Our View: Students Need More Education On College Costs And Handling Them

One of the most heavily emphasized themes in current discussions of education in the United States is the search for potential excellence. In the past we have tended to equate academic promise with high intelligence, and to infer that the most serious wastage of young people in school resulted from the school’s failure to recognize and reward high academic aptitude in lower-status youngsters. The search for excellence, on these terms, became an extension of the traditional American quest for equality of opportunity, which served as its moral justification. But this defines the issue far too narrowly. Of perhaps more fundamental importance is the effect of the school on kinds of giftedness that may be useless or even disadvantageous in earning good grades and high recommendations in a typical high school milieu. High IQ and diligence do not exhaust the possibilities of superior capacity. Originality and insight, disciplined but impassioned sensitivity, and a highly personal and unique quality of mind contribute as indispensably to human achievement.

In the school, as in much of our society, creative youngsters seem usually to arouse a specific animus. Teachers dislike them, and the students learn quite early that the spontaneity and subjectivity they prize in themselves cannot be expected to lead to success in school or in later life.

What is the source of the animus, and why is the creative student so likely to encounter it? Particularly useful in answering these questions is a concept which, though explicitly introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche, has only recently had much impact on American social thought. This is the concept of Ressentiment.1 The word sounds like a French translation of “resentment,” and this does approximate the meaning. But only imprecisely. Ressentiment is less completely conscious than resentment, and less focused on the particular real experiences that are its actual causes. In contrast, it is usually rationalized, covert, diffuse, and largely unconscious. Just as one may legitimately refer to “free-floating anxiety” as a decisive element in certain kinds of personality, ressentiment is a kind of free-floating ill-temper. It is the syndrome produced by intense hostility intensely repressed over long periods of time. As such, it is familiar enough. Why then is it worth discussing as a social, rather than a psychological, disorder? Because of the peculiar and devastating ways in which ressentiment has become institutionalized in 20th-century mass culture.

The conditions of contemporary life have reified ressentiment into a massive social and political reality. The operation of democratic political institutions—and especially their underlying egalitarian value assumptions—has greatly increased the political influence of the most ressentient social groups while weakening the will of more affirmative individuals to resist them.



Public education is one of the social institutions most strongly affected by ressentiment. The public schools attract, as teachers, administrators, and counselors, individuals from groups in the population that are particularly subject to it, and for reasons which are likely to influence the selection of the more ressentient from among such groups. The school is the traditional avenue—and arena—for social mobility, which many of its clientele appear to conceive as its sole raison d’être; one goes to school in order to get ahead, or one drops out; few youngsters are held in school by any real commitment to the cultural values represented by education, and few public schools in fact represent those values adequately. But those who are most anxious about social mobility are also most likely to be ressentient.

Those social groups are most prone to ressentiment whose members are especially subjected to frustration in their position in life, but who feel so impotent that they do not dare to get consciously angry and rebel and hit back, or strike out for themselves against the actual source of their frustration. Generally, they dare not even recognize it. Instead they identify with and accommodate to the very individuals or social forces undermining their position, and whose strength they tend to admire and exaggerate. By thus exercising their impotence, they increase it; what a less threatened individual would have felt as rage becomes resentment, then a kind of small-shopkeeper’s fearful and self-pitying distrust, and finally, perhaps, merely an unconscious predisposition to sanctimonious spitefulness.

Ressentiment therefore ravages most seriously the rootless lower-middle or white-collar classes who give up most in order to be respectable and get least real deference and security in return. The threat to them is much more serious now that Western life permits its lower-level personnel to develop so few real skills. Yet, they cannot attack the system that has made their lives meaningless, for they are in collusion with it and want to rise within it.

It is not merely the economic threat that leads to ressentiment, for ressentiment is not simply anxiety. The ressentient. rather, are those who have given up important human potentialities in making deals with the system, and are now faced with mounting evidence that this is not going to pay off. Thus the German inflation of the 20’s, wiping out the savings of millions of petty bourgeois who for a lifetime had slaved to confuse thrift and order with decency, helped pave the way to Nazism, which epitomized ressentiment in its Eichmannesque combination of sadism and alienation. The essence of the Nazi position, after all, is that its motives were worthy of the highest traditions of the civil service; one likes to think that the executioners of Joan of Arc, by comparison, at least felt that there was something cheerful about a nice fire. Even hatred is too strong an emotion for the highly authoritarian, who can handle feeling only by bureaucratizing it, so that it emerges as prejudice against classes of individuals rather than open hostility. Good authoritarians never get personal.

But the rigidity, hostility, and alienation that reveal the authoritarian personality in face-to-face relationships are not peculiar to adherents of the political far right. In the presence of the doctrinaire young liberal, the professional Negro or Zionist, the militant opponent of atomic warfare, one often senses the existence of the same animus however strongly one may agree with their views. It does not seem to matter very much—it does matter somewhat—whether humanitarian issues are themselves a central part of the ideology. The aggressively poor young college instructor, flaunting his radical views, minority status, and undisciplined children as explanations of his lack of recognition and status, is no fascist. But he does seem to run on the same fuel. Such a person, feeling helpless to begin with, becomes frightened lest his resentment provoke further punishment, and rationalizes it as a more positive emotion: Christian love, the desire to protect the weak, or to secure social justice. All these are perfectly real emotions that may and do arise as spontaneous responses to real human experiences. It is perfectly possible to wish, through love or compassion, to help a suffering fellow being, whether the cause of his misery be poverty, disease, sheer misfortune, or any combination of evils. It is likewise possible to be moved by his plight to genuine and fierce anger at the persons or circumstances that have brought it about, and to commit oneself wholeheartedly to fight the good fight on his behalf. But this is a very different attitude, and expresses a very different character, from that represented by ressentiment—which prizes the victim because he is a victim, and loves the suffering while covertly exploiting the sufferer.

No one has expressed this difference more clearly, or evaluated it more precisely, than Thoreau in the following passage from Walden:

I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. . . I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavour our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion. From what southern plains comes up the voice of wailing? Under what latitudes reside the heathen to whom we would send light? Who is that intemperate and brutal man whom we would redeem? . . .

I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, his private ail. Let this be righted, let the spring come to him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous companions without apology. . . . There is nowhere recorded a simple and irrepressible satisfaction with the gift of life, any memorable praise of God. . . . All health and success does me good, however far off and withdrawn it may appear; all disease and failure helps to make me sad and does me evil, however much sympathy it may have with me or I with it. . . . Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavour to become one of the worthies of the world.



In the contemporary American high school, ressentiment is much more effectively institutionalized in its “philanthropic” than in its authoritarian form. Individual teachers and administrators representing either tendency are common, but one way of expressing a major change in the climate of American education over the past half-century is by saying that authoritarianism has been placed in a thoroughly defensive position, while the “philanthropic” attitude has become dominant.2

Teachers and administrative officials of schools come primarily from lower-middle class backgrounds. Many come from families of somewhat higher status, but the folkways of the schools are lower-middle class folkways: the official language, the customs and regulations governing dress—even the food in the school cafeteria. All these tend to be shabby-genteel. They are not forthright expressions of the actual limitations of the schools’ financial, intellectual, and social resources, such as peasant life and art express, but cheap reproductions of corporate or academic life, as imperfectly conceived. Schoolteachers by and large have likewise notably resisted, even more than most white-collar workers, identifying with the working class in their own financial interests, as by unionization. One may, of course, dislike joining a union and refuse to do so on a variety of grounds from social ideology to personal taste. But the actual circumstances of the public school teacher’s background and vocational life make union membership a promising device for achieving his legitimate economic aspirations. The difficulty seems to be that teachers’ economic aspirations are regularly subordinated by their middle-class identifications. Unionization is inconsistent with their insistence that they practice a profession. Fully established professions, like medicine and law, have of course evolved militant organizations to advance and safeguard their economic interests, though these are not called unions. But teachers have not so far created any organization suited to the purpose of direct economic action on their behalf.3 The life-style of the public high school teacher remains, characteristically, that of the dutiful subordinate awaiting preferment in a niggardly bureaucratic structure.

