Black Mountain College Bulletin
Series 1, Number 7
Erwin Straus, Education in a Time of Crisis, April 1941
BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE BULLETIN 7
EDUCATION IN A TIME OF CRISIS
Only those who have known the years before the first World War
can fully appreciate the magnitude of the crisis we are undergoing.
During those years most people believed that in western civilization
man had reached a more or less definitive state of historical develop-
ment. In accordance with this attitude the past was interpreted in
a somewhat peculiar way.
We had heard about wars, about persecution, about intolerance; we
had heard about terrible ignorance and its dreadful consequences;
we had heard about sinister superstitions, persecution of witches,
social injustices, the pride and arrogance of the mighty, corrupt
courts, torture, and whatnot. But we also had learned that since
1600, or somewhat earlier, when man's eyes were opened, there had
been irresistible progress. We became infinitely tolerant. We were
inclined to pardon even before we understood. The "Dark Ages",
thank heaven, were gone!
There was general optimism and a feeling of security. And then
suddenly that shocking disappointment to optimism and security!
Suddenly history with all its good and bad passions was alive again.
Suddenly everything which we thought gone forever was here again,
and that progressive state which we expected to be the final and
lasting one had disappeared.
Today the ominous symptoms of still greater changes are showing
themselves. All the principles on which the social order of the
nineteenth century were laid are challenged. They have become
suspect; even the longing for security has itself become suspect.
There is a dissolution of the old order, but only vague signs of the
new one. It is a time of lasting and continuous crises.
The younger generation reacts in its own way. It is distrustful-- the
young people do not want to be betrayed by solemn words used by
the church, the state, the social leaders, the universities. Did not
Nietzsche and Freud teach us what is hidden behind such words?
Should we not be aware of conscious or unconscious hypocrisy? Are
these words not the weapons of the weak?
What can be done under these circumstances? What can the older
generation do for the younger one? What can education in such a
time of crisis mean and do?
There are many opinions and proposals held by different groups.
Some of the more important of these may be outlined:
The first group--a large one--is composed of people who believe
that all of this unrest was caused by a few wicked individuals, whom
they even call criminals and gangsters. According to their back-
ground, their education, their nationality, their economic condi-
tions, their temperament, these people make this man or that man
the scapegoat. By imposing all responsibility and guilt upon a
single person, they obscure their vision of the fact that the causes
and effects of this crisis are much more powerful; that the crisis is
more widespread. There are no oceans between it and us. People
belonging to this group believe that if only Stalin or Mussolini or
Hitler or Roosevelt were made harmless, peace in the political
world, peace in the social and economic world, and peace within
their hearts would automatically return. Since they take political
measures as the only remedy for the crisis, we may call them by a
friendly name, "political critics," and by an unfriendly name, “the
superficial." They can have no pedagogical theories of their own.
The second group--irritated, annoyed, and disgusted by the his-
torical development just as the first one--has a completely negative
attitude. People in this group consider the social and political order
into which they were born as the only one; that is, the only just
one and the only right one. Everything should remain as it has
always been (by "always" they mean for the last fifty to one hun-
dred years). They look at the past as the prologue to their own
time. Now, as the historical development has been fulfilled, history
should come to a standstill. The future should be but a repetition
and a continuation of the present. They expect to overcome the
threatening dangers by holding fast to old forms, by giving many
and detailed prescriptions which can be easily enforced. They over-
look the fact that the internal order and philosophy of life is the
condition of the external order; that the external order becomes
moribund if the internal one dies away. The struggle for freedom.
and the political, religious, and scientific martyrs, prove that the
policeman and even the hangman cannot guard against change. Be-
cause these people put all hope in tradition, one may call them,
using a friendly name, "conservatives." And opponents may call
them, "reactionaries." Their pedagogical theory calls for many and
strict rules, for many examinations and requirements.
