The Instruments of Progress

Title: The Instruments of Progress

Date: June 7, 1922

Location: Washington, D.C.

Context: Address before the American University on the necessity and value of education 

The world needs education in order that there may be a better estimation of true values. It is not easy to assemble facts. It is not easy to draw deductions. It is not easy to distinguish between the accidental and the essential. In the complications of modern civilization these are becoming more and more difficult. If world problems are to be solved it will be through greater application, through more education, through a deeper faith and a more complete reliance upon moral forces.

It is only those who cannot see beyond the present, who are lost in particulars, and who have no training to comprehend the greater sweep of events that come to lack the necessary courage to bear their share of the common burden. To a race which claims a heritage of eternity the important question is not where we are but where we are going. Education fails which does not help in furnishing this with some solution. It ought to confer the ability to see in an unfolding history the broadening out of the base of civilization, the continued growth of the power and the dignity of the individual, the enlarging solidarity and stability of society, and the increasing reign of righteousness.

There are two great standards, and two alone, by which men measure progress — creation and redemption. These are not accomplished facts; they are ever-present processes. While we speak, their work is going on. They are the measure of the dominion of man over himself and over nature, and of his dedication of himself and all his powers to a moral purpose.

Measured by these standards, it would not seem difficult to justify the superiority and the increasing progress of modern civilization. Looking far back, the circumference of the enlightened world was very small. Its light existed, but it was everywhere surrounded by the darkness of ignorance, of superstition, and of savagery. There is no nation existing to-day which does not trace its ancestry back to a primitive people, yet each has come up through all the intermediate gradations to the present state, which it is scarcely too much to designate as world enlightenment. There are still dark places. There are yet remnants of the lower order, but even the Dark Continent is yielding to the light. There have been times when peoples have lapsed, when the march of a certain limited progress which they appeared to represent has ceased, but the cause has never lapsed. The Greek and Roman world lost for a time a part of its power of creation, but the power of redemption was not lost; it was rather increased as the people who inhabited those ancient empires and their dependencies turned to the Christian faith.

It was through that faith, and through the rediscovery of ancient learning by larger and larger masses of people, through the great universities and the teachings of the clergy, that there was brought about the final great reawakening of the Middle Ages, which established and strengthened the mighty creative power of modern science and invention. No one can dispute that power, no one can deny its increased and increasing dominion over all the forces of nature. Science stretches out its hand and reaches instantly any portion of the earth. It has brought under control forces comparable only with the resistless rise of wind and tide. It has weighed the earth in a balance and created instruments so delicate that they can detect a far-off whisper or measure the dynamic force of thought.

The Old World motive for creation, the motive of selfishness, of military aggrandizement, of imperialism, and of slavery, the motive which finally gained the ascendancy over the one-time devotion to moral purposes which characterized the early rise of Greece and Rome, was lost. It was lost because it became a perverted motive. It destroyed itself. A reawakened world rededicated itself to what was sound and true and good in the old motive strengthened and purified by Christian ideals. It was the general acceptance by modern life of this new motive which gave it direction and strength and an increasing creative power.

It was under its inspiration that despotism and slavery have steadily been diminished, and self- government and freedom have steadily been increased. It has been the directing force which has provided the material development of the modern world, established the groundwork of enlightened institutions, and given to humanity the moral character which has been the sustaining power of them all. The supremacy of this motive has marked the great world decisions of recent times. It lay at the foundation of the ambition of Peter the Great to reorganize and direct the energies of the Russian people; it inspired Gustavus Adolphus in his struggle for freedom; it was the deeply cherished sentiment of the parliamentary forces under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell; it was exhibited in the spirit of the French people when they were rousing themselves against despotism; it broke the power of the great Napoleon when he grasped at world dominion. The final consummation of these world forces has been America.

Wherever you may explore the high places of American history you come upon this same motive as the main cause of the action of her people. It was the thought of the early settlers where they raised up their altars and established their schools. It was the meaning of the life of Washington, of the great Declaration, and of the greater Federal Constitution. It is the explanation of Abraham Lincoln and the all-embracing freedom wrought out in his day. Finally, it sent two million men across the sea, that the cause of a Christian civilization might still remain supreme.

