Today, many argue that the government can't afford some of its most fundamental tasks, including support for education. Some politicians have even gone so far as to question the very idea of public education. But President Franklin Roosevelt knew that mass education requires government support and that cutting such support in times of economic need is penny wise and pound foolish, since a prosperous economy and decent society require widespread education.
On February 22, 1936, President Roosevelt traveled to Philadelphia, PA, where he received an honorary degree from Temple University. Roosevelt used the occasion to emphasize the critical role of government in advancing education. He pointed out that it was altogether fitting that the day was George Washington's birthday, since "What President Washington pointed out on many occasions and in many practical ways was that a broad and cosmopolitan education in every stratum of society is a necessary factor in any free Nation governed through a democratic system."
Roosevelt went on to add that the progress of a nation cannot and should not be measured solely in material terms. Instead, a nation must also look to progress in "the things of the mind." He pointed to the great advances in education over the previous 50 years and how his administration had worked to ensure that the burden of the Great Depression "should not include the denial of educational opportunities for those who were willing and ready to use them to advantage."
Increasing levels of education, according to Roosevelt, "has given to this country a population more literate, more cultured, in the best sense of the word, more aware of the complexities of modern civilized life than ever before in our history."
Roosevelt then described the timeless qualities of a true education. First is "a sense of fair play among men. As education grows, men come to recognize their essential dependence one upon the other." Second, true education instills "a sense of equality among men when they are dealing with the things of the mind. Inequality may linger in the world of material things, but great music, great literature, great art and the wonders of science are, and should be, open to all."
Finally, and most importantly, true education requires the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the truth. At a time when Nazi storm troopers burned books and banned "degenerate" art, and Stalinist commissars sought to bend biology to the will of the state, Roosevelt declared, "No group and no Government can properly prescribe precisely what should constitute the body of knowledge with which true education is concerned. The truth is found when men are free to pursue it."
Though spoken over 75 years ago, Roosevelt's words still hold true. Today we must also confront challenges to sound education, as some still seek to impose their own agendas on the pursuit of knowledge. Most importantly, Roosevelt understood that the essence of democracy is a free people engaged in the search for truth and understanding in an effort to make a better world for themselves and their children. As Roosevelt said, quoting Kipling, "On your own heads, in your own hands, the sin and the saving lies!"
Philip Klinkner is the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College. He is the author (with Rogers Smith) of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America and he is currently writing a book on the 1936 election.