Printer Friendly

Bookends of the twentieth century: Irving Babbitt, E.D. Hirsch, and the humanistic curriculum.

You speak in your article of certain persons who are beginning to question the underlying postulates of Rousseauism in education. Who are these certain persons besides myself? There has been a curious absence thus far of this kind of attack in either English, German, or French.

--Irving Babbitt, letter to Paul Elmer More (1908a)

In the 1980s scholarship concerning Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) witnessed a rebirth after many years of dormancy. In this decade three book-length studies of Babbitt were published: Thomas Nevin's Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study (1984), Stephen C. Brennan and Stephen R. Yarbrough's Irving Babbitt (1987), and Irving Babbitt in Our Time (1986), a compilation of essays from the "Irving Babbitt: Fifty Years Later" conference, held at the Catholic University of America in 1983 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Babbitt's death. (1) Additionally, the National Humanities Institute republished Babbitt's Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities in 1986, including a lengthy introduction by Russell Kirk. (2) It is not overly puzzling as to why Babbitt incited a newfound interest in this particular decade, as his adherence to the wisdom of the past spoke to the conservatism sweeping American politics and education. In the 1983 scathing report on the disastrous state of American education, A Nation at Risk, parents, educators, policy-makers, scholars, along with all Americans, were both warned of the future under present educational conditions and prompted to make drastic changes in methods and ideals for American schools. One person to whom scholars could naturally turn was Babbitt and his traditional humanism.

Babbitt is best known as the co-founder of the New Humanism. While teaching in the Department of Literature and Languages at Harvard in the first decades of the twentieth century, Babbitt began to lament the increasingly lessened position of humanistic education in American universities. In particular, he considered both the elective system and the research ethic gaining momentum at Harvard as symptomatic of a broader cultural phenomenon. Babbitt subsequently paired with Paul Elmer More, a classics professor at Princeton, to defend the humanities in this era of dynamic upheaval and change. They called themselves the New Humanists. J. David Hoeveler, Jr. (1977) explains that the New Humanism
   sprang from a profound disaffection with the modern age. Centering
   its attention on the governing ideas of the contemporary world, it
   surveyed the triumph of relativism in philosophy and social
   thought, of materialism in daily living, and of romanticism and
   naturalism in literature, and was convinced that twentieth-century
   man had lost his bearings. (3)

From his position at Harvard, Babbitt was able to discern that traditional humanistic education, what he termed the "old" education, was under attack from two different fronts. Both enemies to the humanities were clear and apparent, as both were led by the long-standing President of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot. Eliot spearheaded revolutionary changes: the implementation of the elective system and Harvard's transformation into a research university. As a result, the traditional humanities curriculum, once the center of every student's education, became more and more weakened and vulnerable.


Babbitt saw this attack in terms of a bigger philosophical divide, though, and he detailed his perspective in Literature and the American College (1908b). He believed that the humanist curriculum was losing out to humanitarianism, and he was adamant in discerning proper definitions. Genuine humanism, he believed, was founded upon restraint and control (1908b, 83). Life is a constant struggle between expansion and control; as such, this "law of measure," for Babbitt, "is the supreme law of life, because it bounds and includes all other laws" (1908b, 83). Those thinkers and writers who modeled this balanced life (from classical to modern times and from various religious persuasions) were imperative in the early twentieth-century curriculum. Their "humanity" was best displayed and encapsulated through restraint (1908b, 108). The restraint on display in these works Babbitt labeled as "the wisdom of the ages," but what was speedily replacing this wisdom in the curriculum Babbitt termed humanitarianism (1929, 203-4). The humanitarian ignored this need to demonstrate a sense of constraint; instead, humanitarianism encouraged the continual expansion of our desires and inclinations (1908b, 74). Using Harvard to illustrate the battle between humanism and humanitarianism in the American curriculum, Babbitt showed that two strands of humanitarianism had quickly displaced the traditional humanistic education (1908b, 116-7). On one front stood scientific humanitarianism, the belief that "progress" was best attained through research and investigation. Babbitt considered Sir Francis Bacon as the founder of scientific humanitarianism, as any check on collecting data and conducting inquiries would ultimately hinder the goal of progress. More data was always needed (1908b, 92-4). On the other front stood sentimental humanitarianism. Founded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Babbitt identified the sentimental humanitarian by his or her lack of constraint in fulfilling his or her own whims and inclinations. Any check put on individual desires was to be eschewed, as "natural" desires were to run unfettered (1908b, 97-9).

