Bryan McAllister-Grande

GlobalEd Founder & Director Bryan McAllister-Grande is the founder and director of GlobalEd. He has over 20 years of experience in global higher education strategy, program design, intercultural teaching and coaching, assessment, and curriculum development. He is Director of Academic Integration and Planning at Northeastern University’s Global Experience Office. Bryan has twice served on the…

In 1946, the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Howard Mumford Jones, delivered three lectures on education and society for the Rushton Foundation. Critical of recent efforts to reform the “core” curriculum, Jones predicted that a “future educational historian will characterize the post-war epoch as one in which the nation turned defensively to reconsider the basis of its civilization.” He argued that Americans needed to look outward and imagine an entirely new vision of liberal education, rather than looking to the past. Such a program should not be based on absolutist, nineteenth-century thinking, said Jones; it should be contextual, and it should include the study of Russia and the “Orient” (Jones, 1946a, 64). For his arguments, he drew upon an ambitious work of analytic philosophy by Yale’s F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding. In The New York Times, Jones called Northrop’s volume the “most important intellectual event” of 1946 (Jones, 1946b, 98).

Throughout the 1930 and 1940s, many other voices – from both within and beyond the academy — joined Jones in devising a “general education” for all Americans. Historians have typically regarded these discussions as a domestic pursuit — another chapter in the debate over the right kind of education for the liberal, free citizen in America. Designed to temper concerns about dogmatism from across the Atlantic, “general education for a free society” was the phrase that served as title of the famous Harvard University Red Book and the subject of similar faculty committees at Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale.

Recent historical scholarship has highlighted the introduction of global and regional knowledge into those general education plans as a way to prepare Americans for their new international responsibilities. This era marked the rise of area studies and graduate programs in diplomatic affairs. Yet, the link between general education and the making of “international minds” between the World Wars and after WWII has not been fully explored. As the historian David Hollinger notes, there have been few studies examining the intellectual assumptions and ideological commitments behind these curricular and cultural shifts. If we accept the notion that philosophies of education (and the institutions where they are situated and put into practice) inform a society’s thought and culture, examining how those philosophies were shaped may illuminate our understanding of American society and the U.S. role in the world. Such a revisiting of intellectual-institutional history might take an approach to “the global” and to ideas about cosmopolitanism in a way similar to how ideas about religion, race, and gender have been examined for their role in shaping universities, disciplines, and society.

This critical examination might be better described as a series of unfinished discussions about the curriculum and the idea of the university during the World War periods. The aftermath of two world tragedies had provided a unique moment for introspection, resulting in works of philosophical critique such as Jones’ that are not always recognized or remembered. During this key period that served as a bridge between old and new, between inter-war thinking and Cold War thinking, some the nation’s most prolific social critics and intellectuals examined the foundations of educational thought. In addition to Jones, the list included John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Horace M. Kallen, Carl J. Friedrich, Margaret Mead, Walter Lippmann, Northrop, Alain Locke, Mark Van Doren, and Robert M. Hutchins. These scholars tried to work through the history of ideas, searching for something that had gone awry or trying to reconcile older, supposedly cosmopolitan ideals. To solve international educational and social problems, they revisited Aristotle, Rousseau, Confucius, Aquinas, Locke, and many others. 

These thinkers wrestled with a cosmopolitan curriculum at a time when the creation of a world state was possible if not inevitable. Writing for the “common man” – a popular term in the time period made famous by Henry A. Wallace – they fiercely debated the place of pragmatism, metaphysics, and modern science in service of social idealism. They hoped to unite classes around the world by constructing a meaningful and egalitarian version of international, social democracy. Education was their vehicle. These movements, now largely forgotten, were front-page news in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a unique stage in the twentieth-century curriculum battles, one shaped by competing “national” and “international” philosophies of culture. 

In creating a general education philosophy, what did these scholars believe that American undergraduates needed to understand about the world, especially the non-Western world? How did their thinking apply to ideas about a world state and universal education? And, what were the philosophies of knowledge that informed their ideas? The answers provide seeds for re-thinking the history of what today is called “global learning” or “internationalizing the curriculum.”

The remainder of this essay is devoted to identifying three groups of thinkers in the period — “idealists,” “moderns,” and “globalists.”