Such a life is the very breeding ground of ressentiment. The teacher is linked to his principal, his superintendent, and his peers by a pretense of professional equality that prevents him from either demanding the perquisites of status or the liberty to scoff at it. Within a bureaucratic structure in which one depends not merely for advancement but for personal gratification as well on the endorsement of one’s peers and subordinates, open conflict generates intolerable anxiety. Frustration and anger degenerate into malicious gossip, and are absorbed into the general ambience of wariness and cynicism. Ultimately, the consequence is alienation; in such people there is no longer direct connection between their actual experiences, their feelings, and their actions.



Nothing about this is peculiar to the career of teachers in contemporary America; this is rather the familiar catalogue of complaint about life in the organized system. Ressentiment probably is less prominent among teachers than among many social groups like waiters or cab drivers, whose work keeps them in constant contact with people visibly enjoying a higher standard of life than they can achieve in a culture that makes it impossible to take pride in performing personal service well—or like social workers, whose “philanthropic” enterprise puts them in a position of unparalleled opportunity to intervene in the lives of other people whose poverty and tendency to act out conflicts make them both particularly tempting and particularly vulnerable to the ressentient. And there are many other social groups in which ressentiment has become institutionalized under somewhat different conditions: yellow journalism and the pornography of violence, for example. But there are further reasons that are peculiar to the education establishment why the public high school should be the locus of strong ressentiment.

The official function of the schoolteacher is still defined in academic and intellectual terms, however irrelevant the definition may be to the daily work a teacher in a slum school actually does. And in academic and intellectual terms, the public secondary school teacher is inferior. This, moreover, is a fact he must consciously face. The elementary school teacher can avoid facing it—if indeed it is a relevant judgment to apply to her—because she is not graded in her professional training in direct competition with people who are going into other work. In other words, she is likely to be—in many states she virtually has to be—an “ed major.” High school teachers are not; they are math majors or English majors or history majors and, generally speaking, they are the ones who made poorer grades than those who head into industry, the professions, or higher education on the basis of their specialized study. In graduate school such direct comparisons are again inapplicable, but the norms for graduate students in education on standardized intelligence tests (like the Miller Analogies) are substantially lower than those for graduate students in other academic disciplines.

Students are forced into secondary school teaching because they are not able to make the grade in a specialized or scholarly discipline. Finding themselves comparatively impotent academically, they are unwilling to relinquish respectable intellectual pretensions altogether, and settle for something that, in their own view, is decidedly second-rate. It is perfectly possible, of course, to define the function of a high school teacher as an honorable and extremely significant specialty in its own right; and it is also perfectly possible that, if it were so defined, it would have a rather low correlation with conventional academic and intellectual achievement. If high school teaching were so defined, the people who go into it would not have a sense of partial failure, and there would be no reason for their academic situation to lead to ressentiment. Certainly, neither the early-childhood nor the primary grade school teacher seems so prone to it. The public image of such a teacher as a constricted and punitive spinster has disappeared—though, as usual, more slowly than the reality—to be replaced by the image of the young woman who thinks of herself as, and very often really is, a professional emissary to the private world of childhood. She may not be especially scholarly or analytical-minded, but she knows her job and does it well. The children know that she does; and there is a good deal of mutual respect and affection.



