Thomas Jefferson invented public education, the purpose of which, he said in a letter to John Tyler in 1810, is “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” He believed that education of all children, not just those whose families could pay for it, was essential to the strength of the nation. Public education was intended to activate the potential of everyone.
Jefferson also reinvented the Library of Congress when he donated his personal collection. In a real and revolutionary sense, the LOC became the library of the people. In the South Reading Room, on the left half of the panel on the west wall, Jefferson’s view of Education is illustrated by the quotation:
My family and I visited Washington, DC, and toured the Library of Congress this summer. I was overwhelmed by its scope, not only in physical size, but in its mission: in part, to “sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.” Jefferson felt that freedom of access to all knowledge was a prerequisite for everything America was going to be about.
I also find it fascinating that Jefferson had a lofty vision of public education that would still be considered progressive today. To him, a differentiated, student-centered education is the cornerstone of freedom and happiness:
Critics of public education would have us abandon this vision for a privatized, competitive market driven by standardized measures of adequacy. I question the goal of this market. Instead of developing the minds and buried talents of its citizens, schools would be about manufacturing a productive, compliant workforce. They call this “reform,” but it’s really just a highly-refined version of the system we’ve been building for a hundred years. Consider for example that our curriculum is no longer designed, it is purchased (a topic I will be developing further in a future post).
Who in this new vision of education will be the guardian of the interests of the nation? The protector of freedom and enlightenment that Jefferson sought for the nation’s citizens? I’m afraid that instead of enabling people to see that it is in their interest to preserve peace and order, the only interest schools will promote is self-interest.
Students in Shanghai recently blew the international PISA test out of the water. Reformers are telling us it is a wakeup call for American education.
Personally, I don’t want the kind of school that produces results like this. According to an NPR story today, Chinese students are trained to perform on precisely these kinds of measures. Everything is rote. A middle school principal put it this way: “Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We’re not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves.” Performance on the university entrance exam is judged strictly on whether students have memorized the standard, acceptable answers to the questions. Creative, thoughtful answers are penalized.
Public schools are about the public interest. They are about empowering citizens, individually and collectively, to preserve and promote the freedoms and rights our founders argued and fought and risked their lives to establish. If we lose the “public” in school, we lose the public.