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.
Thanks for sharing your reflections on this. I am a passionate proponent of public education and it is interesting to read Jefferson’s articulation of its purpose.
I’ll be honest–until I visited Washington, it didn’t really occur to me to dig that far back into our history. What I had learned in grad school about the roots of our educational system led me to believe it wasn’t very relevant any more. I’m glad to find out I was wrong about that.
“to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”
I agree. However, if I judge that my child’s future is most secure by having religion integrated into his learning/curriculum/worldview, I cannot gain that from the public school [anymore]. That is why I work in, and my children will always attend, a private school.
Perhaps one day when we stop telling students WHAT to think and start teaching them HOW to think, teaching religion in public schools won’t be a problem because students will be able to discern truth and decide for themselves.
Presumably, when you say that “teaching religion in public schools won’t be a problem,” you’re referring to a comparative religions course that would include all of the world’s past and present major religions and philosophies, monotheistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic, from the dictates of Ra and Zeus through Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohamed, to the current (three, I believe) living men who claim to be The Messiah or Allah’s Voice, including reading of devotional poetry from Sappho, the Vedas, and the Psalms. After all, if you were to restrict their instruction to a single religion (such as Christianity), or worse yet, to a single tradition within a religion (such as Roman Catholicism), you would be guilty of “telling students WHAT to think” rather than “teaching them HOW to think”.
Well said…thank you for this post.
Consider also the following. The Land Ordinance of 1787, which set up the system of square townships 6 miles by 6 miles across the territory that was the Northwestern part of the nation at that point (OH, IN, MI, IL, and WI) established that the 16th of the 36 square miles was to be for purposes of public education. This is under the much maligned Articles of Conferederation.
Thank you for this post. I agree with “If we lose the “public” in school, we lose the public.” I work with high poverty public schools around the country. Privatizing public schools means that some of our brightest poor children will be left out. I’m working on a post about teaching to the test where the test as a “one size fits all” type of test does not reach many poor children at http://barbarabray.net — if we differentiate instruction, maybe we need to differentiate assessment so it makes sense to the different learning styles and variables that our children live with.