Chapter 1: Text and Context

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 1: Text and Context

This introductory chapter will state the theme around which the whole book revolves and on which the widely diverse topics considered are so many variations. This will constitute the text upon which the succeeding chapters are commentary, illustration, and elaboration. In order that the central theme may stand out clearly, its statement will be followed by a discussion of the context in which the text is set, indicating some of its sources and relationships.

A glance at the chapter headings reveals at once the need for such an introduction. The subjects treated cover a wide range, from table manners to international organization, from scientific methods to the tax structure. How can the treatment of matters so different within the compass of one short book be justified?


There are several common concerns by which the topics are united. These concerns move successively to deeper levels, finally culminating in certain principles which are the organizing center of the entire analysis.


The first unity lies in the fact that this is a book about education. The study grows out of the practical problem of deciding what should be taught in our homes and schools. If we ask what should be the content of instruction, it is evident that anything like an adequate answer must include many different topics, because a person living in the complex modern age must know and be able to do a multitude of things. So it seems reasonable that a book about the content of education should treat subjects covering a wide spectrum -- not exhaustively of course, but only so as to show why each one is important and to indicate something of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that need to be developed in each area and how this may be done.


The next unifying concern is that of finding a common perspective from which to consider the content of instruction. Shall it be the traditional subject fields? Shall it be current issues in education, like federal aid to schools, education of the gifted, and so on? Instead of such perspectives, the major problems in contemporary culture and civilization have been elected as the basis for the choice of topics. What should we teach our children? We must above all teach them to meet the problems of our time with courage and competence. And what are the problems of our time? Are they not such matters as the role of intelligence, the mass media, standards of taste, sex, race, politics, and religion? The fifteen subjects considered in chapters 3 through 17 cover most of the major problem areas in modern life. Thus, the question, "What shall the young be taught?" is answered by saying, "Teach them to meet the challenge of these problems."


The traditional formal schools taught subjects -- the three R’s and their higher elaborations. The progressive schools were concerned more with the individual child’s interests and needs. The premise of this study is that neither the organized subject fields nor the psychology of personality furnishes the criteria for deciding the content of instruction. The clue to choice in the curriculum lies in the demands that are imposed by the development of modern civilization. Hence the chapters to follow range over what appear to be the principal problematic fields in present-day culture.


This leads us to the third level of unity, deeper than the concern for the curriculum and for the problems of civilization. Problems appear and their solution is believed important only because people have values, that is, purposes that they wish to realize. Race, social class, the use of leisure time, and the like are problems only because values are at stake, because people care about the outcomes, because these are questions on which decisions of moment must be made. They are real problems because most people are not neutral toward them but, on the contrary, hold firm convictions about them. Thus, the use of genuine issues as the criterion of what shall be taught affirms that education is a moral enterprise, where the term "moral" refers to purposeful conduct based on consideration of values. Intellectual and esthetic responsibility, right choice of work and recreation, conservation of natural and human resources, and so on are all moral issues. With respect to each of them every person is faced with the demand to make choices between better and worse. Hence the present array of topics is bound together by the common thread of moral concern. Each matter considered, from the choice of food to the worship of God, is examined from the standpoint of the values at stake and with regard to the betterment of conduct through education.


Questions then arise about which values shall be chosen. Whose purposes shall the curriculum reflect? What moral standard shall govern teaching and learning? It is in attempting to answer these questions that it is necessary to move to the fourth and deepest level of concepts that unify the many subjects comprising this volume.


This fourth level is concerned with the nature and source of values. The essential idea is that a distinction must be drawn between values based on interest or desire and values based on objective worth. There is a decisive difference between wanting something and affirming its worth, for about any want it is always possible to ask whether or not it is worthy, about any desire whether or not it is desirable, about any interest whether or not it is right. The position taken here is that the moral enterprise makes sense only if there are objective excellences that invite the loyalties of men and constitute the standard and goal of human endeavor. It is not claimed that anyone knows what the ultimate good is, nor that it is always actually possible to secure agreement about moral questions. But it does seem clear that any serious concern to discover and to do what is right rests on the premise that there are objective standards of worth upon which universal agreement is in principle possible.


