It is the season of commencement speeches. High schools and colleges near and far are celebrating their graduates by hosting celebrity speechmakers. We listen for sound bites from the Bills – Clinton, Cosby, and Gates – along with CEOs and novelists, college presidents, and politicians.
Most of their talks inspire, but many have also adopted an underlying message that links education, graduation, and material success. It's a message that unwittingly reduces the worth of an education to the expected wages it can bring. It sees tuition not as a ticket to a liberated mind but as a down payment on future income. In our excitement for the graduates, we've put the emphasis in the wrong place.
It is true that for many people education is an inoculation against poverty, the guarantee of a good job, and a boost up the ladder of success. But as we look around the world, we are reminded that what that ladder leans against is equally important.
America's Founding Fathers knew that an educated citizenry was the only means of preserving a true democracy. We get confused sometimes thinking that the core of our democratic process is about how many groups are represented or assuring majority rule. Democracy is a means, not an end.
Democracy is not about "the majority." It's about debate. First adopted by the rational Greeks, democracy is about arguing freely to arrive at the wisest and most sensible conclusion for a community or a country.
"Majority rule" is merely the method of deciding the outcome of the debate.
Rigorous debate – not just sound bites – requires critical thinking; hence the crucial role of education.
This year's commencement speeches will include platitudes about how lucky we are to be Americans. And we are. But our freedom is not guaranteed.
Living in a democracy is not a right that comes gift-wrapped just for being born at this geographic address. You have to earn it. And the capacity for intelligent and civil debate – along with a commitment to free speech – is the minimum fee to purchase citizenship.
This idea is especially important today, as we are enjoying a longer period of debate in this year's presidential campaign.
Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, knew that preserving America's precious form of government would require educated, thoughtful, and discerning citizens.
Education mattered to him and the other framers so much because they understood that education would be the constant and stable ground under the new government, not an escalator to lift Americans to big jobs and high-status salaries.
They valued education not so that the United States would someday lead the world's economy, but to ensure longevity for the form of government they were birthing. It was central to their vision of future generations enjoying a genuine constitutional democracy.
Jefferson wrote: "If a nation expects it can be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
It's easy, amid our pressured lives, to forget how fragile our democracy is. We're too busy to watch the news, to vote, to write our leaders. But this very good life that keeps us too busy to be good citizens is at risk.
This year, especially with war, an election, and the economic crisis before us, we get to see why education is crucial to maintaining a truly democratic form of government.
Education can and should empower citizens to participate. If a diploma can help graduates get a better job or make more money, that's a bonus. At the heart of mastering reading, writing, and rhetoric is the duty and privilege of safeguarding a genuinely democratic way of life.
• Diane Cameron is a freelance writer living in Guilderland, N.Y.