- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

The issue of education is at the heart of the current presidential campaign. While Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush differ on specific education initiatives, they agree on one central point: Quality education is essential to furthering national well-being and global pre-eminence. The vice president calls the quality of education "no greater test of our national responsibility" while Mr. Bush cites the goal of education reform as "not just to shun mediocrity [but] to seek excellence."
Concern about education is not new to our political campaigns or to citizen concern, but its urgency at the beginning of this new century is obvious. Higher education, moreover, has become not just a "leg up" but a necessary step for advancement and success. The last several decades have witnessed a rapidly growing percentage of our nation's youth continuing their education beyond high school. But we need to be concerned with what our best and brightest are doing with what they learn, especially those who have the advantage of a liberal arts education and comprise our future generations of leaders and thinkers.
It is the goal and advantage of a liberal arts education to appreciate learning, and indeed to love it for its own sake. It is important to learn how to think, as well as what to think. This is the foundation of an educated man or woman.
The focus on college merely as a career-directed stepping-stone to money and millionaire status by age 30 is sobering. It is leading many of our best young people, and the example they set, away from considering education as a way to develop one's intellect as opposed to one's pocketbook.
The clues are everywhere even among our very best students that too many eyes are on the dollar sign. Even Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's premier organization recognizing undergraduate academic scholarship, will soon enter its 225th year with a rich history, but a future that needs reinforcing. Acceptance into The Phi Beta Kappa Society and awarding of its key is the end of a process of rigorous selection, and has always been a symbol of unique academic honor and excellence. But there seems to be a growing trend among some of today's youth who would qualify for membership to view it as "beside the point" to a fat paycheck after school.
We are moving away from a true appreciation of what it is to be a learned contributor to society in the mold of those who challenge boundaries. Too often it seems that today's youth idolize and even idealize only the "dot com" legends and even then only for their proven earning potential instead of for their success in pushing the envelope of innovation. (Thomas Jefferson, who attended William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa's original home, did not make his fortune writing the Declaration of Independence.)
A recent survey of 605 Phi Beta Kappa college seniors revealed, for example, that less than 15 percent were interested in going into public/government service and more than 80 percent cited salary considerations as a major concern in not pursuing this avenue.
Clearly, a comfortable wage is not unimportant and government, teacher, and public sector salaries need to be recognized competitively and the professions valued rather than undervalued. But if we focus only on money, we are losing not only our soul as a society, we are also losing sight of the true value of education.
The love of learning is one of the most powerful values we can teach the generations to come. It has been a backbone of American pride and achievement and essential to freedom of thought and individual liberty. It is the envy of other societies that seek the kind of freedom of inquiry we have. Lose that and we lose something very principled and very American.

John Hope Franklin is professor emeritus at Duke University.

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