Remarks by Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Jr. delivered at the Bowdoin Prize Ceremony
October 13, 1995
Story posted October 13, 1995
I've had a lot of luck in my life. My mother was an immigrant from Lebanon. She could not read or write English. My father was the orphaned son of Irish immigrants. He left school after the fourth grade. Their central goal in life was the education of their children. They knew the hard life of those who lacked learning. They wanted something better for their children. They had a profound, even an exaggerated belief in the value of education. So they worked long and hard to ensure that we could go to college.
My brothers preceded me to college: two on basketball scholarships, one in a naval officers training program at the end of the Second World War. By the time I graduated from high school, in 1950, especially hard times had hit our family. Early that year my father lost his job. For a full year, with rising anger and declining self-esteem, he searched in vain for work. Fortunately, my mother continued to work as a weaver in a textile mill on the night shift. That kept us going, but it was a difficult, tense year. Understandably, for the first few months, there was no talk of college.
One day that spring, my father told me that he had talked with his former boss, a man named Hervey Fogg. My father asked me to go to see Mr. Fogg. I went, not knowing what to expect. Although I barely knew him, he obviously wanted to help me. He told me that he had gone to Bowdoin College and he encouraged me to consider it. He assured me that it wasn't too late to be admitted that year, and that he had already set up an appointment for me with the director of admissions.
A week later I set off for Brunswick. I was 16 years old, totally naive, had traveled little outside of Waterville, had never been on a train or a plane. My parents didn't have a car, so I got up very early in the morning and walked to the outskirts of Waterville to hitchhike to Brunswick. Within minutes, I got a ride. After he heard my story, the driver took me right to the Bowdoin campus. Since I was several hours early for my appointment, I walked back and forth across the entire campus. I can still recall my feeling of awe.
Then I met the director of admissions, Bill Shaw. Although I was very nervous -- as out of place as a fish out of water -- he made me feel at home. When I told him that my parents couldn't afford tuition payments, he was reassuring. "Don't worry," he said, "if you're willing to work, we'll figure something out."
And he did. He helped me with several part-time jobs which, combined with some scholarship assistance, enabled me to get through. Others also helped me.
Among my many reflections on my experience at Bowdoin is this: I don't think I, or anyone else, could duplicate it today. Tuition costs were low then, and jobs were plentiful. Costs have risen so much and jobs have become so scarce that a young person today just couldn't do it. As a result, financial assistance has become crucial to higher education today.
Why was a college education important to me? Why will a higher education be critical to those who live in the twenty-first century? Because, increasingly, success in human affairs will be based on knowledge.
Learning is desirable for its own sake. But it will be much more than desirable -- it will be the key to success in the future whether success is defined as health, happiness, status, wealth, or service to others. The men and women who succeeded in life without an education were an important and heartwarming part of American history in the past century. They will be very rare in the next century, and beyond.
We live in a time of swift and massive change. More than two hundred years ago, our forefathers created a revolution, not just on the soil of North America, but also in the world of ideas. They took the best of ancient Greek democracy and the ideas of the philosophers of the Age of Reason in Europe, and they created a new system and a new spirit. Their ideals -- individual liberty, the sovereignty of the people, the equality of all citizens under law -- have become the world's ideals. The collapse of communism and the triumph of democracy are the signal events of the 20th century.
Yet, as American ideals, American values, American culture, are ascendant in the world, the American people aren't celebrating. They're angry, often hostile, and easy prey for demagogues. Their anger is understandable. The transition through which we are passing creates uncertainty, anxiety, even fear. And for more than two decades, the incomes of most American families have declined or remained stagnant. Most Americans are not better off, and many are worse off than they were in the 1970's. What was once a certaint -- that your children will be better off than you are, a certainty that inspired and motivated several generations of Americans -- is no more.
So just as the American revolution in democracy reaches it zenith, it has brought in its wake unintended consequences. It has marked the end of totalitarian rule for millions of people. But it leaves them without the sense of order and security they had under the old system. Nostalgia for communism has turned out to be one of the paradoxes of our times.
Another result of the democratic revolution has been to deprive us of our enemy. As a result, Americans from many different walks of life, in public office and in private life alike, are seeking new ways to define themselves. For some, it has turned into a search for a new enemy. For some, the newly found enemies include the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and other international institutions. For others, the enemy has become the federal government itself.
There surely is much to criticize about the federal government. There have been mistakes, excesses, waste. But the answer to these mistakes does not lie in total rejection. It lies, rather, in a careful, reasoned, evaluation of its actions, with a view toward keeping what works and eliminating what doesn't.
The response to fear is hope. The response to ignorance is knowledge. The institutions in our society best able to make those responses are those of higher learning.
American's don't lack for information. There's more of it available than ever before. Just a few years ago, there were three television networks and a few independent stations. Now most homes can choose among 50 or 60 channels. Where once the country read a handful of mass market magazines, today there are hundreds of niche magazines catering to every taste and preference.
The dissecting of the national audience is a result of the interplay of the free market system and technology. It gives each American a far wider range of information and entertainment from which to choose. It makes possible the indulgence of more individual interests, reflecting the enormous diversity in American life. But it comes at a price of fewer and fewer shared national experiences. The technology which gives us a choice of information and entertainment also shreds the national audience for news and information. Except for a few spectacular events, we are in danger of becoming a grouping of diverse societies, rather than a nation of people with shared experience and values. America is not a nation only when a hurricane, or a bombing, or an O.J. Simpson trial occurs. The harder tasks of nationhood are done each day by millions of ordinary citizens in their jobs, their schools, their communities. A society and a culture are created and held together by the slow, steady labors which establish values and build communities.
American democracy -- like all democracies -- depends upon informed and rational public debate for successful operation and ultimate survival. When public debate is filled with falsehoods, with wild allegations of conspiracies, when the simple assertion of a charge is deemed sufficient to repeat it over and over, all of us need critical reasoning skills to distinguish fiction from reality, fantasy from fact.
It is only through critical thought, logical reasoning, careful definition and open debate that citizens can hope to see past the blur of information to the realities on which their choices must be made. And it is these reasoning skills that are the most important contribution of a higher education. They provide the crucial lubricant of society, without which contradictory claims cannot be reconciled.
The ability to reason, to think clearly, to examine old assumptions and rebut misleading argument is an essential counterweight to the assault of information and misinformation with which we are bombarded every day. Higher education is the only institution in our society which has as its central purpose the continued re-examination of our society's assumptions, the constant review of our past and the never ending search for a better future.
From the beginning, Americans placed their hopes for the future in education. Our colonial fathers built public schools, and the early Congresses authorized Land Grant colleges to spread the benefit of education throughout an expanding nation. The framers of the Constitution stated the American belief that democracy would survive and individual liberties would be safe only as long as the civic education of the American people was sound. Thomas Jefferson said it best: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, ... it expects what never was and never will be."
I've often been asked what principles guided my actions in public office. They're few and simple. Foremost among them is my conviction that in America no one should be guaranteed success. But everyone should have a fair chance to succeed, to go as high and as far as his or her talent, willingness to work and willingness to take risks, will carry them.
That's why the effort by some in Congress to drastically reduce or eliminate the federal effort to help young people go to college is so misguided and dangerous. The federal government has made many mistakes. But if there's one thing it's done right it has been to make it possible for millions of Americans to go to college who would not otherwise have been able to do so. Beginning with the GI bill and continuing to the present, federal assistance has made possible a better life for millions of Americans, and a better society for all. It will be a tragic mistake to deprive young Americans of the twenty-first century of the same opportunity, out of fear, anxiety, ideology, or for any other reason.
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