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Do graduates understand citizenship?

Education isn't just a ticket to a better job. It's a vital safeguard of democracy.

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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.

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