This I Believe

Nason, John W.


  • John Nason talks about the importance of education in creating a just and thoughtful society and adds that he believes these qualities of justice and goodness are an inherent part of the universe.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. John W. Nason is president of Swarthmore College, and one of this country’s outstanding educators. This is what he believes.
When I was in college, I stumbled on a saying of the philosopher William James: “The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” Everybody, it seems to me, has, in varying degrees, a desire to make an impression, to leave some kind of mark behind him. It is part of the justification he needs for life itself. So much the better, James implies, if this mark can be something useful, durable, and good.
There are a lot of ways of spending one’s life for something that outlasts it. The statesman can do it in trying to build a better political community. The minister, priest, or rabbi can do it by giving a clearer meaning to religion. The businessman does it when he builds a business that is bigger than himself. Ordinary mortals, like ourselves, can do it too by spending extra time and energy, for example, on a hospital or a community playground, by believing enough in our families to give our children as much responsible attention as any other career. My way is education, and here I come close to the personal convictions that keep me going.
I believe that it is better to know than not to know. I believe that there are lovely things to be found in this often ugly world, and that a person made sensitive to beauty leads a richer life than one who shuts his eyes and ears to it. I believe that there are possibilities for goodness in every human being, possibilities which can be nourished by education. Of course, there are many educated men and women who never went to college, and some who never went to school at all. To be educated is a state of mind. The high school certificate and the college diploma are incidental. But every teacher labors with the hope that what he does will make life fuller and more valuable for somebody, indeed for a lot of somebodies.
In all these ways of living, we face outwards, concerned with other people. There would be no point to such activities if we did not believe in the value of human beings as such. It is not always easy to find either dignity or worth in the lives of many people. I believe, however, that the capacity for dignity and worth are there, and that it is our task to create the kind of world in which they can flourish.
It follows from what I have been saying that the greatest evil is self-centeredness. As I see it, to live for one’s self, alone, is the real tragedy. Selfishness, intolerance, bigotry, indifference; these sins of the spirit are, in my moral code, worse than the sins of the flesh.
Civilization has been described as a race between education and catastrophe. That was never truer than of our modern world, where we must learn to unite in order to keep—quite literally—from destroying ourselves.
The convictions I have just expressed could be, and are, held by people who have rejected religion in the conventional sense of the term. I would be less than honest if I did not conclude with my personal belief that the values I have been talking about are somehow embodied in the world as we know it. I do not think that courage, gentleness, integrity, truth, beauty, and goodness are the inventions of man.
They are an objective part of our universe which is, in some sense, ruled by God. It is, perhaps, not necessary to believe this, to believe that the great use of a life is to spend it for something which outlasts it; but I find both comfort and strength in the belief that we live in a moral universe.
There you have heard the beliefs of John W. Nason, president of Swarthmore College, and of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.