Tis the season of commencement speeches. At bigger schools we'll look for the celebrity speechmakers and listen for sound bites from the Bills - Clinton or Cosby - along with an assortment of CEOs and novelists and local politicians. Most of their talks inspire, but there has come to be an underlying message that links education, graduation and material success. In our excitement for the new grads, are we putting the emphasis in the wrong place? As we celebrate, we calculate the value of a high school or college degree: We compare tuition with the expected wages and future positions as if that's the transaction in full.
For many people, education is treated as an inoculation against poverty, the guarantee of a good job and a boost up the ladder of success. But now, as we look around the world, we are reminded that what that ladder leans against is equally important.
Our Founding Fathers knew that an educated citizenry was the only means of preserving 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. But democracy is not about "the majority." Rather, it's about the debate.
Invented by the rational Greeks, democracy is about arguing freely in order to arrive at the wisest and most sensible conclusion for a community or a country. "Majority rule" is merely the means of deciding the outcome of the debate. Full debate - not just sound bites or reactions - requires critical thinking; hence the crucial role of education.
We also hear speeches about how lucky we are to be Americans. And we are.
But our freedom is not as guaranteed as we tend to think. Living in a democracy is not a right that comes to us as a freebie just for being born at this geographic address. Debate is the minimum fee to purchase citizenship, and freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with true and open debate.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote our famous Declaration, knew that to preserve the form of government he envisioned America would require educated, thoughtful and discerning citizens. Education mattered to the founder of the University of Virginia because it was going to be the constant and stable ground under the American government, not an escalator to lift Americans to better economic lives.
Jefferson and the other founders valued education not so that the United States would someday lead the world's economy but to ensure longevity for the government they were birthing. It was central to their vision of future generations being able to enjoy 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 can be."
It's easy, in our pressured lives, to forget how fragile our way of life is. We're too busy to vote, to call a legislator or to learn about the countries that we are tussling with. But this very good life that keeps us too busy to be good citizens is at risk. This year, especially, we can see why education is crucial to maintaining a truly democratic form of government.
Education can and should empower citizens to participate in society. If a diploma helps us get a better job or to make more money, that's a bonus. At the heart of mastering reading, writing and rhetoric is the winning ticket that ensures a genuinely democratic way of life.
Diane Cameron, a writer and teacher in Albany, N.Y., is author of the blog WomeninRecovery@blogspot.com.