THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 4, February, 1953
(Pages 159-163; Size: 15K)
(Number 16 of a 20-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 20 articles have the same name.]


THE passage in the Key on Education best known to Theosophists, and most frequently cited, comes from a summarizing paragraph: "We should aim at creating free men and women, free intellectually, free morally, unprejudiced in all respects, and above all things, unselfish." In the context of the preceding discussion, it becomes clear that H. P. Blavatsky feels that the achieving of this "freedom" is no easy task in any case -- and the temper of nineteenth-century society was especially hostile to such aims. From page 264 through 270 she enumerates characteristics of both public and private schooling systems -- characteristics which contrived to threaten and cajole children into acceptance of the questionable social and intellectual standards then prevailing. The criticism of school examinations is particularly pointed; perhaps, the whole "examination system" was, in the latter nineteenth century, symbol as well as a focal point for the materialization of culture. Medieval universities began the examination method, but since the same system fitted in conveniently with the fact-classifying approach of the new "scientific materialism," the practice became universal, taken for granted by both the mechanists and conventional religionists. H.P.B. speaks of the limitations of the scientific conception of education:

What are these examinations -- the terror of modern boyhood and youth? They are simply a method of classification by which the results of your school teaching are tabulated. In other words, they form the practical application of the modern science method to the genus homo, qua intellection. Now "science" teaches that intellect is a result of the mechanical interaction of the brain-stuff; therefore it is only logical that modern education should be almost entirely mechanical -- a sort of automatic machine for the fabrication of intellect by the ton. Very little experience of examinations is enough to show that the education they produce is simply a training of the physical memory, and, sooner or later, all your schools will sink to this level. As to any real, sound cultivation of the thinking and reasoning power, it is simply impossible while everything has to be judged by the results as tested by competitive examinations.
What a travesty it is, really, to foster in children the belief that knowledge can be sought or gained by competitive means. Wisdom and understanding are not only without price, but also beyond anyone's capacity to measure or reward. The same fundamental attitudes, moreover, which supported examinations, support a theory of the necessity for indoctrination. Regardless of whether those who played a dominant role in forming educational policies were religious or materialistic, they shared the view that the only sensible thing to do is to condition children to accept the social and intellectual status quo. It then followed that the more this process of indoctrination could be accelerated by the spur of the competitive instinct, through examinations, the better. Why waste valuable time?

Many battles have raged over the subject of examinations since 1891, with some of the biggest, doubtless, yet to come. During the interim, educators who have been primarily concerned with moral education, whether calling themselves "progressive" or "classicist," have regularly denounced examinations in terms similar to H.P.B.'s. And new no-exam programs have been tried with marked success. At the university level, Oxford University introduced a system of "readings" for qualified students, who were no longer required to grind out the memory work typical of their earlier school years. Instead, pupils discussed their work privately with their instructors, did their own research between times, and had some choice in the line of inquiry chosen -- subject, of course, to guidance and criticism.

The enlightened concept of education which made this development possible at Oxford has come with greater difficulty to America, perhaps because "mass-production" has become almost synonymous with American endeavors of any kind, and the Oxford system of readings is definitely not designed for mass-production. However, progress away from examinations proceeds in America, too, although at a slower pace. St. John's College in Maryland, inspired by President Stringfellow Barr and encouraged by the influence of Robert Hutchins, adopted a similar plan. At the University of Chicago, during Hutchins' tenure, many startling innovations were launched to combat materialization of learning. The President's influence was always directed toward eliminating superficial standards for evaluation of learning and culture. Hutchins' aim was obviously the kind of "freedom" which would allow young men and women to become teachers according to their ability, and according to the interest, time, and energy they were willing to give to their subjects. The further intent was to confer degrees on this basis rather than upon the number of calendar years spent in attending classes. Instructors of exceptional ability who, by circumstance, lacked the usual degrees, were sometimes employed, and the concepts of "tenure of office" and "seniority" were subordinated to the educational needs of undergraduate and graduate students.

Recently, at the Santa Barbara branch of the world's largest University -- the University of California -- a group of enthusiastic professors made history by squeezing a new "Tutorial" program into the curriculum. Students who qualify for this series of courses, similar in basic respects to the programs of Oxford, St. John's and Chicago, no longer take examinations, but meet, at regular intervals, in seminars and in prolonged discussions with the special volunteer instructors who believe in "the new order." Candidates for the Tutorial, moreover, are chosen by reference to criteria not provided for by the "grade-average" maintained by the student prior to the date of application. Exhaustive interviews and discussions are designed to attract some potentially fine students whose interest and attention had never been sufficiently awakened to win high marks in high school. Best of all, the faculty members who undertook this venture were convinced they needed to revaluate their own fitness as instructors, and devoted a considerable amount of time to replenishing the sources of their own intellectual vitality by way of heated discussions among themselves on controversial ethical and psychological issues. That such a program should find its way into the work of the University of California is an excellent omen, for that institution has often been regarded as extremely conservative. All of these developments, then, certainly come under the heading of "progress in Theosophy," according to H.P.B.'s standards as defined in the Key.

