Published Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2006
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.” 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.
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