In the later grades and in junior high and high schools the situation is much worse.4 Subject matter has begun to matter, and so has the fact that the teacher is often incompetent to handle it. There is more to this incompetence than relative ignorance or stupidity. There is also the fact that the school has begun to deal with controversial content and controversial purposes. High school civics, social studies, and biology courses are no place for people who do not know their history, economics, or biology. But they are also not the place for timid or insecure people, for people who are especially anxious to make a good impression on the community or to keep cut of trouble. These are, of course, exactly the kinds of people that a principal or superintendent who is timid or insecure himself will try to keep there.

Again, in this context, the feeble persistence of identification with academic norms contributes to the high school teacher’s ressentiment. The identification is not strong enough to make him a hero.5 But it is strong enough to make him ashamed of himself, and to add to his feeling of impotence. His impotence is real enough; he generally just does not know enough to defend an unpopular position on scholarly grounds even it he had the courage. But until he abandons the professional stance, or ceases to link it to academic competence, he cannot accept himself as a part of the local propaganda apparatus either. The statement “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” is quite false; knowledge can be a dreadful burden. But like pregnancy, knowledge to a teacher is a form of commitment no longer subject to voluntary abridgment without a sense of catastrophic guilt, and to have only a little is no help at all.

I have stated that the most serious consequence of ressentiment is alienation. The ressentient individual loses the connection between his feelings and the situation in which he is actually living. His emotions, and even his perceptions of reality, are channelled in the directions that cause least anxiety rather than toward the experiences that actually arouse them, either in the past or in the immediate present. All neurosis, of course, has this effect, but ressentiment is especially effective because it is the emotion itself—anger, rage, impotence, and fear of retribution—that is the source of anxiety and that must be repressed. So ressentient individuals are especially clumsy and insensitive, in contrast to those with other sorts of neurotic difficulty, in using their feelings to help them understand the meaning of their lives and to discipline their moral conduct. This is why they become sentimental; they prefer fake experiences that decorate the actual situation to symbolic evocations of its actuality. This kind of sentimentality has become a negative status symbol, evoking the atmosphere of lower-middle class life as surely as a whiff of H2S brings back freshman chemistry: the plastic flowers in the apartment house lobby, which insist that this is a place in the sun; the conventional cuteness of the mass-produced, mock-hostile office signs and mock-boastful chef’s aprons. The worst thing that could happen, obviously, is that a genius really should be at work.

What happens when one is—even an embryonic one? The essential quality of the creative student, as he is beginning to be defined in the literature, is that his thought is divergent. He doesn’t arrive at right answers by deducing them from established premises, but by an intuitive understanding of how the problem he is dealing with really works, of what actually goes into it, and the right answers he arrives at may not be right in the textbook; they will not be, if the textbook has been carefully edited to make it as widely acceptable as possible. He works hard when the problem requires it, and respects facts as a part of reality. But for the creative student, facts are not right answers but tools and components for building original solutions.



How will the high school teacher react to this? If he is a high school teacher because the job gives him joy, and is competent intellectually, with astonished delight. But to the degree that he is ressentient, with defensive hostility. Consider the poor mathematician, who manages to salvage enough math to become a high school teacher, or the ninth-grade teacher who hates mathematics and never meant to have any traffic with it at all. Such teachers manage by knowing a set of answers, and a conventional procedure for arriving at them. They maintain their self-esteem by convincing themselves that this is really enough; and the student who really understands mathematics puts them in a dilemma. On the one hand, he may show them up as incompetent. On the other, they don’t know but that he may be cheating somehow, and laughing at them for being taken in. They dare not commit themselves either way. If they are authoritarian, they bully him into solving the problems “the way I show you as long as you are in my class.” If they are “philanthropic,” they respond with studied tolerance and amusement to Johnny’s “attention-getting behavior.” But in either case they try to make sure that he doesn’t embarrass them again by actually getting up and doing mathematics in front of the whole class.

