Not School

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. -- Mark Twain

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Founding Fathers on public schooling


    I wanted to write about the history of public schooling for a few posts, because I've recently discovered that the original design and intent of public schools was not at all what I had thought.

    What I had thought was this: We have public education because we want to build an egalitarian, democratic, socially mobile society, and to have an educated populace.

    But some of the evidence of those supposed ideals is a little... off, somehow:

    By... [selecting] the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated.

    --Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

    Yes, he says genius is found equally among the poor and the rich, which sounds noble and egalitarian. But it turns out he only intended to provide secondary education to 20 boys per year from among the poor, and fully educate 10-- and even that was in order "to avail the State of those talents." As Jefferson put it:

    By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually.

    Hmmm.

    He also said:

    Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.

    I think it is relevant to remember that the Founding Fathers to a large extent feared the unwashed masses and the possibility of mob rule. The people cannot safeguard their own liberty "unless enlightened to a certain degree," and thus Jefferson proposed insuring literacy with three years of formal education guaranteed to any boy whose parents chose to send him to public school. But this education was only guaranteed "to a certain degree," since Jefferson also believed:

    The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes -- the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements.

    I think Jefferson was more concerned here with maintaining the fledgling Republic (and the fledgling Republic's economy, perhaps) than with educating the people for their own sake.

    I do think Jefferson had noble ideals, though he was a bit more aristocratic than they tell you about in high school. But some of the Founding Fathers were-- there's no other way to put this-- positively fascist about public education. Consider Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, later a Congressman, and America's most prominent physician at that time. In 1786, he wrote Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, which included these suggestions:

    The principle of patriotism stands in need of the reinforcement of prejudice, and it is well known that our strongest prejudices in favor of our country are formed in the first one and twenty years of our lives.
    ...
    Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.
    ...
    Next to the duty which young men owe to their Creator, I wish to see a SUPREME REGARD TO THEIR COUNTRY [caps in original] inculcated upon them.... Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.
    ...
    In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible.... By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age....
    Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe inculcating students with patriotism, civic duty and obedience isn't so bad. Time magazine, in their feature story on homeschooling, summarized it thusly: "Thomas Jefferson and the other early American crusaders for public education believed the schools would help sustain democracy by bringing everyone together to share values and learn a common history."

    To share values. (Which values?)

    To learn a common history. (Which interpretation of history?)

    If you feel there is nothing at all wrong with these goals, I include the quotes below as food for thought.


    It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.

    --Benito Mussolini; from "The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism," 1932.


    Teachers are directed to instruct their pupils... and to awaken in them a sense of their responsibility toward the community of the nation.

    --Bernhard Rust, Nazi Minister of Education; from "Racial Instruction and the National Community," 1935.

    11 Comments:

    Anonymous Kris said...

    Wow.

    It IS true that a democracy can't be sustained without an educated populace--just look at the shape we're in right now: our population can scarcely be called educated, and what's left of our democracy is on the ropes. But a true democracy requires independent thought, a capability for critical and analytical thinking--and these, it would seem, are often the very qualities that the powers-that-be wish to restrict to a certain class of people.

    Jefferson's scheme surely would find many supporters among the Repugs right now. Under that scheme, "education" means one thing for the masses, another thing entirely for those who wield power.

    Come to think of it, that's what we have right now. Our ordinary citizens can hardly get a decent minimum education, and the conservatives wish to maintain that by underfunding and otherwise undermining public education and restricting access to college. The wealthy, on the other hand, can always afford the best, and "the best" also offers the advantages of the good ol' boy network.

    What a racket.

    April 09, 2005 6:43 PM  
    Anonymous Kris said...

    Another thought: it would seem that every nation has as its purpose to instill a sense of nationalism through education. In France, right now historians are having a fit because of a new law (don't know if it's passed or proposed) that would insist that teachers present France's colonial exploits in a positive light ... you know, all that positive stuff they did in Algeria ...

    Religious schools want to instill orthodox religious belief. State schools want to instill orthodox beliefs about the state.

    Who will speak up for the right of individuals to learn to think for themselves and not in line with some specific agenda?

    When I think back, it wasn't my teachers but my dad who taught me to think for myself (and boy, did that come back to bite him!). Sure, I had some teachers who encouraged free inquiry and independent thought. But I believe it was at home where I learned to think critically.

