Education for a Free Society? Ancient Knowledge, Universities, and the Neoliberal Disorder

Often remembered as a critique of Keynesian economics, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) contained two other important assertions about the future of liberalism. Buried in the thirteenth chapter—”The Totalitarians in Our Midst”—of Hayek’s bestseller was a discussion of the fundamental relationship between knowledge and liberalism. Hayek posited there that the humanities represented the road to freedom, whereas science represented the road to totalitarianism: “serfdom.” In particular, he singled out the idea, common among socialists at the time, that science could serve as a basis for new moral laws and social betterment. He called this idea “German” and labeled it anti-liberal. Only insights from the humanities, he claimed, could provide an ethical culture for the liberalism of the future. Hayek depicted a progressive science as authoritarian and the traditional humanities as freeing.

Freedom, he implied, came solely through the humanities and the classics, and freedom transcended everyday experience. The sciences were incapable of giving “man” a free society because they dealt with the mundane and natural. The humanities, by contrast, gave universal and transcendent insights into the inner nature of man. “Freedom and the humanities” was a common refrain of the British classical liberal tradition on which Hayek drew in Road to Serfdom. That tradition included almost every Anglo thinker that the intellectual historian James T. Kloppenberg cites in Toward Democracy.1 Ever since the British clerical class had emigrated to the United States, these clerics and college presidents had promoted a dream of democracy and liberalism as a transcendent, moral, and “national ethic.”2

Series: Exploring Knowledge in Political History
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Discussion starters for the conference "Political Culture and the History of Knowledge: Actors, Institutions, Practices," June 6–8, 2019, GHI Washington. #poliknow #histknow @histknowledge

Hayek, despite being an economist himself, was directly attacking science, expert knowledge, and rational forecasting as too empirical, too “real,” too mundane. Oddly (since we now associate neoliberalism so directly with a departure from the humanities), Hayek asserted that Western intellectual life was moving dangerously away from the “humanities” to “realities,” ignoring individual “liberty” in the process.3 So what did Hayek mean by the “humanities” and “liberty”? On the surface, it seemed as though he was simply referring to critical thinking fostered by literary analysis. Yet, there was something more—something Christian, Platonic, and transcendent—that I think Hayek was alluding to in these penultimate chapters of Road to Serfdom.

Hayek’s other assertion followed from the first and is even more perplexing. In a previous chapter, “The End of Truth,” he asserted that “truth itself ceases to have its old meaning” in the West. It no longer represented a search, a discovery, for knowledge, but rather was “something to be laid down by authority.”4 But what did he mean by “discovery” of “truth”? He did not seem to be referring to empirical knowledge, which, as we have seen, he criticized. How do we reconcile Hayek’s view of the search for “truth” with the prevailing depiction of neoliberalism as the narrowing of truth to reach market-oriented goals?

These assertions allowed Hayek and other like-minded early neoliberals to establish unique correlations. He and his collaborators Walter Lippmann and Milton Friedman of the Mont Pelerin Society (and some three decades later Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) pitted the humanities, the market, and classical liberalism (understood as on the side of permanent and freedom-loving truth) against science, socialism, and fascism.5 Such stark lines were common in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet Hayek’s unique characterization of them, including their implications for both the history of knowledge and the rise of the neoliberal order, requires a broad and deep investigation. His formulation takes us into the history of knowledge and learning, not the history of economics.

Education, universities, and pedagogy were lightning-rod issues in the 1930s and 1940s. One controversial camp in these debates, led by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago, where Mont Pelerin co-founder Frank Knight also led the economics department, advocated the “great books.”6 For Hutchins and Adler, “truth” and “freedom” were indeed synonymous with the humanities and the classics. The humanities and the classics, Hutchins and Adler thought, were permanent, metaphysical entities to be found (or perhaps rediscovered) through the Western canon. Hutchins and Adler strongly opposed relativity and the situated reasoning that science seemed to offer. Truth, they said, is everywhere the same, and the goal of education was to acquire a rational language, derived from Western classics, that would provide a new world order.7

Scientific naturalists comprised an opposing camp in the pedagogical debates of the 1930s and 1940s. The thinkers had ties to New York City. They included John Dewey of Columbia University, Sidney Hook of New York University, and an underappreciated bulldog for scientific naturalism, the Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas. Dewey and Hook formed an organization committed to the idea that it was a “scientific attitude” that led to new knowledge and new understanding in American and global culture.8 Alongside Dewey and Hook’s efforts, a wide variety of progressive approaches to education thrived. These included advocates of experiential education, child-centered learning, social studies, life adjustment, and vocational education. These learning-by-doing theories seemed directly opposed to the great books philosophy.

Boas’ own leadership in the field of cultural anthropology also lent radical aims to an effort to reform American democracy and education. Boas’ mentees—including Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and the “father” of intercultural communication, Edward T. Hall—created stunning and revolutionary theories of language and culture as the very structure of all thought.9 These theories were not just empirical contributions to the study of language; they were also fighting philosophies with potentially radical, atheistic implications. The Boasians wanted to create a global language and a new ethical culture on the basis of ethnographic research and thought.

The very foundations of civilization seemed to be at stake, leaving historians and others to battled each other over these 1940s debates ever since. The historiographic war has reached such heights that one scholar published a dissertation on the Dewey-Hutchins debates lamenting the “progressive historical bias” in favor of Dewey and science.10 These debates between ancient and modern knowledge, between truth as fixed and truth as conditional, between the humanities and the sciences, continue to haunt us in the epistemological crises of the current era, manifest most obviously in the trouble we have making sense of “fake news.” In addition, we still have yet to incorporate cultural anthropology and its radical potential into our understanding of our present-day culture wars.

In the process of staking out positions in this ongoing debate, we have missed other rival camps in the 1930s and 1940s. In my own work, I identify a Puritan-inspired group that operated during the same time at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, and other historic northeastern universities. This group often referenced a mysterious and ancient, quasi-British tradition, which Hayek himself echoed in The Road to Serfdom.. This tradition was neither exclusively humanistic nor exclusively scientific but rather viewed “truth” and “liberty” as ultimate, moral principles that almost had lives and minds of their own. Indeed, this Puritan-inspired group often referred to an “American Mind,” which was alive, vibrant, and divinely inspired.11

This Puritan-inspired group did not see either the great books or scientific naturalism as viable solutions to the pedagogical debates. Yet what did they offer instead? My contribution to the conference will explore five facets of this Puritan-inspired, Platonic-influenced ideology. I will explain their reliance on—and resurrection of—ancient and classical knowledge. I will show that they viewed liberalism as disorder, not order. Finally, I will link their writings and actions to the fate of neoliberalism (and the rise of Trumpism) today.

Bryan McAllister-Grande is a curriculum integration manager in the Global Experience Office at Northeastern University.

  1. James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). ↩︎
  2. Donald H. Meyer, The Instructed Conscience; the Shaping of the American National Ethic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972). ↩︎
  3. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago, 1944), 190. ↩︎
  4. Ibid, 163. ↩︎
  5. See Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets after the Depression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). ↩︎
  6. On these connections and the ensuing “Chicago Fight,” see Robert Thomas, “Enlightenment and Authority: The Committee on Social Thought and the Ideology of Postwar Conservatism, 1927–1950” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2011). ↩︎
  7. See Tim Lacy, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). ↩︎
  8. Edward A. Purcell, The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973); Andrew Jewett, Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). ↩︎
  9. See John Gilkeson, Anthropologists and the Re-Discovery of America, 1886–1965 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010). See also Purcell, The Crisis of Democratic Theory; and Jewett, Science, Democracy, and the American University. ↩︎
  10. William Martin, “The Dewey-Hutchins Debate on General Education, 1929 – 1945: A Case of Progressive Historical Bias” (Ed diss., Temple University, 1991). ↩︎
  11. The origins of this “American Mind” tradition in revolutionary America are discussed in J. David Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 2002). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Bryan McAllister-Grande, “Education for a Free Society? Ancient Knowledge, Universities, and the Neoliberal Disorder,” History of Knowledge, May 17, 2019,