Founding Wisdom

jefferson mount rushmore“Some good men, and even of respectable information, consider the learned sciences as useless acquirements,” the man wrote. “Some think that they do not better the condition of man; and others that education, like private and individual concerns, should be left to private individual effort.”

The writer? Thomas Jefferson, writing in the August heat during the summer of 1818, in his “Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia.”

These sentences from almost two centuries ago start Jefferson’s rebuttal of this shortsighted perspective. These good men failed to understand that the necessary expenditures “are far beyond the reach of individual means, and must either derive existence from public patronage, or not exist at all.”

Among Jefferson’s many beliefs about education, one is most important: he understood, as some of his peers did and many citizens today still do, that mass public education is a linchpin of democracy. Freedom and liberty rely on the existence of an educated citizenry, one difficult to manipulate, while economic growth relies on the continued advancement of human knowledge.

This particular Founding Father took the long view. Establish strong systems of elementary, secondary, and university education, he argued, and “it cannot be but that each generation succeeding to the knowledge acquired by all those who preceded it, adding to it their own acquisitions and discoveries, and handing the mass down for successive and constant accumulation, must advance the knowledge and well-being of mankind, not infinitely, as some have said, but indefinitely, and to a term which no one can fix and foresee.”

There are, of course, ways to attack Jefferson’s argument. One reader might point to the possibility that he fathered six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, as a personal failure of behavior, and use it to attack his credibility as a guide to how we should spend our revenue. But mixing personal apples with civic oranges is a formal logical fallacy.

Another reader might point to the poor performance of our secondary system or wasteful spending within our entire educational system as a reason why we should cut spending on education or never raise it again. Yet Jefferson would say that this reader actually is unhappy about a failure of public governance and managerial accountability. Why destroy the roots of a public good when the tree could be saved with attentive care and careful pruning?

Dwarfing all these objections is the simple reality that our public education system was a vital component in the creation of the wealthiest, most powerful, and strongest democracy in world history.

Imagine Jefferson’s deep satisfaction if he still were alive to read philosopher Carlin Romano’s recent essay “Is America Philosophical?”

“America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia,” Romano claimed. “The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact.”

We are a free citizenry. This society, a gift to us from previous generations of citizens, men and women, already possesses an interesting and complex story, and this story gets longer and more interesting every year that the society endures. We take what is good from our history and the ideas of our Founders for application in contemporary life, and we exercise our freedom to discard the rest.

Public education and the public funding of education are major reasons why this society broke the shackles of, and remains free of, the aristocratic privilege, rigid class hierarchies, state-imposed religions, and totalitarianism that crippled many other societies.

Nowadays, many citizens apparently fear that the U.S. might one day turn into Europe but also support eviscerating public spending on education. I am afraid that Thomas Jefferson would see those citizens potentially as creators of the beast they fear.

Nick Capo

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.

Posted: Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on May 30, 2012
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About Nick Capo

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.