National Public Education

The Early Colonists vs.The Founding Fathers on Education

In the debate about how we should structure our school system, we keep forgetting that our views on the importance of high academic achievement have changed over the years.  It may be that our schools have deteriorated to some degree, but the main difference between today and 100 years ago is that we now expect a higher level of academic excellence from them.  Keeping this in mind would help us see more clearly how to improve the schools.

When this country was founded there were many plans for what we would now call a “centralized” public education system.  George Washington wanted to create a national university in Washington, (which would have resulted in a de facto national system of public education) and Jefferson devised an elaborate plan for every school in Virginia.  The Founding Fathers believed strongly in universal, uniform, public education for everyone.  Madison suggested that provisions for the support of public schools be put into the Constitution.

As we know, though, none of these proposals were adopted.  The early settlers didn't want this kind of centralized, top-down, educational system.  That was what they had left in the old country.  They wanted everything funded and controlled through small local districts, most no larger than a town.  The settlers were creating their own towns and cities; of course they also wanted to create their own schools.  Up through the beginning of the 20th century almost all funding for our schools came through the small local districts, not the states or the nation.

And these schools were very successful.  Who wouldn’t choose to study subjects decided on by one’s friends and neighbors rather than the dictates of some national bureaucracy?  When all the school decisions were made locally it was only natural that everyone took part.  America was soon enrolling a larger percentage of its population than any other country, with concomitant economic gains.

But it helps to remember, in our current debate, that these schools were still not as “academic” as the ones planned by Washington and Jefferson.  I realize that it is heresy to say this, but if someone had done an international comparison of academic achievement throughout the world at that time, surely we would have come out somewhere near the middle.  It is wonderful that some of these small town schools taught Latin and Shakespeare, but that is not necessarily the same kind of academic level Jefferson was talking about.  Really great teachers, the kind that have a graduate-school level of knowledge but can relate this to the lowest student, these people are rare.  They don’t show up in every small town.  People did become more educated, but that didn't mean that now they fully understood sine curves and relative pronouns.

Well, you’ll say, that is what we wanted, and it worked for us.  Quite so.  And the proof of this is that we had absolutely no interest in those international studies.  Rich people sent their children to Europe for their education, but they were seen as an anomaly.  We were successful; our school system worked; it was what we wanted.

The problem now is, though, that we seem to have changed our minds.  Now we do care about those international studies, and everyone seems convinced that the schools are “failing” since we are near the middle of the developed world.  One can argue that there has been some overall decline in the schools, but the real change has been that we are no longer satisfied with the academic level we once thought was reasonable.  Now we do want a “world class” level of academic achievement.

And there are many good reasons for this.  In a world market, advanced technology makes a huge difference in economic growth.  Sine curves matter more than ever.  We need more people with the highest level of education, not just a good one.  And other conditions have changed.  Towns are no longer far apart and isolated; we are a much more unified and connected country.   All our new ideas about education are for the entire country, not just the town or even the state.  We seem to want the kind of national, uniform, excellent system of education that the Founding Father once suggested.

So, one might say, what’s the problem?  Our own leaders once suggested such a plan.  We turned away from it 200 years ago, with good reason, but those conditions no longer apply.  Now we need the kind of academic excellence that people like Jefferson proposed.  So, let's do it.  Yes, this might involve some changes in our interpretation of the Constitution, but this has been done before.  It’s what we want.


Peter Dodington

May 20, 2017