The Idealists 

What I am calling “Idealists” have also been called, previously, “ancients,” “traditionalists,” “perennials,” “humanists,” “metaphysicists,” “dogmatics,” “neo-scholastics,” “neo-Thomists,” and possibly more. Their ideas are now such a part of Americana – identified with the “Great Books of the Western World” — as to approach caricature. For that reason, I will primarily focus on sections of the texts that wrestle with global thought and will not address other aspects of their work and legacy.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as pragmatism and educational progressivism fell out of favor, the idealists’ views gained popularity. Howard Mumford Jones noted in The New York Times that, in filling this gap, the idealists’ educational philosophy was for while the only credible one available. “There is nothing like the wild vigor of a crusade,” said Jones. “Philosophical thinking seemed for a time to be in the sole possession of the neo-scholastics” (Jones, 1946c). The “wild vigor” Jones referred to was, according to him, “backed by an ingenious show of dialectical reasoning” that criticized the pragmatic philosophy for contributing a relative, individualistic, even radical tone to education. According to the idealists, in the hands of pragmatism, modern education had become no longer as sacred as law or medicine. It could no longer be called capital-e Education, but instead simply education – a conglomeration of various ideas and practices. 

The idealist philosophy was, they thought, capital-e Education, and it was unabashedly utopian and communal. (One of Hutchins’ many works was called The University of Utopia). Although today sometimes thought of as conservative, thanks in part to the culture wars, it is worth remembering that the 1930s and 1940s idealists tended to flirt with socialism and typically believed in a future world state. Said Alexander Meiklejohn: “We must become citizens of the world. Education is the fitting of people, young and old, for the responsibilities of that citizenship” (Meiklejohn, 1942, 283). Similarly, “civilization is the deliberate pursuit of a common ideal,” proclaimed Robert Hutchins. “Education is the deliberate attempt to form men in terms of an ideal” (Hutchins, 1953, 52). By “civilization” and “men,” Hutchins and Meiklejohn attempted to mean all humankind.

For these self-proclaimed idealists, then, liberal education was the highest achievement one could gain and a world bonding force. It was a common language, a set of universal  “seven arts.” Based on the ancient Greek trivium and quadrivium, these arts were defined in modern terms as reading, writing, thinking (logic), arithmetic, music, geometry/calculus, and physics/astronomy. While this prescribed curriculum was an adoption of the old classical curriculum and heavily Western, the idealists adapted the study of that curriculum to egalitarian notions of a modern, global society. They believed that such an education was possible for all “common men” around the world and would be a basis for global understanding. According to these thinkers, the “seven arts” produced not only an educated American citizenry, but allowed one human being to be intimately connected to a fellow human being in any time, or any place, regardless of nation or creed. It allowed this human being to be directly involved in a “Great Conversation” – an ancient and on-going dialogue about religion, morality, truth, and justice. 

One common assumption about the idealists is that their traditionalism was a blind devotion to ancient thinkers, or a religious appeal. While it is true that the idealists embraced Aristotle, they had other historical arguments to make. Hutchins wanted his University of Utopia to be a return to the medieval university. It represented, for Hutchins, a unique moment in history when education was tied neither to nation nor empire (that argument, of course, is faulty). For Hutchins, the medieval universities in Bologna and Paris and the wandering scholars who shared a common language (Latin) were answerable only to “truth” itself. This way of thinking formed the basis for their way of thinking about the anti-intellectualism of the modern university. Similarly, the idealist view of the American colonial college was also an attempted reinterpretation of history. The idealists wanted to re-position the American colonial college as an extension of the medieval university and the search for universal truths, de-emphasizing its religious content. A college, as defined by Meiklejohn in an early call to arms, his 1920 book The Liberal College, should not be a college for the United States or even a Christian college. “A college is a manner of being,” he proclaimed (Meiklejohn, 1920, 67). It was circular and renewing, a place of refuge from opinions or patriotic concerns. 

Such a vision would be the only way to seed a world state, said the idealists, because it would allow common ideas to flourish. As the lone trained philosopher of the group, Meiklejohn searched for global ideals by re-visiting the Western past to search for forgotten cosmopolitan tendencies. He was especially critical of mainstream Christian philosophy. Education Between Two Worlds, written at the height of WWII, was an exegesis of the “Protestant-capitalist tradition” that Meiklejohn believed to be the cause of the crisis. He believed the tradition led to the separation of ideas from their natural setting and to the categorization of humankind into fixed classes and interest groups. Meiklejohn wanted instead to focus on the spirit of cosmopolitanism that humans had supposedly sought through the act of creating religions. For Meiklejohn, the fact that multiple religions celebrated unity with similar symbols was a reminder that an underlying, universal educational philosophy – what he called the “brotherhood of those who fly the flag of learning” — was indeed possible. He embraced the ideas of the seventeenth-century philosopher Comenius, who had sought a kind of classless, world integration; Meiklejohn believed a universal education had never been fully pursued or in-acted in history for a lack of confidence in Comenius’ “common man.” The result from this revisiting of history, he hoped, was a more effective human rationalism.