Babbitt detailed these strands of humanitarianism at work at Harvard and, by extension, within American higher education as a whole. Harvard's transformation from a college centered on a humanistic curriculum to a university populated by specialists and their research clearly fell under the tenets of scientific humanitarianism. Investigation and research were to take place continuously in the quest for progress (1908b, 94). The implementation of the elective system, on the other hand, demonstrated the beliefs of the sentimental humanitarians. Students should not be constrained in choosing their courses of study; therefore, the "old" humanistic curriculum could no longer be imposed upon students (1908b, 96). Babbitt further argued that, though these two strands of humanitarianism were seemingly opposites on the surface, they actually complemented and reinforced each other in displacing the humanistic curriculum. Both strands promoted continual expansion: scientific humanitarianism through investigation and specialization, sentimental humanitarianism through student choice within the elective system. No models of restraint and moderation were advocated for students (1919, 137-8). Because Eliot spearheaded Harvard's transformation on both fronts, Babbitt argued that both strands of humanitarianism could complement each other even within an individual. Eliot was no mere individual of course, but the figurehead of American education at the turn of the twentieth century. Babbitt considered Eliot's influence on all levels of American education paramount in the gradual demise of humanistic education (1929, 199). As Eliot passed the torch of leadership to John Dewey, Babbitt found the same humanitarian relationship exemplified. Dewey's positivism and progressivism, for Babbitt, simply continued the humanitarian assault on humanities education in the early decades of the twentieth century (1932, 178-9). Without developing a sense of restraint as modeled by writers and thinkers within the curriculum, Babbitt warned that students then entered the marketplace without a sense of inner control. Desires and appetites were, consequently, allowed to run wild. The answer was a return to the models of restraint and balance found in these works.


A perplexity, though, did take place concerning Babbitt and educational scholarship in the 1980s. The seminal work within the reaction to A Nation at Risk was E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987). Hirsch put forth the thesis that American students needed to learn a nearly permanent set of knowledge in order to thrive both within school and outwardly in the global community. He based this idea on the evidence that the literacy levels of American students were continually in decline. Hirsch argued that literacy was inextricably connected to a person's prior knowledge: the more a person knew about a subject, the easier it was for him or her to comprehend reading about it. To improve literacy levels, therefore, Hirsch proposed that American students needed a better exposure to those perpetual terms, people, places, allusions, etc., found in public discourse. Once students had a grasp on the prior knowledge authors take for granted that their readers possess, reading comprehension became much more simple and effective. This background knowledge was what he termed "cultural literacy":
   the network of information that all competent readers possess. It
   is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables
   them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of
   comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications,
   relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives
   meaning to what they read. (2)

For Hirsch, then, the key to improving literacy among American students was to improve the knowledge shared by authors and readers alike. Once students possessed this network of permanent knowledge (what Hirsch also termed "core knowledge"), they would then be able to understand the knowledge most authors kept unstated, thereby improving reading speed and comprehension. "The achievement of high universal literacy," Hirsch continued, "is the key to all other fundamental improvements in American education" (2).

The problem, according to Hirsch, was that American educators were only concerned with teaching students reading skills and strategies. These skills and strategies, the thinking went, could be transferred by students to any and all types of texts they encountered. With this heavy emphasis on reading strategies, Hirsch maintained that schools wholly neglected teaching those aspects of Western culture that students needed to know in order to be culturally literate, in order to share the knowledge implicitly assumed by authors. In his subsequent books on education, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them (1996), The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006), and The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (2009), Hirsch consistently detailed certain historical and philosophical threads concerning education that seemed to echo many of Babbitt's own sentiments. Furthermore, Hirsch consistently praised those educational figures who defended the humanist curriculum at the beginning of the twentieth century. Interestingly enough, Hirsch cited Babbitt only once in these works, and indirectly, about the poor reputation of schools of education from Literature and the American College ("In 1929, Irving Babbitt of Harvard observed that professors of pedagogy 'are held in almost universal suspicion in academic circles, and are not infrequently looked upon by their colleagues as downright charlatans'") (1996, 115). Hirsch cited this remark (along with other like-minded quotations in this section) from Geraldine J. Clifford and James W. Guthrie's Ed School: A Brief for Professional Education (1998). Hirsch, therefore, used no direct references to any of Babbitt's works, even though his thoughts and beliefs about education often echoed those of Babbitt's; in praising those who stood against progressive education at the turn of the twentieth century, Hirsh ignored Babbitt's voice.

