Education in America: 4. The Decline of Intellect

Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American edu­cation.

The lowered ethical standards of our age have been matched by a decline of intellect. Today, we place progressively less faith in man’s intellectual powers, substi­tuting a faith in institutionalized arrangements and methods. If we would help our young to develop and implement proper values in their lives, we must first recover the intellectual integrity to dis­tinguish between good and bad. Such intellectual integrity rests upon a firm belief that man can think, and that no genuine sub­stitute exists for human thought.

If the school is to transmit the intellectual and cultural heritage, and develop in students a proper sense of morality, it must begin by teaching them to think.

Conversely, if we would help our young people to think, we must provide a cultural and moral framework within which their in­tellectual capacities may be exer­cised. Yet, this disciplined thought is precisely what is lacking in the home and the school.

Within the existing educational framework, moral and philosophic questions tend to be handled with the neutrality of "scientific objec­tivity." As the result, our children are provided no philosophic basis for their own thinking. Instead, they take on the protective colora­tion of the dominant social mores—a form of "social adjustment" which places a premium upon non-thinking. Small wonder that our age of shrinking values also be­comes the age of shrinking intel­lect.

Debunking Tradition, While Demanding Its Fruits

It is not quite fair to say that today’s intellectual leaders have no values. Although they are ex­tremely skeptical about values and emphasize that skepticism in all their works, many modern "intel­lectuals" do have their own under­lying value system which C. S. Lewis has sharply called into ques­tion:

It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellec­tuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them at­tacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a preserving devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sen­timent which… [they] could de­bunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fer­tile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time—such is the tragicomedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impos­sible. You can hardly open a periodi­cal without coming across the state­ment that what our civilization needs is more "drive," or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or "creativity." In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enter­prise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.1

"There Is No Truth"

What are some of the philo­sophic underpinnings of the edu­cational system now reaping such a bitter harvest? One of the most basic principles of the Deweyite pragmatism and instrumentalism which infects our schools and our social order is that the truth of an idea is measurable only by the consequences to which it leads. If the consequences of an idea are good, then the proposition is true. How do we measure good conse­quences? The good, so we are told by the instrumentalists, is that which achieves the proper social ends.

Does the individual have judg­ment in this matter? Is there some divine sanction by which we can evaluate such ends? The modern answer to both questions is "No." The measure of good is now ex­clusively social, eliminating indi­vidual judgment, eliminating any fixed standard of right and wrong, and indeed eliminating the very concept of truth.

The fact that a modern intel­lectual no longer searches for truth should not be construed to mean that he no longer searches for knowledge. The distinction comes in the fact that his search for knowledge evidences no inter­est in any ultimate reality beyond the immediate workability of an idea. Any value without direct ap­plication to the here and the now is considered pointless and un­worthy of transmission as "knowl­edge."

Most men who have lived in Western civilization have premised their thinking upon the presence of a higher reality, dimly per­ceived yet serving as the basis for all human endeavor. That human endeavor was an attempt to dis­cover and live in consonance with that higher reality through the use of man’s unique capacity to reason. The modern intellectual, applying "scientific" methods and standards to his investigation, finds no evidence of such a higher reality or any higher side of man as reflected in the individual. Thus, man comes to be viewed as nothing more than a creature en­gaged in the process of adapta­tion to his environment, a crea­ture possessing neither soul nor mind in the sense in which West­ern man has developed the con­cept. The intellect itself, the indi­vidual’s very capacity to think, is finally called into question.

No Use for the Mind

Today’s educational framework affords no place for the mind. The concept of mind always demanded discipline on the part of the in­dividual if the fruits of his in­tellectual processes were to com­mand the attention and respect of his fellows. But in today’s denial of mind, the new keys to man’s personality are assumed to be composed exclusively of emotional factors, psychological "adjust­ment," and materialistic creature necessities.

"Adjust to your environment," our young people are constantly told. Such a denial of intellect has the effect of lowering standards for society as a whole while rob­bing each of us of the essence of his individuality.

Thought, if granted any validity at all, has come to be regarded as a rather mechanical process, meas­urable, and computable.