The Moderns

The first comprehensive response to the idealists’ critiques on modern education would normally have come from the “father” of progressive education himself – John Dewey. But, by the mid-1940s, Dewey was reaching his 80s. The response instead came from Dewey’s former student, Sidney Hook. As such, Hook’s 1946 work, Education for Modern Man, was a defense of Dewey and modern education. This seems significant, because Hook being on the defensive meant that Education for Modern Man is on the whole more caustic than visionary. Hook had little time to deal with global aspects of education, and his work seemed to set the tone for an emerging counter-idealist philosophy grounded in understanding the American present.

Hook had been ready for battle at the beginning of the decade. During World War II, the idealist Mortimer Adler had delivered a speech called “God and the Professors” in which Adler had said that most “moderns” were worse than Hitler. Hook responded with a series of articles, amounting to what one scholar of Hook calls a “vendetta.” By the time he wrote Education for Modern Man, Hook was less focused on Adler, but still angered. Hook critiqued the idealist philosophy for promoting an essentialist view of human nature. He used the idealists’ own twin arguments – that modern education was anti-intellectual and that critical intelligence was the method by which to unite humanity – against them. Hook did not disagree with the goals. He just felt that the idealists were not using any critical intelligence whatsoever in making the argument.

Hook attacked the idealists, particularly Hutchins and Meiklejohn on a few related grounds dealing with essentialism. He called out the idealists’ notion of human nature being essentially the same in any time and any place (and thus education as essentially the same in any time and any place) as “a truly remarkable assertion” using “atrocious logic,” in effect throwing away all recent claims of the history of ideas (Hook, 1946, 19-20; 22; 26). Such thinking divorced humankind from its environment, its cultural pluralism, and the very concept of social change, according to Hook. Taken to an extreme, thought Hook, the idealist viewpoint tended to a-historicize knowledge by conflating the study of the present with a rejection of the past. Such a viewpoint, said Hook, was “intellectually cheap,” masking the hard decisions that faculty and students must make about what parts of the past to emphasize as to best interpret present issues. More importantly, thought Hook, making the past a fixed point of study blocked any present issues from achieving the fundamental, timeless qualities that the idealists seemed so eager to re-acquire. Again, Hook used the idealists’ own arguments against them. He felt that the idealists had cornered themselves into an intellectual hole. They had wanted to create a common humanity, but they were perpetuating an underlying assumption that no genuine solutions to problems of a global polity could be found in present reality. Such problems, Hook said, were made by the idealists to be beyond analysis. “The habitual vision of greatness is important not only because it delights us to lift up our eyes on high but because it gives us working standards of comparative judgment,” said Hook. “It enables us to distinguish between the authentic and spurious” (Hook, 1946, 81). Thus, Hook felt that the idealists had resorted to the past as a way to rely upon “prejudiced sentiment” instead of searching for truths in lived experience. Such sentiment could easily lead to totalitarian notions of world citizenship if placed in the hands of less humanistic minds, thought Hook. 

Both Hook and the idealists thus worried about the limits of human thought, but in sharply different ways. For the idealists, limits were to be found by scavenging for examples in classic literature. For Hook and other moderns, they were found in relating thought to experience, testing out different theories to select ones that produced the most equality in a particular place at a particular time. This was the art of thinking for Hook and Dewey, a communal one of checks and balances. Both approaches advocated for laboratories – for the idealists, these were laboratories of abstract philosophy; for the moderns, the world was a living laboratory.

While their approaches varied considerably, the “moderns” are so defined here for a few fundamental ideas that they shared. First, they attempted to develop some kind of philosophy of education that connected the American present to selected parts of the Western tradition, seeking an intimate connection between past and present. They aimed to create curricula centered around modern, international problems, but felt that these problems could be solved using the methods of existing social science matched with traditional humanistic study. They believed each student should find his/her way through this curriculum largely on his/her own, and equally that teachers should be free to teach under differing and various philosophical viewpoints. Importantly, however, as the century progressed they tended to shed their old ties to progressive education. They argued less that their view was a “philosophy” and more that was simply natural or neutral.