It is worth examining how Hirsch continued the humanistic tradition in similar fashion to Babbitt's work at the beginning of the twentieth century, though, to be sure, they clashed at times, especially in terms of the ends of humanistic education. Remarkably, both Babbitt and Hirsch were experts in romantic-era literature, while both often disparaged its central principles. Babbitt spent his career attacking the ideas of Rousseau; Hirsch too had "a scholarly specialty in the intellectual history of Romanticism," but continually fought against its influence upon American education (2009, 46). More specifically, Hirsh pointed to the decline of American education as a direct result of the influence of the romantic movement beginning at the turn of the twentieth century. He asserted that
   we must cease attending to the Romantic ideas that the reformers of
   the 1990s, echoing the reformers of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and
   all the decades in between, have been pronouncing in chorus. These
   ideas are emphatically not reforms. They are the long-dominant
   controlling ideas of our failed schools. Those ideas fall on
   receptive ears among teachers and Americans generally because of
   their conformity with our Romantic assumptions about the
   superiority of the natural over the artificial. (1996, 217)

It is not difficult to imagine Babbitt making the same assertion in Hirsch's place. Likewise, Hirsch looked historically in critiquing romanticism, exploring the history of the idea of "natural," as he examined "the idea that school learning, including reading, is or should be natural. The word natural has been a term of honor in our country ever since our forebears elevated 'nature' and 'natural' to a status that had earlier been occupied by divine law" (2006, 4, emphasis in original). Hirsch went on to set up the comparison between Jonathan Edwards in the colonial period with Emerson and Thoreau later in American history. Under the profound influence of romanticism, Emerson, Thoreau, and other thinkers began to change the way Americans thought about the individual: "To be natural was automatically to be good, whether in life or learning" (2006, 5). The result for education was that children were to be left alone to develop and learn at their own pace and inclination. Again, Hirsch's sentiments echoed Babbitt's quite well; in fact, Babbitt claimed that "no one has been more successful in breaking down American educational tradition in favor of humanitarian conceptions than President Eliot, who is himself an unusually fine product of Puritan discipline" (1924, 290). But Eliot had ignored his Puritan roots, creating a wide gap between his ideas for education and Edwards's Puritan ideals Eliot was originally educated under (1924, 290).


Hirsch also focused his attention periodically upon the profound influence of John Dewey on American education in the first part of the twentieth century. Predictably, he placed Dewey as a "progressive" within the romanticism movement, though, as he admitted, Dewey was often labeled as a "pragmatist" too (a combination Babbitt previously pointed out). "But," Hirsch continued,
   progressivism in education is just another name for romanticism.
   Within Dewey's writings about education beats the heart of a
   romantic, as indicated by his continual use of the terms
   development and growth with regard to the schooling of
   children--terms that came as naturally to him as they still do to
   us. (2006, 5-6, emphasis in original)

Hirsch's most poignant criticisms of Dewey appeared in Cultural Literacy, where he made the direct connection between Rousseau's ideas and Dewey's by pointing out that Dewey's "most widely read book on education, Schools of To-morrow, acknowledges Rousseau as the chief source of his educational principles" (xv). Dewey "strongly seconds Rousseau's opposition to the mere accumulation of information," while "[b]elieving that a few direct experiences would suffice to develop the skills that children require" (xv). Of course, Hirsch's primary purpose for his books was to promote (or to bring back) the idea of schooling as the source of passing cultural information and knowledge onto students. Hirsch believed the chief source of crisis in American education was the antagonism to book learning and content knowledge brought forth from Rousseau, Dewey, and their progressive disciples. (3)

In his few direct criticisms of Dewey, Babbitt certainly pointed to Dewey's sentimental humanitarian tendencies as well. He quoted Dewey: "the child is born with a natural desire to give out, to do, to serve" (1929, 211, Babbitt's italics). (4) As a present-day Rousseauist, Dewey believed in the child's natural goodness. But Babbitt made two requests: "Let anyone who has growing children observe them closely and decide for himself whether they exude spontaneously this eagerness for service. Let him supplement this observation by a survey of the working of the theory on the larger scale for several generations past" (1929, 211). Babbitt too objected to Dewey's pragmatic and utilitarian side (under the label of scientific humanitarianism):
   The utilitarians and sentimentalists have prevailed especially in
   the field of education, above all in this country. Let us reflect
   on what this means in the case of the most renowned of living
   American philosophers, Professor John Dewey, whose influence is
   all-pervasive in our education and extends even to China and
   Bolshevist Russia. Professor Dewey does not hesitate to identify
   experience with scientific experiment. It follows that immense
   areas of what the past had taken to be genuine experience, either
   religious or humanistic, experience that has been transmitted to us
   in consecrated masterpieces, must, inasmuch as it is not subject to
   test in a laboratory, be dismissed as mere moonshine. (1932, 178-9)