Such mature educational concepts as those implemented by a program of this sort, moreover, may provide a basis for resolving apparently irreconcilable differences between "progressive" and "classical" educators. The disciples of John Dewey denounced the examination system, especially during the earliest years of schooling, because they saw that it afforded no opportunity for the development of spontaneity and individuality. Dr. Dewey wished to see children helped to develop their own contexts of learning, so that whatever the child received by way of information or teacher's instruction was meaningful in its relationship to actual experience. It is in this light that the emphasis upon "play-activity" among the Progressives should be evaluated. It was not that the Deweyites believed that the classics were not worth studying, or that a mastery of the arts of writing and speech was a matter of little moment, but simply that enthusiastic "playing with learning" was better than any of the varieties of intellectual regimentation which had so often stunted the naturally questing minds of the young.

The "neo-classicists," as men such as Hutchins and Barr are often called, on the other hand, were concerned that rigorous thought-disciplines and the persistent raising of ethical issues in cultural and philosophical terms should not be neglected. They held, moreover, that we need to revitalize ourselves by evaluative thinking, and that the systems of thought of the past which have contributed to our modern climate of opinion were logical points of departure for such evaluation. Now, when we come to such experiments as those pioneered at St. John's, Chicago, and Santa Barbara, the basic issues should eventually emerge with sufficient clarity to eliminate factionalism; both Deweyites and Hutchinites should be able to unite to supplant the examination system with methods more conducive to "moral education." H.P.B., in the Key, criticizes both the "æsthete orthodox and classical" and the "scientific and material commercial," as being ridiculously one-sided. She denounces the "modern practical" approach to schooling and also the "treadmill" of orthodoxy; with similar bi-focal vision, the most able educators of both modern schools of opinion should be able to unite.

It seems that post-Renaissance instruction retained some of the worst features of medieval pedanticism, teachers stuffing in litanies as before, and merely substituting national, racial, and cultural prejudices for the prejudices of God against the four thousand varieties of sin. Of course, the litanies sounded a bit different, being less heavily impregnated with theological terms, but the atmosphere and psychology often remained the same, so that in 1891 H.P.B. could write of the poor youth who was deposited on the School's doorstep:

Here he is immediately seized upon by the workmen of the materio-intellectual factory, and crammed with Latin, French and Greek Accidence, Dates and Tables, so that if he have any natural genius it is rapidly squeezed out of him by the rollers of what Carlyle has so well-called "dead vocables."

Of history, he will attain only sufficient knowledge of his own particular nation to fit him with a steel armour of prejudice against all other peoples, and be steeped in the foul cess-pools of chronicled national hate and blood-thirstiness; and surely, you would not call that -- Theosophy?

The true classicist has never been concerned with the "dead vocables," but has championed the freedom of the human soul by way of devotion to liberation of the mind. ("Classicism" need not imply indoctrination, but rather lead away from its dangers. Less racial intolerance and national provincialism will be found, probably, at Chicago and St. John's than elsewhere.) The capacity to see beyond the status quo of prevailing opinion needs stimulation by contrast with the ideas and beliefs of other times. Even more important is to realize that the Great Ideas -- all those ideas which relate to or stem from the view of man as a free soul -- are eternal and timeless. "Classicism" can protect against narrow-mindedness, while the constructive essence of the "Progressive's" vision is a complementary protection against the wooden memorization of cultural symbols and systems.

In summation, then, it seems evident that whoever believes education should be a matter of conditioning, whether in terms of national cultural and social patterns, or in terms of a gearing to commercial success, is guilty of replanting the seeds for national and international fratricide. Wars, clearly, will cease only when a nobler educational ideal has been developed. Theosophists, by implication, are encouraged to further all efforts in this direction, to the limit of their understanding and capacity.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


A university should be a center of rational thought. Certainly it is more than a storehouse of rapidly aging facts. It should be the stronghold of those who insist on the exercise of reason, who will not be moved by passion or buried by blizzards of data. The gaze of a university should be turned toward ideas. By the light of ideas it may promote understanding of the nature of the world and of man. Its subject is always understanding. In the faith that the intellect of men may yet preserve him, it seeks to emphasize, develop, and protect his intellectual powers. 


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