The Things That Are Unseen

Title:  The Things That Are Unseen

Date: June 19, 1923

Location: Norton, MA

Context: Coolidge reflects on the purpose of education in America and how it can support democratic liberal ideals at Wheaton College in Massachusetts

(Original document available here)

The educational institutions of our country act in a public capacity. Although oftentimes privately endowed, they exist under the authority of a charter granted by the government, defining and limiting their powers under the law. They were established to support the State, intellectually and morally. They are not for the private advantage of the individual but for the public welfare of the citizen.

This ideal is old, but America has made a new application of it. Formerly there was an educated class. From among their membership were drawn the magistrates and the clergymen. It was their province to furnish instruction and leadership for the people. They filled the pulpits, administered the offices, and conducted the schools. But in our country the ideal is no longer that of a highly educated few but of a broadly cultured and enlightened people. Education is no longer the privilege of a class but is recognized as a common duty necessary for all.

The old idea of training a few for leadership has been superseded by the modern idea of universal education to increase national harmony and unity of action. This ideal has not yet been fully realized, nor can it be for a considerable length of time. With all the resources with which America is endowed, they are not sufficient, as yet, to provide for all our inhabitants a liberal education, although they are sufficient and are providing a very general and increasingly broadening elementary training. This leaves somewhat of the old necessary duty of service and leadership imposed upon those who have been fortunate enough to secure the advantages of the higher institutions of learning.

Broad as this class has now become, they are still the ones who have been selected to be foremost in advancing the cause and bearing the burdens of an enlightened civilization. They have come into the possession of an increased intellectual power. They have acquired training and skill that they may the better minister to the needs of humanity. It is this purpose lying behind all our endeavor for education that requires, first of all, that it should represent a moral training. It is not the skill of a Fagin that is sought, it is not the mere power to exist, but, rather, the wisdom of a Madame Curie, the enlightened disposition to serve. An education which does not accomplish this result is not a real education. It may provide a higher degree of cunning, a more intensified selfishness, and may add another prehensile claw with which to lay hold of the things of the world, but unless it results in the cultivation of the higher nature, unless it strengthens the spiritual power, unless it develops into real character, it will be without any final satisfaction.

No doubt the need always exists for self-confidence. That is strengthened by an exact and scholarly knowledge. But it is also desirable to be able correctly to estimate values. A comprehension of the little that we know, or can know, not only of all the universe or of our own earth, of science, of literature, of history, of philosophy, or of their various subdivisions, compared with all that is to be known, is useful for the cultivation of an appropriate humility. This virtue is not thought to be overestimated by the youth of the present day. But it is only in the spirit of true humility that there is any approach to the better things of life.

After all, education is the process by which each individual recreates his own universe and determines its dimensions. As civilization advances, the need becomes not less but more. The present industrial methods, with all their dependence upon invention, with all their subordination to science, are yet narrowing rather than broadening in their effect upon the general mass of employees. The requirement of efficiency has reduced much of modern industrial life to a mere mechanical operation. Those engaged in it are no longer able to draw on inspiration from their work.

Under more primitive conditions this was not the case. Those who were perhaps entirely untrained in the schools found ample opportunity for complete personal expression in their daily employment. Such was especially the condition in the industries of those days. The arts and crafts were what their names signified. A masterpiece was a graduating essay, by which the apprentice, after years of training, demonstrated his fitness to be admitted to the ranks of the master workmen. The skilled hand, the true eye, the designing mind were all employed in producing the useful and the beautiful. All the faculties had daily opportunity for artistic expression in the common employments.

These conditions were not without a marked effect on the character of those who came under their influence. At a very early date the tradespeople and artisans of London became stanch defenders of order and liberty. They were a people educated in no small part by means of their employment. They created a vigorous and enterprising citizenship which made a very pronounced contribution to human welfare.

The tendency in modern industry has been to change these conditions very materially in the direction of reducing the arts to the position of a trade. This in no degree detracts from the dignity of work, but it has produced a kind of work which is very different in its effect on the development of the individual. In addition to this, there has been introduced into our system of education the vocational and trade schools. These have a rightful place and make a very valuable contribution to individual efficiency in industrial life. This whole scheme of things does not diminish but enlarges the requirement for a liberal education, the liberal culture which is taught in the schools, and the maintenance of the opportunities for broader culture, apart from the trades and vocations of livelihood outside the schools. The machines of the shops have a tendency to make machines of the employees. This must be offset, it must be met by a counter tendency. There is but one – some kind of cultural activity.

Our country has very well learned the value of the results of a material prosperity derived from a narrow but very intense skill and the technical use of the applied sciences. All of this has not only relocated but has intensified the burden of maintaining the ideals, which are the foundation of all else, upon the institutions of liberal culture and those who have been their direct beneficiaries. In a sense it reopens the old field and restores the old necessity for active leadership not only in the religious life, political life, and the school life but in that which we term the every-day life of modern civilization.

