Sidney Hook’s theory of education in a democracy

Philosopher Sidney Hook is best remembered for his debates with other philosophers and engaged political figures about Marxism and Communism (link). My interest here is in a different part of his work after World War II, his philosophy of education. Hook was a student of John Dewey, the author of Democracy and Education, but ultimately Hook had more to say about what educational values ought to guide a modern university than did Dewey. Much of Hook’s theory was expressed in Education for Modern Man, published in 1946 and republished and extended in 1963. The book has a striking degree of relevance today in the context of debates over curriculum both inside universities and outside. What is the value of a liberal education? Is a “Great Books” curriculum a good basis for a liberal education in a democracy? How should the content of a liberal education be made compatible with “education for a career”? And what ideas are out of bounds within a university classroom? Hook had trenchant answers to all of these questions. (Here is an earlier post on the question of how to define the goals of a liberal education; link.)

Let’s begin with Hook’s assessment of the state of liberal education in post-World War II America.

Whatever a liberal education is, few American colleges offer it. Despite the well advertised curricular reforms in a few of our leading colleges, by and large the colleges of the country present a confused picture of decayed classical curriculums, miscellaneous social science offerings, and narrowing vocational programs — the whole unplanned and unchecked by leading ideas. What one finds in most colleges cannot be explained in terms of a consciously held philosophy of education, but rather through the process of historical accretion. The curriculum of a typical college is like a series of wandering and intersecting corridors opening on rooms of the most divergent character. Even the cellar and attic are not where one expects to find them. (4)

Hook proposes that educators need to think more carefully about the purpose and goals of a college education.

The discussion will revolve around four generic questions:

  1. What should the aims or ends of education be, and how should we determine them?
  2. What should its skills and content be, and how can they be justified?
  3. By what methods and materials can the proper educational skills and content be most effectively communicated in order to achieve the desirable ends?
  4. How are the ends and means of education related to a democratic social order?

A satisfactory answer to these questions should provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of what constitutes a liberal education in modern times. (6)

He unpacks these questions around a statement of seven fundamental “learning goals” for a university education:

  1. Education should aim to develop the powers of critical, independent thought.
  2. It should attempt to induce sensitiveness of perception, significantly associated with the different receptiveness to new ideas, imaginative sympathy with the experiences of others.
  3. It should produce an awareness of the main streams of our cultural, literary, and scientific traditions.
  4. It should make available important bodies of knowledge concerning nature, society, ourselves, our country, and its history.
  5. It should strive to cultivate an intelligent loyalty to the ideals of the democratic community and to deepen understanding of the heritage of freedom and the prospects of its survival.
  6. At some level, it should equip young men and women with the general skills and techniques and the specialized knowledge which, together with the virtues and aptitudes already mentioned, will make it possible for them to do some productive work related to their capacities and interests.
  7. It should strengthen those inner resources and traits of character which enable the individual, when necessary, to stand alone. (55)

Each of these goals is noteworthy. Goals 3 and 4 are “content” goals concerning the kinds of knowledge that graduates need to have gained in order to be able to confront the personal and social challenges that lie in their future. Goal 6 recognizes and endorses the idea that the graduate needs to be prepared for productive work and career. Goals 1 and 7 concern the qualities of character we can hope for in our graduates: independence of mind and courage of their convictions. Goals 2 and 5 are specifically important for “education for democracy”: cultivation of the skills of understanding and accepting difference (racial, religious, economic), and cultivation of loyalty to the institutions of democracy and freedom. (Hook specifically calls out the fact that Weimar-educated engineering and technical students were among Hitler’s strongest supporters; 24-25.)

An important goal in Hook’s account (goal 2) is preparation of the student for a diverse world of different people, different religions, and different races. Hook describes the goal:

The existence of democratic communities in which individuals of conflicting religious faiths and metaphysical beliefs sincerely co-operate in democracy’s support indicates that it is possible to find criteria for accepting democracy that do not depend on revelation or intuition. (62)

In our language today, we might say that Hook in interested in education for inclusiveness in a pluralistic society. How can we go about that task, in Hook’s view? Part of his answer is the experience of thinking imaginatively about the human experience of others, and this means cultivating the skills of empathy and compassion.

