David Starr Jordan on Life, Education, and Politics

The best political economy is the care and culture of men. – Emerson

For all the controversy they stir up today, colleges used to be beneficial. Having a college degree meant something. It meant you not only had an education, but you had a moral foundation of right and wrong, ethics, theology, and philosophy. The humanities were as important as engineering. Subjects communicated with each other in a lattice of back and forth to give the mind the ability to see the big picture that life was painting -- as much as a human can see that, at least.

But somewhere along the way, something changed. College is no longer thought of as the place to understand the inner workings of the world or how we got to now. Some of the most astute judgments of college (and education in general) attack the curriculum for not teaching anything useful. But it wasn't meant to be this way.

Reflecting on the words of David Starr Jordan (January 19, 1851 -- September 19, 1931), the founding president of Stanford University, we find a beautiful illustration of what college is meant to be. In a publication of his speeches, Care and Culture of Men, Jordan shares his vision for what higher education should mean, the relationship between the State and the school, and much more.

Speaking on the benefits of having a college degree and the attributes that should come with it, Jordan has much to say:

So, if you learn to use it rightly, this the college can do for you: It will bring you in contact with the great minds of the past, the long roll of those who, through the ages, have borne a mission to young men and young women, from Plato to Emerson, from Homer to Euripides to Schiller and Browning. Your thought will be limited not by the narrow gossip of to-day, but the great men of all ages and all climes will become your brothers. You will learn to feel what the Greek called the "consolations of philosophy." To turn from the petty troubles of the day to the thoughts of the masters, is to go from the noise of the street through the door of a cathedral. If you learn to unlock these portals, no power on earth can take from you the key. The whole of your life must be spent in your own company, and only the educated man is good company for himself. The uneducated man looks out on life through the narrow windows, and thinks the world is small.

When Jordan refers here to the educated and uneducated man, he literally is referring to someone with a college degree and someone without a college degree. Today, I view it as someone who has a thirst for knowledge and someone who doesn't. Whether that education comes from YouTube, a trade, or higher education doesn't matter. What matters is that someone has an open mind to learn the vast mysteries the world still holds dear to its heart.

There were two important things an education taught young men and women in Jordan's mind: morality and history. It taught one how to approach life, how to think of themselves, and how to attain greatness. But an education also taught the importance of learning from those who once lived:

The world's work, the world's experience does not begin with us. We must know what has been done before. We must know the paths our predecessors have trodden, if we would tread them further. We must stand upon their shoulders--dwarfs upon the shoulders of giants--if we would look farther into the future than they. Science, philosophy, statesmenship, can not for a moment let go of the past.

Morality, individuality, and striving for greatness, were popular themes throughout each of Jordan's speeches. Higher education was the path to learning about these things, but only to a certain degree. "A college cannot," Jordan says, "take the place of a parent. To claim that it does so, is a mere pretense. It can cure the boy of petty vices and childish trickery only by making him a man, by giving him higher ideals, more serious views of life."

What are those "more serious views of life"? Jordan explains:

It is the noblest mission of all higher education, I believe, to fill the mind of the youth with these enthusiasms, with noble ideas of manhood, of work, of life. It should teach him to feel that life is indeed worth living; and no one who leads a worthy life has ever for a moment doubted this. It should help him to shape his own ambitions as to how a life my be made worthy. It should help him to believe that love, and friendship, and faith, and devotion are things that really exist, and are embodied in men and women. He should learn to know these men and women, whether of the present or the past, and his life will become insensibly fashioned after theirs. He should form plans of his own work for society, for science, for art, for religion. His life may fall far short of what he would make it; but a high ideal must preced any worthy achievement.

That last line echoed through most of Jordan's speeches. He took great care to encourage the younger generation to set their mind to something greater, and giving advice on how to achieve it, says to put their mind to something and let nothing get in the way:

If you say to yourself, "I will be a naturalist, a traveler, an historian, a statesman, a scholar"; if you never unsay it; if you bend all your powers in that direction, and take advantage of all those aids that help toward your ends, and reject all that do not, you will some time reach your goal. The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows whither he is going.