To the third group belong those who welcome the decline or break-
down of the old order as the breakdown of order as such. They
believe that one has only to put aside the limitations and boundaries
set up by state and society, and that then individuals, freed from
silly forms--free and happy individuals--will walk the earth in
What a festival day it would be for man if suddenly all the boun-
daries erected by law and custom, state and society. collapsed! Just
this is the meaning of many festival customs: to realize, at least
momentarily, this fantasy; and by a kind of illusion to suspend for a
while the established order or to turn it upside down! It was a
custom of the Roman Saturnalia for the masters to serve their
slaves. In the chaotic carousal of carnival days, in anonymity, in
masks, we enjoy the happiness of the moment. The scorning of au-
thority and of customs belongs to such festival days. But even fes-
tival days have fixed dates and a prescribed duration. And even fes-
tival days need forms; we can only oppose forms by using other
One step further and the hangover will follow the festival. Disgust
will follow dissipation. In the dissolution of order, the longing for
new order arises no less urgently. Since man wants both the happi-
ness of the moment and a hold on strict order, he is contradictory
in himself. The contradiction is most difficult to understand; there-
fore, it is easy to accept only one part and overlook or reject the
other. The extremists of this third group are called by a friendly
name, "individualists," and by an unfriendly name, "nihilists."
Their pedagogical theory refutes itself if it is strictly carried out.
The norm may be as elastic as you like, the rule may have ever so
many nuances--without the norm all shades lose their meaning.
You may concede to the individual as many rights as you like; you
cannot free him from limitations and claims.
As individuals we are born, and as individuals we die; as indi-
viduals we feel desire, pleasure, and pain. As individualities we are
educated by others or else we form ourselves gradually. As indi-
viduals we belong to nature; as individualities we belong to a spir-
itual, objective order. As individuals we are marked by some pe-
culiarity, such as the finger print; we become individualities in so
far as we integrate objective orders and adapt ourselves to them.
As individuals we are specimens of a zoological species, and we are
restrained to the present in space and time. As individualities we
are in a potential relation toward the whole of the world, to the
past and to the future. Because we are all related to one and the
same objective order, it may become the norm, the means and the
object of education.
The fourth and last group can be described in fewer words. With
them the idea prevails that superpersonal forces--economic, spir-
itual, instinctive--determine the course of human life. History will
follow its course no matter what we try to do. It cannot help mat-
ters to offer any resistance. Our will is impotent. We think of action,
but we are only the puppets of stronger impersonal forces. By a
friendly name we call this group, "the fatalists," and by an un-
friendly name, "the indolent." They cannot form a specific peda-
gogical theory of their own.
If the fatalists are right, we can do nothing but sigh because we are
born in such a critical time, and sigh about the new epoch to which
this crisis seems to lead.
But if the fatalists are not right, if history is not completely dic-
tated by superpersonal forces, if the future is not finally determined
by the past, if there is space for our own action then we have to
investigate more carefully the motive forces of this crisis, to find
what solutions seem to be possible, which desirable, and which un-
An analysis of this crisis can be made only in an over-
This present crisis seems to end an epoch which has lasted for
about three hundred years. Let its call it the epoch of enlighten-
ment. Historians usually label a somewhat shorter period as the
time of enlightenment but the motives of the enlightenment of
the eighteenth century were effective from the beginning of modern
time and retain their force to this day.
Enlightenment was based on confidence in the autonomy of the
human mind. This confidence was united with the hope of under-
standing nature by rational methods, of thereby eventually domi-
nating it, and of ultimately regulating and planning all human re-
lations reasonably. Who would not be delighted at such a prospect?
Was not everything to we gained and nothing to be lost? The sacri-
fice which this plan demanded of man remained hidden for a long
The autonomy of human reason can be preserved only if there is
undoubted security in our knowledge. Security of this kind we find
in mathematics. In so far as mathematics is competent there is cer-
tainty of knowledge. The autonomy of reason needs knowledge of a
mathematical kind. But mathematics can be applied only to a na-
ture having a mechanistic structure. Consequently all phenomena
have to be explained and understood as mechanism. But in a world
based on mechanism there can he no becoming and no history in a
true sense. Thus the claim of autonomy of reason forces certain
metaphysical interpretations of nature and of all being. Only what
is comprehensible by mathematical methods really exists for it.
At first enlightenment intended to dominate only external nature;
but very soon man, in so far as he belongs to nature, was included
as an object of these same tendencies. To fight misery, want, dis-
ease, and death was the first task; thus the seventeenth century
brought modern medicine into existence. But after the bonds which
both limited and formed men began to be broken, a tendency
toward negative freedom gradually extended to all human rela-
tions. They all became, one after the other, targets of historical
criticism and decomposition. Man wanted to be free. He wanted no
other master than himself, either in nature or in a cosmic order.