For Hook, the study of value was essential to the evolution of the curriculum. He wanted to introduce philosophical consideration into every field, and to re-focus education on questions of methodology. For Hook, a good liberal education was one that deconstructed the social meaning and history of values. The problem with the idealists, said Hook, was that they considered values to be metaphysical constructs removed from their particular contexts. He questioned: 

Is it true, as a matter of fact or analysis, that what are called “ultimate” values have the same meaning, as distinct from their formal verbal expression, in all times, places and cultures? How can we tell without examining the values of at least some different cultures? But this is an argument for comparative culture study and critical anthropology which, though it tames the fanaticism of virtue, need not lead, as Mr. Hutchins fears, to the identification of custom and morality. 

hook, 1946, 82

Not surprisingly, Hook thought pragmatist and experiential philosophies provided the way forward — although he repeatedly hesitated to use those monikers. “Different ends may be proposed but intelligent decision among them can be made only by canvassing their consequences in experience,” said Hook. This process of canvassing would allow for agreement on social and moral ends without agreement on presuppositions. For Hook, pragmatic thought was the only way to achieve some kind of coexistence among people with differing viewpoints – it was the only way for values to be seen as choices, and for people to reconstruct their value systems based on the consideration of different choices.

This was a difficult process, said Hook. One first needed to make students aware of their own choices as grounded in particular cultural habits. The teacher then needed to introduce students to a kind of rooted relativity that allowed them to see others’ values as choices validated in that particular context. After this introductory understanding, students would be able to see how these value choices have influenced the construction of institutions and societies over time. For Hook, philosophy, in combination with cultural anthropology, allowed students to see these choices not only as individual wants and desires, but also as collective actions. Hook thought that philosophical study would allow students to see the progression of cultural institutions as pluralistic choices being made in history, not as unchangeable, essential characteristics. “Value judgments are understood not only through knowledge of their origins and causes but through knowledge of their structural interrelations,” said Hook. He wanted such analysis to be “historically centered” (Hook, 1946, 132-133).

Other moderns wanted education to be rooted directly in cultural anthropology, not philosophy. A collection of anthropologists and interculturalists best associated with Columbia University (where Dewey had also been based) and often called the “Boas School” after Franz Boas advocated for anthropology to be the new “lingua franca” of education. In their vision, shared by celebrity anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, anthropology would not be a separate field of study but rather a common and integrative link between all subjects in the curriculum — a kind of mega global discipline.

Yet, Hook and other moderns typically focused much of their attention on method as they sought to emerge from the backlash against progressive education. Their focus on technical method took their arguments in a technocratic, neo-liberal direction that foreshadowed today’s focus on outcomes and methods. Hook’s views on the study of foreign languages offer a succinct example of this emphasis on method. Hook believed languages to be primarily a method for understanding how human emotions were related to human actions – to the “licet ambiguities of imaginative discourse.” For Hook, language study was a kind of meta-analysis that would allow the student to think in more pluralistic and multi-dimensional ways. “In learning another language we put ourselves in a position where we can appreciate both the cultural similarities and differences of the Western world,” said Hook (1946, 102). It was not a way to understand other cultures and regions of the world, or to search for humanity – or at least Hook did not say so explicitly.

In a review of Education for Modern Man, Howard Mumford Jones — ever the referee of the debates — championed Hook as brave warrior fighting the blind idealists. But, he also seemed a little hesitant in his support; while Hook was “on the side of the United Nations,” and not “on the side of angels,” Jones also noted that there was little in the book that spoke directly to recent world events and technological change (Jones, 1946b). Instead, Hook had set his sights on Western thought alone. Hook helped set the tone for thinking in Cold War ways about the cultural formation of values and institutions, but he did not venture far beyond the West. The globalists – including anti-colonial scholars such as Alain Locke – tried to imagine new ways of thinking about the world that did not rely entirely on the successes or failures of Western tradition.

The Globalists

Globalists differed from both idealists and moderns. Throwing out the past and eager to avoid “nationalism,” they created interdisciplinary inquiries that explored the multiple histories of cultures and world regions; some of them even sought some kind of eventual integration of cultures and languages. For the globalists, the world had changed after two world wars and economic depression. It could no longer be thought of as the progression of the West as separate or different from the East, or from so-called “uncivilized” places. While colonialism never fully entered the globalist vocabulary in the 1940s, these thinkers were clearly concerned with the dramatic changes in world affairs that had created new nations and had advanced or destroyed empires. They organized educational conferences inviting in perspectives from China, India, Africa, and elsewhere; and they had high hopes for UNESCO as a means to help rid educational systems of excessively nationalistic textbooks and pedagogies. For the globalists, the art of thinking was a process of opening up the mind to newness and relishing in interconnectivity.

Howard Mumford Jones was himself one of the most interesting globalists in this mold. In 1944, the professor of literature and dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School published an influential volume called Ideas in America. The book argued for a critical examination of American intellectual history, aiming to place it in the context of world history and out of excessively European or religious traditions. As Joan Shelley Rubin notes, Jones was an Americanist with a strong comparative mentality; he argued for American studies to have no more special place in scholarship than any other region, while still believing that the study of American ideas offered special humanistic insight into world citizenship.

