If we were to have a mascot for this Scientific Aesthetic blog where the Arts and Science converge, it would undoubtedly be the visage of the medically trained essayist, poet philosopher and Harvard professor — and brother of Henry and Alice and son of Henry, Sr. — William James.
William James believed in education. His fertile mind was polymathic. He knew a lot about everything while professing in public he didn’t know much about anything and always needed to know more.
In his stunning essay on the formal training of the mind and the crafting of the body — “Social Value of the College-Bred,” delivered to the Radcliffe College alumni association on November 7, 1907 — William James tests our readiness as human beings by asking us if we are trained enough to “know a good man when you see him” and we ideally get to that identification, he argues, by going to college and widening our mind and opening our spirit to notions and arguments we never before considered:
The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent — this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal values. It is the better part of what men know as wisdom. Some of us are wise in this way naturally and by genius; some of us never become so. But to have spent one’s youth at college, in contact with the choice and rare and precious, and yet still to be a blind prig or vulgarian, unable to scent out human excellence or to divine it amid its accidents, to know it only when ticketed and labeled and forced on us by others, this indeed should be accounted the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.
The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs about us. Expertness in this might well atone for some of our ignorance of dynamos. The best claim we can make for the higher education, the best single phrase in which we can tell what it ought to do for us, is then, exactly what I said: it should enable us to know a good man when we see him.
Then William James digs even deeper into the crevasse between technical craft learning the university institution by calling up the idea of “tone.”
It is tone — not personality or example — that sets an agenda, conforms a country, constructs a culture, and leads people to follow an idea.
Real culture lives by sympathies and admirations, not by dislikes and disdain — under all misleading wrappings it pounces unerringly upon the human core. If a college, through the inferior human influences that have grown regnant there, fails to catch the robuster tone, its failure is colossal, for its social function stops: democracy gives it a wide berth, turns toward it a deaf ear.
“Tone,” to be sure, is a terribly vague word to use, but there is no other, and this whole meditation is over questions of tone. By their tone are all things human either lost or saved. If democracy is to be saved it must catch the higher, healthier tone. If we are to impress it with our preferences, we ourselves must use the proper tone, which we, in turn, must have caught from our own teachers. It all reverts in the end to the action of innumerable imitative individuals upon each other and to the question of whose tone has the highest spreading power. As a class, we college graduates should look to it that ours has spreading power. It ought to have the highest spreading power.
We may know a good man by the tone of his demeanor and the temperament of his judgment — but how many of us actively change our behavior and construct new relationships with that recognition?
I leave you with William James’ final thoughts on “knowing a good man” along with his clearly expressed distress in realizing how hard that recognition was to accomplish in 1907 when the university system was raw and febrile — and why, I believe, over a hundred years later, we now feel so chewed up and cheapened and cold in the dimming light from the ivory tower as its Grecian columns enfold us back into nothingness.
Vague as the phrase of knowing a good man when you see him may be, diffuse and indefinite as one must leave its application, is there any other formula that describes so well the result at which our institutions ought to aim? If they do that, they do the best thing conceivable. If they fail to do it, they fail in very deed. It surely is a fine synthetic formula. If our faculty and graduates could once collectively come to realize it as the great underlying purpose toward which they have always been more or less obscurely groping, a great clearness would be shed over many of their problems; and, as for their influence in the midst of our social system, it would embark upon a new career of strength.