The power of creation and the power of redemption have come down through all the ages with mankind in ever-increasing proportions. They are the power to build and the power to endow with righteousness. They represent intelligence and sacrifice, the state and the church, the material and the spiritual. These are the forces upon which mankind can rely. They do not fail; they endure.

The world has been greatly shaken in the past decade. These forces have been tested as they never before were tested. The wonder is not that Russia, under a comparatively new organization which had never reached down to the heart of the people, collapsed; the wonder is that the world as a whole has stood firm, that it is gathering up the threads of existence, resuming its orderly progress, creating and redeeming itself anew. In the doing of this it is doing more, it is striving successfully to reach higher ideals.

The lessons of the great conflict have not gone unlearned. There are, to be sure, disappointment, disagreement, and irritation; but where in ages past such conditions would have made armed conflict inevitable, they are yielding to the power of persuasion and reason, through mutual consultation. There is a general admission throughout the earth of a mutual relationship and a mutual responsibility. There is the League of Nations, which, whether it be successful or not, whatever imperfections may be contained within its terms, is at least the attempted expression of a noble aspiration for world association and understanding. There are the Four-Power Treaty and the covenants for the limitation of the extent and use of armaments — all expressive of an even higher and nobler aspiration and an even firmer reliance upon reason as the foundation for all peace.

All these are creations the like of which the world has never before seen. There is, moreover, the working out of the salvation of mankind through the ever-existing law of redemption through sacrifice.

It would be easy to glance back over recorded history and see how when new institutions are needed they have been brought forth, and how when they have ceased their usefulness they have been cast aside. It would likewise be apparent that when there has been need for leaders they have been raised up to direct and to inspire, and when there has been a requirement for the results of science and invention these have been produced to meet the increasing necessities and to lighten the burden of mankind. Intelligence never rests; ceaselessly it works, building, perfecting, adorning. When creation has been required, creation has appeared.

Along with creation has gone redemption, always through sacrifice. The power of good ultimately to triumph over evil has never failed. When Western civilization was threatened by Attila, Rome and Gaul, in common cause, made that heroic sacrifice which redeemed all subsequent history. When later the followers of Mahomet imperilled Christianity, it was the Frankish hosts who saved it forever at Tours. Always the story runs the same. Whether it be necessary to meet the evil intent of Stuart Kings or the liberty-destroying acts of a Parliament inspired by a mad monarch, or to preserve a nation and rescue it from the curse of slavery, or to overcome the great delusion of world dominion, always there have been those who have made the supreme sacrifice by which these results have been accomplished. Always the cross and always the response. There is a power which moves resistlessly that justifies our faith.

There is scarcely any reliable authority which denies the right of the people to self-government; there is scarcely any dominion which denies obligation to the law of righteousness. Institutions of learning, organized charities, all of the forces of government and of religion, are making their ceaseless contributions to the unbought salvation of the world. The redemption goes on. The moral forces of the world are supreme.

This is the civilization which intelligence has created and which sacrifice has redeemed. We did not make it. It is our duty to serve it. Education ought to assess it at its true worth. It ought not to despise it but reverence it. If there be in education a better estimation of true values, it must be on the side of a great optimism. Under its examination human relationship stands forth as justified and sanctified. There is no place for the cynic or the pessimist. Who is he that can take no part in business because he believes it is selfish? Who is he that can take no part in religion because he believes it is imperfect? These institutions are the instruments by which an eternal purpose is working out the salvation of the world. It is not for us to regard them with disdain; it is for us to work with them, to dedicate ourselves to them, to justify our faith in them. It is a high calling in which to be even a doorkeeper is better than to rule over many multitudes of critics and philistines.

The great service which education must perform is to confirm our faith in the world, establish our settled convictions, and maintain an open mind. The heritage of all the past is neither mean nor insignificant. It is a high estate. The work of the world is neither undignified nor degrading. It lacks neither character nor nobility. It is the means and measure of all real manhood. It is truly the creation and the redemption. Those who are worthily engaged in it are ministers of a holy cause, priests of a divine imposition.

Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Gregory Harkenrider, who prepared this document for digital publication.

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