Truth and consequences: the role of an educated person

First published in the Seattle Times on September 7, 2004

By Ronald R. Thomas
Special to The Times

When the mythical Ulysses returns home to Ithaca after celebrated exploits in the wide world, he realizes — and resists the knowledge — that the greatest challenge of his talent is that of leadership in his own city.

A hero of Troy, conqueror of armies of men and monsters, traveler of the world and the underworld, Ulysses is now called upon to be the leading citizen in his own city. In Tennyson's version of the story, the hero hesitates and resists that call and the choice it demands: He hears instead the siren song of another epic battle, of some loftier, "newer world."

We in higher education sometimes make the same false choice. Does the life of liberal learning lead us to embrace our civic duty or a lofty truth? Our calling, as Cardinal Newman urged in the 19th century, is to seek truth for its own sake without regard for practical consequences.

We who embrace the liberal arts sometimes believe we should be concerned with principles, not practicalities, with the war of ideas instead of the conflicts of peoples, with understanding the laws of nature rather than shaping the rules of civic engagement. Should we not stand apart from the arena so that we can be disinterested commentators of a world from which we are detached?

Yes and no. The educated person must see where truth and consequences collide. We face a time of great challenge in higher education when we have sometimes lost appreciation for our role in the public good, neglecting the fact that ideas have consequences.

There was a time when we recognized higher education as the key to our future, when we made the brilliant sacrifice following World War II of investing in the GI Bill and making a college education accessible to a whole generation of veterans when they returned from their adventures in battle abroad.

In those days, the great economic engine of the American Century emerged from that commitment to higher education and the sphere of common duty it would open up. Universities such as Stanford helped spawn Silicon Valley, while Harvard and MIT generated the technology and biotech boom around Boston and Cambridge, and college campuses throughout the nation became vibrant centers of public debate, political discourse and social action in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, America does not regard higher education so seriously. It is often considered a consumer good more than a public good, a mere job credential or a training ground for the labor force rather than a caldron for leadership, a great national asset through which to create and test ideas, to discover and expand knowledge, to critique and transform our culture. It has become a Trojan horse of instrumentalism rather than what Tennyson called that "something more," that "bringer of new things" we know it can be.

Today in America we hear a great deal about the higher priority of maintaining the security of the homeland. Not unlike Ulysses, we heed again the siren call to arms. But we must remember that true security is based on understanding as well as power. An uninformed obsession with security can be the breeding ground of fear. "Security," Shakespeare writes in Macbeth, "is mortals' greatest enemy."

Franklin Roosevelt, whose leadership brought us through one of our most perilous times of economic and military threat, once said, "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."

This sentiment was uttered by the president who oversaw the invention of Social Security and the atomic bomb, who engineered the great economic recovery of the past century as well as the great victory in World War II, and who warned us that the greatest thing we had to fear was fear itself.

Yet for him, the real safeguard of democracy, fear's true antidote, could not be found in unimaginable military might or unprecedented government effort: It was in educating a generation to be informed and to act, one that understands the useful and the good, and chooses them.

This is the goal of a liberal arts education that is committed to a broad understanding of the arts and sciences, the conditions of the natural and social world, the responsibilities of citizenship, and the foundations for critical reasoning and moral choice.

Our security is not to be found in a Trojan horse of power or privilege, but in an open exploration of the limits of human thought and its responsible, creative engagement with the useful and the good. If education is our security, our safeguard, it is also our hope.

In the business of higher education, we deal in hope. Hope is the product we make. Hope is the service we offer. Hope is the benefit we provide, and hope is the only profit we earn. There is no more important business for our future as a nation and as a human community than this.

What we are about every day at liberal arts colleges and universities is nothing less than the cultivation of the leaders of the next generation — they are the ones in whom we invest our hope to secure our future.

Dr. Ronald R. Thomas was inaugurated in April as president of University of Puget Sound, an independent liberal arts college in Tacoma. He is the 13th president since the university's founding in 1888.