Thus enlightenment unifies two motives which at the first glance
seem to be contradictory to one another--that of exact rationalistic
methods and that of individualism almost anarchistic and nihilistic.
The second motive proved to be the stronger one. The skeptical
attitude was directed against science itself, not, perhaps in its
obvious results but in the value of scientific reasoning as such.
Rousseau is a famous example of the mutual interference of these
two tendencies of enlightenment. Since his time "irrationalism" has
steadily grown; today there is even a worshipping of anti-rational
forces. As long as the struggle to free individuals from all bonds
and boundaries continued, the struggle itself furnished some center
of orientation; but thereafter man plunged into the void, the
nothingness. Thereby he became ripe for totalitarianism, that
strange mixture of irrationalism and romanticism.
For a long time the teaching has prevailed that self-preservation is
the true and only real goal of all human activity. But the present
time proves again that man does not live by bread alone. Nobody
will deny the power of economic needs, but besides these there is a
metaphysical dread of the infinite, of the void, of the nothingness.
Wealth may provide many means of intoxication and dissipation
for the quieting of this dread; misery brings it to its climax, and
reveals the true situation of man, confronting him with the infinite.
The totalitarian states have understood these needs of man. They
have established an obligatory hierarchy of values in which the
economic ones are not the highest or the decisive ones. They under-
stand the role that imagination plays in man's psychical life. That
they base the new order on the very questionable opinions of indi-
viduals, calling absolute these relative and limited views, must
necessarily lead to a conflict with reality; this error transforms their
constitution into a cruel and merciless tyranny.
But we must not forget that the dictators rose to power because
men were longing for new masters, for new gods. They asked for
commandments even if they rejected those given on Mount Sinai.
The totalitarian states arose from the crisis. They pretend to offer
solutions for the crisis. Because we abhor a social order of slaves and
their masters, we have to ask ourselves if this solution is the
only possible one. Therefore our task in education is clear.
If all pain and labor, if all the immense expenditure of human
thought and energy, is directed only toward self-preservation, then
the right and only important thing for young people to do is to
grasp as quickly as possible that knowledge and that skill which
are necessary for jobs and for making money. But if this is not
true, education must do far more.
First, the eternal questions-- to use a solemn word--must become
vital questions again; the central problems must become visible
again, not as special problems for specialists, but as problems con-
cerning all of us and ultimately giving to all our knowledge and
skill their real meaning and importance.
Second, if "freedom” has not only a negative meaning--if it means
not only to be free from something and to do whatever we want to
do--then the individual must again experience himself as a part of
a whole, as a part of a lasting, embracing order that he himself
helps to form.
Third, if individuality is expressed by the proper relation of the
individual to the central problems and by the way the individual
lives as a part of the whole, then it becomes each individual's task
to develop his individuality, to give to his own life a sensible, con-
sistent meaning and shape.
These are the tasks. How are they to be accomplished? It is simple
to formulate a program; everything depends upon how it is carried
Knowledge and skill certainly are indispensable; for self-
preservation, although it is not everything, will always be an essen-
tial goal. Furthermore, we can only strive from the periphery to
the center; we can only construct a whole from its parts. But the
subject matter, important as it is, should not be the ultimate goal
of our learning. To absorb knowledge, to prepare for examinations,
or for jobs, should not be the only meaning of our studies. We
should not acquire ready-made knowledge, but we should learn to
ask questions. A student who leaves a college should not regard
himself as finished, but he should have become a questioning per-
son; he should never stop questioning, never stop striving from
narrowness to breadth. A student enters college limited, like every
young man, by a narrow horizon of prejudice; his standards are
ephemeral. To open the narrow horizon, to give him standards of
real greatness, to make him familiar with the complexity of prob-
lems--that is the main point.
To belong as a part to a whole is also easier said than done. "The
whole" is a name easily misused and easily misunderstood. Does not
a soldier also belong to a whole? Surely, but in quite another way.
