While Tea Party Republicans resist any and all government expenditure in the name of preserving the pocketbooks of our posterity, any reader of Paul Krugman’s column will be familiar with the assertion that public debt is not the most immediate threat to our commonwealth. Unemployment, says Krugman, is a far more pernicious problem.
Climate scientists would have us prioritize the unprecedented increase in global temperatures and the concomitant increase of extreme weather. Gun rights activists insist that the encroachments of an overzealous federal government demand that citizens dig in their heels and cling to an unrestricted reading of the Second Amendment as a bulwark of liberty.
This is to mention but a few of the allegedly cataclysmic issues vying for our undivided attention. A return to the priorities of the Founding generation, and of one Founder in particular, may hold the key to addressing all concerns simultaneously.
Hearing of the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, John Adams, who at the time belonged to a private association of Massachusetts lawyers which met to discuss oratory and legal affairs, began to compose “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law.” He would submit this piece for publication in the Boston Gazette, appearing in four installments between August and September of the same year.
The “Dissertation” contained several threads. One of the most uncomfortable for adherents of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty is Adams’ allegation that Roman Catholicism, an alleged holdover from the oppressive alliance between feudal lords and tyrannical clergy during the medieval ages, was incompatible with civil liberty, a threat to the proliferation of knowledge. This strain savored of the preaching of Jonathan Mayhew, a contemporary Congregationalist minister whose sermons vehemently attacked Catholicism.
More constructive, however, was the emphasis Adams placed upon public education and the correlation between the diffusion of learning and the preservation of liberty. In a note which he composed in preparation for his project, Adams remarked, “Knowledge monopolized or in the possession of a few is a curse to mankind. We should dispense it among all ranks. We should educate our children. Equality should be preserved in knowledge.”
Interestingly, while he would go on to speak in this vein at length, an accompanying note concerning the proper allocation of private property made no appearance in the final edition of the “Dissertation.” We can put a number of interpretations on this decision, depending largely on our political outlooks, but I think above all else it speaks to the centrality of public education to Adams’ project.
Those who have seen the seven-part HBO miniseries John Adams will remember Paul Giamatti delivering the following speech to a packed church immediately before his departure for the First Continental Congress circa 1773:
“Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
What is not more generally recognized is that such an anachronistic adaptation actually originated in Adams’ 1765 “Dissertation,” which continues:
“And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and the conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest, and the trust is insidiously betrayed or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed and to constitute better and abler agents, attorneys, and trustees. And the preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all men in the country.”
This seems to me the most coherent expression of what our universities take themselves to be, in theory at least, for better and for worse. The excerpt from John’s Gospel etched onto the UT Tower declares, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Attached to a pillar below the Tower is a declaration of the ultimate goal of the university, namely “To transform lives for the benefit of society.”
Issues arise in confusing this goal with a mandate to provide all children with a four year college degree.
The woeful underperformance of U.S. public schools vis-a-vis other nations is a subject of much discussion, and needs no regurgitation here.
I think we do have to consider the ramifications of this systemic failing when it is compounded by a misguided implementation of Adams’ vision. Many students arrive to college without the knowledge, discipline, or critical thinking skills needed to thrive or even survive in a university environment. Remedial education becomes the norm rather than the exception, and standards are lowered drastically in order to accommodate those who would be much better served by attending a two-year vocational college that would teach them a respectable profession without imposing tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Rather, a robust reform of elementary and secondary school standards, alongside the maintenance of a selective system of higher education, has become imminently necessary. The benefits of an educated citizenry, outlined by Adams’ “Dissertation,” would accumulate, ramifying to ameliorate if not necessarily resolve the issues mentioned at the outset of this post. Unemployment, and by extension dependence upon government outlays, are lower for those in possession of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree when compared with high school graduates or drop outs. Provided the basic tools necessary for civic participation (critical thinking, rhetoric, History, Philosophy, etc.) were cultivated in the K-12 years, adults would theoretically become more vested in evaluating the merits and demerits of various approaches to public health hazards. Most importantly, the barbaric recourse to violence would recede further and further in their mind as a recourse to the abuse of governmental authority, the people having been invested with the resources to hold their leaders to account on paper.
In short, education is everything, a service provided by both private individuals and the government to society with a series of benefits that extend far beyond the classroom. The nation that does not see this is blind, deaf, and dumb, and destined to fail to meet the Founders’ aspirations.