Hirsch, in fact, considered the 1918 Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education as derived from "European romanticism and American pragmatism as amalgamated in the educational philosophy of John Dewey" (1987, 118). In examining the report, Hirsch argued that its romantic and progressive tenets were bolstered by "Dewey's pragmatic emphasis on direct social utility as an educational goal. Thus, the most appropriate replacement of bookish, traditional culture would be material that is directly experienced and immediately useful to life in society" (1987, 119). (5) Within Hirsch's criticisms of Dewey's ideas echoed those ideas presented by Babbitt earlier in the century: both were wary of the dualistic nature of Dewey's beliefs, a mixture of romanticism and utility to the disregard of the passing down of a traditional set of knowledge and beliefs; both took exception to his idea that direct experience was to be valued over any sort of collective, traditional experience; and both warned of Dewey's emphasis on service to others to the detriment of developing the individual first. Hirsch argued that the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education reigned in an era in American education in which "[t]he schools were henceforth to focus upon the needs of the child and society, as Dewey had recommended" (1987, 119).

But perhaps the most striking of Babbitt and Hirsch's fundamental agreement regarding Dewey's break from the traditional humanist curriculum, a transfer of focus from the "wisdom of the ages" and a set of "core knowledge," came from two echoic phrases. After discussing Dewey and other naturalistic philosophers in Rousseau and Romanticism, Babbitt declared that "[f]rom an ethical point of view a child has the right to be born into a cosmos, and not, as is coming to be more and more the case under such influences, pitchforked into chaos" (1919, 388). Subsequently, after lamenting "[t]he new kind of teaching espoused by Rousseau and Dewey" in Cultural Literacy, Hirsch proclaimed that "[t]o thrive, a child needs to learn the traditions of the particular human society and culture it is born into" (1987, 31). Because these utterances were nearly seventy years apart, it is striking to note that the assault on the "new education" remained stable. This speaks to the power of the progressive curricular victory at the beginning of the twentieth century and its ability to maintain its prominent standing in American education. Too, it speaks, perhaps, to the fruitless attempts of advocates of the humanist curriculum to regain a place in the American schools. The same basic argument was made consistently throughout the twentieth century to no avail. Hirsch, reflecting on the current period, vociferously argued that a "suppression of dissent" pervaded in schools of education throughout the nation, in which "students are being shielded from heterodox ideas in education schools, which are less like university departments than theological institutes where heresy is viewed as an evil that its members have a civic duty to suppress" (2009, 48, 50).


In addition to critiquing Dewey's educational ideals, Hirsch also examined the broader scope of American education in Dewey and Babbitt's time. Babbitt used the term "new education" in his time, while Hirsch, citing Diane Ravitch, called the era "a golden age" of "new theories" (2009, 35). Hirsch doled out both praise and derision to institutions and individuals, though Babbitt remained in the shadows. Both Teachers College and William Heard Kilpatrick were targeted by Hirsch in his three later books on education. These two targets go hand-in-hand, as Kilpatrick taught at Teachers College from 1912-1937. Hirsch labeled Kilpatrick "the most influential introducer of progressive ideas into American schools of education," as he taught his ideas to thousands (35,000 according to Hirsch) of future education professors from his 1918 pamphlet The Project Method (1996, 50-1, 118). According to Hirsch, "Under the project method, subject-matter classrooms were to be abandoned in favor of 'holistic,' lifelike projects that would enable students to gain the life skills they needed by working in cooperation with their fellow students" (1996, 264). Some of Kilpatrick's central tenets included "the insistence upon the individuality of the child and the autonomy of the teacher"; "the disparagement of mere subject matter and of other nations' educational methods"; "the admonition to teach children rather than subjects"; and "the claim that knowledge is changing so fast that no specific subject matter should be required in the curriculum" (1996, 119). In short, for Hirsch, Kilpatrick's rationale was that "[p]rojects are better than books and lectures" (2009, 39). Of course, any sort of method or practice that deemphasized subject matter Hirsch found to be weakening American schools. With Kilpatrick teaching thousands of future education professors and school administrators as "new schools and colleges of education were beginning to be staffed," Hirsch could trace the beginning of the prevalence of progressivism in American schools directly to Kilpatrick and his Project Method (1996, 118). As for current educational practice, Hirsch contended that the project method was still thriving in American schools under such guises as "discovery learning," "hands-on learning," and "thematic learning" (1996, 253). Kilpatrick was a nationally known professor at Teachers College, but Hirsch was quick to point out that Teachers College itself was able to transfer many of the tenets of progressive education to other schools of education, who, in turn, trained the nation's teachers, administrators, and education professors. He labeled, in fact, Teachers College as "the parent organism" that "exported professors and the romantic principles" found "in [the] intellectual sameness across the nation's education schools" (2006, 20). He considered the "fateful period" of Teachers College's influence from 1910-1930, from which "Romantic," "antiknowledge," and "break-the-mold" reforms emanated (1996, 2, 118).