The satisfactions of life arise from the art of self-expression. If these are not found in the occupational life, they must be sought and provided from some other source. Modern industry has its rich compensations. It not only tremendously increases production, which on the whole has greatly reduced prices, placing the necessaries, conveniences, and even luxuries of life almost within universal reach, but has very much reduced the required hours of labor and at the same time greatly increased the remuneration. This has provided both the time and means for the people at large to engage in outside beneficial and cultural studies and activities. The American people are nothing if they are not energetic. They have accepted these conditions with their usual enthusiasm and used their resources in endless effort in an attempt to provide themselves with amusement, diversion, and recreation, a considerable part of which takes the form of lavish expenditure of money for many purposes which, after a while, are no longer able to please. Carried to its logical conclusion, the end is greed and envy.

One of the chief requirements of the liberally educated of the present day is that they should contribute to a better art of living. There is an enormous opportunity in this direction, by example and precept, for the educated womanhood of the land. They have the power to set a standard which would be far-reaching in its effects. In number they are already considerable. They are increasing rapidly and they have an opportunity to wield a vast influence for good.

Our country is beginning to give more public attention to the development of the fine arts. More thought is bestowed upon the architecture of public buildings, the laying out of streets, with a provision for public squares and parks with suitable statuary and appropriate adornment.

More attention is being given to the beautifying of private residences and grounds, to formal gardening and the more artistic use of flowers, shrubberies, and trees. While these things are taking place out of doors, there is a corresponding movement inside. The art of homemaking is being cultivated. Under trained supervision and guidance, there is coming to be harmony of decorations and furnishings as a result of more cultivated taste. Good pictures are more and more appreciated. Music, which has the power of making such a universal appeal and arousing such instant response, is being taught in the public schools, studied under private direction, and developed as a community activity. There is a periodical literature of high quality and great profusion, which reaches into every corner of the land. The use of library books is increasingly large. The possibilities of the moving picture are just beginning to be realized. It has popularized a high quality of dramatic portrayal. Even the automobile, by contributing to a much wider range of vision, is removing whatever was left of a shut-in provincialism. The increasing membership of seasoned fraternal and patriotic societies shows the desire to fulfil the requirements of a more intimate social relationship. The American people are starting to supplement a mechanical age with artistic expression.

All of this is an indication of the direction in which future progress and development lie. In these outside activities and interests those who are engaged in the industries have every opportunity for artistic expression. It is along these avenues that they can employ their latent talents and find a more satisfying existence. It is in the leadership of this social side of life that there is an especial opportunity and requirement for those of liberal education and culture.

It will readily be observed that all of these activities, all of the service and leadership which they require, partake of the nature of a charity. That is always a necessary requirement. The higher and better things of life, without which existence would be altogether vain and empty, can neither be bought nor sold. Unless they are done because they ought to be done, without any direct remuneration, they will not be done at all. In its nobler aspect, like eternal life, civilization is a gift. We cannot say we have more merit or are more worthy than those born to the darkness of ignorance and barbarism. We did not acquire our position through our own individual efforts. We were born into it. It is the gift conferred by the sacrifices of past generations. It can only be maintained by the sacrifices of this generation.

Yet it is not possible to receive its higher benefits passively. It is only by active co-operation, it is only by intense application that the individual comes into the enjoyment and possession of the heritage of civilization. It is in this sense that there must be a re-creation. The wonders of civilization do not exist for us unless we make them our own. All the science and art, all the mathematics and literature, all the discoveries of nature and the truths of philosophy are not for us unless we appropriate them. We learn of each other through the contact of mind with mind. There has never been any system of education that did not require clergymen; there has never been any system of government that did not require magistrates and leaders.

It is on this side of life that the liberally educated should apply themselves. They have been given the power to hold up the torch that lights the way. It has always been through their efforts that civilization was created. It will always be through their efforts that it will be maintained.

This is in no wise a limitation of the American ideal; rather it represents the chief application of it. This ideal does not diminish the recognition of the usefulness and necessity for learning and culture, but from the earliest days has been most careful to provide for it, to cherish it, and to admonish all those in authority to maintain it. This has been written into the fundamental laws of the land. It has been adopted in the provisions of our, constitutions by the people and enacted into statutes by our legislatures. The American ideal requires that learning and culture should be extended to all the people. In broadening the old theory of a privilege to be held by a few into the new theory of a right that it is necessary to supply to all, it does not pull down education and culture but undertakes to raise the people up to their standards.

It is in this direction that America exhibits its greatest incompleteness, for it is readily recognized that the direct benefits of a liberal education are very far from reaching all the people. The indirect benefits, of course, are universal and more than sufficient to justify public support.