    April 10, 2005 10:21 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Kris, overall good post but just to let you know, you're caught it what's called the Left-Right Paradigm...the British used the age old divide-and-conquer scheme to rule over the masses in India that outnumbered them in their colonizing efforts. May I therefore suggest to you that your thought that has the essence of, "us v. them" is in fact evidence in and of itself of the programming of the Elite that has taken place in your life as well as everyone else reading these words. To see USa in an "us and them" national social construct divides the strength WE can have as ONE people of the rePUBLIC. The Left-Right social construct is a synthetically, covertly, created cage made for us masses by the current day Egalitarian Elite. For example, global warming is not just about (junk) science, it's yet another social construct made to order, a tool to divide the masses and take the collective power of agreement from USa, i.e. too often we're too involved in "in-fighting" to make positive changes in OUR society, too fixated on how we are different rather than what we have in common and share that common work TOGETHER. From Britain to today, there is nothing new under the sun. The Elite farmers of our present day society take the eggs we lay for them while we all the while are oblivious to their undertaking.

    Concerning spending more on education...the stats do show that more and more does continue to be spent on education year by year only with less and less to show for it. Also, the stats now say that only about half graduate from High School in 35 of our largest cities, so much for spending more money on education, it's time for US to audit the State's failure.

    January 17, 2010 10:57 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I'm glad to see some serious and open debate on this subject; I am 23 years old and over the last few years I've had some of the most rude awakenings from what I thought the world was to what I now see the world is as i try to choose a career, provide for a family, and make crucial choices on education. It is my opinion that education is a lifetime pursuit, and that the role government should play is strictly funding basic education for all, as Jefferson thought, and that the most crucial aim of this education should be to teach people to learn on their own, to seek each opinion, and facts, and use both conscience and reason to search for the truth. I have learned more from those around me willing to share their knowledge and their opinions even if opposed to mine in the last couple of years then I ever did from the curriculum that was forced down my throat by government education. I have since learned to educate myself, and I encourage everyone I meet to do the same, it has given me the confidence and the understanding to break free from the barriers that are put in place by our society and by our government, and helped me to see that just because everyone else thinks I should think or do something doesn't make it right or true. To think independently and base your own life on truth and natural law is the only way to true freedom.

    November 26, 2011 1:46 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    The problem with the school system today is that the government has forced the average American into a government program. When you think of government food do you think of something that tastes good? Why should education be any different? People are forced to pay high property taxes which could have been used to fund private schools for their children. So now only the extremely wealthy can afford to send their children to private schools and opt out of the system. The middle class has been disenfranchised in the drive for equality.

    December 11, 2011 11:02 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    It sounded quite clearly to me that Jefferson meant that in order to keep our liberty we needed to be educated. They were not trying to raise up automatons, but people who could participate in government, that is the only way for our form of government to truly function. Remember in the Declaration of Independence the Founders all agreed that we were all created equal, and that we are capable of ruling ourselves, we no longer needed the king to rule us. How can we rule ourselves if we are ignorant. Therefore educating all people no matter what their background is important so that all people, not just majority, could participate in government. It seems quite plan in his writing that that is what he meant. I don't see any fascism at all in those statements. You have to remember when these documents were written, we were all seen free under God, the soon to be schools all taught with morals and values according to the one judge, God. Look at old school books at you will see this is obvious. History was taught from the perspective of God's story, God's divine providence. That is what the founders believed. It is clear in all of the documents if you really do read all of them, it is clear. They do not compare to Nazi propaganda since the communists religion is atheism, therefore, if they are taught by the government their morals were not from God. I don't think you can compare those two statements, Jefferson and a Nazi. Since those documents by Jefferson, Madison, etc were written, the fear of God has been removed from our society, therefore it doesn't make sense to us today. If you are reading historic documents you have to try to see them through the eyes of the time they lived in to fully understand them. In order to have our government work, you need to be educated about it, and you need to be able to discuss it so that when it comes time to vote, the government works. However, since our schools have forgotten this, they have sunk to the lowest common denominator instead, therefore we don't have capable citizens rich or poor to participate in government, and now we have failing government. Soon it will be a dictatorship once again and you will wish that you truly learned about our liberty that we take for granted now. Apathy simply doesn't work. I think Jefferson was right to want all people from all classes educated, so that both the majority and minority could participate. That is truly wonderful compared to King George who used to rule us as if he was a better than us. With education in the principles of the first Government that promoted liberty, equality, and justice for all ever. Did you hear that? The first ever government run by all people as if we were all equal, it is marvelous, so that We The People could have a clue as to what they are voting for. It doesn't make sense to you because our schools don't teach the basics today, and it certainly doesn't teach truths that are self-evident anymore, clearly if you have to ask what morals? What history? Education has done all of us, the people a huge disservice. My recommendation is to truly educate yourself in the truth and read those old documents with a fresh perspective that our government is freeing if everyone participates correctly and lives in harmony as originally intended.

