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.

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