Image: Your Little Planet
Public education’s rightful role is as the Fifth Estate next to the Fourth Estate, the Press, as pillars of our government. The judiciary, legislative and executive being the other three Estates. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in their writings on education knew it was crucial for the success of the country that all citizens (then it was white males) be well educated to use their knowledge to check the power of tyrants.
James Madison had tremendous vision, and steadfast hope that knowledge would triumph over ignorance when he said in a letter to W. T. Barry about a bill for Kentucky public education in 1822, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance”. Today, we are finding out if his vision can be held up as true or will demagogues and tyranny rule the day through ignorance. Madison focused on the means of acquiring knowledge as proving the power to overcome tyranny. “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. He saw that the people must be armed with knowledge to have leverage over their rulers. “And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Education provides the way for the intellectual development of all people to discern the truth from untruth, coming from any individual or the press. They gain the ability to lead themselves and to discern policies and leaders that are basing their ideas and plans on truth rather than fiction.
Thomas Jefferson sponsored a bill for public education in the Virginia legislature when he was Governor and wrote the following preamble to the law:
“Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” (Underlining is ours).
The law, The Act to Establish Public Schools, was presented to the House of Delegates in 1778 and 1780 but was not passed until 1796, when Jefferson was serving as US ambassador to France, with continuous lobbying by his friend James Madison.
Jefferson was adamant that education was the antidote to tyranny when he wrote George Wythe on August 13, 1786 (the bill still had not passed, and would not for 10 more years), “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.”
The relationship of freedom and learning was a closely held view by Madison as well when in 1822 in his letter to W.T. Barry he said, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?”
Madison continued in his letter to Barry that the poor should be in public school as well paid by the rich, “Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a System which unites with the more Learned Institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire Society the education needed for the common purposes of life…that it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expense for the education of his children, it is certain that every Class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements.” He advocates that the property of the rich be taxed to support public education for all. Yet, in Europe education today is primarily funded by national governments. It is likely that Madison after experiencing the tyranny of the King of England did not want the national government as the source of funding for educating people on how to discern the truth from untruth expressed by national leaders.
To create a sense of the common good is to understand the views of immigrants he astutely observes, “An acquaintance with foreign Countries in this mode (learning institutions), has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travellers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings.”
Two hundred and twenty years ago since passing the Virginia public education act our country has changed the focus to educating, women, minority groups, and all members of society to be better informed, discern the truth and select democratic leaders.
Yet, how well has public education performed in its role to create the common good? Next week, we will look at measuring public education achievements and failures in building a more democratic society.