Public School Citizens: Perish the Thought!

October 8, 2007

by Tammy Drennan 

Terry Roberts says in his article, Government of the People, “They [the founders] knew that the first function of widespread education at public expense was not vocational or moral training; it was preparation for the rigors of citizenship.”

There is an element of truth to this, but as is so often the case, Mr. Roberts either misunderstands or extrapolates for his own purposes.

The founders did indeed believe that one of the main purposes of education was to prepare themselves (and others) for the “rigors of citizenship,” citizenship being the responsibility to protect and manage their liberty and create a freer and better world for posterity.

To do this at public expense, and thus state control, was not something most of them gave dedicated thought to. Those who did often leaned frighteningly socialistic in their education philosophies (i.e., Benjamin Rush).

Most of the founders were privately educated, at their families’ personal expense, as were almost all people of the day. Their education aimed to prepare them to grow in wisdom and be contributors to a better world, to self-direct — not to act as agents for the promotion of the state.

The entering age for colleges of that day was typically the mid-teen years. Students were required to come to college already equipped in the classics, Latin, Greek and even some Hebrew. They achieved this education by way of private schools, private tutoring and what we now call home education.

The primary years (pre-college, usually ages 16 and under) of education focused on history and philosophy, mathematics and science, and languages. Though Benjamin Franklin hardly attended school at all and was one of the few founders who was almost completely self-educated, he recalled studying Latin in school as an eight-year-old (he didn’t like it, but he did remember a lot of it and studied it again later in life).

The purpose of education was to equip young people to explore and understand the meaning of their existence, to define the future and to make existence better for themselves and their fellow citizens. Education was for the purpose of empowerment – of individuals, not the state or industry.

[See: Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic: Scholasticism in the Colonial Colleges by James J. Walsh; Fordham University Press, 1935.]

Without State Schooling

Obviously, the founders were among the better educated of society at that time. Most citizens did not read and write Latin and Greek. But that doesn’t mean the “common folks” were uneducated. Quite the contrary, they took education and their citizenship duty to protect and manage their liberty very seriously.

In his excellent book, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence, Scott Liell points out the high degree of public interest and engagement in politics during the Revolutionary days of our country.

Liell reports that Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, a non-fiction piece of literature that would be beyond the understanding of many college graduates today, became a best-seller, despite few schools at public expense. The city of Philadelphia, where Common Sense was first printed, boasted 27 printing presses, six newspapers and 30 book shops serving a population of only 30,000.

It was estimated that there was one copy of Common Sense for every five inhabitants of America. To put that in perspective, an equal best seller today would have to sell 60 million copies in the U.S. alone. The first Harry Potter book sold a total of 17 million copies in the U.S.

Paine’s pamphlet was rigorously debated among people from all walks of life and is credited with turning the tide in favor of liberation for America.

Besides politics, music, art, theater and literature were all important parts of urban life in early America, and 50 years later – in the early 1800s and before compulsory state schooling took hold – Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured our country and commented that most homes boasted copies of Shakespeare’s works. He commented further that he was astounded at the impressive level of education among the common people.

So, what happened?

Some of the founders addressed the issue of general, pre-college education. Jefferson wrote some about it, and Benjamin Rush was obsessed with it (though, as mentioned before, his ideology on the topic was socialist). But they did not include it in any of our founding documents and did not debate it at any of their many conventions.

Our country expanded and grew and prospered and invited envy and longing for  75 years after its founding before a growing number of ideologues managed to wrest our ancestors’ education from their hands and force their own version on them. And their definition of education was quite the opposite of what Mr. Roberts’ believes the founders envisioned.

What makes a good citizen?

Horace Mann is often called the Father of Public Education. He was the tireless crusader who won the battle of compulsory, state schooling in Massachusetts and set it on its path of devastating reproduction.

Mr. Mann thought a good citizen was a peaceful, clean, moral, hard-working, person content with his lot in life and disinclined to make trouble. Vocational and moral training were just the things to produce this sort of citizen – one who wouldn’t rock the boat, wouldn’t make trouble for the ruling class.

The problem was the plebeians wouldn’t cooperate. They had their own ideas about education, and interestingly, most of them in Boston, where Mr. Mann concentrated his efforts, already had their children in school.

But Mr. Mann and his cohorts were a determined lot, and they weren’t afraid to use the power of the state to force their ideas down the throats of the entire country. The people, they believed, were ill-equipped to produce the proper future for themselves or for the United States. Mr. Mann, et al, knew what that future should look like. They had envisioned it and now they would make it come to life. Citizens would be compliant and would live to serve the state.

So much for citizenship as the power of the people to protect and manage their liberty. Turns out it was meant to be a power of the state, and liberty is at the behest of the state.

Instead of freely educated citizens keeping the state in line, the state works to keep its subjects in line. 

The situation stinks like a rotten pumpkin for the masses but, as you know, most of us have adjusted to the odor. We’ve never smelled the sweet and intoxicating aroma of real freedom. The idea of fashioning our own education, defining ourselves intellectually and socially, is as unthinkable as moving to Saturn.

Compulsory state schooling has failed on most points of Mr. Mann’s vision. It didn’t empty the prisons (they’re fuller). It didn’t eliminate crime (it’s worse). It didn’t make people more moral (they’re less). It didn’t improve the people’s work ethic (it’s worse).

It didn’t make people the sort of citizens Mr. Mann was hoping for, except in one area. It defrocked us of the notion that we own the state and not the other way around. Good citizens serve the state, but Mr. Roberts worries that we’re not good enough citizens, and the state needs to improve us in that area as it has in so many others.

Perish the thought! We cannot withstand much more of this state education and hope to retain our freedom.

The state wants our children – every little part of them – their brains and emotions and bodies and spirits – and now their citizenship. It’s a hungry monster, never satisfied. Our job as citizens is to rein it in, slap a muzzle on it and tame it. That will only happen if we can find the confidence and will to become real citizens and to relegate the state to its proper role – before it “educates” us to death.

Millions of families are already on the path of freedom. But many millions more still struggle with the concept. Freedom can be a scary choice when you’ve never experienced it.

If you’re free, celebrate. If you know someone who wants to be free, help them. If you know someone who has never entertained the thought of freedom, plant a seed. Our children are depending on us.