Jones weighed in on the general education debates with Education and World Tragedy, the compilation of his Rushton Lectures. He felt that the idealists and moderns were all wrong. “The primary conflict of our time is the revolt against the fruits of more than twenty centuries of Western culture,” said Jones. “Civilization must re-educate itself or perish” (Jones, 1946a, 78). Such a re-education, argued Jones, would need to face, head-on, the knowledge systems and epistemologies held as true by the non-West. It should be comparative, said Jones, but it should not hold the U.S. or the West as the primary basis for comparison. It should also face the application of modern science to social life, thought Jones. He pointed out that most of the plans for general education came from the humanities, and from a largely European-based humanistic tradition. “In a scientific and technological age our educational theory should not be shaped mainly by non-scientists,” Jones said. The result of this, thought Jones, was two-fold: not only did humanists and social scientists never bother to understand science and its impacts, but they also sought desperately to apply the scientific method in “fields where human behavior is frequently strange and unpredictable.” Like the idealists, Jones was worried about attempts by positivists and other technocrats to search for absolute measurements of social behavior. In short, he basically predicted the neo-liberal order we have today.

This was a wide-ranging argument, and Education and World Tragedy is an ambitious and complicated book. Jones was particularly influenced by what he called the “cultural dilemma of the twentieth century:” although he did not name it directly, it was clearly the emerging neo-liberal order. Jones feared that order would ruin humanity. To combat neo-liberalism, he cited recent alternative visions by Eric Fischer, Elton Mayo, Alfred North Whitehead, Quincy Wright, and Erich Fromm; all had predicted not only a “passing” of the European and Western age in terms of power and politics, but a true unsettling of traditional Western thought. Perhaps the largest influence on Jones’ educational views was another of these forecasters, F.S.C. Northrop. 

Northrop was a now-obscure comparative epistemologist who had chaired Yale’s philosophy department before the war as the University’s Sterling Professor in Philosophy and Law (achieving Yale’s highest faculty honor in both subjects), and was reportedly close with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among other major thinkers. Few scholarly studies of Northrop seem to exist, with the exception of Fred Seddon’s introductory synopsis of his work and my own dissertation. Like Russell and Whitehead, Northrop was part of a group of early twentieth-century philosophers who used logic and science to inform major intellectual and social ideas. Northrop’s own intellectual contribution was to apply these scientific principles to the study of human societies and to the study of global coexistence, encompassing both international relations and intercultural and ethnic relations. His first book, Science and First Principles, published in 1931, argued for a distinction in ways of knowing, divided between reason (the theoretic) and sense (the aesthetic). Northrop felt that sense, or the aesthetic way of knowing, involved interpreting the world by the scientific concept of intuition, while reason, or the theoretic way of knowing, centered on interpretation by the scientific concept of postulation. While distinctive, Northrop felt that in the process of reaching modernity the two concepts, at least in the West, had diverged too far from their natural relationship, causing the West to consider the same issue from fractured, specialized frames of knowledge. This was not in itself a revolutionary discovery, but Northrop uniquely applied it to the formation of normative cultural ideologies. Said Seddon in his review of Northrop’s work: “With an unquenchable faith in the power of ideas, Northrop believed that in order to understand any given culture, one needs to understand their underlying philosophy” or ideology. For Northrop, these cultural ideologies were only fixed in the sense that they had been historically formed and socially constructed. They could also be deconstructed and re-formed into new ideologies. But to do that, Northrop felt that humankind needed a new method of combining ways of knowing – combining understanding by intuition and understanding by postulation.

Northrop thought that Robert Hutchins and the idealists had realized this need. They had sought to find the solution to the problem by returning to the metaphysical ideas of Aristotle and the Greek classics. According to Northrop, the idealists had sought to rise against the “fallacy” of the social sciences, and Northrop agreed that they relied too heavily on concepts by postulation. “The heart of this fallacy is grasped when one notes that social science is distinguished from natural science by the fact that it is confronted by problems of value as well as problems of fact,” said Northrop. “This occurs because we ask of society not merely what the facts are but also how we can alter them to produce a more ideal state of affairs.” Northrop felt the idealists’ efforts were admirable, but their solution – a return to Western tradition – ignored the “modern or postmodern world” with its possibilities for unique cultural integration.

