Best Baccalaureate Sermons | The Duty of the Scholar

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Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from The College and the Higher Life by Elmer Hewitt Capen, published by 1905.

The question, “What is the significance of higher education and what is the proper function of the educated individual?” ever recurs. To be sure, the educational problem has been in a sense worked out, and we have come to take for granted the facilities and instruments of higher learning. But the financial outlay for these is enormous, and is increasing year by year, and the procession of college graduates is large, and growing in volume every day.

We thus often hear the queries, “Why?” and, “To what end?” To answer such question will be the aim of today’s talk. Nor does it seem to me that the task is a difficult one. The answer certainly is given in the words of one of Jesus’s immortal parables: “Behold the sower went forth to sow.” It is not the scholar’s business to reap great rewards and to gather in rich harvests. Your place is at the beginnings of things. You lay the foundations. You set up principles. You give out without any thought of what is to come back to you.

As a teacher you must impart; as a leader you must go before; as an inspirer, you must have the power of touching other lives and filling them with new impulses; and in every possible way you must prepare the world for harvests that can only be gathered in some far-off future when your very name shall have passed from human remembrance.

In a word, your function is to sow seed, leaving the result to the soil, the atmosphere, the climate, and, above all, to the divine spirit of growth. But how, do you ask, is this function to be discharged? What are the steps in its performance?

In the first place, it will be acknowledged that the scholar must communicate. You must give out from the stores of your own life for the enrichment of other lives.

The fact that you are a scholar implies that you are endowed with intellectual riches. You are supposed to be furnished with a certain mental fullness, and to have a solidity and roundness of information that constitutes a kind of well-spring of knowledge, to be drawn upon at will in every exigency of social life and in every crisis of human experience. That certainly was the old idea of the scholar, with which many people were familiar with but a few generations ago; and the idea was indeed justified by what the scholar was and did in nearly every community in which they were placed.

It was indeed a noble idea, and the ambition generated by it was at the bottom of much that was most benevolent and potent in the intellectual development of American life. However, this idea in modern times has nearly disappeared altogether. The tendency of our time is in the opposite direction. Today the scholar has ceased to be the rounded individual, or even the full individual, with whom the public was familiar with a hundred years ago.

Educators say that the realm of knowledge has become so wide that it is absolutely hopeless for one person to attempt to compass it by a whole life-time of diligent effort. Hence students are advised, by not a few of the wisest instructors, to take a limited segment from the mighty circle of human knowledge and concentrate their attention and study upon that, leaving the remaining portion to those whose special aptitudes and inclinations have given them a special fitness for the work.

This view has gained force from the conclusion in these later times that education does not consist in stores of information upon a variety of subjects, nor in training the powers of the mind to regard with equal interest every kind of knowledge and every sort of problem, but rather in accuracy of observation (whatever the field chosen for investigation may be), and in the ability to master your specialty.

For myself, I confess to a great deal of sympathy with this perspective and the work of the specialist. But are we not in danger of carrying this tendency to specialize too far? Is it not time to sound a note of warning? Look at the variety of our lives. We touch humanity and nature at a myriad of points. Our duties are not of a single kind. We must till the soil; build the factory and set the machines in motion; organize society; lay the foundations of the home; and even train and mold character.

We are not like the scientist looking through a microscope on the tiny object upon which the lens of the instrument is focused, nor are we like a horse with blinders, forced to see only a few objects and those straight ahead. To discharge forcefully the complicated duties of human life, we must have not only foresight, but lateral sight, and even hindsight, that we may take in the whole circle of truth that has any bearing upon the circumstances of our being and the relations in which we are placed.

Thus the cry should not so much be: “specialize, specialize, specialize your knowledge” as “broaden, broaden, broaden the foundations on which you build, and fill your minds, not only with special truth, but with every form of truth that has any possible relationship to the specialty which you are to follow.”

In addition, let me remind you that the true function of scholarship is fulfilled not only by communication, but by interpretation. Indeed, in order to communicate effectually we must interpret. “There are more mysteries in heaven and earth” than philosophy and science has yet disclosed. But it is the business of philosophy and science, all the same, to find them out and declare them.

We are constantly grasping after the unknown. There is a steady pressure upon the outer boundaries of knowledge. The margin of intelligence, like the “margin of cultivation,” is a shifting line. But it moves outward without cessation and never contracts.

The office of the scholar is that of a mediator. You must stand between the higher knowledge and the common thought. Of what use is it that you know something, if you know it only in a form that is intelligible to yourself? We cannot hope that humanity will receive the truth until it is given to them in language that they can understand.

