Liddick: The bulwark of liberty
January 7, 2013
Sunday last I was standing in Thomas Jefferson’s library, considering his views on education. One of his better-known quotes on the topic comes from a letter of Jan. 6, 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Our third president was, in the parlance of his times, an educated man. He spoke not only English, but Latin, Spanish, Italian and French. He wrote in English, French and Latin, and read all three as well as Italian and Greek. From the evidence at Monticello and from his correspondence, his linguistic ability served an intensely curious and wide-ranging intellect; he read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Plato in the original. For lighter fare, there was Colbert’s “On Economic Administration,” Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws,” Andrea Palladio’s “Four books on Architecture,” and the complete works of Shakespeare.
The president was also a prominent researcher, the only American of his time to be elected an associate of the French Institute of Science. His outlook and politics were influenced by the Enlightenment; he thought that rational order ruled the physical world, including the endeavors of mankind. With John Locke, Jefferson thought the workings of this order were accessible to educated citizens, who could use what they had been taught to better understand their fellow humans and the problems facing them, thereby being better equipped to govern in the interests both of the nation, and of individual Americans.
Throughout his public life, the education appropriate to citizens was never long out of Jefferson’s mind. His foremost and frequently expressed concern was that the ambitious and avaricious would eventually control government by exploiting the ignorant and unlettered. As insurance against this, he advocated teaching “Classical knowledge, modern languages…(mathematics and sciences), civil history, and ethics.” He particularly stressed study of the past, reasoning that a polity familiar with the results of Roman politicians’ single-minded pursuit of self-interest in the late Republic would be less likely to grant a modern Sulla or Pompey sweeping powers. He also knew that self government was not a given, but the result of ” habit and long training.”
Jefferson would probably not think very highly of our modern educational system. He would like the fact that it is public – he frequently argued that the cost of education should be borne by the people. He would be pleased by our focus on science and mathematics, but would probably be nonplussed that these are taught without a moral or ethical element.
Jefferson frequently said that education should produce a citizen who was well-informed, logical, capable of moral judgment and armed with virtue – which required inculcation of a deep and abiding love of country. He would be disappointed with much of what passes for history today: a litany of wrongs and depredations committed by the United States at home and abroad, without reference to times, customs or prevailing philosophies, and without balancing these against the country’s accomplishments, innovations and improvements to mankind’s lot.
Jefferson was not a fan of “equal outcomes.” He saw the emergence of an “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” and its education by giving “The highest degrees of education to the highest degrees of genius” as a good thing for the country, its government and its citizens. He saw self-worth as rising from one’s accomplishments, and effort as intrinsically good; he recognized that accolades would come to those who did difficult things well. The message conveyed by an educational system hesitant to differentiate excellent work from mediocre, or students of remarkable from those of modest abilities, would concern him. He might remark that “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”
We could do worse than pay attention to Jefferson today. It may be educational heresy, but rigorous instruction in a limited and focused curriculum might not only allow our school district to perform at greater than its present mediocre level, it would produce Americans able to “… understand (their) duties to neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to them by either …”
But it’s a non-starter. Educational policy – and distribution of the associated dollars – is controlled by a political class apparently interested only in production of easily-manipulated “low-information voters.” Jefferson’s ideal of a well-informed, engaged and virtuous citizenry is a quaint relic, unsuited to the tastes of the modern political Mandarins who control our lives.
Besides, Jefferson’s ideas just don’t fit the times. He’s the guy who said: “To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.”
As we all know, that’s just crazy talk.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.