The social engineers predict that such intellectual concentrations will be beneficial to mankind as a whole and to each individual as well. The idea advanced by Julian Huxley of a "thought bank" is considered by them in all seriousness. To an in­quiry of The New York Times in 1958, one of the scientists consulted about the socio-intellectual aspects of the year 2000, Professor John Weir of California Institute of Tech­nology, answered that there will be no conflict among the thinking of in­dividuals because "a common Thought Bank will be established from which all will receive instruc­tions and to which all may repair in case of doubt." Less "scientific" but equally enthusiastic for a society that will have eliminated "divisive­ness," are the recommendations of Professor Robert C. Angell. In Free Society and Moral Crisis, the author identifies what he calls the "moral web" with socialized attitudes, and "moral crisis" with deviant behavior. It is incidental to our present argu­ment that Mr. Angell never tells us how one distinguishes whether a "de­viant" group is good or bad—how one tells a saint from a delinquent, a gang from the twelve apostles—when both disrupt the social fab­ric and neither behaves according to "the common values of their cul­ture." What is, however, relevant here is that the remedies he sug­gests for "social and moral integra­tion" are all collectivistic measures, reached through public discussions in high schools, television panels, Boy Scout and YMCA programs, group therapy, prisoner rehabilita­tion, and so on.²

Forget and Adjust

Such attitudes rest on two sup­positions: 1. All past thinking and moral judgment must be dis­counted if not dismissed since it predates the definition of truth as "social good"; and 2. The prepara­ration for those living in such a society must no longer aim toward the education of a freely choosing moral agent but instead must em­phasize the "adjustment" of the individual to the total social good.

… the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old ini­tiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmit­ting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.³

Such an educational system is not designed to develop a capacity for thinking or to halt the decline of intellect.

It may well be that such an at­tempt at placing society over the individual (and, indeed, over God as well), would be unacceptable to many persons now living in this nation or in the Western world. It is true, however, that these are the dominant ideas among intel­lectuals who will largely influence generations to come. The depar­ture from tradition, morality, and even human thought which seems far advanced in theory, has scarce­ly begun in practice. The most sweeping changes in our society lie ahead unless we decide to re­verse the process.

In facing that decision, let us compare the new values with the traditional, with our Western her­itage of discovery and develop­ment in morality, science, law, and art, a heritage based upon a firm and unswerving faith in man’s ability to reason, in his unique gift of intellect. Remove man’s power to think and to act on the basis of his thinking and you have destroyed the very quality which makes him human. To abandon such a history is to create a vac­uum quite likely to be filled with the new "philosophy of change."

The Philosophy of Change

Today, we are told that we have swept aside the dead hand of the past with its constricting and con­fining tradition and morality. Weare told that the disciplines of former ages no longer bind us. We are told that, in view of these rap­id transformations, all standards are relative to social considera­tions; man and society are what­ever we choose to make of them. Thus, change itself, change for its own sake, becomes the dominant philosophy of the age. A variety of experiences (no matter what their quality) with constant growth (no matter in what direc­tion) and constant activity (no matter how frenzied) are now to serve as a suitable educational goal. Here again, the decline of intellect is most graphically dem­onstrated.

What are the standards for judg­ing the purposes and values thus successively emerging in the pupil’s mind? If the teacher himself has no general aim, nor final values to which all this process is related; if education itself is to grow "in what­ever direction a novelly emerging future renders most feasible…."4

This is a pointless procession of the blind leading the blind. An "educated" man is often regarded as one who is quick and clever in discussion and ready and willing to discuss anything. To freely dis­cuss on all sides of all questions, without standards, without values, is to insure the creation of a generation of uninformed and talka­tive minds, a living demonstra­tion of the decline of intellect.

During Goethe’s travels in Italy, he spent some time in the com­pany of an Italian captain. De­scribing the man, Goethe re­marked, "This captain is a true representative of many of his compatriots. Here is a particularly typical trait of his. As I would often remain silent and thought­ful, he said to me once: ‘What are you thinking about? One ought never to think, thinking ages one! One should never confine oneself to one single thing because he then goes mad: he needs to have a thousand things, a confusion in his head."5

The New Age of Doubt

How different is modern educa­tion from that traditionally fol­lowed in Western civilization! St. Thomas always warned students never to leave any difficulty un­resolved in their study, to always fully understand whatever they read or hear and to "avoid speechi­fying on anything whatsoever." How few modern students follow such an injunction! He also warned teachers that they must "never dig a ditch [in front of the student] that you fail to fill up."6

St. Thomas well knew that cleverly to raise doubts, forever to seek and never find, was, when carried to the extreme, the great enemy of both education and thought.