In the humanities the creative student is both more threatening and more vulnerable. He is more vulnerable because there aren’t any right answers to support him. He is more threatening because the humanities, if truthfully handled, are themselves threatening to the ressentient. It is the job of the humanities to get to the root of human experience, which at best means hewing austere beauty out of some very ugly blocks in such a way that their real character is revealed. This is just what the alienated cannot tolerate. What happens to the adolescent boy or girl who writes a theme about an experience that had deep meaning for him—at this age it will probably be in part a sexual experience—as it really was? For that matter, how does the well-indoctrinated professional educator, suffused with the benign values underlying his course in child development and his belief in the wholesomeness of family living, handle either Medea or Salome?

The position of the social science teacher is more ambiguous. Ressentiment is not always such a handicap in the social sciences, which provide a superb eminence from which to look down on one’s neighbors while discharging one’s scholarly obligations. The convention of objectivity keeps the ressentient social scientist from having to face the full responsibility for his hostility and destructiveness; after all, he is just doing his job. The creative student in social studies may therefore get an additional chance. Besides the possibility common to all fields of encountering a superior, ressentiment-free instructor, there is the possibility in social studies of finding an instructor who does not clobber the creative even though he is ressentient, but identifies with their undisciplined or rebellious disjunctivity and accepts and encourages it as an expression of his own ressentiment—taking refuge in academic freedom and his obligation to the truth if detected.

But such teachers are inevitably rare; they are selected out in the process of teacher-training, which requires the candidate to suffer a great deal of nonsense without protest; and administrators get rid of them if they find them out in time as likely to get the school in trouble with intransigent groups in the community. The creative student is far less likely to encounter a social critic on the high school staff than he is teachers with whom he will quickly establish a mutual loathing and who are continually reminded by his freshness of perception that they have consented to devote their lives to teaching what they know to be false or irrelevant; to denying in class that the fundamental experiences of his life can even have occurred. Hundreds of high school teachers can, and do, spend several hours a day trying to teach slum children in civics courses the official syllabus on the American Way of Life. If the children are creative, the questions they raise are difficult to answer, especially after they have given up trying to ask them verbally, and express them directly through their attitudes and behavior in class. One gets used to it, in time, and learns to maintain order. But the job of an assistant warden in a custodial institution is a long step down from earlier expectations.



Overlying the special influence of ressentiment on instruction in the separate fields of knowledge and reinforcing its effects is the “philanthropic” ideology of the school. Students, by definition, are subordinate in status to their schoolmasters; they are in a partially dependent position, and the function of the school is to nurture them. It is appropriate that the school devote itself to their needs and attend to and utilize their interests. Its primary purpose is to serve them.

But an institution designed to nurture the relatively weak and dependent presumably does so because it cherishes their potential strength and autonomy. There would be good reason for it to value most highly those youngsters who show most intellectual vigor and originality in the disciplined handling of ideas; as, in some cultures, a father will love his strongest and most virile sons most even though he fears them a little. The ressentient, identifying with impotence and resentful of strength, respond very differently. The school, strongly influenced by ressentiment, is rather inclined to cherish the weakness of the weak.

Thus one notion that even very poor students of educational sociology grasp eagerly is that schools are generally biased against lower-class students. They certainly are, and this is an important truth. But when the proposition is explored, what it seems to mean in the professional curriculum of education is that middle-class students “have advantages” which they ought to be forced to share more generously. The remedy is to insure that the lower-status students get their share of good grades, scholarships, opportunity for social leadership, and so on.

But these are still conceived almost wholly in middle-class terms. There is no corresponding respect for the lower-status child’s own experience of life, his language, and the forms of social organization he spontaneously adopts. It is true enough that the school faces a difficult dilemma; lower-class behavior creates real difficulties in running a formal social organization like a school, quite apart from any question of bias; yet the bias is real and harmful. But professional education both in its curriculum and in its practice tends to respond to the bias as if the chief objection to it was that it gave the privileged too many privileges, rather than with a real, imaginative concern for the quality of life of lower-status youngsters.