Whether someone actually achieved the goal of becoming a naturalist, a traveler, a historian, or a scholar didn't matter. Instead, Jordan made sure to emphasize that it's not the achievements of one's life that make it great, but the aim one takes that does so:

The value of life is measured by its aim rather than by its achievement. Loftiness of aim is essential to loftiness of spirit. Nothing that is really high can be reached in a short time nor by any easy route. Most men, as men go, aim at low things, and they reach the objects of their ambitions. They have only to move in straight lines to an end clearly visible. Not so with you. You are bound on a quest beyond the limit of your vision. There are mountains to climb, rivers to ford, deserts to cross on your search for the Holy Grail. The end is never in sight.

I slightly disagree with that sentiment. Someone can have the aim to be the first person on Mars but do nothing to achieve it. So as long as their aim is high enough, they can sit on the couch all day playing video games. Clearly, this isn't what Jordan meant when he said, "The value of life is measured by its aim rather than by its achievement," but some may take it to mean that. He reiterates this idea in a different speech saying, "Be a life long or short, its completeness depends on what it was lived for."

Shifting to politics, Jordan believed the changes that were required in the future lay within the people to whom he was speaking:

In other words, the people will always have as good a government as their intelligence and patriotism deserve, and no better. In the long run, government can be made better only by the improvement of the public opinion on which it rests.

This point interests me greatly. Obviously, I wasn't alive during the 1900s, but it seems like the political actions were much loftier, grandiose, and impactful. Is that because the public of the 1900s *deserved *that type of government? That makes sense to me. If a culture is soft, the government is going to be soft, and vice versa.

One of the things I liked most about reading these speeches is that politics is addressed, but one party isn't favored over another. It was refreshing. In fact, he noticed that the arguments between parties were never about fundamental issues, so he needn't get involved at all.

He did, however, stress that it was the duty of the educated man to keep their respective political parties in check. Ensuring the main thing was kept the main thing was the educated person's responsibility. He often seemed worrisome about the blinders that people wear when they embrace a certain political party. "To be known as an apostle or as the devotee of some special idea", he says, "often prevents a man from learning or growing." This foreshadows something Einstein would say later in his life, which might be my favorite quote of his:

How an intelligent man can subscribe to a party I find a complete mystery.\ -- Einstein

Instead, Jordan encouraged his audience to become citizens of the world. "The good citizen," Jordan says, "is a citizen of the world; itself, as citizenship improves, becoming one vast community, the greatest of all republics." He also made a stark warning to disregard your party if they start to run astray:

It is not your duty to join yourself to organizations which can take away any part of your freedom. It is not your duty to vote the ticket of my party, nor of your party, nor that of any one of the time-honored political organizations into which men naturally fall. For you and I know that the questions which divide the great parties of a free country are not, as a rule, questions of morals or good citizenship. The sheep are never all on one side, nor the goats on the other. Party divisions are based, for the most part, on hereditary tenden-cies, on present expediencies, and hopes of temporary gain, and too often on the distribution of power and plunder, of power to plunder.

When your party is led by bad men, or when its course is headed in the wrong direction, your State expects you as educated men to know it.

Tolerance, for other people's ideas, worldviews, and opinions, Jordan believed, was one measure of a good civilization. "The degree of tolerance," he remarks, "which is shown by any people toward those whose opinions differ from their own is one of the best tests of civilization." Continuing, he adds how important it is that the degree of tolerance continues to grow:

The growth of tolerance is one of the most important phases in the history of modern civilization. The right of freedom of the mind, the right of private interpretation, is a birthright of humanity. As the scholar has taken a noble part in the struggle which has won for us this freedom, so should he guard it in the future as one of his highest possessions. It is each man's right to sew his own pathway toward the truth. If there be in this country a town, North, South, East, West, on the banks of the Yazoo, or the Hudson, or the Sacramento, where an honest man cannot speak his honest mind without risk of violence or of social ostracism, in that town our freedom is but slavery still, and our civilization but a barbarism thinly disguised.

May we be people who join an open mind, heart, and ears with a closed mouth as we continue to rise each day and set out on this mysterious journey called life. May we be people who keep studying the lives of those who once lived and let them teach us how to live today, forever.


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