From Taking in the World to Transforming the Self
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WE AMERICANS HAVE strong yet ambivalent feelings about education. We believe in its necessity, but we aren't sure how to measure its success. We know it's important for our economy and culture, but we don't trust what it does to our kids. We are as committed to learning as we are to freedom, but we are made nervous that too much learning, like too much freedom, can be a form of corruption. Every week the newspapers, magazines, and blogs are filled with stories that display the dysfunction of our K-12 educational system; we read about good schools striving to produce high scores rather than well-rounded students and about poor schools being punished for their failure to be located in affluent neighborhoods rather than helped to cope with their perilous positions in an ecology of poverty.
The discourses concerning higher education are just as conflicted, though the issues are somewhat different. Those students who manage to finish a four-year degree (even if it takes five or six years) are usually very satisfied with their college experience. Whether they go to a large public university or a small residential college, many of these students will look back with appreciation on their own intellectual and social growth during this period of their lives. Of course, there will be questions about the costs of those years. Was the investment as thoughtful as it should have been? Did the college years "pay off" enough in the long run? The numbers most frequently cited underscore that a college diploma will usually result in a significant wage premium for most people. But each family is left to wonder whether its own investment in a college education was a wise one, and as a nation we still wrestle with the question of what such an education is really for.
Of course, millions of students don't even start four-year programs, and most of those who begin two-year community colleges never earn a degree. Many students acquire more debt than they can afford, along with frustration and a sense that the system failed them. They wonder whether they should have expected to get a college education in the first place. They wonder why education matters, especially if it wasn't effective job training.
The questions raised about education in America today are not new, but they do have an urgency about them, an urgency born of the particular economic and social conditions of our time. After decades of self-confident military and economic supremacy, American official culture seems gripped by a sense of impending doom, or at least by a feeling that our children will likely have fewer opportunities than we have had. As has happened periodically throughout our history, American optimism is once again being tested.
Education depends fundamentally on our ability to generate optimism and find reasonable (defensible) ways to sustain it. When our faith in the future is shaken, whether it be by technologies we don't understand, economic competition that undermines job security, or cultural forms that challenge our sense of identity, we often criticize education as having failed to prepare us for our current predicaments. And so it has been since the Puritans first set up schools in the New World.
We start our consideration of liberal education not with the Puritans, though, but with the founding of the United States. As our democratic experiment was being launched at the end of the eighteenth century, so were debates about the importance of education. The key figure here is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. Jefferson himself had an insatiable appetite for learning, and he was convinced that only by educating its citizenry could the new Republic steer a course between the hazardous rocks of governmental tyranny and popular anarchy. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and for him this meant faith that the accumulation of knowledge would improve public and private life. He was committed to a view of the United States that vested power and authority in the people (at least the free white men), and he was acutely aware that the health of the new polity was dependent on those with authority being educated in how to use it. Thus the education of the people should be the responsibility of a government elected by the people. This would create a virtuous circle of learning and a citizenry thoughtful enough to protect itself from governmental overreaching.
In the eighteenth century, there was little to support the idea that education was a governmental function. European traditions gave the church or the family the responsibility for education, and the nature of instruction much depended on the denomination with which one was affiliated. Generally speaking, the Protestant emphasis on reading the Bible for oneself demanded basic literacy, and this had had a profound impact on expanding the capacity to read to the popular classes. The New England colonies extended this movement into the political sphere by using tax dollars to pay for schooling. In addition to enabling one to read the Bible, schooling was seen in political terms because an educated populace would be able to make judgments about those who wielded authority over them. Literacy was the key to acquiring information, and the ability to thoughtfully consider that information was a basic requirement of membership in the community.
The emphasis on education was not confined to the colonies in the Northeast. Although they disagreed about many important political issues, John Adams and Jefferson saw eye to eye on the necessity of education as a foundation for maintaining freedom. "Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people," Adams wrote, "arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion." Americans could be proud, he thought, of their commitment to learning: "A native of America who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake." Jefferson was similarly committed to the idea that knowledge was freedom and that literacy was the basic foundation of knowledge. Like Adams, he believed that the government could do most to protect freedom by promoting an educated citizenry.
There was, however, considerable resistance to the idea that education should be a governmental project. Insofar as one thought that education and religion should go hand in hand but also that public authorities should not promote any specific religious belief, then one would not want secular state officials interfering with schools. Education was a moral process, many believed, and it should not be divorced from ecclesiastic powers. Then there were those who were skeptical about the government's ability to promote education in the name of freedom and independence. Would not a government have every incentive to use publicly supported schools to indoctrinate citizens into slavish obedience?
For Jefferson and Adams, the best protection against indoctrination was more education. Only an informed citizenry would be able to see through the ruses used by governmental authorities, and exposure to the competition of ideas would allow citizens to judge who could best represent their interests. Adams, we might say, hedged his bets in this regard. Though he invested mightily in the importance of the people being able to critically evaluate information, he also supported an architecture of government that would force regular compromise among competing groups, or orders: "Orders of men, watching and balancing each other, are the only security; power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.... Religion, superstition, oaths, education, laws, all give way before passions, interest and power, which can be resisted only by passions, interest and power." Adams believed in education in the long run, but he wanted to be certain that checks and balances and layers of representation would prevent any particular regime from going too far too fast.