    January 04, 2012 7:10 PM  
    Blogger anonymous said...

    Keep in mind that when Jefferson penned those words, the US was for the foreseeable future, going to be a country with an agrarian population of around 80% or so...

    February 02, 2012 12:48 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Sirs, I must explain to you that America is not a democracy, nor was it ever intended to be. The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to form a more central government because the people were failing exponentially in governing themselves. America was written to be a Republic similar to that of Rome. Read the Constitution word for word. These comments are exceedingly uneducated in the original roots of American government.

    March 28, 2012 10:34 PM  
    Anonymous Matt said...

    @ Kris said.
    I know you posted your poisonous comment 6 years ago, but I believe it's my duty to tell everyone who might happen upon this wesite in the future the truth about conservatives and education.
    Your comment that stated conservatives want to cut funding to education to keep the masses dumb is complete rhetoric(thats BS for the layperson). The main reason conservatives want to cut educational funding, is to take power and money away from UNIONS.

    Think about it. What purpose do teachers unions fulfill? Once an educator becomes part of a union, there is little they can do to loose their position, no matter how ineffective they are AS an educator. Teachers unions have made it possible for mediocrity to spread within our public school systems much like a disease. More than that, this disease is REWARDED with benefits taken from the school budget by the unions, which then has to be replenished by TAXPAYERS. Now, If the school budget actually went to the EDUCATION OF STUDENTS, conservatives would absolutely change their stance.

    April 04, 2012 10:04 AM  
    Anonymous Matt said...

    @ Kris said.
    I know you posted your poisonous comment 6 years ago, but I believe it's my duty to tell everyone who might happen upon this wesite in the future the truth about conservatives and education.
    Your comment that stated conservatives want to cut funding to education to keep the masses dumb is complete rhetoric(thats BS for the layperson). The main reason conservatives want to cut educational funding, is to take power and money away from UNIONS.

    Think about it. What purpose do teachers unions fulfill? Once an educator becomes part of a union, there is little they can do to loose their position, no matter how ineffective they are AS an educator. Teachers unions have made it possible for mediocrity to spread within our public school systems much like a disease. More than that, this disease is REWARDED with benefits taken from the school budget by the unions, which then has to be replenished by TAXPAYERS. Now, If the school budget actually went to the EDUCATION OF STUDENTS, conservatives would absolutely change their stance.

    April 04, 2012 10:04 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Matt- Quite right. It's ridiculous that teachers demand to be paid a fair wage for performing a service. AND they want to be able to see doctors when they get sick, and retire at a reasonable age? What selfish bastards! We should simply round people up in the street, chain them to desks in our student's classrooms, and make them teach without pay. That way, all of the money from our school budgets could go directly to the children.

    Teachers are paid very poorly when compared with other people with the same level of education. Part of that gets made up in benefits, good benefits, the sort of benefits that EVERY American should have, but, unfortunately, doesn't get, because so many politicians fight tooth and nail against programs that would provide everyone in our country with decent health care and protection in old age. Do you think that lack of job security, extremely low wages, and no health care will attract quality teachers? Teaching is a challenging job that does not pay accordingly. Why would the best and the brightest bother going into education? The money that goes to teachers IS going to students, because providing decent compensation for the job is the only way to attract the people you want. Are there bad teachers? Yes, we've all had them. Is it a problem that they are protected by their unions to the point that they can't be fired? Actually, it's not that hard to fire a teacher, but it is harder than firing an at-will employee, so I guess the answer is yes to that too. Should there be changes made? Yes. But getting rid of teachers unions is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and demanding that teachers sacrifice job security, acceptable pay and good benefits so that we can spend more money on education (are the kids going to teach themselves with their new textbooks?) is nonsensical and, quite frankly, spiteful. These past few years we seem to have turned into a nation of disturbed children: "that person has something better than me! Smash it!" rather than rational adults seeking to better everyone's life.

    June 29, 2012 5:42 PM  

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