Fresco at the Library of Congress

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.

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1817)

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:

Educate and inform the mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787 (first two sentences) Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816 (last sentence)

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:

The general objects [of a bill to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people] are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia; emphasis is mine) 

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.