Many modern teachers have not learned what St. Thomas knew so well. We live in an age in which we are kept busy by endless in­duction. Today we substitute facts for truths. We engage in a con­stant round of activity on the assumption that, in Richard Weaver’s caustic phrase, "Experi­ence will tell us what we are ex­periencing." No standards, no evaluation, no genuine thought—it is to such a nightmare that the concept of change finally leads us. Any traditional philosophy is dis­missed by modern man as "static." Thus, any values not constantly shifting are regarded as old hat, as unworthy for a "modern" mind. Institutions, values, attitudes that show constancy are finally dis­missed by a philosophy, if it can be dignified by that name, of ceaseless change.

At any given moment, so says this new philosophy, the only means by which society can prop­erly determine what values are ac­ceptable is through a temporary consensus. Thus, we find a con­stant flight of endlessly shifting ideas and values, somehow to be caught on the wing and rendered intelligible at a particular moment in time. Society now becomes the final arbiter of a "truth" as chang­ing as the summer breeze, thus necessitating endless reratification by society. It should be clear that the only constant in such a so­ciety would be this supposedly in­fallible method of arriving at the truth.

The main concern of our mod­ern intellectuals has been, not the discovery of an enduring reality, but rather the mastery of a method for measuring change. We no longer measure growth toward an ideal, simply because no ideal remains. When there is no longer a standard by which to test it, the intellect is clearly in decline.

Mental and Moral Vacuum

The collapse of standards and of the intellect is closely allied to the rise in scientism, as dis­cussed earlier. Modern naturalism, materialism, and scientism hold that only material, physically measurable quantities and values can exist. Thus, all other standards of religion, ethics, and culture, including any accomplishment of the mind, are swept aside. The result is an intellectual and moral vacuum.

This vacuum extends to the most minor and everyday con­cerns of curriculum. Traditional subjects are being displaced by courses in art appreciation, fly-casting, and other intellectual ac­tivities equally insignificant.

A value system is essential if students are to sort out and make use of the vast assortment of mis­cellaneous "facts" thrust upon them. Some hierarchy of values is essential to the use of the mind or intellect. And it is not surprising that young people who have thus been "educated" to deny their uniqueness, their capacity to think, should feel unfulfilled and con­fused by the world around them.

Meanwhile, the trend continues toward a collective mentality. Un­der a theory of ceaseless change and total "social goals," all values are determined by the current state of the environment. The en­vironment, subject to manipula­tion by the state, may be depended upon to breed conditions demand­ing ever larger involvement of government in society. State con­trol of society and education can be depended upon to provide sys­tematic indoctrination through the innumerable channels of propa­ganda opened by the decline of intellect.

Social Failure

Such a system of total control, supposedly relieving the individ­ual of all responsibility and all concerns, must prove fatal in the end.

Youthful enthusiasm and the joy of living may conceal the inner vac­uum for some time, at least until one goes through the initial stages of adulthood—settling down in a trade or profession, getting married, hav­ing children, and finding a place in society. But in the midstream of life just before age makes its first ap­pearance, the existential questions about the meaning of life as it con­cerns the individual are inevitably asked. Then the haphazard, practi­cal cleverness picked up in the school and along the way proves frighten­ingly inadequate.

Thus, there comes to the indi­vidual something of the dichotomy suffered by society: the simulta­neous sense of power and insecur­ity. Today, we are told that every­thing is possible for us. We are taught to believe this; yet, never has talk of a returning barbarism and decay been more widespread throughout Western civilization. We bury ourselves under every conceivable material and political "security," only to find ourselves increasingly insecure and unpre­pared for what tomorrow may bring.

