Chapter 2: Two Democracies

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

Chapter 2: Two Democracies

Every human being needs goals and principles by which to direct his life and shape his conduct. To be a person in any satisfactory sense is to have a characteristic way of life -- a system of ideals and values that one has adopted as his own or to which he has declared his allegiance. Not only the quality of life, but also its intensity, creativeness, and persistence are dependent upon the possession of definite aims. When such principles are lacking, personal existence loses its zest and meaning, life seems stale and unprofitable, and personality decays for want of an integrating objective.

The need for a clear set of values holds for societies as well as for individuals. Social groups have ideals and regulations that comprise their reason for existence and their basis for effective activity. Productivity and progress by the group require commonly accepted aims. Societies, like individuals, deteriorate when the characteristic patterns of group life are no longer understood or accepted. When the binding power of shared goals is dissolved, harmony and cooperation give way to discord and antagonism. Corporate life loses its vigor and appeal, traditional symbols are emptied of their meaning, and confusion and anxiety arrest social advance and condemn the culture to stagnation and decay.

The need for goals in individual and social life sets a clear and exacting task for education. It is through education, not only in schools but also in homes and in other institutions and by a variety of agencies, that individual character is formed and social patterns are’ propagated. The most important product of education is a constructive, consistent, and compelling system of values around which personal and social life may be organized. Unless teaching and learning provide such a focus, all the particular knowledge and skills acquired are worse than useless. An "educated" person whose information and ability are directed to no personally appropriated worthy ends is a menace to himself and to society. A highly sophisticated society educated to no coherent way of life is likewise by its very learning made the more prone to disease and degeneration.

Parents, teachers, writers, ministers, and others responsible for education are, of course, not solely accountable for individual and social values. These people inevitably reflect the influence of large cultural and social forces beyond their power to control. Compelling purposes cannot be created at will by concerned individuals. Guiding ideals for life for the most part grow out of complex cultural conditions which are not deliberately produced. Nevertheless, those who teach do exert an influence on those who learn, and often the effect is profound enough to counteract other, more impressive forces. Furthermore, in times of prevailing doubt and confusion, even a few voices speaking with clarity and authority can contribute measurably to the restoration of purpose.

Regardless of what other forces may limit the success of their efforts, it remains true that the teaching of values is a fundamental obligation of educators. All special knowledge and skill derive meaning and justification from the purposes that persons and societies should seek to promote. Education is not a neutral enterprise. It is permeated with convictions about what is important to know and to become. Educators have unparalleled opportunities for the promotion of desirable personal and corporate objectives which will heighten the significance of life and fortify the will to progress.

The essence of the curriculum -- whether considered formally in schools or informally in other agencies of education -- consists not of the objective lessons to be learned and courses to be passed, but of the scheme of values, ideals, or life goals which are mediated through the materials of instruction. The really significant outcome of education is the set of governing commitments, the aims for living, that the learner develops. The various subjects of study are simply means for the communication and the appropriation of these values.

Never before in human history have the requirements of education been so exacting as today. This is clearly evident in view of the staggering volume of new knowledge and technique which is being continually produced and which must be put to use in the management of the indescribably complex mechanism of modern civilization. Less generally recognized is the still deeper crisis in values. The rapid pace of change in what we know and can do has caused pervasive unsettlement of traditional values. The introduction of wholly new modes of living as a result of invention has greatly widened the range of available choices and thrown into question the superiority of long-established ways.

Our greatest danger is not the avalanche of novelties with which the industrial age presents us, but the loss of direction that exclusive preoccupation with the problems and pleasures of innovation entails. The fresh opportunities presented by a world made over through science do not bear with them instructions for their proper employment. Enlarged potentialities magnify rather than diminish the responsibility for making wise decisions among possibilities and intensify the difficulties of such choices.

It is particularly important that the work of education shall not be consumed with the effort to deal with the complexities and superabundance of modern cultural products. Some kind of radical simplification is essential if mankind is not to be smothered by the endlessly multiplying mass of things to be known and done. Expansion of educational opportunities cannot begin to solve the problem. Nor can specialization, which involves a relinquishment of general human responsibility for the sake of mastery in a limited field.