They speak from every schoolhouse and every pulpit, and from every learned profession in the land. They set up and maintain the ideals which provide the standards of all conduct. They are the source of liberty, enlightenment, and civilization. But the present great need of our country is an extension of the direct benefits of a liberal culture.

It has sometimes been said that education unfits people for the ordinary tasks of life. This does not appear to me to be the case – rather it is ignorance that unfits them for carrying on their ordinary vocations. It is not dissatisfaction with our work but dissatisfaction with ourselves that is the cause of the unrest and discontent which is always manifesting itself in one form or another. We think we want to change our employment, when we really want to change ourselves. It is a lack of ability to appreciate the real dignity of any useful occupation, to realize that it is an integral part of the greater whole that is necessary for promoting the welfare of civilization, that makes some think of their daily task as poor and mean and sordid. Unless the coal be mined, the northern schoolhouses will close. Unless the sewers be dug, the public health will suffer. Yet the man in the mine or sewer does not recognize himself as one who is ministering to the cause of education and of health, as in some degree a teacher and a physician; he thinks he is only a shoveller of coal and a digger of ditches. They need to visualize; they need to see their duty. It is not ignorance but a greater enlightenment that reveals to us the true nobility of all toil which contributes to the conduct of the necessary activities of the world. It is not in ignorance but in enlightenment that contentment will be found. It will only be through greater enlightenment that the work of the world can be done.

This era has come to be recognized as the scientific age. The world has come into the possession of more discoveries and inventions than ever before existed. They have combined to place in the hands of mankind a power they never had before. It is scarcely too much to say that the elements have at last been conquered. It was only the other day that a man flew from New York to San Francisco in about twenty-four hours. A reproduction of the human voice has been sent by radio from Schenectady to England. There are in the world to-day more people with a scientific training, ranging all the way from a workman pursuing his trade at the bench up to the genius of an Edison, than at any other period. On this side of life the world is wildly alive and thoroughly interested. It is making larger and larger demands of the schools, of the press, and of every other avenue that provides technical skill and scientific knowledge.

Yet, when success in this direction is not secured, or, being secured, it fails somehow to satisfy, there is a tendency to begin to criticise our institutions and the standards of society, as though they were in some way to blame. Sometimes this goes so far as to advocate a complete change in the attitude of the government toward property rights. More generally this takes the form of some proposal for extended government control and regulation and a radical change in the theory of taxation. The fundamental purpose sought in these proposals is said to be more equal distribution of the results of industry. Our country is an exceedingly good example of the fact that if production be encouraged and increased, then distribution fairly well takes care of itself. Other countries, by their actions in stopping production, in penalizing industry and economy, and rewarding indolence and extravagance, have been able to bring about a very general and equal distribution of misery, but no other country every approached ours in the equal and general distribution of prosperity. The tendency, at the present time, is all in the direction of a distribution of industrial income among the employees, rather than retaining it as an accumulation of capital or distributing it to stockholders. Perhaps it is well to remember that some of the greatest fortunes in America have been voluntarily given away and dedicated to charitable purposes. Our institutions all seem ultimately to function in the direction of charity, in the direction of civilization.

It is not on this side of our life that we need to put the emphasis at the present time. We had our day of laying the foundation of modern industry, the consolidations, and the intense stimulation of production in the closing decades of the last century. We had our day of bringing these great agencies under public control and regulation, in the opening, decades of the present century. We have looked to our industries. We have looked to our government. We may well let a season of adjustment and experience disclose the results of the theories which have been adopted in the past forty years. Present appearances would indicate that there is little more to be hoped for by extending our course in that direction.

The time appears to have arrived when we may more properly look to the people, when natural laws may well be left to supplement artificial laws. It is necessary always to give a great deal of thought to liberty. There is no substitute for it. Nothing else is quite so effective. Unless it be preserved, there is little else that is worth while. In complete freedom of action the people oftentimes have a more effective remedy than can be supplied by government interference. Individual initiative, in the long run, is a firmer reliance than bureaucratic supervision. When the people work out their own economic and social destiny, they generally reach sound conclusions.

This is by no means saying that we have reached perfection in any province; it is merely a consideration of some of the things that the liberally educated ought to do to promote progress. We have reached the antithesis of the asceticism of the Middle Ages. There is no tendency now to despise self-gratification or to hold what we call practical affairs in contempt. To adjust the balance of this age we must seek another remedy. We do not need more material development, we need more spiritual development. We do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen. It is on that side of life that it is desirable to put the emphasis at the present time. If that side be strengthened, the other side will take care of itself. It is that side which is the foundation of all else. If the foundation be firm, the superstructure will stand. The success or failure of liberal education, the justification of its protection and encouragement by the government, and of its support by society, will be measured by its ability to minister to this great cause, to perform the necessary services, to make the required redeeming sacrifices.

Citation: The Price of Freedom by Calvin Coolidge (1924).

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Fr. Stephen Lawson, who prepared this document for digital publication.