In a campaign the plan of the the whole is necessarily secret. Only the
general and a few others know it. The soldiers serves the whole, but
he neither knows nor understands it, nor can he influence the for-
mation of the plan. Unconditional obedience and courage are asked
of him. Here the relation of the individual to the whole is an ab-
stract one, a passive one, a relation that excludes responsibility. It
is not such an integration that we have in mind; it is an antithetical
one. By a "whole" we mean a community which the individual
helps to build, a community in which the weal and woe of the
whole depend on the actions of the individuals, one in which the
consequences of the individual's actions fall back on him, one in
which his actions are not hidden by clouds of anonymity. In the
future only a state which is constituted as an organic whole can be
The democracies of the western hemisphere and of Europe pre-
served for a long time the principles belonging to their origin in
the English and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eigh-
teenth centuries: the protection of the independence of the indi-
vidual against the power of the state, and the protection of the
rights of the middle-class against those of the classes privileged in
the old regime. But this epoch has definitely passed.
Respect for the dignity of the human personality was the moral
basis for democracy. This conviction gave it strength in its fight
against feudalism. It armed the citizens and disarmed the members
of the upper classes before they even started their defense. Is this
conviction still alive? What has modern psychology to say about
human dignity and freedom? You may open a textbook of psy-
chology and find that the first chapter deals with the question.
"What is many?" You may be surprised or you may not be surprised
by the answer given there. The answer is: "Man is a mass of proto-
plasm." Therefore, human life and the human world have to be
explained in the last instance as reactions of protoplasm. This inter-
pretation leaves no room for freedom or dignity, because the re-
actions of protoplasm demand only mechanical, impersonal schemes,
and they can best be controlled by political organizations which do
not waste their time with such trifles as dignity. It is not too difficult
to prove the mistakes and basic errors of the philosophy represented
by this kind of modern psychology. The frightening fact is that in
spite of its obvious weakness and queerness, this psychology is ac-
cepted almost everywhere throughout the country and is taught
with minor variations at almost all universities. There is no doubt
that the ground out of which democracy has grown has completely
changed--but democracy can exist only in a special kind of ground.
The fate of democracy will not be decided on the battlefields alone.
It is also threatened from within, not only by its open or secret
enemies, but still more so by those who praise it, unaware that they
themselves have already cut it from its roots. The fate of democracy
will ultimately be decided by the conviction and philosophy of the
citizens of the democratic countries.
We cannot turn backward; history will not repeat itself. A new
ground will be prepared. Democratic freedom will survive only if
there is a complete change in the attitude of the individual towards
the state and the whole: a change from claims to duties. Solidarity
and respect for the rights of others cannot be based on emotions
and instincts, but can only be understood as the obligation of one
part of the whole to another part. Because this relation is not a
natural instinct it has to be developed, taught and learned. The
enormous dimensions of modern states have made it difficult for
many people to understand their own true function and their own
parts of such an abstract whole. This relationship can best
be learned within a community of small dimensions where the
single person can understand the needs of the whole, where he may
help to satisfy these needs, and where he remains visible in all his
But we must be careful not to interpret "community" sentimentally;
that is, not as a group of people whose aim is merely to make life
comfortable and pleasant for each other, appeasing the inevitable
tensions. A true community, like an organism, is based upon the
variety of its members and upon the difference of their functions.
An organism unifies and binds its separate parts into a whole with-
out destroying the difference between the parts. In a whole the indi-
vidual becomes unexchangeable and irreplaceable. Only within a
community, therefore, can one exist as an individuality.
A community may be considered in three ways. First, it is never a
completed structure. The life of the whole depends upon the life of
its parts; it must constantly be formed anew. Thus, a community is
a task. Second, as a whole, it subordinates all its parts in one gen-
eral order. Out of a community, therefore, laws and obligations
arise. And finally, a community is a place where, in spiritual con-
frontation with others, it is possible for a person to realize himself.
Education can help us acquire new knowledge and understanding
only if previously a purgation from old errors and mistakes has
taken place. It must, therefore, be one of our main tasks to erase
the erroneous idea that individuality is equivalent to eccentric pe-
culiarity. Those problems which vexed the great men, thinkers and
artists, statesmen and saints, must become our own concern, what-
ever our natural talents may be. We need to cultivate them, not in
a snobbish manner separated from our daily life, but at its center.
It is certainly not legitimate to expect education to breed geniuses;
but it certainly is its function to establish or perhaps to re-establish
the right relation between every-day life and the eternal problems.
That is, the great problems should penetrate and mold daily life;
yet preoccupation with them should not prevent and excuse us from
proving true in the small affairs of every day.
April, 1941 ERWIN STRAUS
This Bulletin is taken from an address given on May 5, 1940, during
the College's First Annual Visitors' Week.