Northrop believed that WWII was paradigm-shifting historical moment, arguing that WWI was not a world war at all but largely a Western conflict. WWII had instead caused a historical convergence. “For the first time in history, not merely in war but also in issues of peace, the East and West are in a single world movement, as much Oriental as Occidental in character,” said Northrop. Aiming to be a “philosophy of culture” that was simultaneously a “philosophy of science,” Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West sought to understand the underlying philosophies of world cultures — primarily Russia and Asia, but also the particular ideologies of Mexico and Germany. (Interestingly, the Middle East and Africa are missing from his analysis). Northrop put forth the argument that Eastern (“Oriental”) epistemology was largely based on aesthetic concepts of intuition; while Western (“Occidental”) epistemology was increasingly grounded on theoretical concepts of postulation. Yet, Northrop believed that each tradition actually showed historical elements of both aesthetic and theoretic understanding, and that the key to global cooperation was first an understanding of how these dual elements worked together, and then a philosophical integration. Northrop felt that such work must be done carefully, involving the entire academic enterprise together with the general public. Such reform must be done with the full awareness that “the traditional Western tendency to regard the primitive as inferior or evil must be rejected with respect to the aesthetic component in culture;” in other words, with full awareness of earlier educational attempts to understand the very idea of “civilization” itself as the antithesis of the primal or intuitive.

Northrop contributed to the general education debates with an article entitled “Education for Intercultural Understanding” for The Journal of Higher Education; it built upon his arguments in East and West. For Northrop, the key disciplines for understanding culture were anthropology and sociology. However, “something more” was also required – a different kind of thinking based in recent theories of complex systems and cybernetics by those like Norbert Wiener.  “A culture is not merely the facts which an anthropologist observes by a careful use of the objective methods of science,” said Northrop. “It is also the concepts and theories by which these facts are understood by the people indigenous to this culture” (Northrop, 1947). Modern anthropology and sociology, thought Northrop, were weak on this issue because they:

…have brought to the formation of their methodology and their own conceptual apparatus the philosophical assumptions of this modern culture…all the facts of these other cultures are translated into the conceptual framework of a modern Western sociological science and its modern Western culture. Hence, what one obtains often is not the ideology of the native culture that is being investigated but the empirical facts of this culture brought under the ideology of modern Western sociologists and their particular cultural and philosophical assumptions.

northrop, 1947

Even as a Westerner himself, Northrop was worried about false interpretations of the non-West. He thought that the result was that students were too often taught to think only inductively, whereby one begins with specific, empirical observations and moves to general conclusions – often then deemed to be proven principles or precedents. To correct this problem, Northrop thought that the concepts of inductive thinking should be matched (not replaced) with concepts of deductive thinking, whereby one starts with precedents and then moves to specific conclusions. The study of culture, emphasized Northrop, must have both, because culture is neither a fixed entity nor a strictly empirical observation. In a sense, Northrop agreed with Hook that philosophical and methodological comparison should be integrated with the study of contemporary problems – but Northrop went further than Hook to suggest that these contemporary problems must go far beyond their relevance to the West.

Thus, globalists like Northrop and Jones can be related more intimately with idealists like Hutchins and Meiklejohn than we might typically imagine. The globalists and idealists both developed an equally critical view of modernity as a problem relating to the social construction of knowledge. They each sought, in their own way, to find a solution by developing a global educational program rooted in the re-visiting of humanistic expression. Such a program, they hoped, would introduce a dynamic concept of culture. They also both sought to return to an older conception of a university as a collection of unattached philosophers seeking universal knowledge, and they saw the modern world as a unique chance to create a utopia of “common men.” The difference between the two lines of thought, however, was that the idealists sought to create a global culture through the study of literary expression itself, while the globalists sought a massive convergence of philosophies that was largely technical in nature. It is difficult to judge which line of thought was more idealistic or which was more potentially dangerous. The former could be exclusionary while the latter could lead to a kind of fixed ideological relativity, even when culture was thought of as socially constructed. Northrop thought, for example, that the underlying philosophies of Russia and the United States were so incompatible that a violent conflict was inevitable, and could only be resolved by “Asian intervention.” He also thought that in the United States itself, the “cultures” of the Native Americans and African-Americans could only find their equal place when their aesthetic contributions could be integrated with the white, Anglo-Saxon theoretic — a position that was blind to its racism.

While the idealists were a fairly unified group, the globalists were not. Their work was largely experimental and sometimes not fully developed. Jones spent the bulk of Education and World Tragedy critiquing higher education but much less time actually developing his general education curriculum devoted to studying Asia and Russia. When many of these thinkers (including Jones and Meiklejohn) gathered for the Ninth Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion on the “Goals of American Education” in 1948, several participants criticized Jones for not specifying how Asia and Russia were to be studied. “I gather that Mr. Jones is worried about our capacity to really understand Russia, and to set up a cooperative world community. So am I,” said John Daniel Wild, a philosopher and Jones’ colleague at Harvard. “But I am unable to follow him in the assumption that these crucially important aims will be achieved merely by setting up more machinery, professors, and secretaries, more fields and areas called ‘the study of Russia’ and the ‘study of the Orient.’” For Wild and other participants, it was still better to teach students to think critically about their own culture. 