Hirsch readily admitted that his ideas concerning Teachers College and its continued profound influence upon American education beginning in the early 1900s was anything but new. He was quick to point to the previous work of Laurence Cremin and Ravitch in this avenue as well (1996, 215). Hirsch did laud those who promoted the traditional curriculum in the early 1900s. His most lavish praise was given to "the great" William C. Bagley (2006, 120). Bagley's "essentialism" called for schools to impart a shared set of knowledge for all students, regardless of ability or future profession. "That Kilpatrick rather than Bagley won the minds and hearts of future education professors," Hirsch lamented, "was a grave misfortune for the nation. Besides strongly opposing the newly fashionable disparagement of subject matter, Bagley passionately identified the need for schools in a democracy to share a community of knowledge" (1996, 122). The reason for this failure, according to Hirsch, was that "[b]eing right was not enough; his writings simply did not obey the institutional imperative to form a distinctive and identifiable pedagogical discipline," but he did not utilize "an autonomous, process-oriented expertise and a jargon vocabulary that made guild specialists of educators (in the way Kilpatrick's proposals did)" (1996, 123). Hirsch used Bagley's example as one of those "forgotten heroes [who] are historical proof that to be a professor of education is not automatically to be a professor of process" (1996, 125).

Hirsch pointed to other humanistic heroes as well. He credited Teachers College's Isaac Kandel, who taught there from 1911-1946, for opening his eyes to the "anti-curriculum" foundation of progressive belief. After reading a Kandel talk originally given in 1939, Hirsch first grasped that the anti-curriculum movement had been the reason that "for more than half a century our public elementary schools have lacked a coherent curriculum, thus denying children at their most teachable age a systematic introduction to the rich domains of human knowledge" (2009, 37-8). As part of the "dissident" "essentialists" at Teachers College, Hirsch related, Kandel clarified and simplified the curricular struggle as that between those who believed in a subject-based curriculum and those who did not (2009, 38). Both Bagley and Kandel, according to Hirsch, were labeled as "reactionaries" while at Teachers College, though Hirsch proposed to honor those voices that stood against their time.

One voice not mentioned in this regard was Babbitt's. This oversight is quite interesting. Most of the supporters of the humanist curriculum at the turn of the twentieth century came from outside of the public schools, as most, such as Babbitt, were found in universities (Kliebard 2004, 31). It is therefore not overly surprising that historians examining the curriculum battle almost completely ignored Babbitt and his works. But it seems that Hirsch's historical and philosophical arguments would benefit from the use of Babbitt's ideas. Of course, Babbitt could serve as an example of a contemporary of Dewey's who disapproved of a select number of his educational principles. More significantly, though, Babbitt included in his works numerous mentions of Hirsch's chief concern: the existence of a collection of knowledge that needed to be re-implemented into American schools. Hirsch's conception of "cultural literacy" (or later "core knowledge") was a list of "What Every American Needs to Know." This phrase was the subtitle of Cultural Literacy; the appendix of the book contained approximately 3000 names, events, people, items, examples of lore, and scientific terms "intended to illustrate the character and range of the knowledge literate Americans tend to share" (1987, 146). In 1993, Hirsch, along with Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil, published the revised and updated second edition of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. This guidebook listed over 500 pages of items from subjects such as proverbs, idioms, life sciences, American politics, and business and economics. Throughout the early 1990s, Hirsch also edited a series of guidebooks for kindergarteners through sixth graders, in which he provided a specific list of "core knowledge" students in those grades needed to know during each respective year of schooling. As Hirsch emphasized throughout these works, he did not expect (nor desire) for students to master a thorough and expert knowledge of each of the items he listed; instead, he asked the lists to be used as guides to those items authors alluded to within their writing. With these expectations in mind, students could achieve higher literacy levels by already having a general sense of the meaning of many of these items found in written works.

Hirsch's main concern in creating these lists and dictionaries was to improve literacy, as reading served as the basis of improving student performance in all subjects. By advocating for schools to teach, by various methods and means, this set of "core knowledge," Hirsch certainly could have used Babbitt's remarks from earlier in the century as evidence that the "essentialists" of Teachers College were not the only scholars advocating a core curriculum. Babbitt, for example, used the term "the One and the Many" to describe the knowledge that abided in all times and places (the one) in the midst of constant change (the many) (1930, 42). He never came near the specificity of Hirsch's lists, but Babbitt certainly believed that many thinkers and writers conveyed universal wisdom. These works ultimately served as models of restraint. Instead of being exposed to the benefits of constraint in school, students were set in the midst of a curricular chaos, in which no set of abiding wisdom was passed on to successive generations of students. Expansion reigned. As both Hirsch and Babbitt maintained, decades apart, the curriculum provided no sense of any abiding knowledge for students to take as their own. As is prevalent throughout the history of American education, many of the same (or similar) ideas reappear in the curricular conversation under different guises. This seems to be the case with the curriculum "reforms" of Babbitt and Hirsch that nearly a century separated.


