One of the founding principles of the United States is public education.
We fought a bloody revolution against England for many reasons, but chief among them was to create a society where all people could be educated.
Certainly we had disagreements about who counted as a person. Women? Probably not. Black people? Doubtful. But the ideal of providing a quality education for all was a central part of our fledgling Democracy regardless of how well we actually lived up to it.
In fact, without it, our system of self-government just wouldn’t work. A functioning Democracy, it was thought, couldn’t exist in a nation where the common person was ignorant. We needed everyone to be knowledgeable and enlightened.
That’s why we have public schools – so that an educated citizenry will lead to a good government.
Our founders didn’t want a system of private schools each teaching students various things about the world coloring their minds with religious dogma. They didn’t want a system of schools run like businesses that were only concerned with pumping out students to be good cogs in the machinery of the marketplace.
No. They wanted one public system created for the good of all, paid for at public expense, and democratically governed by the taxpayers, themselves.
Don’t believe me?
More than any other fathers of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson preached the Gospel of education and its necessity for free governance.
As he wrote in a letter to Dr. Price (1789), “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
He expanded on it in a letter to C. Yancy (1816), “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
James Madison agreed. As the author of the Second Amendment, he is often credited with giving gun rights primary importance. However, he clearly thought education similarly indispensable. In a letter to W. T. Barry (1822), he wrote:
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
“And a primary object of such an Institution [Public Education], should be the education of our youth in the SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT. In a Republic what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty is more pressing on its legislature, than to patronize a plan, for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
For his part, Jefferson had even more egalitarian ends in mind. For him, the most important aspect of public schooling was that it should be open to all social strata of society.
He wrote in his response to the American Philosophical Society, (1808), “I feel … an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”
In short, Jefferson envisioned a public school system that educated everyone regardless of social class or wealth.
This is very different from 18th Century education in the United Kingdom. Rich children went to grammar schools with vastly different curriculums for boys and girls. But the poor were left to their own devices. Though many English towns had established charity schools – sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of children’s uniforms – there was no general law guaranteeing an education to the poor. Moreover, most schools included religious instruction, usually that of the Church of England. Children who belonged to other denominations often went to their own academies. In many cases, a formal education was eschewed altogether in favor of a 7-year apprenticeship for a trade or working at home.
So what Jefferson and others were proposing – free, secular education for all – was revolutionary.
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
The result of such a national commitment to public education was immediately felt. Schools were built quickly throughout the country but especially in the more urban North. By 1800, the literacy rate exceeded 90 percent in some regions – extraordinary for the time period.
Data from indentured servant contracts of German immigrant children in Pennsylvania show that the number of children receiving an education increased from 33.3% in 1771–1773 to 69% in 1787–1804.
By 1900, there were 34 states with compulsory schooling laws; four of which were in the South. Thirty of those states even required attendance until age 14 or higher. As a result, by 1910, a full 72 percent of American children attended school. By 1918, every state required students to complete at least elementary school.
And these schools became increasingly public. Though the Colonial period was marked by more private schools than public, by the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. This was just as Jefferson had foreseen.
He believed there was a place for private enterprise, but education wasn’t it. In his sixth Annual Message (1806) as President, Jefferson wrote:
“Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”
In other words, Jefferson saw room for some aspects of schooling to be private such as selling books, supplies, etc. Some things are accomplished better by private enterprise, but not all. Only the “ordinary branches” of schooling can be best served by “private enterprise.” The roots of the tree, however, must be public. It just makes sense, after all. You wouldn’t run a business like a school. Why would you want to run a school like a business?
He stressed that only an institution focused on the public good, only a public school system, can provide the best education. And he again stressed its necessity for the health of the entire country.
In Notes on Virginia (1782), Jefferson wrote:
“An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.”
Truly, the founders saw public education as a way of stopping their new nation from becoming as corrupt as England. By spreading the vote to more people, it was necessary to increase the education of the citizenry. That way, it would be difficult for special interests to sway the government unless what they were proposing was for the good of all.
Chief among the corrupting influences of English education was religion. It wasn’t that our founders were irreligious. They were skeptical of dogma, of the close relationship between church and state in the United Kingdom and how the one was used to enforce the other.
As Madison wrote in a letter to Edward Livingston (1822), “Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
Jefferson made this clear in his letter to Thomas Cooper (1822):
“After stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences… And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”
In other words, Jefferson desired those interested in religious matters to broaden their knowledge beyond their own belief system. It was essential that American minds were not closed by strict canonical religious instruction. He saw this as necessary to the exercise of free government.
One can only imagine at what horror he would regard the modern voucher system, where tax dollars are used to fund parochial schools teaching just this same primacy of doctrine in the formation of students’ worldviews. He wanted Americans with open minds full of competing ideas, not mentalities instructed in the one “right” way to act and think.
And the cost of providing such an education – though considerable – was worth it.
Ben Franklin (as later quoted in Exercises in English Grammar (1909) by M. A. Morse) allegedly said:
“If a man empties his purse into his head no man can take it from him. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Adams concurred in his 1776 Papers:
“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”
And Jefferson in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell (1816) wrote, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”
Moreover, as a man of wealth, himself, Jefferson had no problem bearing the burden of the cost of a robust public school system. In his Autobiography (1821), he wrote, “The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor.”
How far we have strayed from these ideals.
Our current policymakers are doing just the opposite of the founders. They skimp on education, slashing budgets especially for the poor. They seem to champion both private schools and ignorance. Education is not a necessary public good – it is something to be hidden and kept away from the masses.
Today’s policymakers and politicians seem to actually want voters to be uninformed so they’ll vote for ignorant lawmakers and bad policies. They’ll vote against their own interests.
This goes against everything our founders stood for. It is counter to the ideals of the American Revolution. It is un-American.
There is nothing more representative of the ideals of our nation than the public school system. And anyone who attacks it attacks the heart of the nation.