Academic journal article Humanitas

Irving Babbitt, the Moral Imagination, and Progressive Education

Academic journal article Humanitas

Irving Babbitt, the Moral Imagination, and Progressive Education

Article excerpt

When Literature and the American College, Irving Babbitt's critique of the new educational theories, was first published in 1908, it was a shot fired across the bow of the ship of progressive reform in American higher education. Babbitt fired a sound shot, but he lost the war. Since that time, educational reform has run through various movements, including, but not limited to, the industrial education movement, the mental testing movement, differentiated curriculum, child-centered education, the mental hygiene movement, the efficiency movement, constructivism, and education for life-adjustment, all reform movements advanced under the rubric of "progressive education." (1) Yet, readers who review educational practice and who delve into the voluminous works on educational theory over the past century, will recognize that Babbitt's writings on education as an ethical pursuit remain topical. Now more than ever, Americans argue the purpose and value of education and debate the central issues of educational content and methodology, as Babbitt did one hundred years ago.

Babbitt's voice should continue to be heard in the public debate because his central concern was with that timeless question raised by the Greeks and most explicitly put forth by Christ: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Matt. 16:26). The purpose of education, Babbitt emphatically answered the reformers, was not to train to acquire wealth and power, but rather, in the time-honored tradition of humanistic studies, to teach to assimilate the wisdom of the ages, an assimilation that could be fostered primarily through the right use of the imagination. Wisdom and virtue, not wealth and power, lead us to fulfill our deepest human need, genuine communion with others. Babbitt's concern for right judgment and community as the product of imaginative understanding has much to say to our world and indeed has much to offer educators who have refocused in recent years on the need for community building.

Babbitt's thesis throughout his works is that the educational reforms of the early twentieth century inadequately addressed the nature of human imagination and therefore distorted our understanding of the human endeavor. Under largely utilitarian reforms, schooling was seriously undermining the human community because it was distorting the key element in learning: the imagination. According to Babbitt, if healthy community, defined in part as the corporate embodiment of past wisdom, was to grow, schooling had to play a significant role. And schooling means developing the moral imagination. In order for any educational institution to succeed in its purpose of assimilating wisdom, it must first and foremost foster vibrant imaginative qualities of its students, and imagination is the tool used to pursue the common standards inherent in wisdom.

Although numerous and diverse reform movements have been advanced under the rubric of "progressivism," they have all shared three fundamental principles: the de-emphasis of the academic curriculum; the desire to make learning more "natural" by treating each student as a unique individual within the context of his or her own biological, social and intellectual development; and the desire to make knowledge practical and more relevant to the child's immediate social situation. (2) The practical result of these three principles is that educational institutions have been strongly encouraged, through teacher training and through political pressure, to address two seemingly contradictory goals. The first goal is to nurture the innate social, psychological, and intellectual proclivities of each student (hence, the vast system of elective courses offered to students of all ages), and the second goal is to "adjust" each child to the economic and social needs of society in order to ensure an efficient work force. One hundred years ago reformers believed that a new century needed new methods and subjects to meet the challenges posed by a growing industrial and democratic national polity. …

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