Such reactions nicely played into the hands of the idealists, and in 1954, Robert Hutchins shot back at the globalists by quoting Wild’s commentary in Great Books. Hutchins, like Wild, felt that the globalists proposed a too-simple version of cultural relativism, one that ended up dismissing the achievements of the West. “There is no reason why the West should feel that it must apologize for a determination to retain and renew a sense of its own character and its own range…Nothing in the main line of the Western tradition leads to ethnocentric pride or cultural provincialism,” said Hutchins. Again, he asserted the importance of reading the Great Books not as cultural absolutes, but as inquiries into how to live. “Any widespread achievement of understanding between East and West will have to wait on the production of an adequate supply of liberally educated Westerners,” he said, not Westerners educated on what he called “hastily instituted survey courses.”

While the globalists’ views helped moderate and shape the other educational philosophies, they largely “lost” the debate and were never really taken seriously. In the 1948 Symposium, Alain Locke called for “a New Organon in Education” – referring to Aristotle’s famous works on logic. Locke’s version was a search for a vibrant education philosophy that would incorporate global and intercultural phenomena in a similar way to Northrop’s, but with a more pragmatist bent. Calling it “critical relativism,” Locke wanted to search for the normative, not through didactic reasoning, but by a “broadly comparative and critical study of values so devised as to make clear the vital correlations between such values and their historical and cultural backgrounds.” His vision was some kind of medium between those like Hook, who tended to search for the normative in the immediate American experience, and those like Northrop and Arnold Toynbee, who Locke believed still showed traces of “abstract dialectical principles of interpretation” based on Aristotelian philosophy. Yet, Locke admitted that such a vision would be complicated to implement, perhaps even unreachable. He predicted the response of his colleagues when he questioned his own vision, asking, “how integrating can that be?”

The failure to create an accepted, comparative methodology was recognized later by Daniel Bell in his wide-ranging 1966 study of general education. As much as anyone, Bell was influential in the 1960s revisions of general education, which tended to put more emphasis on the study of comparative methodology and less on content and shared humanities. But for the specific question of East and West, Bell wondered: “What is the unit to be delimited?…What does one mean by ‘civilization’?…Can we, in effect, have an anthropology of civilizations?…In short, should the general education programs still concentrate largely on Western civilization; and if others are to be included what is the definition of the unit?” Without satisfactory answers to these questions, the revisions of the 60s tended to side more with Hook’s emphasis on comparative methodology as a way of understanding one’s own society.

The Revival of Educational History

This essay is a starting point to re-discovering the history of liberal education, as well as the subtle links between liberal education, American thought, and world citizenship. I have separated the debaters into three distinct sides, arguing that we need to re-visit their ideas with fresh eyes and understand how their thinking overlapped and played against one another. Their ideas did not occur in a vacuum, and neither did they occur only in the U.S. Where previous historians of education and society have tended to see mainly domestic implications, historians who now use a global approach to history might re-focus on the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as a period of vibrant exchange of ideas across borders. A broader study might look at (or at least pay more attention to) how ideas about education and world citizenship were formed across countries and cultures. 

In fact, the delineation between idealists, moderns, and globalists is also meant to be a starting point and not a conclusion. With the exception of the idealists, who were a fairly unified group, there were no clear boundaries between others who imagined various forms of liberal education. However one frames the debates, what is important is to go beyond knee-jerk reactions. Popular commentators and critics have tended to define the liberal education tradition as either a series of local, academic turf wars on the one hand, or as a hidden, broader political conflict on the other. Complicated minds thus often serve as convenient representatives of certain political arguments. 

This populist version of the liberal education tradition seems too romantic. I think this partly helps explain why educational philosophy is out of favor amongst historians, even while scholarship on the university is increasing. Yet, the 1940s debates were deeply connected to a broader American philosophic and cultural tradition and a product of their time period. As part of the American philosophic tradition, the ideas were intimately tied to the early twentieth-century efforts to create a public philosophy for American democracy – and thus tied to the legacies of pragmatism, scholasticism, positivism, and many other “isms.” 

As part of their time period, the debaters were self-reflexive about the underpinnings of democracy. Confident about WWII victory but shaken by cultural upheaval and human tragedy, these intellectuals re-visited their convictions about the nature of truth and its application to the public sphere, at the same time that they imagined ways for definitions of truth to be extended to the realm of the global. “The articles of the old faith have been tragically frustrated,” wrote John Dewey in 1944. Yet, Dewey remained convinced that the basic principles of social idealism were as important as ever after the war. He and other thinkers were still optimistic that the people of the world could be unified by knowledge. Perhaps most fascinating was these intellectuals’ own attempts at historiography, as they tried to position certain institutions and traditions as ideal types.