Objective standards of worth do not mean abstract moral laws to which all particular instances should conform. Judgments of value are always concrete and particular. They always have reference to circumstances and context. For example, it is unlikely that there are any rules that define the ideal economic or political system for all people at all periods in history. Similarly, excellence in works of art or in games is a specific quality of the concrete object or game. But to affirm the concreteness of values is not to make them subjective and relative to the appraiser. The moral enterprise presupposes the potential universality of judgments about values that are individually objective.


Why are we so far from common understanding about what is really good, and why are we so slow to serve the right? There are three causes. The first is ignorance. The problems that present themselves for decision are often extremely complex. It is difficult to take proper account of the myriad relevant factors in making decisions on even relatively minor matters like diet, let alone such major concerns as foreign policy or population control. The antidote to ignorance is research and education. By increased knowledge, widely disseminated, judgments of value can at least be made more intelligently, for a just appraisal of any situation requires that the facts of the situation and the consequences of alternative decisions be understood.


The second cause of difficulty is the boundless depth and richness of reality. The world is constantly changing, every moment presents new problems, and old solutions seldom apply to fresh situations. Furthermore, every judgment of worth is necessarily tentative, for no insight or system of knowledge contains the whole truth about anything, and no finite act or object embodies perfection. The dynamism and infinitude of the world forbid any final state of consummatory equilibrium, in which all truth is known and absolute right is done. It follows that education should be primarily not for accumulating information but for learning to learn and for readiness to meet new demands and make new choices imaginatively. The quest for finality and absolute certainty must also be abandoned in favor of the adventure of boundless discovery.


The third and most important cause of confusion and conflict in the moral enterprise is the human tendency toward self-centeredness. People disagree on good and evil, not mainly out of ignorance nor because of the changefulness of the world, nor because perfection is beyond reach, but primarily because they are self-centered. They then reinforce and entrench this selfishness by adopting a philosophy in which values are reduced to interests, desires, or wants, and in which all notions of objective good and right are rejected. Thus, theoretical warrant and support are given to self-serving.


If this chief cause of moral failure and confusion is to be remedied, the central aim of education should be the transformation of persons so that they will serve the good instead of pleasing themselves. The focal point around which the entire argument of this book revolves is that the cardinal goal of instruction in whatever field, from physics to etiquette to race relations, should be the development of loyalty to what is excellent, instead of success in satisfying desires.


This ideal of commitment to what is right further proves to be the key to the meaning of democracy. Fundamentally democracy is a social system in which in some significant sense all citizens are accounted equal. In what respect are they equal? Surely not in abilities, wants, interests, needs, qualities, or circumstances. They are equal in being human, mortal, possessed of body and mind -- but from these elemental equalities no significant direction for conduct follows. The significant equality upon which democracy rests is moral. Democracy presupposes the equality of all persons with respect to truth and right. There is not one standard of worth for certain persons and another standard for others, but a single standard under which all are comprehended. Goodness is no respecter of persons; rather, all persons are obliged to respect goodness.


Thus, democracy is the social expression of belief in objective qualities of goodness and of common loyalty to them. It is not to be assumed, of course, that the content of the good is fully known or agreed upon. On the contrary, the continuing task of democratic man is to seek ever fuller disclosure of the truth, through study, reflection, experiment, and dialogue, moved by shared devotion to a goodness that forever escapes complete finite embodiment and universal consensus. Education for democracy, therefore, should encourage the habit of sustained inquiry and the arts of sincere persuasion, and above all should confirm and celebrate faith in the priority and ultimate givenness of truth and goodness, in which the moral enterprise is grounded.


