The foundation of civil society is education.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” said Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, our third President, and champion of public education.
Jefferson believed education of all citizens to be essential to both liberty and civil society. “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Jefferson knew uneducated children could become the bane of America. “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”
While Jefferson asserted the merits of public education, it was Horace Mann who led the fight to establish free public schools. In Public Education in the United States (1919), noted educator Ellwood Cubberley wrote, “he will always be regarded as perhaps the greatest of the ‘founders’ of our American system of free public schools. No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, and free.”
Jefferson’s vision was that schools would impart both knowledge and morality, core components of civil society. Mann agreed with Jefferson’s vision but worked hardest to establish the practice of a free education for all.
Ideally, both Jefferson’s vision and Mann’s practice would be the birthright of every American. Sadly, the practice has persisted while the vision has dimmed.
What evidence shall we focus on? Low educational achievement levels? High drop-out rates? Students who don’t know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, much less what they stand for? Violence and immorality among school age students?
Or bad teachers, bad administrators, lack of resources, poor facilities, etc.?
We have allowed cruel administrators, wimpy parents, frenetic do-gooders, and foolish officials to destroy discipline in our schools. We have allowed zealots, educationists, and political correctness to confound and contaminate coursework in our schools. We have allowed regulation, taxation, transportation, dietetics, and athletics to dominate and obfuscate the obsolete organization of our schools.
Some say the fix is to pass a constitutional amendment to better fund the current system.
Others say the fix is to quit holding students hostage in bad school districts, allow teachers to incorporate discipline and work with learning, and authorize schools to offer early childhood education and extend school hours.
As Jefferson warned, our civil society depends on making the right choice.