On the Purpose of Education

Amherst College, with teachers like Charles E. Garman and Anson D. Morse, stood preeminent in the country during the period in which Calvin Coolidge studied there. This was not merely due to the caliber of the men who taught here or its classical curriculum but it was due to the fact that Amherst remained true to the goal of education. It was distinguished in a time when a high number of excellent educational institutions proliferated the country. In our time, it is a serious lack of stewardship that good schools are increasingly difficult to find. Hillsdale College founded twenty-three years after Amherst remains one such haven of classical education. Delivering the commencement address at Amherst on June 18, 1919, Governor Coolidge outlined the purpose of education as it is to be faithfully passed on: “Civilization depends not only upon the knowledge of the people, but upon the use they make of it. If knowledge be wrongfully used, civilization commits suicide. Broadly speaking, the college is not to educate the individual, but to educate society. The individual may be ignorant and vicious. If society have learning and virtue, that will sustain him. If society lacks learning and virtue, if perishes. Education must give not only power but direction. It must minister to the whole man or it fails. Such an education considered from the position of society does not come from science. That provides power alone, but not direction. Give a savage tribe firearms and a distillery, and their members will exterminate each other. They have science all right, but misuse it. They lack ideals.”

Living with the spectre of the Great War, which had not yet formally ended, all those listening to Coolidge speak knew well the horrors of what man, equipped with science severed from morals, could mete out on the world. Over 37 million lay dead around the globe with millions more missing and grieving over the lives forever changed as a result.

As Vice President, Coolidge would continue to explain what education was meant to accomplish, “Unless we are to be content with the superficial, the cynical, and the immature, something more substantial than this is needed to bring out the best that there is in life. The real constructive power of the mind must be sought. It is necessary to provide a training which will enable the student to assemble facts, draw conclusions, and weigh evidence. Education must bring out these higher powers of the mind, if the result is to be real manhood and real character. The goal is not to be the lower reaches of mere animal existence but the higher reaches of beings endowed with reason. Such result can only be secured by long and tireless discipline.”

Of what would this curriculum consist? “Gender” and “minority studies” disguised as history courses? Sexual-education seminars cloaked behind philosophy classes? Narrow subjects at the expense of understanding the whole picture? No, Coolidge answers, “[c]ourses of study must be pursued which require close application, accurate observation, precise comparison, and logical conclusion.” All things foreign to far too many modern schools. Coolidge continues, “I know of no courses which have supplied these requirements better than the study of mathematics, Latin, and Greek when they are supplemented by contemplation of the great truths of philosophy and a generous knowledge of history. The ideal of education must be not a special training leading to a one-sided development but a broad and liberal culture which will bring into operation the whole power of the individual. We have witnessed a falling away from this ideal…Unless education can be based on a belief in mankind and in the power of the race as a whole to develop by response to the teachings of the truth, education might as well be abandoned.”

Coolidge kept going to make the point even plainer, “In education the whole being must be taken into consideration. It is not enough to train the hand, the eye, to quicken the perception of the senses, develop the quickness of the intellect, and leave out of consideration the building up of character, the aspirations of the soul.” A solid training in historical perspective, more than just peripheral, is essential. “There is the most urgent necessity for a broader understanding of the teachings of history and the comprehension of the height and breadth of human nature, if we are to maintain society, if we are to support civilization. Much of the unrest of the present day, many of the unwise proposals for change in the way of laws, and the large amount of criticism of our government would be completely answered if there were a better general knowledge of history.” It is because history is not actually taught any longer than schools are turning out ignorant and impressionable students. Departing from the aim of education, control over what people are allowed to think has taken its place. Thereby sweeping social and political transformation can be achieved without, or in spite of, an informed citizenry.

As a result, the proper understanding of our form of government is lost. The goal of education becomes no longer building mature men and women who become responsible citizens but instead is the deliberate perpetuation of childish expectations, outlooks and attitudes. The literacy rate in this country is even to demonstrate education is no longer the goal of too many modern schools. In the end, though, “[t]here is no such thing as liberty without responsibility. My rights are always represented by the duties of others. My freedom is always represented by the obedience of others. Their rights and their freedom are represented by my duties and my obedience…Any attempt to maintain rights, to secure freedom and liberty for ourselves without the observance of duties and the rendering of obedience toward others, is a contradiction of terms. It defeats itself.” It is that suicidal legacy that confronts us now.

“But the chief end of it all, the teaching of how to think and how to live, must never be forgotten. All of this points to the same conclusion, the necessity of a foundation of liberal culture, and the requirement for broadening and increasing the amount of moral intellectual training to meet the increasing needs of a complicated civilization.” As President, Coolidge would adhere to that same conclusion, “All of our learning and science, our culture and our arts, will be of little avail, unless they are supported by high character, unless there be honor, truth, and justice. Unless our material resources are supported by moral and spiritual resources, there is no foundation for progress. A trained intelligence can do much, but there is no substitute for morality, character, and religious convictions. Unless these abide, American citizenship will be found unequal to the task.” Such is both the challenge and the opportunity to restore genuine education, rearing children into mature adults, encouraging teachers of character, preparing responsible citizens and morally equipping the nation for the future.


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