Interestingly, Babbitt would have taken issue with one significant tenet of Hirsch's ideas: they both supported a defined and set curriculum, but they diverged philosophically with the final end or purpose of such an education. The basis of Hirsch's idea of "cultural literacy" was to improve the literacy level for American students, thereby improving the ability of individuals to communicate (especially through reading and writing). As he admonished in Cultural Literacy, "We must assure that new generations will continue to be enfranchised in our medium of national communication as securely as they are enfranchised at the polls" (108). In addition, Hirsch advocated putting more emphasis on the teaching of a shared scientific and technical vocabulary, as the "political decisions in our democracy have an increasingly technical element" that experts and ordinary citizens needed to share (1987, 108). The overarching aim for Hirsch's "cultural literacy" was providing an equal opportunity for success for all students once they entered the marketplace. His reasoning was based on future endeavors:
   A good general education in the early grades is the necessary
   foundation for citizenship, literacy, effective use of computers,
   and, in the new economic era, for speedy and successful job
   retraining. Free-trade agreements have been especially hard on
   American adults because our schools have fallen behind in providing
   the adaptive skills and knowledge needed to adjust to new jobs.
   (2009, x, emphasis in original)

Furthermore, "In the early grades of schooling in a democracy, the public sphere should take priority.... Most modern nations impose ... compulsory early education because neither a democracy nor a modern economy can function properly without loyal and competent citizens able to communicate with one another" (2009, 24, emphasis in original). Clearly Hirsch's concern lay with the professional world the student was to enter into at the culmination of his or her schooling; as such, his views have a certain tendency towards utility.

His worries were brought about by struggles in the American economy on the global level, coupled with the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in America. As he continually argued throughout his books, wealthier students were much better able to pick up remnants of "cultural literacy" in their homes than were poorer students. Since schools, according to Hirsch, were largely ignoring these tenets of this "core knowledge," the achievement gap between economic classes grew larger and larger both within the school and in the marketplace, as wealthier students were becoming culturally literate at home. Of course, Hirsch desired for students to learn aspects of "cultural literacy" for their own sake; the emphasis on American history and politics on this list would make for citizens to have a much better knowledge and appreciation of the country. And, of course, his desire to improve literacy undergirded his entire framework. But it seems as if most of Hirsch's purpose in exposing students to "cultural literacy" was in order to function more effectively in the marketplace. In fact, he even asked his readers to associate the "common" in "common school" with the New England sense of "commons," "a space where all can consort as equals" (2009, 23). The early place of one commonality (the school) was to prepare for the later one (the public sphere). "Because broad knowledge enables us to read and learn effectively," Hirsch concluded in his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, "it is the best guarantee that we will continue to read, and learn, and deepen our knowledge. True literacy has always opened doors--not just to deep knowledge and economic success, but also to other people and other cultures" (1993, xv).

Three of the four doors Hirsch's "cultural literacy" was to open were outside of the student's "inner life." This, then, would be the major complaint Babbitt would lodge toward Hirsch's "cultural literacy." Babbitt would search for where "cultural literacy" was to temper the expansive tendencies of the individual. Hirsch, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned with the results of students meeting in the public sphere after exposure to "cultural literacy." If the knowledge transferred within "cultural literacy" was to be a part of everyone's education and all met on "equal ground" in the marketplace, what assurance was there that individuals would not continue to exhibit the expansive desires for power and wealth? If the controlling function of a student's "inner life" was ignored, Babbitt would contend, what guarantee was there that individuals would enter the public sphere with anything but nefarious intentions? Babbitt pointed to John D. Rockefeller and other industrialists at the time whose educations neglected to impart any law of restraint, in terms of material wealth, within their inner lives (1908b, 71). Had the education these leaders received, Babbitt questioned, humanized their expansive desires, or had their education encouraged unfettered expansion of their desires and appetites?

The nature of this philosophical difference of the ends of a humanistic education comes down to Babbitt's belief in the "conversion" that needs to be undergone. In Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt asserted, "The whole of life may, indeed, be summed up in the words diversion and conversion" (1924, 242). By working "in the full ethical sense," the student "is pulling back and disciplining his temperamental self with reference to some standard. In short, his temperamental self is, in an almost literal sense, undergoing conversion" (242). This disciplining of those expansive desires--whether of sympathy, power, knowledge, or wealth--for Babbitt, was a constant undertaking, an undertaking that could never be fully achieved. But the striving for this conversion was the means for leading a proportionate, measured, decorous, humanistic life. All other pursuits were diversions from this continual attempt. Babbitt readily admitted in Rousseau and Romanticism that this conversion was not something that came from "thunderclaps and visible upsets of grace" (1919, 385). "The humanistic worker" was to obtain "this gradual conversion" through "work according to the human law" (385-6). He continued that "right knowledge ... consists in the actual pulling back of impulse" (386).