The answer lies in focusing education upon values. Worthy purposes, goals, meanings -- these are what need to be acquired by every person. These are the foundation of every good society. If education is designed with regard to these objectives, the particular tasks to be accomplished will fall into perspective. Criteria will be available for distinguishing essential from nonessential subjects of study and for wisely apportioning available resources of time and talent.

Today we are lacking in sustaining purpose; many individuals are beset by a gnawing sense of meaninglessness. This prevailing lostness is reflected in the confusions and contradictions of organized society. With all our knowledge, our troubles multiply, and we see no way through the tangle of domestic and international problems. Despite having attained the highest "standard of living" in the history of the world (measured by production and consumption of goods), Americans have not found the secret of happiness. Having conquered the wilderness and built a nation unparalleled in power and wealth, we seem to have lost our clear vision of a future worthy of sacrifice and struggle. We only fear the loss of what we have, as ambitious peoples everywhere importunately clamor for a larger share in the riches of the earth.

The malady of meaninglessness is not peculiar to America. It is the predicament of modern man everywhere. It is the sign of a profound spiritual sickness brought on by the wholesale dislocation of traditional values, the development of mass society, and the spectacular increase in available material power. The special position of Americans in this situation is that we have succeeded so well in the game of acquisition that we are now forced to face our spiritual sickness openly and directly. Many other peoples "on the way up" are temporarily finding ample direction and purpose for life in their effort to win prestige, power, and possessions. The world-wide rise of nationalism is the dramatic evidence of this fact. The people of the nations that have newly won independence from imperial control are exhilarated by the prospect of a brighter future in the political firmament, and peoples whose resources have long been exploited for the enrichment of others now see their own prospects for material improvement happier than ever before. For such people there is no present problem of motivation or direction. Their goals are simple, concrete, and compelling.

Most impressive of all on the contemporary world scene is the growth of the communist movement as a system of meaning and value. Communism is not unrelated to nationalism, as the development of great communist nations such as the U.S.S.R. and China well demonstrates. Nevertheless, the system of ideals and principles upon which communism is founded far transcends the rather simple motives of national ambition. Communism is presented to mankind as a total way of life, complete with ideological justification. As such, it promises to all who accept it a solution to the problem of meaning and provides definite goals by which to live.

Communism, like nationalism, actually affords only a temporary escape from the basic spiritual predicament. Its proponents claim more for it, advancing it as a complete and final answer to human problems. In fact, communism is based on an untrue conception of human nature and of values. Its present success is due to the fact that the collective effort and strong centralized authority associated with it are producing dramatic improvements in the economic, political, and military position of nations hitherto impeded by traditional systems unsuited to industrial civilization. As long as this tangible progress in modernization continues, sufficient goals for living are provided. When these immediate objectives -- of affluence and power -- are reached (and at the present rate of progress, barring total war, this time is not far off), the communist peoples will feel, even if they may not express, the emptiness of their system as a framework of meaning for life, and they, too, will experience the need for direction and motives for conduct.

The appeal of the communist movement today is at root the same as that of the ill-fated fascist movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany, Italy, and Japan. When individuals are united in a totally controlled drive for national power, they are proud to belong to a successful organization. They gain satisfaction from being on a winning team. The collective effort supplies the larger system of reference by which individual purpose and progress are measured. The price exacted for these benefits is the loss of personal freedom.

That millions of people have deliberately or by default preferred the ordered life of the police state to the hazardous blessings of liberty is striking evidence of the vacuum of meaninglessness into which modernity has plunged mankind. Freedom without direction and purpose is an insupportable burden, from which even the tyranny of a successful state is a welcome escape.

Nationalism, communism, and fascism are not the only ways in which men attempt to escape from freedom and to regain security and purpose in living. They do it in every appeal to arbitrary authority. The giant corporations or professional organizations to which individuals give allegiance and with which they identify their lives supply a temporary pattern of meaning. The resurgence of religious orthodoxy and the revival of traditional religious supernaturalism and institutionalism are further evidences of the struggle for reassurance in an age of disintegrated values. Many people try to solve this basic, problem by simply condemning the typical products of the scientific age and by reasserting the values of the past -- that is, by a resolute renunciation of modernity in favor of the "classical" tradition.

In all of these approaches to the recovery of purpose, education has played a pivotal role. The nationalism of many of the newly independent states can be traced directly to the leadership of a few men who have had the benefits of extensive education. The possibility of technical development by such nations depends upon the rapid expansion of educational opportunities to produce the necessary skilled workers. Political stability and military security also presuppose well-developed provisions for education directed to the national interest. Education was a key factor in the growth in power of the fascist states, with their assiduous cultivation of state-controlled youth movements, ideological reshaping of the school curriculums, and their hostility to the traditional teaching of home and church. The communists are even more thoroughgoing in their employment of education for the purposes of revolutionary socialization. Not only is the program of the school wholly designed to fulfill the aims of communism, but newspapers, radio and television, advertising, book publishing, and even the arts are marshaled by the central government as tools in a comprehensive and continuous program of indoctrination.

Similarly, though perhaps less impressively, education is the key to every other form of social movement with a determinate set of guiding principles. In the advancing of business and professional interests, continuing institution-oriented education programs make an important contribution to the creation and maintenance of "organization men." The renewed emphasis on religious orthodoxy has been associated with a vigorous upsurge in theological education, in the growth of church-controlled schools, and in concern for religion in public education. Finally, the New Conservatives make their most vigorous attack on modern education and seek above all, through the restoration of traditional learning to the schools, to secure the values they believe essential to civilized existence.

Thus, individuals and societies need a system of values by which to live; the nature and pace of modern cultural transformations have cut men adrift from the security of established ideals. Men have sought in a variety of ways -- through surrender to central authority or retreat to the past -- to recover meanings and motives, and in all of these conditions and developments education is centrally implicated. We now move to the issue toward which this analysis points. Are there discernible principles and ideals which can supply modern man’s needs for personal and corporate energy and guidance, without surrender to arbitrary authority or retreat into the past?

This book affirms that the principles of democracy, rightly understood, provide an answer to modern man’s predicament. Democratic ideals, the finest flowering of two and a half millenniums of Western civilization, have provided the vision and the wisdom necessary to build enduring commonwealths established in liberty, justice, and love. The American Experiment has been a great adventure in democracy. The dominant note of our aspiration as a people, the central direction of our efforts, the authentic measure of our success, has been the democratic faith. The United States is, of course, not the only nation with this heritage. Other nations have in certain respects achieved a higher perfection of democratic aims and practices than have Americans. However, our country has the special distinction of having been founded on democratic principles and having maintained unbroken allegiance to them for nearly two centuries.

In the growth of democracy both in the United States and elsewhere education has been of great importance. The development of universal free public education, beginning at the elementary levels and rising within recent years to the college and university levels, has been a direct consequence of the democratic impulse. Methods of teaching, courses of study, and administrative procedures in the schools have been fashioned in the light of the democratic vision. In democracy American parents and teachers have found significant goals for the guidance of individual conduct and social development.

Yet today there seems to be evidence that democracy has lost some of its power to inspire and direct. Even when democratic ideals are still affirmed, they often appear to be dull platitudes rather than energizing aspirations. Democracy does not always generate the enthusiasm that nationalism, communism, and the other collectivist and authoritarian gospels produce. Americans and other democratic peoples are beset by doubts and uncertainties. Instead of the progressive spread of democracy throughout the earth, they see antagonistic systems on the march while they seek anxiously to save themselves from outer conquest and inner disintegration. Amid unprecedented prosperity and power, many Americans and other free people are haunted by feelings of emptiness and forebodings of unavoidable defeat.

Is democracy a failure? Is it now evident that democracy is not truly adequate to the predicament of modern man? Does democratic education have a future, or must we find other patterns by which to direct the course of learning? Are there actually resources of abiding worth in the democratic way, or must we now discover post-democratic standards for our personal and corporate life?

The answer to these questions depends upon what is meant by "democracy." Two contrasting types of democracy need to be distinguished. In this contrast may lie a clue to the fate of democracy in the modern world.

The first kind of democracy is founded on the principle of organizing life to insure maximum satisfaction of human interests or claims. According to this conception, the highest good is independence, or autonomy. Human beings are regarded as continually in pursuit of happiness, and the goal of this democracy is to help people as far as possible get what they want. Thus, the determining authority in human affairs is the desire of the people; they are not to be governed by anything or anyone beyond themselves. Man and man alone is the proper measure of all things. Each individual is expected to seek his own welfare and to cooperate with others in forms of social organization that will enable everyone to gain what he desires without interfering with the corresponding pursuits of others, and also to increase his own and others’ satisfactions by such joint efforts. This type of democracy is here referred to as the democracy of desire, since the image of human nature upon which it is based is that of an intelligent organism striving single-mindedly to fulfill its desires.

Under the democracy of desire, education is governed by the twin principles of self-realization and social accommodation. Teaching should be directed toward helping the learner to gain maximum satisfaction of his interests, with due regard for the demands of others. Skills of every kind, particularly those of trained intelligence, are to be acquired as tools for the more efficient acquisition of what is desired. Education also serves to transform and refine desires, so that one does not simply seek immediate gratification of animal hungers, but gains the ability to postpone present satisfactions for the sake of more lasting benefits and to enjoy the "higher" pleasures as well as ordinary bodily delights.

According to this first view, values are neither more nor less than what people want. The value system of a person is the set of desires that govern his conduct, and the values of society are the will and preferences of the people as expressed in customs and through the activities of government. The "good" and the "right" are simply values arrived at through the refinement of desire by critical intelligence. In other words, the desirable is what is desired by one who takes account of circumstances and consequences. The purpose of such critical appraisal is to avoid frustrations and disappointments due to unreasonable expectations and to open up new and richer fields for want-satisfaction. Thus, the general aims of education are to intensify and extend human desires through the charting of possibilities for enjoyment, and to supply the tools necessary for the effective exploitation of these possibilities.

The democracy of desire is the dominant conception of democracy today. As we shall see in later chapters, this is the prevalent view in every sphere of life -- in scholarship, in the arts, in work and play, in politics, economics, and international affairs, and even in religion. It is assumed that the gift of democracy is the emancipation of man from all higher powers, so that he may at last build according to his heart’s desire the world of which he is now the master, thanks to science and invention. This form of democracy is man-centered. Its emphasis is on acquisition, on efficient production for large-scale consumption. The good society is regarded as one of material affluence, where a wide range of desires are powerfully stimulated and abundantly satisfied.

The other type of democracy centers around devotion or loyalty to the good, the right, the true, the excellent. It is referred to as the democracy of worth. Devotion is different from desire. It is primarily other-regarding rather than self-interested. It invites sacrifice and loyalty instead of conferring gratification. It is concerned with giving instead of getting. One honors and respects things of value instead of using and consuming them.

The watchword of the democracy of worth is responsibility, not autonomy. Its objective is not to maximize satisfactions but to establish and increase what is excellent. Universality and equality in the democracy of worth refer not to privileges but to obligations and, opportunities to serve the right. In this view, the democratic way is a means, not for securing to every person as much as possible of what he wants, but for minimizing the injustices caused by self-centeredness.

If the American way of life is to be worthy of survival, and if democratic societies are to offer any lasting solution to the problems of men, the solution lies with the democracy of worth. We should not chart our course and determine our destiny primarily by reference to what people want, whether intelligently or not. The history of mankind and the facts of personal experience suggest that the health and fulfillment of life spring from release from self-centeredness in loyalty to the good. Authentic democracy is the means of making such commitment most likely.

Under the democracy of worth, education is directed toward the learning of what is excellent. In such democratic education the learner’s desires are relevant only insofar as they reveal the nature and extent of the transmutation that must be effected through teaching and learning. The cardinal principle of teaching is, then, to subordinate considerations of learner interest and satisfaction to those of transcendent qualitative worth. This does not mean that the wants and inclinations of the learner should be ignored, but only that they should never become the criterion of value.

Education in a democracy of worth is opposed to much so-called democratic education of the progressive, child-centered variety. In the latter, desires have been nourished and fed, and when they have conflicted with the interests of others, they have been redirected by intelligence -- that is, socialized -- so that the sum total of want-satisfaction might be increased. When desires are frustrated, measures are taken to remove the obstacles, or, if this is impossible, the unsatisfied wants are replaced by ones that can more surely be fulfilled. Teachers and parents have been cautioned against repression and warned of its dire consequences for the emotional health of the young. In short, such education has been directed to the intensification, elaboration, and harmonization of desire. Instead of this, education should be dedicated to the civilizing function of exchanging natural wants for human loyalties.

Although the self-regarding character of desire is opposite in direction to the other-regarding character of devotion, the two are subtly interlinked. Devotion to what is good does not necessarily negate pleasures and satisfactions; in fact, it often heightens them. Thus, eating for health and for the loving celebration of life usually does not diminish enjoyment, but generally intensifies it. The point is that these subjective rewards are by-products of the activity of eating, and not its main objective. While in some cases the dedicated life, instead of yielding dividends in pleasure, requires pain and sacrifice, which the truly devoted person willingly suffers, love and loyalty generally impart to life an incomparable sweetness and zest, far transcending the pleasures of self-centered satisfaction.

In the democracy of worth, education follows a value principle and not a principle of want-satisfaction. Furthermore, a value is defined not as what yields pleasure, either immediately or in the long run, but as what evokes continuing self-transcending dedication. Only such a way of life can supply the directives and energies for regenerating and advancing civilization, the meanings required for healthy life individually and in association, and adequate foundations for teaching and learning.

The basic assumption of the democracy of worth is that the values that emerge in human experience are not in the last analysis determinations of human will, but discoveries of antecedent possibilities. This assumption does not require any belief in "absolutes" in the ordinary sense of known values that are independent of time and circumstance. The excellences toward which mankind gropes are manifest in a great variety of forms. What is true, right, or desirable is not determinable in the abstract, but only within each particular situation. Generalizations are, of course, possible, but can never capture the full truth or right in any one case. This complexity of the evaluation situation does not negate the basic assumption that values are discovered and not man-made. They may be made in the sense that by human activity conditions are created in which the values become manifest. But the experienced quality, the "being of worth," is not itself a matter of human decision, for the essence of value, as distinguished from desire, is precisely the power of evoking devotion and of transforming persons in conformity with its own pattern.

In the democracy of worth it is further presupposed that these discovered excellences are universal, not in the sense of being abstract generalizations, but in that of being of relevance and appealing concern to all human beings. Universal values are those that are potentially capable of eliciting every person’s loyalty. Obviously desire, which (as we are using the term) is self-interested, cannot claim universality, for private wants do not take account of others, except as others limit the acquisition of what is desired. Only values that can reconcile the forces of egocentrism (individual or collective) by their power to attract allegiance are suitable ideals for a commonwealth for all mankind.

The use of scientific methods and of "democratic group process" does not guarantee freedom, when human autonomy is the governing principle, for these techniques only cover the impulse of some men to manage others and thus make the resulting subjugation of mankind more rapid and more irremediable. The true basis for democratic freedom is devotion to excellence. Through loyalty to what is true and right, without regard to individual and group wants or calculated advantages, release is gained from both external compulsion and the more insidious tyranny of desire. Devotion in its essence is a free, uncoerced self-giving, the fruit of which is the enrichment of personality, the flowering of individuality, and the advancement of the enlarged community.

The present work is not intended as a definitive statement of the values toward which the democracy of worth should be directed. Truth and rightness are forever beyond full and final formulation or realization. Every claim to universal perfection turns out to be tainted with self-interest. Yet we cannot escape the necessity for specific decisions about what is worthy of devotion. The values suggested in what follows are offered in illustration of the kind of objective that might follow from commitment to excellence. The really crucial task is not recommending any given set of values, but establishing the fundamental principle that there are values worthy of our devotion and suggesting ways of developing personal and social disciplines based on that principle.

Four pivotal values to be developed in a democracy of worth are here proposed. These are: intelligence, creativity, conscience, and reverence. Intelligence will be analyzed first with respect to intellectual competence in general and then with particular concern for the problem of truth in the mass media of communication. The ideals of creativity will be discussed in relation to esthetic standards, manners, work, and recreation. Conscience will be treated in relation to problems of conservation, health, sex and family life, social class, race, economics, politics, and international affairs. Finally, reverence will be set forth as the value that encompasses and undergirds all the rest, as the key to the principle of devotion upon which the democracy of worth rests.