What does it mean to think about a play, or about a poem, or about people? It means also to feel, to imagine, to conjure up a vision. Not only that but also that. Why is it that we often say to some thoughtless person, “Put yourself in his place”? To another, “You haven’t got the feel or the hang of it”? To a third, “You understand everything about the situation except what really matters”? We do not convey truths by this way of speaking, but we help others to find the truth. (27)

Here the idea is the importance of helping the student to gain the cognitive-emotional capacities of “understanding the other person’s experience”, or empathy. And this can be part of many aspects of a university experience, from reading history to studying and experiencing art, poetry, and drama. (In this way Hook seems to anticipate Martha Nussbaum’s arguments in Cultivating Humanity.)

And then there is the question of “relevance” versus “traditional civilizational texts and values”. Hook thinks this is a false dichotomy. He entirely endorses the idea that a college education should prepare the student to think critically and courageously about the most important problems that confront him or her at the present; so involvement in contemporary issues and problems is important (relevance). But he also believes that the history of human texts — Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe — can provide the student with some of the resources of imagination and understanding that are necessary for this task (119 ff.). Consider his view of what a student needs in order to come to grips with fascism or totalitarianism:

Let us examine some concrete illustrations of contemporary problems and issues, so despised by traditionalists, in order to see what would be involved in their adequate understanding. Nothing is more contemporary than present-day totalitarianism in its various forms. Can its nature be understood without a social and economic analysis of capitalism and its periodic cycles? Can we come to grips with its rationalizations, and understand our own minds in relation to it, without some study of the ideas of men like Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Hegel, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Plato? Can theories of race and racial supremacy be exposed without a sound knowledge of biology and some familiarity with the elements of scientific method? Can an intelligent analysis be made of proposals that the West disarm unilaterally in the belief that the Soviet Union will follow suit, without a study of the pacts and treaties previously entered into by the Kremlin and the score of their fulfillment? (124)

In other words, a broad and deep exposure to history, literature, social science, natural science, and philosophy is highly “relevant” to the problems associated with confronting totalitarianism.

Hook is most assuredly a harsh critic of the “Great Books” theory of college curriculum (St. Johns College, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler). His objection is not to “dry-as-dust” old books; rather, it is an objection to the dogma that the books speak for themselves, and that there is no need to try to connect the insights of these authors to the problems of the present and the recent past. This is to make a fetish of the “monuments” of Western civilization.

Hook also argues for the importance of knowledge of “social studies” — the basics of economics, sociology, political science — for every student, because these areas of knowledge provide the context for events, crises, and problems that arise in every profession and every period of history.

The knowledge and insight that the social studies can give are necessary for every student because no matter what his specialized pursuits may later be, the extent to which he can follow them, and the “contextual” developments within these fields, depend upon the total social situation of which they are in some sense a part. An engineer today whose knowledge is restricted only to technical matters of engineering, or a physician whose competence extends only to the subject matter of traditional medical training, is ill-prepared to plan intelligently for a life-career or to understand the basic problems that face his profession. (140)

This is a prescient point, and the examples of engineering and medicine are especially important. (Think of the moral and social complexities of facial recognition technologies.) The liberally educated engineer or physician is much better prepared to confront the social and moral complexities of their work than the physician who pursued the bare minimum of “distribution courses” in a race to get to an engineering graduate program or medical school.

This point has to do with a graduate’s readiness for his or her professional responsibilities. But Hook observes that one’s responsibilities as a citizen within a democracy have even greater need for a basic understanding of the social processes that surround government, the economy, social inequalities, racism, or health disparities. It is impossible to engage fully and productively in the affairs of a democracy if one has no understanding of how social and economic processes work.

And now we come to the role of values within a college curriculum. Hook believes that there are a range of “civic” values that universities must help students attain — respect for others, devotion to the rule of law, commitment to democracy — which means that a college education is not fundamentally value-free. Universities do indeed need to convey values to their students. But these are civic values — the values that are necessary for a democracy to thrive.

Finally, to teach values means to develop within students a willingness to commit themselves to new values, and to reaffirm or to reject the values to which they find themselves previously committed. When this is done after the value alternatives which are being excluded have been presented, then it can be said we are teaching that some values are better than others. (178)

This is not dogmatism or a doctrinaire approach to values education; it is couched in terms of critical thinking and reflection. But its goal is to reinforce the stability of a democracy — a condition that Hook knew only too well could not be taken for granted.

Hook’s philosophy of education, formulated as it was in the late 1940s, is remarkably relevant to the current challenges that universities face in providing their students with the tools they will need to be independent thinkers, effective professionals, and committed citizens. Much better it would be to have this conversation with Sidney Hook and John Dewey than with Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.


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