Babbitt later maintained this view in his 1929 essay "President Eliot and American Education," in which he emphasized "that man needs to be disciplined in his natural self to some standard; that he needs, in short, in the almost literal sense of the term to undergo conversion" (203). For Babbitt, this "conversion always involves a facing about or turning away from the natural man"; he reiterated that this conversion for students in particular was "to be accomplished rather by the gradual formation from childhood of right habits" (203). Though Hirsch's "cultural literacy" certainly promoted desirable habits such as reading and studying, Babbitt would remain wary that the student's expansive desires continued unchecked and unabated. In fact, Babbitt remarked that
   conversion implies an opposition in the heart of the individual
   between the expansive desires and a principle of control. The
   exercise of this principle of control requires the putting forth of
   a special quality of effort or will. What I have termed 'the wisdom
   of the ages' is, in short, primarily concerned with the problems of
   the inner life. (203-4)

Babbitt believed the "wisdom of the ages" provided a framework and foundation in exposing students to this humanistic way of life, the wisdom of restraint and balance. Once the classical curriculum began disappearing from American schools, Babbitt believed that any sort of emphasis on conversion fled as well. "The humanist," Babbitt concluded, "is satisfied with imposing on these desires a law of measure or decorum. His programme may be summed up in the word mediation" (204). Babbitt offered no directions on how to teach this "mediation" of the inner dualism to students. He believed that the continual exposure to these examples from the humanities would ensure that students would begin their own inner working in mediating this dualism. Unfortunately, Babbitt left us no specific direction in this respect.

It is plausible to believe that Babbitt would insist that Hirsch's curriculum ignored this notion of conversion and inner working; instead, it focused primarily on those pursuits outside of the individual. (Of course, Hirsch could just as easily maintain that Babbitt provided no specifics on how to go about creating this inner conversion for students either). Babbitt was so concerned with the ever-expanding tendencies and desires of individuals that he would have questioned Hirsch about what inner working his "cultural literacy" provided students. (6) Babbitt insisted that this notion of conversion be paramount in a student's education, though, of course, he ignored the specifics on how to achieve this. At the very least, though, Babbitt demanded that a humanistic education began within the individual student--no matter how his proposed mediation was to be achieved. Hirsch, on the other hand, seemed to ignore the inner life of the student completely. Instead, it appears that in setting up the ends of "cultural literacy" for better access to the marketplace and public sphere, Hirsch largely ignored what Babbitt believed to be essential in a humanistic curriculum. In considering the public sphere, Babbitt maintained that the "whole modern programme" was one "that makes for a formidable mechanical efficiency and so tends to bring into an ever closer material contact men who remain ethically centrifugal" (1919, 331). What Babbitt found to be "illusory" was the assumption "that men can meet expansively and on the level of their ordinary selves" (1924, 235). Babbitt believed that "men can really come together only in humble obeisance to something set above their ordinary selves"; otherwise, without the proper mediation between the dualism of expansion and control that a humanistic education was to provide students, their meeting in the public sphere would only be a continuation and amplification of their expansive desires (1924, 235). With the entry into the public sphere Hirsch's "cultural literacy" provided, what assurance, Babbitt would ask, could be promised that individuals would not continue to be driven by their ever-expansive tendencies? Hirsch was strictly anti-romantic in all educational facets, but, possibly, would Babbitt consider Hirsch romantic in his belief that good would naturally prevail in the public sphere once students were culturally literate? In this current era of high-stakes testing, rigorous teacher and student accountability, and the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Babbitt's warnings are even more critical. Do any of these practices ensure inner-restraint? Or do they again promote efficiency while providing no models of constraint? As we look around today at world economics, global politics, and foreign policy, it is difficult to maintain that a better sense of restraint would not prove beneficial.