Jefferson had a more idealistic notion of an educated citizenry as the guardian of freedom. The major goal of his education proposals was "to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." The political and moral core of education was cultivating the capacity for independent judgment so as to be free from external coercion. "Man, Jefferson, believed, is most free when he is most nearly or completely self-sufficient, hence his education must be concerned with developing such inner resourcefulness." All citizens should develop this capacity, and some of them would go beyond it to develop lives in which they pursued ideas for their own sake.
Jefferson's concepts of education fell into two main spheres: popular instruction of the citizenry and higher education. He introduced legislation in Virginia in 1779 to address the first issue, On the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, and he founded a university decades later to embody his ideas concerning the second. The legislation never passed, but its principles reverberated in American discussions of education for generations. The University of Virginia at Charlottesville was launched with the strong imprint of its founder, and it continues to thrive today.
Jefferson's On the More General Diffusion of Knowledge proposed that citizens should learn the basic skills for preserving their freedom, for conducting their affairs, and for continuing to learn. Literacy and numeracy were key. It was the government's responsibility to see to this education because only if the people had such instruction could they be counted on to govern themselves. "If we think them [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." This was why Jefferson argued that taxpayers should foot the bill, rather than count on churches or rich benefactors to see to the people's education. Adams, who disagreed with his "frienemy" on many political questions, was of one mind with him when it came to the public's responsibility for education: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must 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."
Access (remember, though, just for free white males) to instruction regardless of wealth was a key component of this Jeffersonian plan. All citizens deserve a decent education. Girls would be included in elementary instruction, though he did not focus on their particular studies. But access was just the starting point. At each level, he planned to determine the most talented 10 percent of the boys, who would then be given the opportunity to continue their work at a higher level. Again, it was crucial that the state pay for those who could not afford to pay for themselves. Jefferson thought that the health of the Republic would depend on its ability to renew itself by finding talent of the first rank, and he was trying to create a system that would find gifted young men who might otherwise be overlooked because they didn't come from the right families. "The best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually," and the state would be able to benefit from "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."
Raking the rubbish for talent who would then be cultivated at the public expense would prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government's powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy, there would always be elites. His notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity, not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation's elites would harden into what he called an "unnatural aristocracy," increasingly corrupt and inept. His plan for the "diffusion of knowledge" aimed to create a basic level of knowledgeable citizens while providing the most talented among them with the ability to become tomorrow's elite—a "natural aristocracy," as he called it.
In Jefferson's system, those talented youngsters culled from the ranks of students in the early years of study would eventually need a strong university at which they could complete their formal education. His legislative agenda for primary education was defeated in the 1790s, however, mostly because the state representatives thought it too expensive. Jefferson continued to believe that universal primary education supported with public funds was crucial, but he could see that the antitax fervor around him made his plans politically unpalatable. So, in his later years Jefferson focused his attention on creating a new sort of university, one that embodied his particular conception of liberal learning. Jefferson had played a role at the College of William and Mary, striving to modernize the school in the wake of the American Revolution and the European Enlightenment. But he discovered how difficult university reform could be, and so he decided it would be more advantageous to start from scratch, founding a new university so that "every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree." He was struggling to separate the new institution both from the influence of religious groups and from the traditions of rote traditional learning that he thought had infected Old World and New England universities. In a report of 1818, he listed the key objectives for university education: "To form statesmen, legislators and judges; to expound on principles of government; harmonize agriculture and commerce; develop reasoning facilities of our youth; And, generally to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves." It was clear that Jefferson wanted his university to produce the leaders, the natural aristocrats, of the new nation. But what did he have in mind in saying that the school would teach branches of science "useful at this day"? And how would one determine "the highest degree"?
These were questions Jefferson had long considered. Shortly after independence, he had supported an effort to launch a national university, a project that even the hero George Washington couldn't bring to fruition. The first president had hoped that a nonsectarian university drawing on all of the states would inspire national unity. A flagship educational institution could achieve an international preeminence that would be hugely advantageous for the new nation. Benjamin Rush had laid out a plan for a Federal University in 1788, with the goal of "acquiring those branches of knowledge which increase the conveniences of life, lessen human misery, improve our country, promote population, exalt the human understanding, and establish domestic, social, and political happiness." When Washington became president, he championed this idea: "A primary object of such a National Institution 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, 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?" But Congress was not willing to ask citizens to support a university with tax dollars, and the desire for a secular institution that would foster national unity ran into opposition on the grounds of regionalism and religion. Those concerned that federal authorities would increasingly lord it over the states were never eager to see a preeminent central university. Those who thought that education without religion would lead to corruption could not countenance an institution of higher learning that did not explicitly rest upon the core principles of Christianity.