Circumstances Can’t Choose

We may embrace the pragmatic idea that circumstances will de­cide the truth. But Ortega has reminded us that it is not circumstances which finally decide, but our character. We can move the choice away from the individual to mass man and society as a whole, we can abandon all of our traditional values in a wave of ceaseless change; still, somewhere deep in our hearts we know that we are deciding. We know this, even when our very indecision fi­nally forms the future. Choice is not so easily abandoned.

Choice becomes increasingly difficult when our educational sys­tem turns out men capable of running the technical machinery of civilization but totally ignorant of the principles upon which that civilization rests.

Civilisation is not "just there," it is not self-supporting. It is artificial and requires the artist or the artisan. If you want to make use of the ad­vantages of civilisation, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilisation—you are done. In a trice you find yourself left without civilisation. Just a slip, and when you look around every­thing has vanished into air. The primitive forest appears in its na­tive state, just as if curtains cover­ing pure Nature had been drawn back. The jungle is always primitive and, vice versa, everything primi­tive is mere jungle.8

Yes, the jungle is always there; and when a society begins to in­sist that there are no lasting val­ues, that the individual is incom­petent to choose his own path or to think his own thoughts, then the civilization based upon fixed moral values and free individual choice is destined to revert to that jungle.

The jungle is close indeed when we believe that a man is no more than the sum of his heredity and environment, and that his behav­ior, instead of his own choosing, is molded for him by his surround­ings. A man thus molded could not be responsible for his action. A society composed of such men would be an irresponsible society that seeks wages without work, pleasure without pain, and learn­ing without effort.

Insatiable Appetites, But Others to Blame

Today, we often fail to see any relationship between crime and punishment, between effort and re­ward; we have no understanding of a hierarchy of values, no con­cept of a total unity governing human existence. The predictable result: a nation of spoiled chil­dren. These spoiled children are of all ages, but they share a com­mon conviction that if their in­satiable appetites are unsatisfied, someone is being mean to them. This may explain why the prom­ises of science are so uncritically accepted at face value—the ful­fillment of all desire in a flood of material goods and scientific prog­ress. We are led to believe that the very riddle of life and death is about to be solved by science. If man can have both eternal life and satiation of all desire in the here and now, then what other god need he worship?

It is true that the price is high; we must be willing to give up our individual capacity to think and to choose, we must be willing to give up any fixed moral code. But what need has man for such things in social paradise?

Individuals within our society become steadily less productive on the intellectual and moral diet they receive. Tocqueville caught the essence of the underlying problem:

In ages of faith, the final end of life is placed beyond life. The men of those ages, therefore, naturally and almost involuntarily accustom themselves to fix their gaze for many years on some immovable ob­ject toward which they are con­stantly tending; and they learn by insensible degrees to repress a mul­titude of petty passing desires in order to be the better able to content that great and lasting desire which possesses them…. This explains why religious nations have often achieved such lasting results; for whilst they were thinking only of the other world, they had found out the great secret of success in this.9

Perhaps the great religious teachers were right after all in their insistence that man must recognize some higher will than his own. Nowhere is this recogni­tion of a higher will more impor­tant than in intellectual matters. It would appear that in the modern world all too many men have so exalted the product of their own minds that they have come to see themselves as self-sufficient. In that illusory self-sufficiency, man has come, as we have seen, finally to lose the direction and point of his own intelligence. Indeed, mod­ern man has ceased to believe in the quality of his own individual intellect, and thus brought about one of the fundamental failures of our age: the decline of intellect.

The next article of this series will discuss "Discipline or Disaster." Facing the Crowd



1 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 34-35.

2 Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual, pp. 219-220.

3 Lewis, op. cit., pp. 32-33.

4 Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p. 17.

5 Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations, p. 81.

6 Maritain, op. cit., p. 50.

7 Thomas Molnar, The Future of Ed­ucation, pp. 87-88.

8 Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 88.

9 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Conse­quences, p. 118.



Facing the Crowd

The sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause—disguise no god, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs. Yet is the discontent of the multi­tude more formidable than that of the senate and the college. It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. Their rage is decorous and prudent, for they are timid, as being very vulnerable themselves. But when to their feminine rage the indignation of the people is added, when the ignorant and the poor are aroused, when the unintelli­gent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance