UNTIL a few decades ago, it was generally agreed that the most important part of the legacy from one generation to another consisted in a kind of wisdom: In what does the good life consist? What is worthy of one's commitment? What is more important than self-gratification? What is good or honorable or true? The second part of that legacy consisted of knowledge and skill: teaching a younger generation how to make a living, how to master a profession, how to become a productive citizen. But through it all, e ducation was seen as a moral endeavor, not because it sought to indoctrinate but because it was a sharing of things that people held to be important. All of us are aware that the collegiate tradition in this country grew out of such an understanding of education. In the colleges that were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was an ethos, an atmosphere of expectation, embodied in ceremonies and traditions as well as in courses, in which all of these things were fused together and passed on. Education was the institutionalization of what we as a people deemed important.
The wisdom that underlay such preparation, as we all know, was a distillate of the Bible and of the classical tradition, and it included a strong dose of literature. Through those courses and subjects one encountered life vicariously. Reality was served up not in piecemeal fashion but in and through the larger conflicts and tensions, aspirations and dichotomies, hypocrisies and hopes of the people portrayed in that literature. Virtue had a role -- not in a preening self-regarding sense but as the embodiment of certain qualities of life and of their importance for the body politic, qualities such as fidelity, good will, patience, discipline, restraint, promise-keeping. This was a legacy that took precedence over self.
There are some thoughtful testimonies in our own time to the power of that kind of education. Many of us were products of it. Theodore White has written movingly in his ``In Search of History'' of his first encounter, as a young Harvard student out of a Boston ghetto, with John K. Fairbank. He tells how this gangling North Dakotan -- who taught Chinese, of all unlikely subjects -- drew him to himself and taught him how to live in the mannered atmosphere of Cambridge. But beyond that, White says that he remembers Fairbank for having sculpted a rough stone into something that was worthwhile.