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In his last address to an incoming Freshman class, A. Lawrence Lowell said that never in his life had he felt he knew so much as when a Freshman. In his first year in college he had been at the top of the escalator looking down, and he now refers to himself as at the bottom of that escalator looking up.
Dr. Lowell has expressed simply a feeling that sooner or later comes to all of us in these four years; in addition, he has hinted indirectly at a tendency of many to conclude that the more facts one amasses the less one actually knows about life. Cynics often claim that the only advantage of a college education is to unload the mind of the prejudices and ideals bred in the family bosom. Henry Adams was rather more gentle in saying that if it did nothing else, Harvard College left the mind...free from bias...docile."
But there is a grievous fallacy in the charge that the removal of prejudices entails loss of ideals; and if, from the welter of advice the unfortunate Freshman must hearken to in his first few weeks, he can remember one small but significant idea, and retain it throughout his college career, he will have done well. No amount of teaching, no imposing array of facts, should lead a man to alter his fundamental outlook on life until he is convinced that his new view will serve him every bit as faithfully as the old. The fact that in the light of a single book or a single lecture he is unable to account rationally for beliefs held since childhood should not lead him to discard those beliefs overnight. All too many students have lost their bearings in academic wildernesses because they have heard men with giant intellects treat scornfully ideas which had been believed implicitly.
What is important to realize is that, while in thousands of particulars one's pre-university knowledge may be awry and should be reformed, while the birth of a healthy scepticism is the priceless gift of higher education, by the time a man enters college, in nine cases out of ten his heredity and environment and upbringing have given him an approach to life which is best suited to him. While opening one's mind to intellectual stimuli of all kinds, one should take care not to confuse principles with knowledge. Only if the two are kept in their true position can the former remain intact, and the latter be increased.
Harvard has been much less concerned with the soul than with the intellect since the year it discarded as its primary function the training of men for the ministry. That was long ago, but one still hears the complaint that we have found it impossible to retain lessons learned at home by example, when other lessons are taught more convincingly by logic. Logic is a fickle mistress, and must be kept in her place. There will always be realms where scepticism is baffled, where science confesses to bewilderment, and in these realms lessons other than those learned in books and in lectures are the only guide.
Four years in college should open the mind to vistas hitherto unexplored, and broaden the intellectual horizon to an extent unachievable elsewhere. But in the realms served by heredity, environment, and upbringing, where education has little influence, the individual must go his own way, and attempt to solve the age-old problem of his relations to society. The great danger in higher education is permitting scepticism to turn upon problems whose solution requires more than voluminous knowledge, and far more, than intellectual brilliance.
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