Black Mountain College Bulletin
Series 1, Number 7

Erwin Straus, Education in a Time of Crisis, April 1941





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


innumerable specimens.


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


Page 4


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

truly democratic.




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

role as

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.