This is a major reason why the bias is hard to eliminate. Its most important consequences do not occur in the schools, but in the long run. Giving the children of Southern Negro migrants more high grades even if they don’t read or do arithmetic very well is not really going to help them much in getting into medical school. What is needed is something like the original conception of progressive education, which combined an extremely flexible conception of both educational content and instructional technique with a rather rigid adherence to standards of achievement. This is genuine acceptance of the meaning of underprivileged life, and real help in mobilizing the youngster’s real strengths to either pull himself out of it or learn to live it more richly, at his own choice. Pushed to extremes, this might mean letting the younger brother of the leader of a “retreatist” gang use the backyard marijuana plot as his project in arithmetic and biology, thus utilizing his need for status in the peer group. But what is far more important, it also means giving him an “A” if—and only if—he solves his problems of cultivation, processing, and marketing in such a way as to show high competence in arithmetic and biology—and an “F” if he lets his marijuana go to pot.



So tough-minded A philosophy has, in fact, rather less chance than marijuana itself of taking root in the emotional climate of the American public school. “Philanthropically” inverted, the “emergent” attenuation of progressive education abandons the controversial undertaking of dealing realistically with the experiences of lower-class life. Then, to make up for not taking these children seriously, the school tries to equalize their position by expecting less of them. Simultaneously, it prevents them from learning what they are missing by inflating its credentials and subtly derogating the quest for distinction.

Higher-status children also are discriminated against in the public school, if they attempt to live in school as they do at home and in their social life. They do not share the lower-status youngster’s difficulty in earning high grades and scholarships; and they are usually adept enough socially to dominate the extra-curriculum despite the attempts of the school to democratize it, especially if such attempts are enfeebled by the school administration’s fear of parents’ possible political influence. So the discrimination higher-status youngsters encounter is not comparable in kind to that experienced by the lower-status pupils. But as indications of ressentiment, the forms its takes are significant, and are especially likely to stultify creativity. Any mode of expression that is highly individualized, extravagant, or overtly sensual is forbidden or discouraged. It is assumed that it is better for the school dance to be one that everyone can afford than one with an especially good band and refreshments; that boys and girls whom nature has provided, for the time being, with especially splendid bodies ought not to be allowed to dress in such a way as to derive any special advantage from them; that the illumination of the school grounds, if there are any, be such as to discourage courtship rather than to suggest the exquisite delights to which nature may be encouraged.

Adolescence is a time when highly individualized, extravagant, and overtly sensual modes of behavior do crop out, despite the position the school takes toward them. But by its disparagement, the school abandons its opportunity to help youngsters create a style suited to their romantic age. The essential first step in encouraging creativity in secondary school youngsters is surely to link their new sexual energy and their occasionally flamboyant quest for identity to meaningful larger aspects of present and past culture, which is what taste means and disciplined self-expression requires. If the baroque manifestations of adolescence instead elicit an attitude of sulky oppression, the adolescents are thrown back onto resources they have not yet developed. The twist may then be as far as they can get by themselves in the face of official disapproval. Moreover, the ideology of the school grudgingly supports the numerous ressentient, lower-middle class youth against the more creative within the youth-culture itself. The school thereby tips the balance in favor of the “teen-age” solution to the problem of adolescence, quietly maintaining support for the unassuming, undiscriminating boy or girl who sees things the way other sensible people do and with other “teen-agers” builds a conventional social group, accepting conventional discipline for occasional stereotyped “teen-age” misbehavior within it. The youngster who is most handicapped by this situation is not the delinquent or the rebel, for both of these are conventional adolescent roles in their own way which society endorses by punishment. It is the innovator who sees things freshly and differently. One does not punish this youngster formally; for to do this would be to admit that he was there and that what he had said was intelligible. Instead, one isolates him by denying him the customary sources of status—that is, recognition for his work and point of view. Then one helps him—helps him to become assimilated within the “teen-age” group. In a little while, it is as if he had never been.



The “Philanthropic” refusal to allow excellence to get above itself is not limited to areas, like the fine arts, toward which lower-middle class American culture is generally hostile or suspicious. Within the school even those forms of distinction that are commonly supported within this culture are treated ambiguously. I suspect ressentiment is one factor in the continued, and now apparently rising, complaint about overemphasis on athletics in the school. There is a substantial basis for the complaint in many schools, for athletics is sometimes the only activity that is taken seriously at all. But conversely, athletics is sometimes the only activity that is at all serious, and in which any distinction of style or achievement is permitted or recognized. The clue to whether ressentiment is at the root of the complaint lies in the terms in which it is couched. Complaints that the emphasis on and preoccupation with athletics interferes with specific aspects of the academic program are serious and legitimate. What are highly suspect, however, are complaints that the emphasis on athletics allows the athletes to become an elite group and gain favor and eminence unavailable to their less glamorous colleagues. Before considering such protests, one would like to be certain that the history teacher encourages a brilliant and resourceful analysis of American foreign policy with as much joy—and technical assistance—as the basketball coach does brilliant and resourceful play-making and backcourt work (for these are not inherently glamorous). It is possible that students respect an elite of athletes because good athletes are encouraged to be proud of themselves for being as good as they can, and that these are the only people left on campus with anything in particular to be proud of.

Among the most important educational consequences of ressentiment, then, are failure to recognize the gifted, or to nurture their gifts when discovered; differential drop-out rates among students from different social classes; and fundamental difficulties in curriculum construction that vitiate earnest and costly efforts to adapt the curriculum to the needs of divergent individuals or social groups. Ressentiment also influences the total experience of education in ways that are so general that they can hardly even be recognized as problems: the flavor of education itself; whether students will come to think of it as opening their understanding to a wider and deeper range of experiences or as constricting and limiting their range of possible emotional and intellectual response; whether, in the long run, the school tends more to liberate than to alienate. The total social function of education is intimately involved with ressentiment; for the secondary school has both a cautionary and a mithridatic function. It is here that one learns to avoid the expression of noble or heroic aspirations in noble or heroic terms, so as not to destroy at the outset the chance that they may be realized. Conversely, it is here that one learns to tolerate without surrender the demands of guilt and humility; to retain, in some measure, the power to continue to enjoy privileges and personal achievements without being disconcerted by the envy they arouse. Now that the differences are neither clearly indicated nor morally defended, many Americans devote their lives to an effort to steal into the first-class compartment without awakening the tourist passengers; and the school is where one first learns how numerous and viligant they are. The school is where you learn to be an American; and an important part of Americanism is to learn the prevailing norms and limits of achievement and self-assertion and how to maintain them against the encroachments of a mass society that the moral support of a strong egalitarian tradition has made extremely aggressive.



1 Max Scheler’s Ressentiment (Lewis A. Coser, Ed., Free Press, 1961) is the authoritative statement and exegesis of the meaning of ressentiment.

2 The shift from “traditional” to “emergent” values in the schools discussed by George P. Spindler in his classic paper, “Education in a Transforming American Culture” (Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1955) might be expressed with equal validity as a shift from the dominance of authoritarian to “philanthropic” modes of ressentiment.

3 See Myron Lieberman, Education as a Profession (Prentice-Hall, 1956) especially chapters 9 and 10. A teachers’ union, of course, is again very much in controversy.

4 See Martin Mayer, The Schools (Harper, 1961) for an excellent treatment of observations dealing with this point.

5 Not, to be sure, that college and university people, in the social sciences at least, behaved particularly heroically under pressure. See Paul Lazarsfeld and W. Thielens, The Academic Mind (Free Press, 1958) for a canny account of the extent of accommodation, from widespread self-censorship to occasional outright betrayal of colleagues, that occurred during McCarthy’s dreadful reign.

Source : https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-gifted-student-and-his-enemies/

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The Gifted Student and His Enemies
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