Brand Blanshard wrote eloquently about American education in his essay “Quantity and Quality in American Education.” The essay was published nearly half a century ago but the message is universal. Thanks to Anthony Flood for making it accessible. It is a long and thoughtful essay, worth reading in its entirety. The last bits resonate most forcefully with me, and so I present this extended quote for your reading pleasure and intellectual delight.

It is a firm conviction of mine that the characteristic which a college should aim above all to produce is reasonableness. What does reasonableness mean? Not skill in reasoning, though it is always the better for that. It is not even wholly a matter of the intellectual side of our nature, though a trained intelligence is essential to it. It is the pervading habit and temper of a mind that has surrendered its government to reason. On the intellectual side it shows itself as reflectiveness, the habit of examining the meaning of a proposed belief, and looking to its grounds and consequences, before accepting it. On the practical side it is justice, a scrupulous regard for the rights of others as well as of oneself. On the emotional side, it is partly good taste—such an adjustment of feeling to its object that one is never wrought up over molehills nor cavalier about mountains, and partly, again, that equanimity of mind which comes of having made one’s peace reflectively with the best and worst that life may bring. Reasonableness, in this complex sense, seems to me the finest flower of an education.

How many of us achieve it? I fear, none of us at all. Though college studies can refine and inspire our thought, they can do little directly about reasonableness in feeling and act; education, even the finest, cannot guarantee greatness of mind. But it can do the next best thing; as Whitehead reminds us, it can supply the vision of greatness for those who have eyes to see. You may remember Wordsworth’s amendment of St. Paul; instead of accepting the trinity of faith, hope, and love, he said, “We live by admiration, hope, and love.”

Well, in this matter of the reasonable spirit, the business of education is to put pictures on the wall, and point at them, and then hope that in our sluggish hearts and minds admiration will begin to stir. None of the pictures it holds up can show us fully what reasonableness is. But when it holds up Plato, for example, we can see in the play of that clear and all-encompassing intelligence what reflectiveness means at its best. When we turn to such figures as Marcus Aurelius and Abraham Lincoln, we see the reasonable mind in another aspect, the aspect of imperturbable justice and magnanimity. As for reasonableness in feeling, we have on the one hand the long line of entries from Longinus through Goethe to Eliot, from whom we may learn sobriety of taste, and on the other the long line of saints from Buddha to Schweitzer to tell us the secrets of inward peace. Qualitative existence means living in the presence of these people till we find ourselves thinking as they do, feeling as they do, and walking in their far-sighted ways.

It is a great thing for a university to turn out engineers and doctors in regiments. It is a fine thing for a given engineer or doctor to a mastery of his technique. But the highest tribute to a college is not to have produced masses of technicians with a perfect technique. It is to have stamped on its sons and daughters the priceless imprint of the reasonable mind. Just one such person—thoughtful in his judgments, fair in all his dealings, unruffled in his sweetness of temper, fearless because he has looked before and after and made his terms with life and death—just one such person may give light to a whole community. His spirit is beyond price because you cannot buy quality with any amount of quantity. And if he lives at an altitude hard to reach, we may remind ourselves, with Spinoza, that all precious things are as difficult as they are rare.

3 thoughts on “Reasonableness

  1. Atanu,
    My impression is that American universities evolved in response to market forces right from the beginning. One difference from European universities seems to be ‘less state control’ and the efforts to be self sufficient. But originally, they did not go for profits but responded to different needs of the country and various communities. Some recent efforts to run universities for profit do not seem to be so successful. There is a nice paper on the evolution of American universities by David Labaree in the Recent Papers section of;
    ” Market, Politics, and American Higher Education: An Institutional Success Story”. He is quite careful about what he means by success. One does loose out on the kind of things you mentioned but state controlled universities do not seem to be achieving it either. I myself feel that a reasonable aim is to run higher educational institutions as non-profit self sustainable institutions. Where and how does one teach civic virtues etc. This should come in primary education which seems to be even bigger mess with 40% teacher absenteeism in some states. Will the various religious and private organization for profit achieve this? Probably unlikely but any education is probably better than no education.


  2. Atanu,
    Sorry; that was probably not the right response to your query. I was thinking more of higher education. It seemed to me that there is no one concept of a university but different ones which evolved differently in different countries to different needs and
    situations. Perhaps what I had in mind was that education about rights, wrongs, duties and responsibilities should come earlier in primary and secondary educations (usually some specializations already start in secondary education). I am not sure whether this makes sense either but this is what I had (vaguely) in mind.


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