The Needs of Education

Title: The Needs of Education

Date: December 21, 1922

Location: Reynoldsville, PA

Context: Before the County Teachers’ Institute and School Directors’ Convention


It would be exceedingly difficult to overestimate the important part that teachers take in the development of the life of the nation. They exercise their art, not on the materials of this world which pass away, but upon the human soul, where it will remain through all eternity. It is the teacher that makes the school, that sets its standard and determines its success or failure. Everyone is familiar with the assertion of President Garfield that Mark Hopkins, sitting on one end of a log with a student on the other, would constitute a university. He did not particularize about the student, but he was careful to provide that the head of the institution was to be Doctor Hopkins. Only a trained and tried educator could fill the requirements for the head of a seat of learning that was to be dignified by the name of a university. With such a figure occupying that position, the character of the institution would be established.

There no doubt often arises a feeling on the part of the teaching force of the nation that they are lacking in public appreciation. They do not occupy positions which bring them into general prominence. Their compensation is not large in any event and, considering the length of time and the necessary expense required in preparation, is often very meagre. But if their rewards are not large, they are seldom exposed to that species of criticism, often turning into positive abuse, which is the lot of many elective public servants. If they will but consider the estimation in which they hold those who formerly stood in the relationship of teachers to them, they will, at once, be forced to conclude that, in the opinion of those whose opinion they value, they are not without appreciation and honor. And they must know that whoever can pause for a moment to estimate the value of their work, the importance of their calling, its high requirements in learning and in character, will be moved to admiration for their devotion and their sacrifice.

In addition to this, the opportunity to teach the youth of America, with all the boundless possibilities that lie before each one of them, is a positive guarantee that this calling, continued for any length of time, will bring the teacher into contact with some who are marked with genius and will be known to fame. The opportunity in such a vocation to inspire reverence for the truth and a determination to master it, and live by it, is a compensation of satisfaction beyond what wealth can buy. To lead and infuse the youth of the country in that capacity is to be a minister to the republic.

True education has a twofold purpose. It has two great fundamental objects-the development of the moral power and the development of the intellectual power of the student.

One of the leading characteristics of modern life is its impatience. People are ambitious to secure the result without being willing to pay the necessary price for its attainment. They want the results of discipline without submitting themselves to be disciplined. They desire the immediate accomplishment of an object which, in reality, can only be secured by a long and laborious process. There is a tendency in education to forget the necessity of developing the moral power, the character, the determination to do right, and to place all the emphasis merely on the intellectual attainments. Such an effort cannot meet with success.

The biologists teach us that every individual has to climb up his own genealogical tree. It is a law that each life begins in its lowest form and goes up through all its intermediate stages to its present state of development. If any of the intermediate stages are omitted, development stops at that point. There is the blade, the ear, then the full corn in the ear; but the full corn cannot be secured without, first, the growth of the blade and the ear.

There is, likewise, evidence to support the conclusion that the individual develops as the race has developed. Fundamental requirements for the education of the individual will be found in the fundamental requirements for the development and progress of the race. That which laid the foundation of the intellectual awakening of races and peoples during the progress of history will lay the foundation of any real intellectual awakening of the student bodies of the present day.

The destruction that overtook the civilization which existed at the dawn of the Christian era came only after the predominant peoples of that time had lost their religious beliefs. They had cast aside their ideals. There were still schools and teachers, and people of high intelligence, but they no longer served the cause of righteousness. Might ruled, and might ruled alone, a naked power without sustaining influence. When that comes to represent authority such authority is only apparent, not real. The people at once recognize it as a counterfeit unworthy of their support, and turning from it with disgust, whether it represent a form of civilization, a social order, or a government, they will not protect it, they will not support it, but will be indifferent or rejoice in its destruction. This was the condition and the experience of Western civilization in the period preceding the Dark Ages. The seeds of a new order had been sown, but the old order perished. The moral power which had supplied the conquering vigor of the Roman legions in the day of their patriotic progress was gone. With it went their intellectual vigor. Civilization was waiting for a new light.

Slowly that new light spread over the world. Constantine acknowledged it as the guide of his empire. Gradually it worked its way into the German forests and the British Isles, of ten commingled and submerged in pagan rites and customs, but still burning with an enduring flame. Its ideals gave cause and direction to the Crusades. But it was not until the great religious revivals of the late Middle Ages that there was laid the foundation for that intellectual awakening which ushered in the modern era of science. The early settlement of New England was a religious movement. Its early government was a religious government. There was, likewise, a profound spiritual revival in the middle part of the eighteenth century, represented by the teachings and philosophy of Jonathan Edwards and the preaching of Whitefield in the Old World and the New, which preceded the successful assertion of the right of self-government and which, beginning its triumphant course in America, has never since ceased in its progress.

It was this great movement, reaching its apex in the early permanent settlement of America, which at once turned its attention to the founding of colleges, the providing of public schools, and the instituting of a general plan of education. The chief cause of these momentous results was the new importance that came to be attached to the individual, arising from a broader acceptance of religious ideals. Man was rediscovered. He was raised up to a new position. The possessor of immortality was no longer to be denied his rights. It logically followed that every avenue of development and achievement must be opened for the people. Freedom, education, culture, and refinement were acknowledged as the inalienable birthright of mankind. It was not education that founded religion, but it was religion that founded education. It was beside the place of worship that there grew up the school.

This important fact cannot be ignored in our development of education. Without its spirit either civilization will fall of its own weight, and that deep and abiding wisdom which supports society will cease to exist, or we shall have a type of mind keen in intelligence, but greedy and cruel, which, armed with the power of modern science in seeking to destroy others, will in the end accomplish its own destruction. Without the presence of a great directing moral force intelligence either will not be developed or, if it be developed, it will prove self-destructive. Education which is not based on religion and character is not education. It is a contradiction in terms to suppose that there can be any real intelligence which does not recognize the binding force of right, of justice, and of truth.

When we turn to the development of the intellect, it must always be kept in mind that the chief purpose of education is to teach man to think. In this field there are two kinds of training. One consists of the development of the power of imitation. This power is very great, and in the young it is very acute. When we remember that it gives to the child the power of speech, with all its complications, we can see how great it is. Carried forward, it is the ability to memorize and to follow custom. If pursued to its logical conclusion, it ends in the creation of a caste system under which the whole race will fall into the senseless condition of being the same that their fathers had been. The accidental and the inconsequential would assume the same importance as the necessary and the essential. Life would be conducted not by reason but by rote. All progress would cease.

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 a 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 a result can only be secured by long and tireless discipline. Courses of study must be pursued which require close application, accurate observation, precise comparison, and logical conclusion. 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. This has come, in part, from a spirit of pessimism which has gone so far as to question the power of the average individual to reach a high state of development and therefore the ability of civilization to maintain itself. The real problem is not one of intelligence, but one of disposition. The people of the present day are better trained and more intelligent than they were in the past. Sufficient intellectual power has existed to bring the world to its present high state of enlightenment. In spite of many seeming failures, there is no real evidence which warrants the assumption that sufficient power does not now exist to maintain and support the advance of progress. Unless we have this faith, and unless it be justified, we shall come very close to being obliged to deny the existence and reality of the modern era of history. 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. It must assume that a spirit of optimism is warranted.

But while the tendency to discredit the power of the individual has had its effect, a larger contributing cause has arisen from our commercial impatience. There has been a strong demand for that kind of an intellectual training which could be at once translated into dollars and cents. Our country has gone through the most rapid industrial development that the human race has ever seen. It has been a land of pioneers. Men have cut loose from old associations, both of place and of custom. They have moved out into our unoccupied and uninhabited territory and into new and untried regions of production and commerce. These conditions contributed to the very typical success of the American who oftentimes, though he had what was for him the soundest kind of an education and had undergone the severest course of mental discipline in the exacting school of experience, had not had the advantage of attending institutions of liberal culture. Oftentimes this type of man disregards the background and the surroundings of liberal culture without which his own success would have been absolutely impossible, and, forgetting his relation to society, the state, and civilization in general, thinks only of himself and of others as individuals. His argument is likely to run into the statement that he succeeded without attending the schools; many to whom he can point, who had the use of the schools, did not succeed; and therefore, if a liberal education is not a real hindrance to success, it is probably no help and certainly unnecessary.

This argument is often supplemented with the assertion that the methods of education are not sufficiently practical. It is claimed that the learning of the schools does not fit a student to participate in the daily affairs of life. It does not teach the art of earning a living, and therefore, while schools may be good things, they should confine their attention more to the teaching of trades, of occupations, and of the performance of the useful things necessary for self-support and the acquisition of property in the carrying on of the business of modern society.

All of this results from taking too narrow a view of the situation. Great captains of industry who have aroused the wonder of the world by their financial success would not have been captains at all had it not been for the generations of liberal culture in the past and the existence all about them of a society permeated, inspired, and led by the liberal culture of the present. If it were possible to strike out that factor from present existence, he would find all the value of his great possessions diminish to the vanishing-point, and he himself would be but a barbarian among barbarians.
This is not to say that we do not need vocational training, technical schools, and professional learning, where all the practical affairs and arts of life may be taught. There is urgent necessity for them, but they do not displace, they supplement liberal culture. The laws of progress are stern and unyielding. There is no means by which they can be cheated or evaded. Real wisdom will not be developed by pursuing a method of education that leaves out of consideration the human soul, nor will real prosperity arise by relying upon a materialism which leaves out of consideration human ideals. Prosperity is necessary; success is imperative. Too much emphasis cannot be placed on these requirements. But one of the questions with which education deals is how they may be secured. It must be remembered that a liberal culture came first in the effort for progress. It must be placed first. It sets the standard, it provides the ideals without which there can be no material prosperity.

The standards and ideals of society rank first in importance. They must be maintained, if there is to be any real industrial progress. They are, likewise, the foundation of American institutions. 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 intellect, and leave out of consideration the building up of character, the aspirations of the soul. The fact is that in our industrial life men cannot be dealt with on a purely commercial basis. They are very much more than the mechanical services which they sell in the shop and the market-place, and the attempt to deal with them in our industrial life, without taking all this into consideration, always proves a failure. That is one reason why materialism cannot stand alone. Mankind are reasonable beings. Any human relationship that is attempted to be organized on any other theory is bound to be a failure.

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 easy to demonstrate that we are very far from perfection. It is natural to assume that, therefore, we must be on the wrong track. Nothing is more instructive and satisfying than to compare our own condition with that which existed in past generations, or with that which is the lot of other peoples at the present day. Progress has a historical and institutional as well as a logical foundation. People cling to their customs, so that the theory of government and society which might be logically sound and perfect, might not find ready adoption by any nation, and what might produce good results in one country would be found to be not workable in another. Especially is it desirable that there should be more accurate knowledge of the causes and events which brought about the settlement of our own land and which went into the formation of its institutions.

Of course there is need of a better understanding of the American form of government. Self-government is still government. There is no such thing as liberty without restraint. 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. In all the discussion of the American Government that has gone on since its establishment, the chief stress and emphasis has been put upon freedom and liberty. The perfecting of human relationships to which our country has made such an enormous contribution has, in a very large degree, lain in that direction. This possession must be defended, supported, and cherished, for it is of priceless value. But this is not the most necessary for the youth of the land to learn. It is only a part of the story. It is not even the beginning, but rather the end. It is not the cause, it is the result. 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.

More and more emphasis needs to be placed on the duty of obedience. It must be the first lesson of the child in the home, it must be continued without ceasing in the schools, and it must be established and maintained as the predominant principle of good citizenship.

We are a race of beings created in a universe where law reigns. That will forever need all the repetition and emphasis which can be put on it. Law reigns. It can neither be cheated, evaded, nor turned aside. We can discover it, live in accordance with it, observe it, and develop, and succeed; or, we can disregard it, violate it, defy it, and fail. Law reigns. It is the source of order, of freedom, of righteous authority, of organized society, and also of industrial success and prosperity. To disregard it is to perish, to observe it is to live, physically, mentally, morally, spiritually. It is this principle that requires respect and reverence for authority. It is not sought for the benefit of those who may temporarily represent government or any other example of authority, but for the benefit of the individual himself.

It is perfectly apparent that the needs of education were never greater than they are at the present time. We do not diminish our requirements by raising the standards of civilization. We increase them. In primitive days there was little need of much which is now an absolute necessity. Existence was pitched on a lower scale. It was possible to succeed, according to the standards of that time, with a training altogether different from what is now absolutely necessary. Personal contact was not so close. Life was more solitary. When the struggle for existence was not so exacting, there was less danger that some might do harm to themselves, but less danger that they might do harm to others. The intricate and highly organized society of the present day is only able to give advantages to its members which were unheard of in the past, by insisting on requirements far above those of the past.

It is the existence of these necessary conditions which raises the question of whether modern civilization will be able to maintain its progress or whether it is more likely to break down. Certain mental tests have been tried for the purpose of estimating the intellectual capacity of individuals, and there has been an attempt to draw the conclusion that there exists a large body of people endowed with only a moderate mentality. But the capabilities of these people to respond to educational training is still unknown, and no one has yet put a measuring-stick on the possibilities of the human soul. Man is far more than intelligence. It is not only what men know but what they are disposed to do with that which they know that will determine the rise and fall of civilization. There is no evidence that there is a lack of sufficient intelligence to support the present state of society, and no one has ever questioned that there exists in people a sufficient moral power, if only to be used not to destroy but to construct. The realization of progress that has marked the history of the race, the overwhelming and irresistible power which human nature possesses to resist that which is evil and respond to that which is good, are a sufficient warrant for optimism. If this were not so, teaching would be a vain and useless thing, an ornament to be secured by a few, but useless to the multitude.

Our country adheres to quite another standard. It has founded its institutions not on the weakness but on the strength of mankind. It undertakes to educate the individual because it knows his worth. It relies on him for support because it realizes his power. It has not yet been possible for either government or society to provide a college course or university training for all, but there is in existence a system of education which gives a very general access of the public at large to the ideals which are taught in these institutions. They filter out through the primary and secondary schools, through the pulpit and the press into the hearts of the people. We are working toward a greater democracy in our education by providing training that will fit the student for various professions and vocations of life, each in accordance with his own choice. 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. Free schools and compulsory attendance are new experiences. No power of government can bring them to success. If they succeed, it will be through the genuine effort and support that can come only from the heart of the people themselves. It is this condition that makes the position of the teacher rise to such high importance.

The standards which teachers are required to maintain are continually rising. Their work takes on a new dignity. It is rising above a calling, above a profession, into the realm of art. It must be dignified by technical training, ennobled by character, and sanctified by faith. It is not too much to say that the need of civilization is the need of teachers. The contribution which they make to human welfare is beyond estimation. In our own country this service was never better performed than at the present day. The earnest conscientious men and women, running from the head of the great university down to the kindergarten, represent a force for good which is immeasurable. The influence which they create for better things, the inspiration which they give for higher ideals, are the chief contributing force to the stability of society and the march of progress. They point the way to the dawn, they lead toward the morning, toward light, toward truth.


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Tamara Harken who prepared this document for digital publication.

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