The Republic and the Will to Educate
September 25, 2018 by Jeffery Johnston
I recently came across two fascinating quotes regarding education. Both of the quotes express an idea that should motivate us to action and help us to better understand the social and political challenges before us today. Our form of democracy is in danger and our Founding Fathers could tell us why.
Jefferson to Madison
On December 20th, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a short letter to James Madison. While in Paris, Jefferson had been kept apprised of the proceedings and the events in the young United States of America. Madison was the primary author of the new constitution and had valued the counsel of his senior statesman. In the letter, Jefferson included some mundane matters of land sale and a lost parcel of rice. From there he moves into some passing thoughts that have since become of historical importance.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of strong opinions and as such took this opportunity to weigh in on the Constitution, the plan Madison had put together for the government of the new nation. He mentions its strengths such as the division of powers into three branches, the power of taxation in the hands of elected representatives, and the compromise between the large and the smaller states. He then follows that with a lengthy section on his criticisms of the document. Among them is the lack of a Bill of Rights and term limits for the president. He truly was a forward thinking and talented political mind.
Be Sure the People are Educated
Of interest to me is his second to last sentence of the letter. In wrapping up all of the lofty political thoughts Jefferson writes:
“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
In other words, he understood that in order to preserve freedom, people needed to be well-educated. There is an obvious link between education and the preservation of liberty. There was not a provision for education added to the federal Constitution but instead was left to the state (see the Tenth Amendment). Most states in the union now hold a provision for education in their respective State Constitution. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s perspective demonstrates a real and self-evident truth. Our limited representative democracy cannot long prosper among an ignorant mob of thoughtless voters. Jefferson, who had a classical education, certainly recognized the examples from history. He saw that Rome’s republic lasted until “bread and circuses” were the only way to control the mobs. That is, the government had to resort to free handouts and entertainment. Jefferson was right, knowledge is one of the keys to self-government.
Being Necessary to Happiness
What Kind of Education?
The second quote comes from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Jefferson penned the letter to Madison and Madison penned the Constitution that same year. Congress passed the Ordinance and meant to provide rules for governing those territories not recognized as states between the Upper Mississippi River and the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes. The newly established American government needed a tool to provide law and order in the wild “north west.” In that document we find these words:
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Here Congress recognized and codified their understanding of the importance of education for self-government. However, they went farther to point out that it was a certain kind of education.
Not a Value Neutral Education
The writers of the Ordinance clearly established the necessary connection between “RELIGION, MORALITY, and KNOWLEDGE” and “GOOD GOVERNMENT.” The implication was that to promote and preserve self government, people need an education that delivers certain key elements. They recognized that there was a spiritual and moral element to education. To state it negatively, knowledge divorced from religion and morality was insufficient.
The Will to Provide True Education
Our constitutional republican form of democracy is in danger because many of us have lost the will to properly educate. We have collectively decided that religion and morality is not a significant part of education. Our founding Fathers would argue otherwise. They believed a certain kind of education was necessary for the propagation and preservation of liberty. That necessary education included religious (i.e. Christian) foundations and instruction.
Unfortunately, only a small fraction of our society is willing to make the sacrifices to get it. Our society instead accepts and supports a system that is not doing the job previous generations expected. We say we want to educate but our results are demonstrating otherwise. At one time we viewed education differently. This belief, enshrined in so many historical documents, led to the blessings we have inherited. The decline of this understanding threatens the liberty of my children and my grandchildren. May God have mercy on us and grant to us repentance.
A Call to Action
In the meantime, let us pray for our humble attempt to provide classical and Christian education in this community. Pray that God would grow, strengthen, and protect Bradford Academy. We have put our hand to the plow and we cannot look back. This is no easy task and we will no doubt stumble along the way. Nevertheless, the striving and struggling is worth it. Much is at stake. Those that went before us knew it. Let us not lose the will to truly and properly educate.
Peace and grace, J. Johnston