To my friends and colleagues:
I have been asked to write a report reflecting upon my 20 years as Director of the State
Council of Higher Education and upon issues that I think are critically important to the future of
higher education. I have done so.
My thoughts are, of course, shaped by my work in Virginia higher education and also by
my earliest experiences with educational opportunity and intellectual excellence. My admission to
Yale College just over 40 years ago was a kind of affirmative action for the time and institution:
graduate of a working class high school rather than a New England prep school, needing full
scholarship support, the first in my family to attend college. I have never forgotten the
opportunity, and perhaps because of it have spent most of my professional life working to provide
high quality advanced education for as many people as possible.
Through ignorance and naivetè I missed much of what one of America's most prestigious
universities offered. But I believed what the faculty told me: that Yale was an intellectual
adventure. And I acted accordingly. I thought it mattered greatly that Socrates paid his debts
before he died; that a lens-maker named Spinoza accepted expulsion from his community of faith
in order to do philosophy; that Pound's betrayal of his craft was as significant as his betrayal of his
country; and that Dickinson tasted a liquor never brewed. I tried to understand what these men
and women, and others, were about. Ideas matter. I took them seriously, and I still do.
Colleges and universities are places where learners, faculty and students alike, work to
understand what has been said and done, and create new knowledge. I remember rare moments
in seminar rooms or library carrels when an idea suddenly came alive. The reward was a prize
beyond all expectation. They are intense moments when a special kind of learning occurs, "peak
experiences" of a special sort. Anyone who has experienced such little epiphanies is fortunate.
I do not think I was wrong to regard college as an intellectual adventure, although many
did not then and do not today. Colleges and universities provide many essential services to the
people of Virginia and the nation. They help women and men prepare themselves for work and
economic self-sufficiency. They solve technical problems and create knowledge that improves the
human condition: better food, cleaner air and water, life-saving medicines and procedures -- the
list goes on and on.
But in the end, the highest purpose of all education is to help people learn how to live in
the world -- how to live what Aristotle called a "good life." This purpose complements and
fulfills the practical aims of education. The well-educated person not only has acquired skills and
knowledge, but knows why she has acquired them and what to do with them for the common
After all the job-related courses, the training in computer and other technologies; after all
the cooperative relationships with industry and all the synergies between higher education and
economic development; after all the exploitation of modern communications networks as new
ways to deliver instruction . . .
After all this, if women and men have not learned to choose "good lives" as a result of the
hours or years they spend with us, they will march someday at the behest of demagogues. I am
aware, as is anyone who remembers World War II, that learning in the liberal arts is no guarantee
against tyranny. But minds ignorant of the best that has been thought and said in human history
seem to me to be particularly fertile ground for intolerance and brutality. Liberal education may
not guarantee decent human behavior, but decent behavior is far less likely in its absence.
Education is not a trivial business, a private good, or a discretionary expenditure. It is a
deeply ethical undertaking at which we must succeed if we are to survive as a free people.
The founders of this Commonwealth, who were eminent among the founders of this nation, seem
to have known this more certainly than we do today. As the millennium approaches and we
engage in introspection, as we inevitably shall, we might ask whether Virginians have the
conviction and commitment to make education the single highest priority of government.
I am indebted to everyone with whom I have worked over the years, and to those who
first gave me the opportunity to encounter intellectual excellence. I should liked to have written a
better report, but offer this one for what it may be worth.
Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia
- Gordon K. Davies