Historians might continue to question in what ways these visions were cosmopolitan, or how they offered a particular view of cosmopolitanism. As Hollinger notes, “Just how the cosmopolitan ideal was interpreted, and how it was then translated into concrete undergraduate curriculums, ideological persuasions, agendas for disciplines, and the like, is the substance of much of the unwritten history of American intellectuals during the mid-century decades.” In a similar way, recent work on the history of the Cold War university has eschewed simplistic accounts of universities as actors in Cold War machinery, and has focused instead on the ways in which scholarship served both knowledge and foreign policy. The wartime era might be better portrayed, then, as a true liminal moment – an intense transition from modern to the beginnings of post-modern, and from international to the beginnings of global. It featured a wide-ranging debate about the nature of “culture” in its structural sense – asking what culture is and how it manifests. In doing so, I believe all of these 1930s and 1940s thinkers – perhaps even the idealists — tried to develop a dynamic understanding of culture as neither immutable nor entirely relative. They searched instead for some kind of science or philosophy of culture that would underpin economic and political integration in a manner largely forgotten today. 

In this sense, these debates might also say something new about the historiography of global thought. The texts beg the question: Are our ideas about the world inherited blindly, as a collection of pre-determined cultural facts and figures? Or are they also a matter of interpretation, constructed through the history of epistemology and culture? The latter approach leans toward a meta, structural view of global thought that has implications for how we approach history and how we view American internationalism. For example, where do ideas about “nations,” “cultures,” and “development” come from?  The growth of ideas about patriotism and foreign policy might thus be seen through a different lens if traced back to their intellectual and institutional origins.

While there was no clear winner of the 1940s debates, it seems likely that some combination of the idealist and synthesist philosophies survived, and that this curious mixture lives on today. General education, while undoubtedly shifting in the last decade, remains a confusing mixture of Western classics, “Non-Western” counter-narratives, universalistic social science, and value-free introductory natural and biological science. While global issues have been infused into the curriculum with aplomb since 1989, this infusion mostly involves broadening the scope of study and deals less with interpretation and integration. The result is ironic – the ideas of the 1940s globalists survive only to the extent that the non-Western world is now considered important. There is less emphasis on developing a philosophy of culture that might determine normative concerns. Facing a tremendous explosion and diffusion of knowledge, experts today are calling for the development of “global competencies.” Yet, these calls come from now deeply embedded, national agendas.

At the same time, of course, Martha Nussbaum and other philosophers have argued for a return to the ideals of a liberal education as a way of reconnecting education to discursive democracy. Nussbaum also tries to re-position liberal education in a global context, arguing for some kind of return to the idea of a common, if not necessarily shared, humanity. Such work can also be connected to a revival in cosmopolitanism advocated by philosophers like Kwame Anthony Appiah and historians like Hollinger – often expressed as “rooted” or “colorful” cosmopolitanism.

Similarly, there are renewed calls for achieving “ends” in education, and for a return to the classical or even religious curriculum. Yet, in the post, post-modern world, we are still worried about anything that has an ultimate or essential end. Calls from those like Nussbaum on the liberal Left, or from those on the religious Right, are still on the fringes of our educational scene. Ultimately, we are reluctant to commit to any “philosophy” of education – and thus the discourse of the last twenty to thirty years has been focused on educational policy and bureaucracy. This might be another reason why historians overlook educational history – it has become mechanic rather than meaningful.

Whatever one thinks about the 1940s idealists – as well as, perhaps, their culture war descendants like Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom — their words might at least serve as inspiration for a new, critical view of educational philosophy in a global context. In the 1959 preface to the re-print of his book Liberal Education, Mark Van Doren directly addressed why his revisions made no mention of the Cold War and global rivalries. “It is not that I consider the crisis unreal,” he said. “It is so real, surely, that the best possible thinking should be done about it. And since liberal education is intellectual education, its relevance might seem never to have been greater…And how should it behave in crises? I still believe that it should behave like itself.” Today, are we having a global conversation about what liberal education is, and what it is not? How we construct the curriculum is important far beyond the distribution of courses and requirements. How the curriculum is constructed determines how students interpret the world around them in an era of equally rapid change, and how they go about changing and shaping it. The historical study of liberal education may or may not impact the future, but it can provide a certain standard of inquiry that is missing today. It might show us both forgotten possibilities as well as once-considered limits.

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