher is he who is able to grow with his pupil. The emphasis was against bureaucracy and its debasing influence on culture. Meanwhile, Fascism too was becoming aware of itself.

For the teaching of history it is ordained that western civilization has never been produced by the Nordic race. The folk idea has to be stressed in contrast to "the poison of the international idea which threatened to devour the German soul. Brothers of German stock who live outside Germany have to be included... Geography must teach the destructive consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and point out the need of space for the German people to live. Rivers and mountains are to be studied as the basis for military operations. Siegfried Passarge, an authority in education, recommends that the teacher of geography close a description of the Föhnwind (a strong south wind) with the following words: "Today a Föhn storm rushes over our German fatherland. Nervous, weak people do not feel well, but healthy vigorous youth breathes again. Marxian swamps dry up; poison-loaded Soviet mosquitoes flee. The Jewish Augean stables which affected the air have fallen down. Cleansing and refreshing is the German Föhn. And whom do we thank for this glorious movement? Our leader, the genius sent from God."

Reports of changes taking place in the Soviet Union have aroused lively discussion on the question, 'Is Russia now in reaction toward a more old-fashioned social order?' The new constitution is hailed as very democratic; nationalism of a familiar type seems to have replaced the early internationalism; and the family is being safeguarded with zeal. This paper will not attempt to cover every important phase of change, but only what is happening in education.

The question to which I want to direct attention is whether there can be found some general prerequisites for the success of a democratic education. Democratic education involves, besides other characteristics, the idea of freedom as opposed to control. The possibility of growth that democracy wants to provide must lead to decay and to a final overthrow of democratic liberty itself unless this growth is understood as growth towards a form or a shape.

In this paper I should not like to discuss the task of education in democracy in abstract terms. I want to discuss it against the background of the actual state of the world, that is, of democracy standing in a defensive against the advance of the totalitarian crusade. In such a state of affairs we have to do more than profess the traditional postulates of democratic education: intellectual freedom and personal responsibility. We have to prove that these liberal principles, which form the topic of this conference, are superior to the new gospel of indoctrination and enforced conformity. By calling them "superior" we cannot, however, rely only on religious and ethical criteria. We have to prove that these principles are superior instruments for the solution of the personal and social problems of our age.

"...[Education in American democracy] presents, as I am given to see it, four obligations. The first is to instruct youth in those humane ideals which form the essence of democracy and its primary cohesive force. These are moral values, as distinguished from the values of sheer physical might and sheer greed; and instruction in these moral values should be exemplified in classroom, community, group and nationalistic practice. The second obligation is to furnish youth a realistic knowledge of our political institutions and practices--as realistic as science, research and exposition can make it. The third obligation is instruction in the realities of economic processes, their relation to standards of life and their intimate affiliations with the nature, operation, and prospects of democracy.

Let me try to draw some conclusions in order to relate the foregoing papers to our own problems as democratic educators. The papers have given us an admirable description of the new systems of education, systems which must appear strange and repulsive to us. All the more, then, does the question suggest itself as to why it is that such impossible things become real, why it is that they do, within certain limits, appeal to youth, as Dr. Wunderlich rightly stated. There can be only one answer: the responsibility lies with the omissions and errors of democratic education.

I take it that all of us here are committed to an acceptance of critical, scientific modes of inquiry and instruction. These constitute the abiding spirit--as distinct from the passing, historical doctrine--of liberalism in both education and life. In the present epoch it is of the first importance not to permit the sources of this critical liberalism to become muddied by the unclear notions and cultivated ambiguities behind which authoritarian attitudes conceal themselves. In short, it is an elementary necessity of logical and moral hygiene to unmask any account or interpretation of totalitarian educational systems.

What are the social implications of dictatorial systems of education? Generally speaking, we are certainly entitled to say that the modern dictatorships do show exactly what remains of democracy, if freedom is removed from it--indeed every kind of freedom. What remains is the collectivized man, who is no longer allowed to be and is no longer evaluated as an individual, but is only a member of the community of the people, and derives his values, his standards of thinking and acting, only from his functioning as a little wheel in the immense apparatus of the totalitarian state. There is no longer in the center the individual with his inborn claims to freedom, justice and human dignity.

What we stand for more uniformly than for objectivity of science is freedom of science. Freedom of science we consider indispensable for the achievements of science as well as for human dignity. Freedom of science implies a certain degree of freedom of speech and print, also of access to libraries and laboratories, etc. Still it seems to me very doubtful whether the ideal of freedom of science should be merged indiscriminately in the problem of freedom of teaching. I do not know of any country, democratic or other, which proceeds under a system of absolute freedom of teaching, at least in the framework of compulsory education. In particular, it is not realistic to demand that after a revolution the task of education be freely left to adversaries of the new system.

Two main factors concurred in creating an academic proletariat. First, the social prestige affixed to the academic rank which induced every ambitious father--and what father is not ambitious?--to send his children to the university, even if he could scarcely afford it. Second, the conviction of every graduate that he had earned by his graduation a "ticket of admission" to an academic or professional position, which corresponded to the training he had undergone and to the social prestige for which he and his parents were striving. If he did not succeed in getting such a position he regarded his life as a failure and blamed the state for providing higher education without assuring corresponding jobs. Are there similar tendencies observable in the United States? Or are there differences here which may protect this country from such a dangerous development?

The educational policies of the smaller dictatorships in the Danube basin--those of Austria, Hungary, Roumania and Yugoslavia--have many traits in common with the Italian and the German experiments. The underlying idea in all of them is the same: the educational system is regarded simply as a tool to serve the aims and ideals of the dictatorial state. It is their common trait that no one can receive a teaching appointment who is known for his independent or heterodox opinions. These four small dictatorships, to be sure, have not elaborated such a rigid ideological structure and such an all-embracing regimentation of the educational mechanism as have their larger prototypes.

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