Social Organization

Chapter 33: Disorganization: Other Traditions

Charles Horton Cooley

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This same idea, of confusion and inefficiency in social actions arising from the breaking up of old structures, might find illustration in almost any phase of life which one might choose to investigate. The economic system, for example, is in a state somewhat analogous to that of the family and the church, and indeed the "industrial revolution" is the chief seat of those phases of decay and reconstruction which most affect the daily life of the people.

Location itself—to begin with man's attachment to the soil—has been so widely disturbed that possibly a majority of the people of the civilized world are of recent migratory origin; they themselves or their parents having moved from one land to another or from country to city. With this goes a severing of traditions and a mixture of ideas and races.

Still more subversive, perhaps, is the change in occupations, which is practically universal, so that scarcely anywhere will you find people doing the things which their grandparents did. The quiet transmission of handicrafts in families and neighborhoods, never much interrupted before, is now cut off, and the young are driven to look for new trades. Nor is this merely one change, to

(384) which the world may adapt itself once for all, but a series, a slide, to which there is no apparent term. Seldom is the skill learned in youth available in age, and thousands of men have seen one trade after another knocked out of their hands by the unforeseen movement of invention. Even the agriculturist, heretofore the symbol for traditionalism, has had to supple his mind to new devices.

I need not point out in detail how the old legal and ethical relations—the whole social structure indeed—of industry have mostly broken down; how the craftsman has lost control of his tools and is struggling to regain it through associations; how vast and novel forms of combination have appeared; how men of all classes are demoralized by the lack of standards of economic justice; these are familiar matters which I mention only to show their relation to the principle under discussion.

In general, modern industry, progressing chiefly in a mechanical sense, has attained a marvellous organization in that sense; while the social and moral side of it remains in confusion. We have a promising plant but have not yet learned how to make it turn out the desired product of righteousness and happiness.

Wherever there is power which has outstripped the growth of moral and legal standards there is sure to be some kind of anarchy; and so it is with our commerce and finance. On these seas piracy flourishes alongside of honest trade; and, indeed, as in the seventeenth century, many merchants practice both of these occupations. And the riches thus gained often go to corrupt the state.

In the inferior strata of the commercial order we find that human nature has been hustled and trodden under

(385) foot: "Things are in the saddle and rice mankind." The hand-worker, the clerk and the small tradesman, generally insecure in the tenure of their occupations and homes, t are anxious and restless, while many classes suffer special and grievous wrongs such as exhaustion and premature old age, due to the nervous strain of certain kinds of work, death and mutilation from machinery, life in squalid tenements, and the debasement of children by bad surroundings and premature work.

Although the individual, in a merely mechanical sense, is part of a wider whole than ever before, he has often lost that conscious membership in the whole upon which his human breadth depends: unless the larger life is a moral life, he gains nothing in this regard, and may lose. When children saw the grain growing in the field, watched the reaping and threshing and grinding of it, and then helped their mother to make it into bread, their minds had a vital membership in the economic process; but now that this process, by its very enlargement, has become invisible, most persons have lost the sense of it.[1] And this is a type of modern industry at large: the workman, the man of business, the farmer and the lawyer are contributors to the whole but being morally isolated by the very magnitude of the system, the whole does not commonly live in their thought.

Is it not a universal experience that we cannot do anything with spirit or satisfaction unless we know what it is for ? No one who remembers the tasks of childhood will doubt this; and it is still my observation that so soon as I lose a sense of the bearing of what I am doing upon gen-

(386)-eral aims and the common life, I get stale and discouraged and need a fresh view. Yet a great part not only of hand labor but of professional work and business is of this character. The world has become so complicated that we know not what we do,, and thus suffer not only in our happiness but in our moral steadfastness and religious faith. There is no remedy short of making life a moral and spiritual as well as a mechanical whole.

Education is another matter that might be discussed at much length from this point of view. That radical changes are taking place in it is hardly more obvious than that these changes are not altogether beneficent. We may say of this department as of others that there is a spirit of freedom and vigor abroad, but that its immediate results are somewhat anarchical.

The underlying reason for the special growth of educational institutions in our time is the free and conscious character of our system, which demands a corresponding individual to work it. Thus democracy requires literacy, that the voter may learn what he is voting about, and this means schools. Under the plan of free competition the son need not follow his father's occupation, but may take the open sea of life and find whatever work suits him; and this renders obsolete household instruction in trades. Indeed, our whole life is so specialized and so subject to change that there is nothing for it but special schools.

We may probably learn also, as time goes on, that the enlarged sphere of choice and the complexity of the relations with which it deals call for a social and moral education more rational and explicit than we have had in the

(387) past. There are urgent problems with which no power can deal but an instructed and organized public conscience, for the source of which we must look, in part, to public education.

In striving to meet new requirements our schools have too commonly extended their system rather than their vital energies; they have perhaps grown more rapidly in the number of students, the variety of subjects taught, and in other numerable particulars, than in the inner and spiritual life, the ideals, the traditions and the personnel of the teaching force. In this as in other expanding institutions life is spread out rather thin.

In the country the schools are largely inefficient because of the falling off in attendance, the poor pay and quality of the teachers, and the persistence of a system of instruction that lacks vital relation to country life, tending in fact to discredit it and turn children toward the towns. In cities the schools are overcrowded—often insufficient even to contain the children who swarm in the poorer districts— and the teachers often confused, overworked and stupefied by routine. Very little, as yet, is done to supply that rational training for industry which is the urgent need of most children, and which industry itself no longer furnishes. The discipline, both of pupils by teachers and of teachers by officials, is commonly of a mechanical sort, and promising innovations often fail because they are badly carried out

Our common schools no doubt compare well enough, on the whole, with those of the past or of other countries; but when we think of what they might and should do in the way of bringing order and reason into our society,

(388) and of the life that is going to waste because they do not nourish and guide it, there is no cause for congratulation.

In our higher education there is a somewhat similar mixture of new materials, imperfectly integrated, with fragments of a decadent system. The old classical discipline is plainly going, and perhaps it is best that it should go, but surely nothing satisfactory has arisen to take its place

Among the many things that might be said in this connection I will touch upon only one consideration, generally overlooked, namely the value of a common type of culture, corresponding in this respect to what used to be known as "the education of a gentleman." Since the decay of the classical type set in our higher education, notwithstanding so much that is excellent in it, has had practically no common content to serve as a medium of communication and spiritual unity among the educated class. In this connection as in so many others the question arises whether even an inadequate type of culture is not better than no type at all.

Not only was the classical tradition the widest and fullest current of higher thought we had, but it was also a treasury of symbols and associations tending to build up a common ideal life. Beginning with Dante all imaginative modern literature appeals to the mind through classical allusion and reverberation, which, mingling with newer elements, went to make up a continuing body of higher feeling and idea, upon which was nourished a continuing fellowship of those competent to receive and transmit it. All that was best in production came out of it and was unconsciously disciplined by its standards.

It would indeed be stupid to imagine that any assort-

(389)-ment of specialties can take the place of the culture stream from which all civilization has been watered: to lose that would be barbarism. And, in fact, it is a question whether we are not! in some degree and no doubt temporarily, actually relapsing into a kind of barbarism through the sudden decay of a culture type imperfectly suited to our use but much better than none.

If one has an assembly of university graduates before him, what, in the way of like-mindedness, can he count on their having ? Certainly not Latin, much less Greek; he would be rash indeed to venture a quotation in these tongues, unless for mystification: nor would allusions to history or literature be much safer. The truth is that few of the graduates will have done serious work outside of their specialty; and the main thing they have in common is a collective spirit animated by the recollection of football victories and the like.

I suspect that we may be participating in the rise of a new type of culture which shall revise rather than abandon the old traditions, and whose central current will perhaps be a large study of the principles of human life and of their expression in history, art, philanthropy and religion. And the belief that the new discipline of sociology (much clarified and freed from whatever crudeness and pretension may now impair it) is to have a part in this may not be entirely a matter of special predilection.

Not very long since a critic, wrote of contemporary art as follows:

"Every one who is acquainted with technical matters in the fine arts is aware that the quietly perfect art of oil painting is extinct or

(390) nearly so, and that in its place we have a great variety of extremely clever and dexterous substitutes, resulting in skillful partial expressions of artistic beauty, but not reaching that calm divine harmony of aim and method which we find in Titian and Giorgione, and even in such work as that of Velasquez. The greatest painting of past times had one quality which no modern one really possesses—it had tranquillity."[2]

This touches upon something which—as we have already had occasion to observe—impairs nearly all in the way of higher spiritual achievement that our time produces—a certain breathlessness and lack of assured and quiet power. And this is connected with that confusion which does not permit the unquestioned ascendancy of any one type, but keeps the artist choosing and experimenting, in the effort to make a whole which tradition does not supply ready-made.

In times of authoritative tradition a type of art grows up by accretion, rich and pregnant after its kind, which each artist unconsciously inherits and easily expresses. His forerunners have done the heavy work, and all that he needs to do is to add the glamour of personal genius. The grandeur of great literature—like the Bible, or Homer, or even, though less obviously, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe—is largely that of traditional accumulation and concentration. The matter is old; it has been worked over and over and the unessential squeezed out, leaving a pregnant remainder which the artist enlivens with creative imagination. And the same is true of painting and sculpture.

So in architecture: a mediaeval cathedral was the culmination of a long social growth, not greatly dependent upon

(391) individual genius. "Not only is there built into it," says Mr. Ferguson in his History of Modern Architecture, " the accumulated thought of all the men who had occupied themselves with building during the preceding centuries . . . but you have the dream and aspiration of the bishop, who designed it, of all his clergy, who took an interest in it, of the master-mason, who was skilled in construction; of the carver, the painter, the glazier, of the host of men who, each in his own craft, knew all that had been done before them, and had spent their lives in struggling to surpass the work of their forefathers.... You may wander in such a building for weeks or for months together and never know it all. A thought or a motive peeps out through every joint, and is manifest in every moulding, and the very stones speak to you with a voice as clear and as easily understood as the words of the poet or the teaching of the historian. Hence, in fact, the little interest we can feel in even the stateliest of modern buildings, and the undying, never satisfied interest with which we study over and over again those which have been produced under a different and truer system of art."[3]

In the same way the Greek architect of the time of Pericles "had before him a fixed and sacred standard of form. . . . He had no choice; his strength was not wasted among various ideals; that which he had inherited Noms a religion to him.... Undiverted by side issues as to the general form of his monument, undisturbed by any of the complicated conditions of modern life, he was able to concentrate his clear intellect upon the perfection of his details; his sensitiveness to harmony of proportion was

(392) refined to the last limits: his feeling for purity of line reached the point of a religion." [4]

The modern artist may have as much personal ability as the Greek or the mediaeval' but' having no communal tradition to share in his work, he has to spread his personality out very thin to cover the too broad task assigned to it, and this thinness becomes the general fault of contemporary aesthetic production. If he seeks to avoid it by determined concentration there is apt to be something strained and over-conscious in the result.


  1. This illustration is used by Miss Jane Addams.
  2. Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Thoughts about Art, page 99.
  3. Page 24.
  4. Van Brunt, Greek Lines, 95 ff.

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