Eloquent Pointers from "Silent" Cal


Ulysses S. Grant and Calvin Coolidge are two U.S. presidents known for their taciturnity. They also happen to be the two who left the best memoirs. Grant’s having been brought out as a Library of America edition is a sign of its status as an acknowledged classic. The same treatment ought to be accorded the Chief Executive known as “Silent Cal.” His Autobiography, published in 1929, has many virtues, as did the man, and one of its greatest is what it says about its author’s education, and education in general.

Coolidge, who was born in 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Windsor County, Vermont, said that upon beginning his formal schooling he was certain that he was “traveling out of the darkness into the light.” After attending the private Black River Academy, he was rigorously immersed in the liberal arts at Amherst College, where he studied ancient Latin and Greek, modern French, German, and Italian, European and American History, Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Calculus.

For anyone, young or old, currently seeking an education, here are six good rules from America’s “Silent” President—from the Autobiography and also from the many references he made to that subject in his speeches as a public figure.

Work, Work, Work

Coolidge first sets forth the key to seeking an education: hard work. “So far as each individual is concerned,” he wrote, “all he can do is to take the abilities he has and make the most of them.” He added:

His power over the future depends on what he does with himself in the present. If he wishes to live and progress he must work.

Memorization of vocabulary, mathematical principles, and historical facts, as tedious and strenuous as the initial process might be, sets the proper path. The student must “store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time,” but if he is ambitious enough, resolute enough, and industrious enough, no contrary force in the world can stop him.

Know Your Strengths and Limitations

Coolidge admitted, however, that some people are incapable of learning, and that a free society can no more make every man a scholar than it can make every man a saint. There will always be “ignorant and vicious” men, in other words. Counterbalancing this stringent view, he also said that not everyone needs to be an accomplished scholar. Just as “it is not necessary for every one who crosses the ocean to be an experienced mariner,” not every one “who works on a building [need] be a learned architect.” Those kinds of students, Coolidge advised, should pursue a vocational or technical education to make their living.

Education is not about “Dollars and Cents”

Despite the image that Americans have of Coolidge, he never endorsed the theory that education must be directed toward “commercial activities” and translated into “dollars and cents.” Today, this popular theory is often expressed as preparing students for job and career paths in a multifaceted 21st first century global economy, or some variation thereof. Coolidge believed that job and career training was, at best, only a supplement to, not a replacement for, true education. According to him it was impossible to secure “real wisdom” and “real prosperity” by pursuing a method of education that “leaves out of consideration the human soul [and] human ideals.” Education, therefore, must seek to “develop the whole man in the whole body of our citizenship,” something that no amount of job or career training could fulfill.

But Pay Your Teachers Well

Coolidge often paraphrased the text of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which encouraged “that wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, be generally diffused among the body of the people.” As Governor of that state, sworn to uphold that constitution, Coolidge argued persuasively, with some moderate success, that such diffusion required a good education system, which, in turn, required that teachers receive adequate remuneration.

In a 1919 letter to the mayor of Boston, Coolidge related the story of the 16th century scholar Roger Ascham, who was tutor to Queen Elizabeth. Ascham wondered at the normal tendency of men to pay a much higher price for the care of their horses than the education of their children. The result was that men receive “tame and well-ordered horses, but wild and unfortunate children, and therefore in the end they find more pleasure in their horse than comfort in their children.”

As Coolidge observed, “greater compensation is paid for the unimportant things than is paid for training the intellectual abilities of our youth.” Therefore, the subject of increasing teacher salaries, he said, “ought to be considered and a remedy provided” by the state of Massachusetts.

Study the Liberal Arts

Even more important than decent teachers’ salaries, Coolidge also supported a vigorous training in the liberal arts to achieve what he called the “development of wisdom” and the “love of the beautiful.” At the time, Coolidge possessed an almost purely novel old-yet-new understanding of the meaning of the liberal arts.

It had two essential elements. First, that students should be encouraged in the study of the classical liberal tradition, beginning with the history, philosophy, literature, poetry, and rhetoric of the Greeks and the Romans. Particularly, these included Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Cicero, as well as the Bible, which Coolidge called “the classic of all classics.” Modern science, mathematics, and history, in addition to the poetry of Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare, were also essential.

Coolidge argued that it would be an egregious mistake, one that would destroy the source of all human happiness and prosperity, to assume that a change in circumstance or an advance in condition relieves society of the necessity of a classical education. No one now alive has a keener capacity to know the good, the noble, and the true, than the minds that made a civilization at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Nor has the intellectual quality of Shakespeare and Milton been surpassed. He saw around him a tendency to enthrone the modern mind as superior, and he spoke against it.

On the other hand, Coolidge clarified, “we do not wish to be Greek, we do not wish to be Roman. We have a great desire to be supremely American.” We must “search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions,” and understand them as they understood themselves, because “a great people is produced by contact with great minds.”

He treasured the classics while also seeing as crucial that students be educated in the meaning and significance of America, through a study of the words and deeds of the country’s leading statesmen, particularly the Founders and Abraham Lincoln. Coolidge believed that the classical liberal tradition, which began with the Greeks and Romans, culminated in America.

The great American works—and he lists among them Washington’s Farewell Address, Webster’s Reply to Hayne, and the Gettysburg Address—should be taught alongside the classics of antiquity. The teachings of America, combined with those of the classical thinkers, in other words, constitute the whole of a proper liberal arts education:

All these and more I mean by the classics. They give not only power to the intellect, but direct its course of action.

Almost a generation later, in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower, in creating the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said that this new federal education department would “nurture for us the possibility of a thousand Franklins and a thousand Lincolns in a generation.” Although we may admire the boldness of the prediction, if not the possibility of the result, especially if the last 60 years is any indication, Coolidge’s educational goals were always much more moderate and realistic than this. The object was not to create “a thousand Franklins and a thousand Lincolns” but to teach students about Franklin and Lincoln.

Realize the Real Purpose of an Education

The “chief end” of education was “to teach man to think” and “how to live.” Education, according to Coolidge, was “the handmaid of citizenship” and “the cornerstone of self-government.” In other words, the real direction and purpose of all learning, for Coolidge, was the formation of excellent human beings and excellent citizens.

His 1920 “Supports of Civilization” speech, delivered before his fellow Amherst alumni during his governorship, opened with a statement that perfectly captured the real purpose of an education:

The process of civilization consists of the discovery by men of the laws of the universe, and of living in harmony with those laws. The most important of them to men are the laws of their own nature. This is education, the method whereby man is revealed to himself. It is the instruction of his understanding, the training of his sentiments, the direction of his action. It discloses the physical and the spiritual, the unseen and the seen. It includes every human relationship and shows forth every duty. It is alike the source of the intellectual and moral force of all mankind.

Calvin Coolidge, who by the way was the only U.S. President to have been born on Independence Day, July 4, and who began his schooling on Constitution Day, September 17, was the American par excellence. And so it should come as no surprise that his advice on seeking an education had a distinctly American flavor to it. At the same time his thinking had a universal scope; it was and is applicable to all mankind. We Americans, and the world, might still benefit from his salient, and not-so-silent, advice.