TT #16 – A Little Wisdom from the Past

A rather remarkable document fell in Traditionalist Teacher’s path today. Its source was unexpected.  Its wisdom is profound.

The source is Calvin Coolidge. For most, Coolidge is a nearly forgotten man.  Marvelous books about him have been written fairly recently by Robert Sobel (2000) and Amity Shlaes (2013).  However, the average American has long since forgotten about him.  Back when the memorization of lists was thought to be important, he was stuck between Harding and Hoover.

It is not Traditionalist Teacher’s goal to lift up Coolidge’s memory – although that would be a worthy goal. It is to use this document as a statement of what the goals of American education once were, and a lamentation of the fact that those goals are so seldom expressed today.

The document is the transcript of a speech that Coolidge gave to the National Education Association on July 4, 1924.[1]  He took the occasion to tie the goals of education to the hopes of the nation.

Traditionalist Teacher will start with Coolidge’s conclusion:

A new importance is attaching to the cause of education. A new realization of its urgent necessity is taking hold of the Nation. A new comprehension that the problem is only beginning to be solved is upon the people. A new determination to meet the requirements of the situation is everywhere apparent. The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated. This awakening is one of the most significant developments of the times. It indicates that our national spirit is reasserting itself. It is a most reassuring evidence that the country is recovering from the natural exhaustion of the war [World War I], and that it is rising to a new life and starting on a new course. It is intent, as never before, upon listening to the word of the teacher, whether it comes from the platform, the school house, or the pulpit. The power of evil is being broken. The power of the truth is reasserting itself. The Declaration of Independence is continuing to justify itself.

There is an elegant and faintly old fashioned ring to this passage, and TT is drawn especially to the sentence, “The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated.”

Would that it were so. Ninety years after Coolidge spoke, we not only tolerate ignorance, we celebrate it.  College students talk of getting “stupid drunk” during spring break.  A business calling itself stupid.com will sell you (among other more vulgar things) a sort of air pump that enables one to shoot marshmallows.  People’s misfortunes ‘go viral’ in social media.  The self-destructive behaviors of the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus have made them famous, and even respected in the eyes of many of our students.  TV and movies celebrate a sort of strange mix of sensuality, stupidity, and arrogance.

However mistaken the end of that sentence may be, the first part is absolutely true. Ignorance is a moral and economic waste, and society says it is our job to do something about it

Like a badly written movie, now that we have the end, let’s flashback to the beginning. Basically, Coolidge’s argument is simple.  Education exists for two reasons – to help the individual and to help the nation.

In an attempt to let the late president speak for himself as much as possible, Traditionalist Teacher will present a kind of abstract of the speech, preserving the words and making only those changes that will be necessary for one quotation to flow into the next as seamlessly as possible. Of course, TT hopes that the reader will be inclined to read the whole speech in his/her own good time.  For the sake of clarity, the president’s words will be italicized and TT’s changes will be in regular type.

[T]he fundamental conception of American institutions is regard for the individual…. We recognize the dignity and worth of the individual, because of his possession of those qualities which are revealed to us by religion. … America has been the working out of the modern effort to provide a system of government and society which would give to the individual that freedom which his nature requires.

[T]he greatest obstacle to freedom is ignorance. …[I]f the people were going to maintain themselves and administer their own political and social affairs, it was necessary as a purely practical matter that they should have a sufficiently trained and enlightened intelligence to accomplish that end.

In addition to this, the very conception of the value and responsibility of the individual, which made him worthy to be entrusted with this high estate, required that he should be furnished the opportunity to develop the spiritual nature with which he was endowed, through adequate education.

Clearly, in Coolidge’s mind, freedom for the individual is sacred in its origins. Equally clearly, it cannot be maintained without education.

As important as education is to the individual, Coolidge held that it was at least as important to the nation.

It is necessary also that education should be the handmaid of citizenship….

The body politic has little chance of choosing patriotic officials who can administer its financial affairs with wisdom and safety, unless there is a general diffusion of knowledge and information on elementary economic subjects sufficient to create and adequately to support public opinion. …

Another element must be secured in the training of citizenship, or all else will be in vain. 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 citizen ship will be found unequal to its task. (Emphasis added)

President Coolidge went on to discuss the role of the teacher.

But the main factor of every school is the teacher. Teaching is one of the noblest of professions. It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility. Those who mold the human mind have wrought not for time, but for eternity. The obligation which we all owe to those devoted men and women who have given of their lives to the education of the youth of our country that they might have freedom through coming into a knowledge of the truth is one which can never be discharged. They are entitled not only to adequate rewards for their service, but to the veneration and honor of a grateful people.

Unlike the rhetoric of many modern politicians, this was not just hot air pumped out to get votes (although it should, perhaps, be noted that 1924 was an election year). By reading his Autobiography, one finds out about the way that he rode miles on horseback during the Vermont winter to get a better education than that which was available in Plymouth Notch, the village of his birth.  He also knew a bit about teachers.  When he met his future wife, Grace Goodhue, she was teaching in a school for the deaf – the same school to which much of his estate eventually passed.

Traditionalist Teacher has to think that modern schools would be much better off if those who would like to be known as ‘the education president’ had half as much wisdom as the wise man from Plymouth Notch.

[1] http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/at-the-convention-of-the-national-education-association/

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10 comments on “TT #16 – A Little Wisdom from the Past
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