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Education that Works 2

Classical, traditional education creates wiser voters.

By Will Offensicht  |  February 23, 2012

The first article in this series pointed out that one way to address our problem of uneducated factory workers would be revive the apprentice / indenture system.  In return for employer-provided education, young people would agree to work at below-market rates for some period of time to pay back the training cost.  This centuries-old system fell into disuse when governments took over responsibility for paying for children's education.

We also observed that the entirely-privately-funded part of our education system works quite well.  Kids who go to private schools or attend public schools in wealthy areas where parents elect school boards which supply quality education are pretty well guaranteed to join the upper 10% if not the top 1%, but many kids are stuck in abysmal public schools and end up uneducated.

The Wilson Quarterly explains how our public education system originated:

American public education traces its origins to 1647, Gene Maeroff of Teachers College, Columbia University, writes in School Boards in America (2010). That year, the Massachusetts Bay Colony mandated that every town within its jurisdiction establish a public school. Committees sprang up to run the institutions. In the 1820s, the state of Massachusetts made the committees independent of local governments, establishing the model for the autonomous school districts that exist throughout the country today.

The U.S. Constitution left authority over education in the hands of the states under the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to them all powers not explicitly given to the federal government, and the states passed that authority on to local school boards, reflecting both the localistic tenor of American life and the nation’s skepticism of centralized authority.

Massachusetts Puritans spent tax money specifically so kids could learn to read the Bible, which was essentially the only book widely available at the time.  The King James Bible had been published in 1611.  Generations of scholars such as Wycliffe and Hus has been burned at the stake for the crime of translating the Bible into the "common tongue."  Kings and other authorities had recognized that if common people could read the Bible, they might disagree with their rulers over what it said and might want a voice in how society ought to be conducted.

The Puritans recognized that the sacrifices of generations of scholars who struggled to make the Bible available would be for naught if kids didn't learn to read, so they set up publicly-funded schools.  Teachers believed that God Himself would blame them if their students failed to read the Bible and labored accordingly.

In the early years of the United States, The US Congress got involved in making sure that the Bible would be available in schools:

On January 21, 1781, Robert Aitken presented a "memorial" [petition] to Congress offering to print "a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools."  After appointing a committee to study the project, Congress acted on September 12, 1782, by "highly approv[ing of] the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken."

This shows the difference between "training" and "learning."  Knowing how to read the Bible didn't make you a better farmer; Biblical knowledge had nothing to do with earning a living.  Reading what the Bible said about ethics and morality made you a better person, however, and this was considered to be extremely valuable by taxpayers of days gone by.

The concept of acquiring knowledge which would make you a better person was the foundation of what used to be called a "classical education."  People who could afford it studied Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, and other classical writers even though these thinkers had nothing directly to contribute to earning a living.

Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of England from 1957 until 1963, had a classical education starting with Greek and Latin lessons in childhood.  He was interviewed on American television after his retirement.  The interviewer asked him the value of a classical education.

The value of a classical education is that if you've read all those ideas, you can tell when someone's talking rot.  Government is full of clever young things who can solve all the world's problems if only you'd give them a few hundred million pounds.  You don't need to know all that much about what they're talking about if you've had a classical education because you can tell when they're talking rot and not give them any money.

That's what our founders meant when they pointed out that our Constitution wouldn't work for an uneducated people.  Politicians are always talking about this wonderful plan and that amazing program.  Most of their ideas were tried long ago and are known not to work, but uneducated voters don't know any better and vote for whomever promises the most free candy.

Don't Skip the Dead White Males

The Occupy Wall Street movement shows what happens when people don't read "the classics."  Having skipped Plato, Socrates, John Locke, Jefferson, Franklin, Shakespeare, and the multitudes of brilliant men and women who articulated various visions of what society ought to be, they can't state any coherent list of changes.  It's clear that they don't want the present system, but the Occupiers can't say what they do want.

The New York Times described the Occupy protests thus:

My own [David Brooks] theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition.

It takes brilliance coupled with many years of study and discussion to state a consistent set of principles by which society could be organized.  The American Founding Fathers had studied Greek and Roman history.  They knew why the Athenian and Roman democracies collapsed into tyranny.  They were some of the smartest men ever assembled.  Yet it took them nearly a decade to write the Declaration of Independence and put together a Federal Republic based on our Constitution.

They couldn't have founded America if they'd had to invent their ideas of government from scratch.  As Sir Isaac Newton put it, "If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Human beings have been organizing tribes, families, villages, baronies, kingdoms, nation-states, and international governments for centuries.  Many of the ideas which were tried in the past have been written down and the results are plain to see for any serious student of history.

The Times blames our educational system for the general ignorance which abounds in young people:

If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain — then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.  [emphasis added]

The Occupy movement is fizzling because, as the Times put it, "rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm."

Scragged's vision is that Americans have abandoned the Constitutional principles on which our federal government was founded.  We welcomed the Tea Party's emphasis on getting back to limited federal government and an expanded role for the states.

Why?  Because our Constitutional principle of a limited Federal government is known to work, whereas welfare state democracies, starting with the Athenian democracy through the Roman republic and on through history to Greece, Spain, and Italy in our present day, are known not to work.  As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, "The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."

Our founders pointed out that our Constitution required an educated electorate.  That's because welfare programs sound good.  It takes a classical education including thorough study of history to know that they won't work.

Politicians don't have to fool all of the people all of the time, or even most of them most of the time; they merely have to fool a bit more than half at election time.  We'll see how many uneducated voters are fooled in 2012.

Having demonstrated the value of a classical education in being able to tell when our leaders are talking rot, the next article explains why our educational system arouses so much contention and explores the no-cost educational opportunities which are available to anyone with an ounce of diligence and perseverance.