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Notes on Hofstadter’s Philosophy of Education: Relevant Higher Ed Points

January 7, 2018

In the course of thinking about Richard Hofstadter’s philosophy of education (broadly), I just reread his 1968 Columbia University commencement address.[1] The primary existential event in relation to his address was the “forcible occupation” of Columbia buildings by war protestors. On that much has been written, none of it flattering to Hofstadter—with regard to his opinions about the protestors.

It is easy to understand how little might be revealed in the commencement about Hofstadter’s *broad* philosophy of education. I was hunting, in particular, for clues (and only clues or hints) about his own view of priorities for K-12. Nothing in particular came up—except the possibility that Hofstadter might view all of education via his experience in higher education.

Otherwise, two things struck me about the address in relation to Hofstadter’s view of higher education in U.S. life:

First, I was intrigued by Hofstadter’s notion of the university as “an intellectual and spiritual balance wheel.” His clarification of this could be more forcefully underlined in his address, but the ideas is about the “fragility” of a university’s place in a democracy. The balance wheel means that “freedom” of speech on campus “requires restraints,” and that those “restraints normally [should] be self-imposed, and not forced from outside.” He adds: “The delicate thing about the university is that it has a mixed character…suspended between its position in the external world, with all its corruption and evils and cruelties, and the splendid world of our imagination.”

As a “center of free inquiry and criticism,” the outer world has a stake in university conversations. Hofstadter says that the university “does in fact constitute a kind of free forum—and there are those who want to convert it primarily into a center of political action.” So the wheel goes out of balance when politics are weighted too heavily on campus. Hofstadter adds that a campus is “neither…a political society, nor a meeting place for political societies.”

These thoughts hold obvious relevance in relation to on-campus events in 2016-2017. Indeed, those events, which were saturated with politics (e.g. at Berkeley and elsewhere), came up in national electoral discourse. Trump used them to his advantage in capturing larger reactions to a nation perceived to be off course.

Second, in relation to the point above, Hofstadter offers a philosophical assumption, housed in a parallel, about a university’s place in a society that values debate. Here’s the parallel: “The possibility of modern democracy rests upon the willingness of governments to accept the existence of a loyal opposition, organized to reverse some of their policies and to replace them in office. Similarly, the possibility of the modern free university rests upon the willingness of society to support and sustain institutions part of whose business it is to examine, critically and without stint, the assumptions that prevail in that society.”

“There must,” he adds, “be an organization in which anything can be studied or questioned—not merely safe and established things but difficult and inflammatory things.”

This is the essence of academic freedom, and stands at the heart of Hofstadter’s vision of education and education institutions. His eloquence on that subject didn’t surprise me, given that his bibliography includes a seminal work on the history of academic freedom.[2]

That essence is spot on for higher education, but doesn’t work well in public schools, democratically controlled, who are charged with forming youth. Hofstadter’s philosophy of education assumes maturity, restraint, and no pressures of vocation. Those assumptions require a good deal of modification for K-12 education. – TL

[1] It was reproduced in a collection of primary documents titled American Higher Education Transformed, 1940-2005: Documenting the National Discourse, eds. Wilson Smith and Thomas Bender (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2008), 383-386.

[2] Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York, 1955).


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  1. I think the only other source I could mine for further clarification on this subject (i.e. RH’s philo of edu) is whatever commentary he provided on documents included in the collection, edited with Wilson Smith, titled American Higher Education: A Documentary History (1961).- TL


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