In contrast with this ideal of democracy established in common dedication to a given order of worth and excellence is another concept of democracy growing out of the interest, or satisfaction, theory of value. Here the common good is defined as that which maximizes satisfaction and minimizes destructive conflict; that is to say, democracy is regarded as a means of organizing for the greatest possible harmonization of desires. The position taken in this book is that such a democracy is inherently self-defeating, in part because the unrestrained pursuit of satisfaction tends to breed conflict rather than harmony, but more importantly because human nature is such that persons and cultures do not grow in beauty, strength, and virtue when people strive only to get what they want. The fulfillment of existence comes not from grasping for it, but by indirection, as a by-product of self-forgetful and loving devotion to the good.


These, then, are the several levels of unity that bind together the diverse topics of the chapters to follow: first, the curriculum of education; second, the major problems of contemporary civilization; third, the values by which education is seen as a moral enterprise; and fourth, a concept of value as devotion to worth rather than to satisfaction of desire, together with an ideal of democracy as the social expression of basic moral commitment. This is the text upon which everything to follow is commentary. Each chapter discusses an aspect of the one theme that the central purpose of all education -- whether in homes, schools, churches, business organizations, community agencies, or the mass media, and whatever the area of learning, whether science, art, health, or international relations -- should be the transformation of persons from the life of self-centered desire to that of devoted service of the excellent, and at the same time the creation of a democratic commonwealth established in justice and fraternal regard rather than in expediency.


To make the basic perspective as clear as possible, a few comments about the relation between desire and devotion are needed. First, it would be a misunderstanding to assume that desire is in itself wrong. The truth is quite the contrary. Most of the ordinary objects of human interest -- such as food, companionship, vitality, and security -- are good. The point is that the desire for anything is not a criterion or a measure of its goodness. That which is really excellent may or may not be wanted. Through good education, however, it is possible to a large extent to help people habitually to want what they should want, thus effecting a happy reinforcement of devotion by desire. But that something is desired, whether intelligently or not, is no indication by itself that it is really valuable.


Thus, desire as such is not here ignored or condemned. No grim, joyless, ascetic obedience to duty is advocated. Rather, the way is indicated to the abiding enrichment, fulfillment, and joy of life that follow from abandoning self-will, the quest for success and power, and the demand for autonomy, in favor of dedication to the right and good. With such devotion, satisfaction will usually abound far more than if it is directly sought. But this is not its justification, for true love demands no compensation and is sometimes not so rewarded. What is desired and what is of worth may often, in fact, coincide. In the long run, loyalty to the good should bring with it rich fulfillment of many of the heart’s desires. Pleasure and happiness are commonly associated with the good life; but they are not its inevitable goal or standard.


Augustine once offered this ethical prescription, "Love God and do as you please," by which he meant that a person who is really devoted to the good experiences no conflict between desire and duty, for his wants have been transformed to accord with the supreme object of devotion. Such a person, however, is not necessarily successful or secure in the ordinary society of self-centered people.


Development of the central theme of this book through a variety of separate areas of learning has been guided by four concepts which are usually given somewhat restricted meanings but which prove to be widely applicable to the analysis of the moral enterprise. These concepts are: democracy, economics, science, and religion.


First, democracy is here taken to refer not simply to political organization, but to all aspects of civilized life. For example, the canons of valid scientific knowledge are as much a matter of democratic concern as are the principles of representation in government. Similarly, democratic ideals are as pertinent to the use of the mass media, to appropriate manners, and to health education as they are to the conduct of elections. Democracy has this comprehensive relevance because it has to do with the establishment of universal principles of conduct. Democracy is a way of life in which everybody counts, and not only a privileged few. The significance of this way is contained in the detailed setting forth of what it means for everybody to count, in intellectual life, in creative pursuits, in the realm of conscience, and in religion.


Second, economic considerations are important throughout this analysis because they are the source of the idea that values are interests. Economic life is concerned with the production, distribution, acquisition, and use of goods and services that are in limited supply. The economic man is conceived of as one who has wants that he seeks to satisfy as fully as possible, with due consideration for the competing demands of others. This economic outlook has come to dominate all phases of life. Knowledge is considered a commodity to be accumulated and consumed, and intelligence is viewed as a tool for prosecuting vital interests. Taste is a function of sales appeal, work is done for profit, and even play is a means of gaining success. Nature and people are regarded as resources for efficient exploitation, and religion is seen as the ultimate form of life insurance.


Third, the fundamental presupposition of science is taken as a model for the moral enterprise in all its phases. The scientist assumes that there is truth to be progressively discovered, that acknowledgment of truth is a universal obligation, and that knowledge of it is everyone’s privilege. It is here assumed that judgments of worth in the esthetic, moral, and religious fields require a similar presupposition of the givenness of an order of value which is to be discovered and universally recognized and honored. Truth is one kind of value, different in quality from esthetic excellence, justice, or holiness, but like them in being part of an objective structure of worth. To be sure, knowledge in the natural sciences has become precise and universally warrantable to a degree not realized in the other realms of value; and this disparity has led many concerned and competent scholars to deny that esthetic, moral, and religious values are anything more than relative and culturally determined preferences, without any basis in a universal and objective order of worth. Despite the evident difficulties in securing agreement on such values, one can take the position that the moral enterprise requires loyalty to values that in their own realms have an authority comparable to the value of truth in scientific inquiry.


The fourth basic concept is religion. In the final chapter it will be shown how the whole range of topics exemplify a religious point of view, provided religion is understood as ultimate devotion and is not restricted to the conventional sectarian sense. Thus, our guiding theme is that the primary aim of education should be conversion from the self-centered striving for advantage to a life of loyal dedication to excellence. This accords with Whitehead’s belief that "the essence of education is that it be religious." Perhaps also this book not only may throw light on the fundamental purposes by which education should be directed, but may at the same time suggest the outlines of a relevant and mature faith for modern man -- a faith that grows directly out of the daily struggle to make responsible decisions.


Having thus stated the text that governs this book, it may be helpful now to say a few words about context -- to indicate some contrasts and kinships with other movements and writers past and present.


It has been said that all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, who raised all of the major philosophic questions and indicated most of the possible answers. The present work certainly belongs in the Platonic tradition, with its emphasis on the primacy, reality, and transcendence of the good and on the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness within a supreme source of light and love.


More generally, it stands within the "realist" tradition in affirming the objective reality of the orders of truth and other kinds of excellence, as against nominalists and subjectivists who believe that knowledge is essentially a human construct and values are nothing but human preferences. In the manner of the realists, the competence of reason to understand the intelligible structures of the world both as fact and as value is affirmed. This analysis is in line with the view of those who, like the Stoics, conceive of a natural law of moral obligation as well as of physical existence, though not with the position of legalists who suppose that an actual code of law may be an absolute statement of the right.


At many points the influence of John Dewey and other pragmatists will be evident, particularly their belief in democracy as a comprehensive way of life, their confidence in the wide relevance of the scientific spirit and methods, and their commitment to education as a moral enterprise. However, in other respects the position taken in this book differs substantially from that of the pragmatists. They base their philosophy on the concept of man as an intelligent adaptive organism and regard reason as an instrument for solving problems of adjustment to the natural and human environment. They hold that to be moral is to be social, and that the ideal of social life is democracy, in which the fullest possible harmony of interaction is realized. This position is most compatible with what is hereafter designated as the "democracy of desire," in which conduct is conceived of as guided by desire disciplined by reflection on the consequences of various courses of action.


The pragmatists rightly emphasize the intelligent charting of consequences, but such concepts as satisfaction, adjustment, problem solving, growth, and harmonious interaction do not provide a sufficient basis for judgments of worth. These may or may not be good, depending on circumstances. Sometimes frustration, dissatisfaction, and conflict are preferable. The sole criterion in respect to values is what is true, right, and excellent, apart from how satisfactorily personal or group interests are served. The pragmatists hold that man is the measure of truth and goodness, that ultimately something is worthy because intelligent human beings want it. The position here taken is rather that man is himself judged and measured by an antecedently conceived goodness, and that it is the proper goal of man to discover and be fashioned after the image of that excellence.


As an account of how human beings actually do behave, pragmatism is reasonably adequate. For the most part, people are more or less intelligent adaptive organisms, and they do aim to solve their problems of interactive adjustment. The pragmatists also rightly warn against dogmatism and absolutism, making clear the dynamic nature of human existence, the particular contexts in which judgments of value must be made, and the need for intelligent appraisal of alternatives. Their concern with the processes of rational inquiry and their rejection of easy and premature certainties are entirely in accord with the position set forth in this book. But pragmatists tend to swallow up values in process: they are so determined to banish fixed traditional codes of value and so absorbed with the methods of reconstructing them that the transcendent ground and goal of the moral enterprise are obscured, if not explicitly denied. For the conduct of life and the guidance of learning we need a firm commitment to truth and goodness which men and their processes subserve but do not create.


For educational purposes and for the health of civilization we require a new accent on values that transcend human wants. The various behavioral sciences have performed a valuable service in describing the factors and conditions shaping human conduct. Why do people act as they do? And how can conduct be improved? Harold Lasswell’s celebrated Politics analyzes human life as a struggle of people to get the most of what there is to get, and the various objects of striving he designates as "values" -- that is, what people want. We cannot safely guide education on the basis of a Lasswellian picture of human beings. We need to be wise enough to know that people do largely live by acquisitive striving, and we should take account of this fact in educational planning, but we should also know the more urgent truth that there is another more authentic human way -- the way of loyalty, devotion, and love -- in which the urge to get is transmuted into a contrary dedication, to give. The knowledge of this possibility and the acceptance of this goal constitute the major premises for educational policy.


The theme developed here may be regarded as a broader application of the ideas set forth by Tawney in The Acquisitive Society. The standards of the marketplace have become dominant in all phases of culture. It is largely taken for granted that success, power, wealth, and position are the goals of living and that education should be organized to serve these purposes. Tawney argued for the subordination of gain to function and of economic life to principles of justice. This parallels the objective of the present work, which is to show the destructive consequences of a desire-dominated philosophy of life and to point the way to a restoration of culture and learning through the reaffirmation of standards of excellence.


The present book may also make a contribution to what Walter Lippmann calls "the public philosophy." Lippmann’s view is that there are universal principles, accessible to men of dedicated reason, by which the life of the commonwealth ought to be governed. Democracy is misconceived when it is regarded as the rule of the people, in the sense that the wants of the people are to be carried out as fully as possible. Democracy ought rather to be conceived as a way of approximating the practice of justice by insuring that no individuals or groups arbitrarily and irresponsibly exercise authority over others. The public philosophy is the claim that the objective law of right, written into the nature of things, makes on citizens, as contrasted with the claims that the citizens make on the natural and social reality on which they depend.


The context in which the spirit and intention of the present book are most clearly revealed is that of the religious traditions of mankind. For example, the central teaching of Buddhism is that the misery and frustration of existence are due to attachment and desire, and that release comes from understanding this basic cause of suffering and from taking the necessary measures to become free. The way to emancipation is through renunciation, detachment, and compassion. This is similar to the thesis that the proper goal of education is conversion from the life of self-serving to the life of devotion.


The same basic idea is found in the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, who contrasts the "I-Thou" with the "I-It" orientation. The former is a truly personal relation manifesting love and reverence. The latter is an external connection established for purposes of manipulation and control. This is the contrast suggested in the succeeding pages. The way of interest or desire is the "I-It" approach to life -- the acquisitive, managing, using, consuming attitude. The way of devotion is that of the "I-Thou"-- of reverence, appreciation, humility, and service. The central task of education in every field of study is to effect a "turning" (in Buber’s phrase) from the life-destroying struggle to get and to hold, toward the life-giving path of reverent devotion.


