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


  1. ReverendDraco says

     You have completely missed the point – I assume you were “educated” at a Public School. . .

    Prior to the introduction of “Prussian/industrial Model” schooling, the US enjoyed almost universal literacy. . . since the Mid-1800s, when the Prussian/Industrial Model was introduced, each successive generation has been less educated than the one before – to the point where now, half of all high school graduates are illiterate and/or innumerate. . .

    Schools aren’t in the business of education – haven’t been for 150 years or so – they’re in the business of creating Good Citizens who will be docile Corporate Drones and Cannon Fodder for the Imperial War Machine. Nothing more, nothing less. . .

    • Hwood007 says

      Well the schools north of me are failing big time, they are not meeting any Prussian standards nor any edcational standards.  Too many young kids are not suitable for anything you would want your children  to do and not anywhere near being able to support themselves and pay a little tax.  So we have 70% meeting the standards and 30% in jail, being supported by the 70%. Where is that going to take us.  It is not all teachers, it is also too many single parent households.  Kids are not getting enough support.

      • ReverendDraco says

        They’re not designed to meet any educational standards – they’re designed to create a people just undereducated enough to be docile, yet barely educated enough to operate the machinery which generates Corporate Profits.

        The Free Thinkers and other Individual sorts get drugged or imprisoned – it’s not good for the Sheep to realize that they could be Wolves. . .

  2. Hwood007 says

    I wonder if he addressed the circumstances that lead to tenure or permanet possession of an office?  I know teachers in New York City that are being paid a daily salary for sitting in a room and doing what ever they like.  There are no students in the room as these teachers have been accused of some act that might get a computer programmer fired, but as they, and not the programmers, have tenure, they have to go through a process before they can be fired. The firing process seems to take years and some of the teachers have attended their duties in this room for years and years and have yet to be fired or gone back to teaching.  This is folly. Bad teacher have to go.  The drop out rate of the district north of mine is 30%.  We need thouse kids to pass highschool and some go on to college or trade school.  The country needs them, but they are not an asset to the rest of us and too many of them are in jail, a different type of school. This just breaks my heart, these minds are being wasted.

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