All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1992

Men Versus Machines

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and author of many books including Education, Christianity and the State, from which this article is adapted.

What is the purpose of education? One view which has been widely held is that the purpose of education is to enable a man or a woman to earn more money after graduation from school or college. That is the so-called vocational view of education. Advocates of it can adduce statistics, I believe, to show that graduates of high schools or colleges get better positions than those who are not graduates. With regard to this vocational view it can be said for one thing that it is enormously over-done. It is training up so many people in the hope of their earning large salaries that there are not enough large salaries to go around. That was true even before the depression came upon us. Moreover, this view is hopelessly narrow and inflexible. It seeks to make men efficient machines, but unfortunately a machine can do only one thing, and when that thing no longer needs to be done the machine has to be scrapped. But the deeper objection to the exclusively vocational view of education is that a man never was meant to be a machine at all. If you make a machine of him, you are doing the direct opposite of what true education ought to do.

A better view of education is that education ought to broaden a man, ought to keep him from getting into the narrow rut of any one aptitude or activity. I remember that Dr. R. J. G. McKnight, President of the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, in an address which he delivered recently at Westminster Seminary, said that he had made a visit a short time before to an automobile factory. He had admired very much, he said, the wonderful skill developed by operatives in the factory. Particularly had he observed the speed and accuracy with which a man in the assembling plant put on the rear fenders of the cars as they came down the endless line. That man, he said, might not be able to do a lot of other things; but one thing certainly could be said for him—he was certainly the world’s best Ford-car-left-rear-fender-putter-on. Well, I think perhaps there is some hope even for that putter-on of left rear fenders. With shorter hours and consequently increased leisure given to operatives in factories, it is quite possible that that Ford-car-left-rear-fender-putter-on may learn to love his Tennyson and his Horace in his leisure time.

But whatever may be said of him, it is a poor view of education to hold that it condemns men to remain mere Ford-car-left-rear-fender-putters-on all their lives. I think the man who above all others should be pitied is the man who has never learned how to amuse himself without mechanical assistance when he is alone. Even babies are sometimes taught to amuse themselves. I remember when I was at Princeton I used to watch the baby of one of the professors on the Seminary campus. That self-reliant little mite of humanity would spend the entire morning in the middle of that great green expanse, all by himself, and yet in the most complete contentment and in the most perfect safety. He was early learning the great lesson how to use his leisure time. He did not need to have anybody else rattle his rattle for him. Thank you, if he needed a rattle at all he could rattle his own rattle for himself. He was getting a good preparation for life. A person who can rattle his own rattle when he is a baby is very apt to be able to paddle his own canoe when he becomes a man.

The average American, however, remains a baby all his life. He is unable even to rattle his own rattle. He has to have somebody else amuse him all the time. Leave him alone for five minutes, and he has to turn on his radio. It seems to make very little difference to him what the radio gives forth. All he wants is that some kind of physical impact shall be made on his eardrums—and incidentally on everybody else’s eardrums—just to keep him from having one moment to himself. Turn off his radio even for a moment and the appalling emptiness of his life is at once revealed.

What is the explanation of this emptiness of American life? The explanation is that the average American is not educated. An uneducated man shrinks from quiet. An educated man longs for it. Leave an educated man alone, and he has, for one thing, the never-failing resource of reading. He has that resource in his home; he may even carry it around in his pocket. Mr. Loeb has done more for the cause of true education with his pocket editions of the classics than have the founders of many universities.* Even more truly educated is the man who does not need even the prop of pocket editions, but can draw at any moment, in meditation, upon the resources of a well-stocked mind.

But what shall be done for the great hosts of Americans who have never learned how to read with enjoyment, and to whom meditation has become a lost art? What shall be done about the increasing problem of leisure time?


Intrusions of Government

Well, I can tell you one thing that ought not to be done about it. Whatever may be done about it, government certainly ought not to do anything about it. People talk about this great national problem of leisure time. Since it is a national problem, they say, Congress ought to take it up; or rather, Congress ought to perform its up-to-date function of being a rubber stamp by turning the problem over to some government bureau. So we shall have government directing even our holiday activities for us; government will be telling us not only how we shall work, and how much we shall work, and how much we shall get for our work, but also how we shall play.

I remember the first school I attended. It was a private school, which, I suppose, might be called a kindergarten. There were various tasks to be performed in the various periods of the school’s session. But to me the most irksome period was one in which we were all required to stand up under the eye of the teacher and play games with a lot of little girls. I thought it was the toughest duty of the entire school day. Some time later, years later I think, I discovered that it was supposed to be the recess hour. What I had held to be work was regarded by the teachers as play. I am inclined to think still that I rather than the teachers was right. Play that is prescribed and supervised by the powers that be is often the most irksome kind of work.

That is true of the grandiose recreation schemes into which the Federal government is now entering. A great system of National Parks has been built up. It might have been a beneficent thing if it meant that the natural beauty of the regions now embraced in the National Parks were to be preserved. But as a matter of fact it means nothing of the kind. During a period of over 30 years I used to go in the summers, with some interruptions, to Mt. Desert Island, Maine. When I first went there it was about the sweetest and most beautiful lake and mountain region that could possibly be imagined. It really seemed as though no human being would have the heart to destroy the delicate charm of those woods. But then came Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the Lafayette (later Acadia), National Park, and all was changed. Huge roads now scar practically every mountainside and skirt the shores of practically every lake. The woods near the roads have been ruthlessly “cleaned up.” The natural beauty of the region has been systematically destroyed. When I go into that National Park, with its dreary regularity and its officialdom, I almost feel as though I were in some kind of penal institution. I feel somewhat as I do when I am in Los Angeles or any of the other over-regulated cities of the West, where pedestrians meekly wait around on the street corners for non-existent traffic and cross the streets only at the sound of the prison gong. Certain it is at any rate that the best way to destroy true recreation is for government to go into the business of promoting it.

The far more serious thing, however, is that this odious governmental activity in the destruction of the natural beauty of the woods is only a symbol of what is going on today in the sphere of human life. As the government bureaus are out to destroy every sweet and free and delicate thing in the woods and streams, so they are also out to destroy every sweet and free and delicate thing in the lives of the citizens. The ideal plainly is that we shall be under government tutelage from the cradle to the grave. In the cradle a maternity bureau will have us in its clutches; in the period of our school life we shall be in government schools, which will direct our recreation as well as our studies; after we get through school we shall be subjected to adult education under government control and shall be questioned as to our use of our leisure time. From this dreary goose-step there will be no escape.

*James Loeb (1867-1933), American banker and philanthropist, who founded and endowed the Loeb Classical Library.