Chapter 3: Intellectual Excellence

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

Chapter 3: Intellectual Excellence

There are at least four reasons why intellectual life supports democratic ideals. First, intellect is a universal human property; all human beings have the power of reason. It is this power that sets mankind off into a separate species, homo sapiens. No individual or class of people can claim a special position by virtue of a rational capacity that others totally lack. No human beings can be excluded from the family of man because they have no intelligence, for rationality is the mark of our common humanity. 

To be sure, intellectual abilities differ greatly from one person to another. The range of capabilities is impressive, reaching from the genius of an Einstein or a Leonardo to the near-vegetative mentality of the feebleminded. Such obvious differences make it evident from the outset that if intelligence is to have any place in democracy, it cannot be on the basis of intellectual equality. Particular powers of mind are not universal. The ability to compose great music or to invent useful new machines is a rare endowment. What is universal in mankind is the potentiality of engaging in the characteristic activities of mind -- such as remembering, imagining, conceptualizing, and purposing -- regardless of the rate or quality of the actual intellectual performance.

Second, intellectual life is crucial to democracy because it is the source of the human community. The power of reason is developed in and through communication. A person thinks only insofar as he learns to employ the meaning-bearing symbols of language, which arise in social intercourse. Man is not defined only as the reasoning animal: he is also the talking animal, and this is not a mere coincidence; it is due to the intimate connection between thinking and speaking.

Communication is important for any society in which all the people are to have a share in the control of the common life. Participation in a democratic commonwealth depends upon the ability of every person to make his intentions known to others and to take account of the well-being of others. In short, there can be no democracy without common knowledge, and common knowledge is founded upon the universal human power of reason manifest in speech.

In the third place, intelligence is the source of human freedom. Decision among different possibilities presupposes their imaginative envisagement and evaluation. The very idea of "possibilities" rests upon the assumption of a conceptual domain or dimension that in some sense transcends the realm of realized fact. Furthermore, the process of judging is a distinctively intellectual function, for it involves a kind of standing outside of both actualities and possibilities in order to take their measure. When the people in a society are denied freedom, they lack the privilege of guiding their lives by intelligent choice among possibilities; since decisions are made for them, reason is reduced to the subordinate role of directing activity along prescribed lines. On the other hand, democracy advances when reason ventures beyond the bounds set by arbitrary authority and proposes different possibilities for consideration and decision.

Fourth, intelligence is the foundation of individuality, which is another central ideal of democracy. It is by virtue of mentality that the significant differences between persons are effected. Having a self or being a self is a consequence of intellect, for a self is reflective in essence: it has the distinctive power of being aware of its own being. Only by virtue of human mentality does a person become more than an object, a thing. He is a unique somebody, like every other person in having the power of thought, but different from any other person in the singularity of personal identity. This is the soul of democracy -- this combination of universality and individuality -- and the life that animates it is intelligence. Reason not only unites all mankind into one intelligent species but also negates that undifferentiated sameness of interchangeable human units which -- often parading in the guise of a "people’s democracy"-- constitutes a denial of true democracy.

Democratic education is founded upon the nurture of intelligence. Everyone needs education to make good his membership in the common humanity, to participate in the responsible conduct of corporate life (through the power of communication), to exercise wisely the obligations and privileges of choice, and to achieve identity as a person. In the democratic commonwealth, therefore, education should be universal, socially oriented, aimed at the development of mature judgment, and cognizant of individual differences.

For the contemporary human situation, the most serious issues go beyond these general democratic principles. The critical problems concern the proper function of intelligence and the appropriate object of rational activity. It is here that the contrast between the democracy of desire and the democracy of worth becomes evident.

In the life of reason the decision in favor of worth rather than desire takes the form of a commitment to truth. The principle of devotion to truth, whether or not anyone’s interests are served by it, is the cardinal presupposition of intellectual activity. Truth is not something that is fashioned in response to human wants. It is not created, but discovered. Neither individuals nor groups can will the truth into being, for truth is what is so, whether or not anyone wills it. Truth is not determined by popular assent. Hence the notions of popular sovereignty, of human autonomy, of the will of the people as the ultimate authority -- all of these ideas cherished by exponents of the democracy of desire -- are alien to the concept of truth. Even complete consensus does not determine truth, for it is implicit in the idea of truth that any persons or all persons may be in error. The truth is not something that conforms to mankind, but that mankind is obliged to acknowledge and respect.

This priority and givenness of truth are often summed up in the concept of objectivity. Truth is not what anyone subjectively wishes or determines, but what objectively is. Right thinking is said to be objective rather than based on personal desires or preferences. However, the idea of objectivity must be used with caution. While truth is not made by persons, neither is it wholly independent of them. The forms of knowledge are necessarily conditioned by the structure of the human apparatus of perception and cognition. All human knowledge arises from a relationship between intelligent creatures and the world of intelligible objects. Therefore, knowledge is never purely objective, nor purely subjective, but a product of object-subject relationships.

In calling attention to the human components in knowledge, pragmatists and other critics of naive realism have performed a valuable service. They have convincingly shown that knowledge is not an absolute representation of the objective world, but that it is relative to the particular conditions of observation and conventions of language. The content of human knowledge is therefore to some extent subject to human interests and determinations. But it does not follow that truth is man-made. Within any particular humanly chosen context of observation and discourse, the outcome of inquiry is not subject to human volition, but is a revelation of fact. This is what is meant by the truth, which everyone is obliged to acknowledge and which is not subject to the will of any person or of all the people, but to which all are subject.

Thus, the relativistic critics of simple objectivism and absolutism in knowledge do not by any means establish complete human autonomy and sovereignty in the intellectual sphere, nor do they alter the priority and authority of truth. Their analysis serves to show that man himself is an essential ingredient in the truth. Knowledge is hypothetical and conditional rather than absolute, in the sense that any true statement is an assertion about what is the case under certain specified circumstances of observing, experimenting, and language usage. Instead of negating the idea of truth, these insights enrich it. They refute only the pretensions of those who prematurely claim possession of complete and infallible knowledge.

The democratic nature of the intellectual life is evident in the universality of truth. Universality is not intended here in the absolutist sense -- as independence of all conditions -- but rather as confirmability by any and all persons. Truth is in principle public, not private, property. Knowledge is not to be accessible only to a favored few; it is open to everyone. Yet care is necessary in interpreting this public character of knowledge. There are many facts that relatively few people understand, and much knowledge that most people will never comprehend. No simple egalitarian rule applies in matters of knowledge. If truth were limited to what everyone knows, there would be no truth at all, and if it were circumscribed within the domain of "common knowledge" or "public information," the depth and scope of truth would be disappointing indeed. The great ideas, through which civilization is lifted to new levels, are grasped by comparatively few people. High intellectual attainment is the achievement of only a small proportion of people.

Does a realistic appraisal then force us to abandon intellectual democracy in favor of aristocracy? Not at all, provided we affirm the democracy of worth. For the universality of truth means only that knowledge is no respecter of persons, that anyone who will meet the necessary conditions and undertake the necessary disciplines may test facts to see if they are actually as represented. In practice few people have the patience or the ability to undertake the tests required to confirm any but the most ordinary and simple claims to knowledge. The wish and the will to know are not sufficient to establish truth. Knowledge is not subject to desire or to demand. Anyone who would understand must take upon himself the yoke of truth, acknowledging its worth and devoting himself to the disciplines requisite to the mastery of truth.

For example, knowledge of the grammar and syntax of the obscure and long-extinct Akkadian language is certainly not public in the sense of being common knowledge. But it is nonetheless in principle public, in that anyone may study the language and investigate the evidence for assertions made about it. The Einstein formula "E = mc2" is more generally "known," but it is not really understood thoroughly by most people. It is confirmable only by the few trained investigators who have the theoretical insight and experimental skill required by modern physical science.

Intellectual democracy does not mean that everyone is entitled to his own opinion and that opinions are equally valid. Nor does it hold to the principle of equal hospitality to all beliefs. The only equality is that of obligation to the truth. The demand for public confirmability is made in the name of that requirement. Esoteric knowledge, guarded from public scrutiny, is subject to distortion arising from personal bias and private interest. Openness to investigation of truth claims is essential to counteract the tendency to utilize the powers of reason for private purposes.

In the democracy of worth, intellectual authority is not eliminated, as extreme egalitarians would have it. Nor does the authority reside in the people, but only in the truth itself. In such a democracy, experts -- men of high learning and unusual intellectual skill -- play an important part. They are not privileged persons, exercising authority autonomously over less gifted people. Nor, on the other hand, are they merely servants of the people, using their knowledge to fulfill the purposes of the majority. They are properly custodians and trustees of the truth as always becoming revealed, and representatives of the people in the dedicated pursuit of knowledge.

This picture of intellectual democracy suggests the intimate connection between democracy and science. A fundamental tenet of modern scientific investigation is the public nature of valid knowledge. In the advance of enlightenment the tyranny of untestable traditional authority was thrown off, and the unwarranted pretensions of private revelations were brought to light. Superstitious beliefs, tenaciously held because they were incapable of verification, were widely abandoned in favor of more reasonable convictions. By insisting on public confirmability, the scientific movement to a considerable extent has freed mankind from the burdens and confusions caused by self-proclaimed authorities and seers. At the same time it has demonstrated the unparalleled truth-revealing power of inquiry which is in the public domain and in which everyone with the requisite ability and concern cooperates in the common cause of the advancement of understanding. In such an enterprise persons with special gifts make their special contributions to the knowledge that belongs to everyone.

The implications of the foregoing analysis for democratic education are far-reaching. First, democracy is inconsistent with the exclusive, aristocratic type of education, in which intellectual accomplishments are reserved for a privileged class of "gentlemen." Such education belongs only in a slave society, where learning is a mark of freedom from the burdens of manual labor. Second, the democracy of worth also excludes the opposite extreme -- education designed primarily for the pursuit of success and satisfaction through knowledge. Both the aristocratic and the utilitarian forms of education subordinate knowledge to human wants -- of a class, of individuals, or of a whole society. Instead, democratic education should foster concern and respect for the truth.

In the truly democratic school or home it is not assumed that the ideas of everyone are equally valuable, nor is it assumed that what is so is determined by voting or "group process." Nor is the parent or teacher regarded as the ultimate source of authority. Everyone stands under the same authority, that of truth, and everyone is both responsible to it and welcome to make it his own. Since truth is for each and every person, it should be the goal of education to teach every person to appropriate knowledge, not in order to grasp it for his private purposes but to make it really his own. In democratic education, knowledge should, therefore, as far as possible be gained first-hand rather than taken on the word of someone else. Hence the importance of direct experience in contrast to purely verbal instruction. Obviously much, if not most, knowledge cannot be acquired through immediate personal experience, but must be mediated through language.

This restriction on direct knowledge makes it all the more imperative that the learner secure a thorough grounding in the ways of inquiry, so that he understands how he should go about testing the truth of what must be acquired at second-hand because of limitations of time and resources. It is far more important to know well the methods of investigating the truth of alleged facts than simply to accumulate information, for it is solely by having this ability to verify, or to comprehend the process of verification, that a person really understands the meaning of any information and thus makes it his own. Instruction centered about the methods of inquiry, rather than about its products, is the basis for education that fulfills the democratic ideal of the universality of truth.

For all who teach, the public character of knowledge entails a further responsibility -- namely, the will to communicate what is known. It is not enough that knowledge be confirmable by anyone with the requisite ability and training. The growth of a democratic community of shared meanings depends upon a sustained effort to enlarge the company of those who understand. In a democracy there is a clear duty for novices in the mysteries of knowledge to take the initiative in bringing still others within the fold. They should not have to be urged or persuaded to yield up their secrets, but should freely, gladly, and continually serve as missioners of the truth they discern.

This will to communicate has at least four implications. First, skilled professional thinkers -- scholars, scientists, learned men in all fields -- have an obligation to render their knowledge in the most intelligible possible form; they should not glory in obscurity. Specialists who seek to secure special power and prestige for themselves and to, protect their group from possible competition and criticism, tend to create their own secret societies which are not open to the people at large. The approved method of insuring this exclusiveness is to develop special techniques and vocabularies that outsiders cannot understand. While the necessity for technical methods and languages cannot be denied, this is no warrant for calculated obscurity. Intellectual democracy requires no leveling of knowledge for effortless popular consumption. It does demand of those with great insight the true teacher’s sense of mission -- to impart that insight to others.

Second, in the division of labor in a complex civilized society this diffusion of insight requires not only the devotion of the key men of learning to the common good, but also the development of a corps of interpreters, whose special skill lies in translating the knowledge of the specialists into more commonly understood thought forms. These interpreters must work in close cooperation with the specialists and must themselves have a high degree of technical competence in the fields they intend to mediate to the wider public. While the frontier thinkers in a democracy should possess the spirit of the teacher, the interpreters are by the nature of their work wholly concerned with teaching. Often they are not specifically designated as teachers, since they may function best as writers or lecturers and they may not serve in any of the regular institutions of formal education. They are nonetheless educators by vocation, and they are essential to the democratization of learning through the widespread mediation of intellectual values and the evocation of popular loyalty to truth. They also provide excellent models and resources for parents, schoolteachers, and others engaged in the more formal work of instruction.

Third, the will to communicate involves serious concern for the teaching of language. Communication takes place through meaning-bearing symbols, which are the foundation for shared cultural life. The most important phase of the curriculum is the provision for the mastery of these symbolic systems. No other skill is so crucial for the maturing child as the ability to use language easily, accurately, and forcefully, for it is this power that opens up to him the boundless riches of the cultural inheritance and is the key also to mutually significant associations with other people.

Fourth, concern for communication should lead teachers to emphasize the process of critical analysis. The purpose of intellectual criticism is to discern meanings and to make symbolic usage more effective as an instrument for imparting meanings to others. Analysis can be employed, and often is employed, to denigrate what others have said, but this is ordinarily not its proper purpose, which should be the improvement of understanding. When analysis is central in education, the student is expected always to interrogate what he reads or hears, to make certain through the exploration of related ideas that he really understands what is meant. He is not expected merely to accept and store knowledge received from his teachers. Everything must be tested so that, as a proud citizen in the democracy of inquiry, he may recognize and hold fast to that which is true.

Most of what has been said above about the primacy of truth and the public character of knowledge may appear to negate the democratic ideals of freedom and individuality. It is a fact that those who insist most on truth often believe they are in possession of it and all who differ from them are in error. Champions of the truth have frequently engaged in acts of tyranny and oppression in the name of truth. The democratic concern for freedom forbids any such perversion of this ideal. Democratic truth is the object of free and glad allegiance. It wins solely by persuasion and never by coercion. To be free is not to believe anything one wants to believe. Such a condition is one of enslavement to shifting impulses and impressions, which may be even more oppressive than doctrinaire authorities. Truth is the source of freedom only as it has commended itself to the inquirer as worthy of devotion.

The principle of freedom in inquiry means not only that assent must be by uncoerced persuasion, but also that arbitrary limitations on the domains open to investigation are excluded. Truth invites its devotees to follow the path of argument wherever it may lead. No map of presently accepted facts is to be used to set bounds to thought and experiment. Of course, other than intellectual considerations may make certain investigations undesirable. For example, scientifically valuable full-scale testing of nuclear devices may be excluded on moral, political, economic, and medical grounds. The point here is that there should be no orthodox prescription of the content of truth which on intellectual grounds predetermines the areas accessible to study. This does not mean that men are free to make of truth anything they will, but means rather that no human agency is to prevent, the persuasive power of the truth itself from acting.

Just as devotion to truth is the ground of intellectual freedom, so is it the source of individuality. Being an individual is not simply a matter of being different. In the personal sense it means having a determinate and dependable character rather than being controlled by a mass of inconstant and inconsistent impulses. Living by reference to truth is the means of achieving such character. The universality of knowledge is in no way incompatible with personal uniqueness, for the individual personality is marked by its own special content, organization, and creative uses of knowledge. If the whole of truth were contained in some limited set of doctrines, the ideal of universality might be in conflict with individuality. But actually the domain of truth appears to be boundless. It contains resources for the endless enrichment of unique lives and for generating an infinity of personal individualities. Significant forms of human character emerge through devotion to truth, as release is gained from stultifying self-centeredness, which cuts off the creative springs of personal life.

Furthermore, human individuality draws strength from the human community, not from estrangement and isolation. Private, esoteric, nonpublic knowledge might create human differences, but it could not contribute to genuine individuality, which thrives on association. Universal knowledge, on the other hand, not only provides resources for the growth of unique persons, but also (because of its public nature) constitutes a powerful and enduring link with other persons.

The emphasis on democratic ideals of freedom and individuality is important at the present time, because of the tendency for new intellectual orthodoxies to arise, cutting off inquiry and restricting experience, usually in the name of science. Some positivists and other types of empiricist have defined certain criteria for testing the validity of assertions and have excluded all other criteria as inappropriate. In this way they have greatly narrowed the content of truth, for example, to those propositions that can be tested by the methods of natural science. While it is important that means be devised for making good the public nature of knowledge, in order that orderly progress in investigation may be assured and irresponsible subjectivism may be eliminated, it is just as important that the many kinds of knowledge and the wide variety of symbolic forms by which it may be expressed and mediated should be acknowledged and utilized.

There are as many modes of truth as there are ways of defining the means of potentially universal confirmability. Moralists, art critics, and theologians, for example, propose truths that they believe can be verified by anyone following the appropriate procedures and with the requisite competence -- just as do physicists and mathematicians. Granted that the truth criteria of the former groups are frequently less serviceable than those of the latter and may need to be partially abandoned or modified, it would be a mistake and undemocratic to declare one particular method of inquiry, such as the current procedure in physical science, the only road to truth. We are less in danger today from the restrictions imposed by religious orthodoxy or a revered philosophic tradition than from those imposed by the dogmatism of certain scientists or scientific philosophers who make ex laboritorium pronouncements about the canonical tests of truth.

Languages, concepts, and theoretical structures in each field of inquiry are devices to coordinate and interpret sharable human experience. There is no single public with a body of knowledge. There are many publics, each consisting of all those persons for whom a given set of symbolic forms provides a shared body of meanings. Each of these publics is limited, but in an open society is potentially unlimited, in that all who can and will are welcome to enter. Some of these communities are faulty, because the entrance conditions are not clear, so that many who try earnestly to understand the language of the initiates fail to do so. These publics need to be reformed by the revision of their symbolic structures. But, in order to avoid these faulty systems of language, democracy would not be served by the creation of a single vast public with a single admissible language of truth. To be faithful to the truth in its infinite depth and variety, an unlimited plurality of symbolic modes and communities of meaning is essential.

In regard to education, the considerations above suggest the proper meaning of academic freedom. It means neither academic license, nor unrestricted teaching of whatever one wishes. Academic freedom presupposes loyalty to the truth and should be granted only for the sake of the truth. There is no reason why scholars and teachers should receive special privileges making them immune from ordinary social regulations and enabling them to do and say whatever will advance their own purposes. What is important is that they be free to study, and teach the truth, so long as they demonstrate their good faith through willingness to examine and present evidence which is open to all qualified persons to consider.

Education should also be so organized that belief is coerced not by external influences, but only by its own intrinsic power of conviction. For the teacher this requirement presents a high challenge. The easy way of instruction by giving answers must be avoided, as must the use of those grading systems and other forms of reward and punishment that focus attention on "right" conclusions rather than on the process of investigation and fidelity to the evidence. Responsible dissent from majority findings should be welcomed, and those who differ should be given an opportunity to explain the grounds for their convictions. But the conflict of beliefs should not simply be accepted as a result of the relativity of all knowledge. Differences should be used as a stimulus to further investigation, with a view to reaching deeper understandings in which all may share.

The individuality of students should be encouraged, not by releasing them from the discipline of responsible thought in order that they may think what they please, but by opening to them the inexhaustible resources of truth by which they may be formed and transformed. Paradoxically, the source of student conformity today is not the imposition of standard traditional beliefs but the triviality of much in our variegated curriculums. This superficiality stems partly from overemphasis on a restricted problem-solving which limits inquiry to matters relating to personal demands and their satisfaction. Real individuality thrives rather on dedication to truth. The inveterate problem-solver often attempts to reduce the truth to man size, while the devotee of truth wants man to be expanded to truth size.

The superficiality of much in the curriculum also comes from a narrow view of what comprises valid knowledge. There is no single admissible method of thinking to which all must conform. If individuality and freedom are to thrive, the plurality of valid intellectual disciplines and ways of inquiry must be asserted and defended, and administrative policies in academic institutions must foster this pluralism.

We turn, finally, to a consideration of the uses of educated intelligence. Democratic ideals are opposed both to education that creates an exclusive intellectual aristocracy and to a sharp class distinction between those who think and those who work -- a distinction that has become meaningless in the age of technology, where most work demands considerable intellectual competence. What, then, are the proper uses of trained mentality, and what purposes does education for intellectual excellence serve?

The answer lies partially in the disinterested pursuit of truth in and for its own sake.