"Education Essential to Advance Democracy": An Op-Ed by President Linda Thompson

Jun 5, 2024
President Linda Thompson at the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony. She is dressed in blue robes and a blue cap.

President Linda Thompson at the 2024 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony. 

From the May 23rd edition of Springfield's The Republican newspaper:

The month of May kicks off the graduation and commencement season for colleges and universities. For students coming to the end of this formative phase of their lives it is a time of relief that the joyful day has finally arrived. Combined with excitement and perhaps some anxiety as to what the future holds, graduates will begin to test the waters of the next phase of their lives. The word “commencement” is one that has an important meaning. It signifies a new beginning as students embark on their journey in life equipped with one of the most powerful tools that humankind has ever created: a well-rounded education.

The flourishing of higher education around the world has created societal advances and a reduction of poverty that has benefited countries on all continents. With advancements in technology, we have also developed new systems of delivering information, and have created new methods of teaching based on this technology. As the world evolves, so must our systems of learning. The graduation ceremony as generally practiced in the United States originated in Europe in the 12th century. In those days degrees were conferred on apprentices who had mastered skills in their chosen field.

This was an important step, for graduation, from the Latin “gradus,” provided a springboard for young people as they set out on their journey. This event marked their transition to independence and prosperity.

The cap and gown, with the rest of the accoutrements such as tassels and hoods, also originated from this earlier period and was finally codified in the U.S. in 1895 by the American Intercollegiate Commission at Columbia University. The gowns were originally worn for warmth, as anyone who has sat through a sweltering ceremony will attest to, as well as a sign of distinction. The hood represents the degree the person has received. It has evolved into a separate piece of fabric worn around the neck and the cap or mortarboard has the tassel which is ceremoniously shifted from the right to the left when their degree is officially conferred. Of course, tossing of the headgear into the air is optional.

I spend some time describing the seemingly arcane details of this ceremony to underline the significance of graduation achievement of a college degree can bring to a young person. The Bureau of Labor Statistics using Current Population Survey data states that workers aged 25 and over who attained less than a high school diploma had the lowest weekly earnings. Workers with bachelors and graduate have the highest earnings by a factor of nearly 2 to 3 times. Yes, the cost of a college degree has increased, but over a lifetime, depending on the job market, type of job and other factors, this can translate into more than a million additional dollars in earnings.

While vitally important, the financial part of the equation is not only the element that makes a college degree so valuable. As Horace Mann, the great educator and founder of Westfield State University said, “A chained mind can do… little. In a despotic government, the human faculties are benumbed and paralyzed; in a Republic, they glow with an intense life, and burst forth with uncontrollable impetuosity. In the former, they are circumscribed and straitened in their range of action; in the latter, they have ample room and verge enough, and may rise to glory or plunge into ruin.”

Mann was convinced, as we all should be, that an educated society will help our republic and its democratic ideals to flourish. If we don’t work at it and cherish those ideals, then it can “plunge into ruin.” The world has become more complex, but with complexity comes opportunity. Students must embrace the challenges and not hide from them. That change is coming to society in areas as AI, gene therapy, space colonization, quantum computing, driver-less cars, to name a few, will require agile minds willing to debate, question, and decide on the path that will most benefit society and seek to reduce inequities, not increase them.

Our graduating students must not lose the essence of what makes a democracy function: an educated society seeking to help others as they help themselves. They must leave selfish behavior behind and embrace the foundational principals of our democracy, that we are all created equal and have an equal right to better themselves.

As we witness the graduation ceremonies of our families and friends, let us cheer them on as they enter this new phase of their lives firmly supported by a solid education and ready to embark on making this world of ours all the stronger by their efforts.