In a different context, there are similar insights in classical Chinese culture, particularly in Confucianism, with its concern for the right ordering of life in accord with the Will of Heaven. The message of this book is that democratic life should be conceived not as an enterprise of autonomous men, no matter how clever they may be in organizing to pursue their interests, but as a way of realizing the Will of Heaven -- that is, of doing the truth and serving the right in which man’s proper being and destiny consist, This is another manner of signifying the "public philosophy" earlier mentioned. In every field of endeavor -- in scientific inquiry, manners, family life, politics, and all the rest -- man is not his own judge and master; he is "under orders," he is answerable to principles of "propriety," he is responsible for the preservation, improvement, and perpetuation of the "traditions of civility." The fulfillment of human existence is thus not in the mastery of life, but in glad obedience to the right.


More than from any other source, the position here set forth derives from the Christian tradition. In its theoretical basis much has been drawn from Paul Tillich. One guiding principle is what Tillich calls "theonomy," which means a situation where the divine ground of being shines through the finite conditions of historical existence and where man sees the orders of truth and right as the law of his own being. This is the meaning of the life of reverent devotion, as opposed to the self-sufficient finitude of autonomous man and to servile subjection in what Tillich calls ‘’heteronomy,’’ which may be interpreted as the essence of undemocratic authoritarianism.


If a single text for the present work were to be selected, it would be: "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it." The striving for success, security, and influence may be regarded as the losing attempt to save life -- an attempt in which contemporary civilization, with its promise of material abundance and of power to control the conditions of existence, is deeply involved. This anxious and strenuous effort is a consequence of the widespread doubt or denial of any worthy object of loyalty. It is to the establishment of faith in the reality of infinite goodness made manifest in the conditions of finite existence that the work at hand is directed. It aims to redirect education away from grasping after the life that is but the prelude to death, to self-forgetful dedication to goodness itself, through which alone true and enduring life comes.


The theme, again, relates to two ways of love. One is the love that springs from the desire to possess: "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life." The other is the love that leads to loyalty and sacrifice: "greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." The one is concupiscence in all its manifestations. The other is charity -- the responsible, concerned love which issues in caring and sharing. The objective of all learning should be the transformation of personality from one centered in acquisitive love to one grounded in self-forgetful love of righteousness.


Finally, the chapters to follow do not so much argue a case conclusively as bear witness to a fundamental outlook and orientation toward culture and education. Reasons are given for the positions taken, and it is hoped that they are good and convincing. But it is doubtful that anybody will be persuaded solely by the logic of the argument. It is a spirit and a way of viewing things that is more likely to be communicated. Every author is in search of an audience whose vision he may help to clarify and confirm.


Perhaps more can be done, however, than to bear witness to a viewpoint. A further objective is to encourage discussion of the purposes that should guide contemporary education. This is a discussion into which all should enter, whatever their philosophical or religious positions. This book may hopefully stimulate even those who differ sharply from its position to greater concern for the moral issues in teaching and learning.


In treating so wide a range of problems as appear in this study, adequate documentation and scholarly support of the statements made would require erudition that the author cannot claim. Specialists in every one of the fields considered can doubtless find many faults with what is said -- faults that could have been avoided had each field been treated by an expert. The present overview is nevertheless offered, with all its shortcomings, as an illustration of the kind of integration that every person must attempt in his own way. Everybody must come to terms in some fashion with the whole sweep of human concerns. Every citizen, every parent, every teacher and administrator must make decisions about what shall be taught in homes, schools, churches, industry, and community. Everyone must somehow put together his convictions about such matters as knowledge, the mass media, art, manners, work, play, nature, health, sex, class, race, economics, politics, international relations, and religion into a pattern for the formation of character through the curriculum.


This is, then, an essay in synthesis. It is an illustration and an invitation to integral thinking about education. It is a call to each reader to new perspectives on the curriculum, to the end that the high calling of education in democracy may be better served.