Irving Babbitt and E.D. Hirsch defended the humanistic curriculum at both the beginning and end of the twentieth century respectively. Both claimed that a set of specific knowledge needed to be passed from one generation to the next. Both found this knowledge primarily, though certainly not exclusively, through the classical Western tradition. But the ideas put forth by Babbitt and Hirsch nearly a century apart also speaks to the power of progressive education and the defensive position of the humanistic curriculum throughout the twentieth century. In other words, if Babbitt (or any other advocate of the humanistic curriculum) had been more successful within the curricular battles of the early-twentieth century, then a call for a more conservative, traditional education in the 1980s would not have been needed. In examining Babbitt's era, Hirsch was quick to point to the incredible influence of Teachers College in the spread of progressive principles in American education. He placed blame on the century-long antipathy toward a subject-based curriculum on Kilpatrick, Dewey, and other advocates of progressive ideals from Teachers College. Hirsch pinpointed the same influence at work at the beginning of the twenty-first century: schools of education routinely follow in Teachers College's footsteps in passing anti-curriculum, progressive, child-centered beliefs onto future teachers. Has much changed, then? In looking through the lenses of both Babbitt and Hirsch we can clearly see the humanist curriculum continually on the defensive, as an outsider in American schools. Does this speak to the power of progressive, child-centered education entrenched in the curriculum? Does it speak to the inability for humanistic advocates to present and implement their ideas effectively? Is it, perhaps, a combination of both? At the very least, current advocates of the humanist curriculum can look at the century dividing Babbitt and Hirsch and conclude that a new approach may be in order.


Babbitt, Irving. 1924. Democracy and Leadership. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

--. 1930. "Humanism: An Essay at Definition." In Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilisation, edited by Norman Foerster, 25-51. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.

--. 1908a. Letter to Paul Elmer More, June 11. Babbitt-More Correspondence. Harvard University Archives. Accessed August 3, 2008.

--. 1908b. Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

--. 1929. "President Eliot and American Education." In Character and Culture: Essays on East and West/Irving Babbitt, edited by C.G. Ryn, 198-224. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

--. 1932. "The Problem of Style in a Democracy." In Character and Culture: Essays on East and West/Irving Babbitt, edited by C.G. Ryn, 170-82. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

--. 1919. Rousseau and Romanticism. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

Brennan, Stephen C., and Stephen R. Yarbrough. 1987. Irving Babbitt. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Dewey, John. 1903. Ethical Principles Underlying Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

--. 1902. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hindus, Milton. 1994. Irving Babbitt, Literature, and the Democratic Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. 1987. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Hirsch, E.D., Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil. 1993. The Dictionary of Cultural-Literacy. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Hirsch, E.D., Jr. 2006. The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

--. 2009. The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. New Haven:

Yale University Press.

--. 1996. The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. New York: Doubleday.

Hoeveler, J. D., Jr. 1977. The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 19001940. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Kirk, Russell. 1986. "Foreword." In Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities, Irving Babbitt. Washington, D.C.: National Humanities Institute.

Kliebard, Herbert M. 2004. The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893-1958. 3rd ed. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Nevin, Thomas R. 1984. Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Panichas, George A. 1999. The Critical Legacy of Irving Babbitt. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Panichas, George A., and Claes G. Ryn. eds. 1986. Irving Babbitt in Our Time. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Kipton D. Smilie

St. Gregory's University


(1.) The subsequent book was edited by George A. Panichas and Claes G. Ryn.

(2.) The most complete examination of the historical and philosophical threads of the New Humanism was published in 1977, J. David Hoeveler, Jr.'s The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940. Two books on Babbitt were published in the 1990s: Milton Hindus's Irving Babbitt, Literature, and the Democratic Culture (1994) and George Panichas's The Critical Legacy of Irving Babbitt: An Appreciation (1999).

(3.) Hirsch did praise Dewey's "disposing of the polarity between child-centered and subject matter-centered education" in his 1902 The Child and the Curriculum (1996, 57-8).

(4.) Babbitt provided no citation. The statement is from Dewey's (1903) Ethical Principles Underlying Education.

(5.) In The Knowledge Deficit Hirsch claimed that "Dewey's Lab School, which he started in Chicago in 1896, was based on the conviction that children would learn what they needed by engaging in practical activities such as cooking" (2006, 9-10).

(6.) Later in Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt reiterated that "I have said that the whole of life may be summed up in the words diversion and conversion. But man does not want conversion, the adjustment in other words of his natural will to some higher will, because of the moral effort it implies. In this sense he is an everlasting trifler. But, though he wishes diversion, he is loath at the same time to admit that he is missing the fruits of conversion" (1924, 277). Hirsch, again, demanded that students work diligently in reading and studying within his cultural literacy framework, but Babbitt would seemingly argue that this working was not the "inner working" students needed for humanistic conversion.

Kipton D. Smilie, St. Gregory's University, Shawnee, OK 74801, (T) 785-893-2064, Email:
COPYRIGHT 2013 Information Age Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:ARTICLE 10
Author:Smilie, Kipton D.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Previous Article:Citizenship education in Texas: gaps between theory and practice in the state curriculum standards.
Next Article:Angulo, A. J. 2012. Empire and Education: A History of Greed and Goodwill from the War of 1898 to the War on Terror.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters