Education has long been a drug on the nostrum market. Professional problem-solvers, from pedagogues to the Reader's Digest variety, depend on it to escape the difficulties in their solutions and it is firmly enshrined in the American Success Story. A nation governed by philosopher-kings, with the entire population sharing the royal purple, is a splendid sentiment for commencements, one which graduating seniors will no doubt hear again and again.
The fact is, though, that education is a misunderstood team. By long usage, it has been shorn of its rich meaning and puffed up into one of those empty abstractions which multiply confusion and distort thought. Who can say what it means to the people who are so zealous for their children's attaining a college diploma, or to those to whom Education of the People is society's cure-all? Vocational training, perhaps, or the ability to quote Homer or recollect statistics from so-and-so's history of the U.S. manganese industry, or "soundness" on current problems, or contacts and prestige.
Primarily, education is none of these. It is rather an attitude than an accomplishment, an approach to oneself and one's surroundings. Its traits are the desire to seek out truth constantly and a willingness to take action while still seeking understanding. It is procedure that counts then; while substance is important--witness the contributions of science, for instance--the procedure which four years of collegiate life breeds into those willing to partake in it fully is education's most crucial contribution to a democracy.
This attitude is seldom welcome, for it is subversive in the word's best sense--subversive of the blind faiths which, born in one age, survive in another where they have no application. There are many people who, while vigorously advocating further education for everyone, struggle with equal vigor to keep their progeny "thinking straight" on topics of the day. The arts, literature, and at times even science are equally plagued by this fusion of cultivation and bigotry.
Ancient War Cries
It is the mental process that supports such incompatible traits as cultivation and bigotry, supports them on a torrent of emotion, which education opposes-the process which fills vague but ancient war-cries with whatever content the moment's feelings and interests dictate. "Free Enterprise," for example, or "The People versus Special Interests" (often coupled with demands for high tariffs or more subsidy for a hitherto neglected special interest) are forever confusing the nation's deepest traditions and vitiating attempts at calm study. All the vocational training possible, all the calling to mind of obscure statistics, are by themselves worthless, for partisans of fighting faiths will take what serves their cause and find reason for denying the rest. It is the attitude taken at the beginning which counts.
Even when properly considered, though, education is still no automatic cure; the most palpable of idiocies often enough issue from the best of scholars. But the spirit which stresses honest, relentless inquiry, which requires that convictions be arrived at only after study, that they be defended firmly enough to withstand the assaults of formulae men yet held lightly enough to give way when further investigation demands--in short, the spirit of a liberal education--is far superior to the haphazardness of uncritical belief. Such a spirit can only refine values and reconcile them to facts, whereas blind acceptance only leads to intellectual waste and personal hardship.
Thus, this spirit, this primary product of education, need not always produce the right answers to be preferable. No matter how cultivated a graduate is, if he has graduated without "a zest for intellectual adventure," he has spent four years sophisticating ignorance.