The aim of the scholar is not only to find out, but to disseminate, and to make the truth, when discovered, the common possession of humankind. Perhaps it is impossible to accomplish this all at once. The process is not so easy as it would seem to be at the first glance, because not a little of the power of dissemination depends upon the power of acquisition. Indeed, the terms are correlated. But by fullness of knowledge, by clearness, by consecration of ideas, and, above all, by holding a mediatorial position between the things that are highest and the great, open, yearning heart of humanity, little by little the truth will fly abroad, the things that are out of sight will become the inheritance of the world.

Before, however, you can take this position, you must know not only things but people. The human soul is a strange compound, and you have not measured it when you have analyzed and tabulated the attributes and faculties of which it appears to be made up. There are countless things which no observer however painstaking can tabulate. There are characteristics which belong to every individual member of a nation; there are hereditary traits that pass from parent to child, generation after generation; there are elements which are the product of environment and education; there are occult qualities that defy all power of definition and observation; and, then, the individual is an ethical being, a creature of affections, impulses, and above all of will, so that they are, after all, in their essential characteristics, what he or she chooses and steadfastly determines.

Therefore, if you would penetrate another person’s inner consciousness and get hold of and control the forces that move and sway their nature, you must have some power of estimating them and thus of making your approach to them at the right time, under the most propitious circumstances and with reasons which they will find unable to resist.

The true method of knowing others is not merely by the study of psychical phenomena (by a close observation of peculiar habits), nor even by the exercise of some subtle instinct that carries you, as it were, into the secret chamber of the heart. That is not the way to captivate a human soul and touch it with a living impulse that will make it spring upward with a mighty bound out of ignorance towards light and freedom. That is not the way to pass within the sacred citadel of the individual life.

Unless you come borne on some wave of sympathy, holding out some tender of help, and offering to bear the burdens of your fellow citizens because you and they are brethren, you will find a mighty barrier rising up like a granite wall between you and those you seek to reach. People may be in great need of help, but they will scorn your efforts if, consciously and formally, you seek to apply it by what you may be pleased to call a scientific method.

There is nothing that people resent with so much impatience as condescension — the feeling that someone has to come to them out of an organization, and not out of love, either degrades them or excites in them feelings of hostility or vengeance.

But, finally, I should fail to teach the most important lesson of the hour if I did not at least strive to make it plain that the most effective sowing is that which is done through influence.

First of all, we should say that the person whose influence is to be far-reaching and permanent in the dissemination of ideas, must add to every other possession intellectual power. Men and women do not live by the words they utter. There is a mightier, though it be a more subtle, force behind every form of speech.

It is true we spend a great deal of time with words. We study the matchless orations of Cicero, but the thing that enthralls us is not his marvelous sentences (put together with such finish and beauty that they are still the despair of literary art), but the great Roman himself, in an age of sensuality and selfishness, making his desperate appeal to senators so besotted in their stupidity and indolence, that, rather than abandon their bath houses and their feasts, they would let the Republic become the bauble of a dictator like Caesar.

It is so in philosophy. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Descartes and Locke, are more than their theories. It is so in mathematics. It is so even in the practical discoveries that have contributed so much to the material comfort and progress of the world. Franklin and Morse, Watt and Stevenson, are greater than the steam-engine in its complicated and marvelous perfection, greater than the electric wire with the thousand and one uses it serves. Indeed, it is the power rather than the performance that sways the world.

In addition, one of the most important elements of influence is high moral purpose. There is inspiration in the very presence of a moral hero. No one ever came in contact with Charles Sumner without feeling that here was one who was in downright earnest with the love of a great and noble truth. It was this quality more than his wide learning, his matchless legal acumen, his stupendous intellectual resources, and his lofty eloquence, that made him the power he was among the anti-slavery movement.

But highest of all in the composition of influence (that bears down opposition and lives on from age to age and finally prevails) is faith: faith in our divine heritage; faith in this earthly schoolyard of the soul; faith in the ultimate outcome, guided by the hand of providence.

Go forth, then, and communicate what you have received. Impart out of the abundance of your possessions, the clearness of your convictions and the devotion of your spirit.

Take humanity into your confidence. Be an active and vital part of this great eager, striving, suffering, hoping, and rejoicing mass of men and women. Stamp the force of your own personalities upon the age in which you live, by the strength of your thinking, by the force of your moral determination, and by the completeness of your faith in the progress of the human race and the overruling providence of our Creator.

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