united states

Liberal education and a free society

In a letter, written in 1813, to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson explains the steps taken by the Virginia “legislature after the Declaration of Independance” to eradicate the vestiges of the old world aristocracy that had taken hold on the American landscape.[1] First, he says, they “passed a law abolishing entails” and “this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture.” He claims that “these laws . . . laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat.”[2] This final law, not adopted by the state of Virginia, included as its central component a plan to provide for the equality of opportunity of all people through the discernment of what Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.”[3] Opposing this “natural aristocracy” to the “Pseudo-aristocrac[ies]” of physical strength and inherited wealth and titles, Jefferson saw the cultivation of a true aristocracy as an endeavor essential the continued life and vitality of the new American Republic. By ensuring that all Americans had access to at least a rudimentary version of a liberal education, this natural aristocracy could be cultivated and prepared for positions of leadership in the republic. Simultaneously, the very process by which this natural aristocracy was discerned would allow all Americans to be provided with the foundational knowledge and inculcated with the civic virtue necessary to a citizenry that is able to sustain a free society.

In his letter to Adams, Jefferson then briefly describes the framework of the “Bill for the more general diffusion of learning” he had proposed.[4] His plan would “divide every county” of the state of Virginia “into wards of 5. or 6. miles square.” Within “each ward . . . a free school” would be established “for reading, writing and common arithmetic.” From each of these ward schools, an “annual selection” would be made “of the best subjects . . . who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school.” There would, in turn, be a selection “from these district schools . . . [of] a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught.” By means of this process of common education for all and selection of the best students for higher levels of education, Jefferson says, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”[5] Jefferson sought to supplant the aristocracy of “wealth and birth,” replacing it with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” in a single generation, through his program of public education.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson provides more detail on the plan of education he had proposed, including the sort of curriculum appropriate to students selected for each level of education and the overall goals of this program. While his letter to Adams lists only “reading, writing and common arithmetic” as the disciplines to be taught in the first level of schools, to which “every person . . . [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it,”[6] his Notes on the State of Virginia indicates a decidedly wider purview for the ward schools. “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds,” writes Jefferson, “wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here.”[7] As such, there will, undoubtedly, be a focus upon the basic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic. These schools will also, however, ensure that children’s “memories may . . . be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” The education at this initial stage is, in fact, “to be chiefly historical.”[8] Jefferson explains,

History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

This first level of education is that which will be received by all people. This is, therefore, the stage at which it is most important to instill a knowledge of their heritage and of human nature, knowledge that is essential to the development of the ability to identify and eliminate incipient tyranny.

In addition to this induction into historical knowledge, “the first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds.” This morality, writes Jefferson, is not yet to be that of “the Bible and Testament” as the “judgments” of these young children “are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.” Instead, the morality inculcated in the children should be such as is conducive to the development of that civic virtue which is necessary to members of a free society. It should, writes Jefferson, be “such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”[9]

The morality the children are to be taught, then, are the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and responsibility.  In short, they are to be inculcated with the virtues of an industrious and freedom-loving people.

Following this basic education, most of the students will return to their homes prepared to take up the tasks both of their respective occupations as well as the preservation of a free society. Some, however, “whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, there to be instructed in the languages.”[10] In a prescient forewarning of what was to come in both the grammar schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States, Jefferson notes that “the learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe . . . but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their  example in this instance.”[11] The memory at this stage in the child’s life, “from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” is so “susceptible and tenacious of impressions” that “it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period” to acquire “the most useful languages ancient and modern.”[12] In addition, “the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.” By this means, the memory will be exercised and the intellect excited. This stimulation of the mind through the activity of the acquisition of language and the contemplation of the wisdom gleaned from those texts used in language instruction preserves the mind from the “idleness” that would allow it to become “lethargic and impotent.” “As soon as they are of sufficient age,” says Jefferson, “it is supposed they will be sent on from the grammar schools to the university, which constitutes our third and last stage, there to study those sciences which may be adapted to their views.”[13]

Having explained his proposed system of education, Jefferson concludes with an explanation of the logic of his plan. One of the goals of his program is “to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.”[14] This equality of opportunity through equal access to education is of mutual benefit to both the citizen and the state. The citizen will be allowed to exercise his abilities and attain his full potential rather than languishing in a condition below his natural endowments. The state, in turn, will benefit from the education this person receives through his ability to use his talents in the service of his country.

In spite of Jefferson’s disdain for Plato’s Republic as a work filled with “whimsies, . . . puerilities, . . . unintelligible jargon . . . [and] nonsense,”[15] Jefferson’s plan is reminiscent of Plato’s plan for education and thought on the possibilities of movement from one social class to another.[16] Jefferson, however, avoids the utopianism of Plato as he does not, as Plato does, propose a radical restructuring of society, including the elimination of the family and the organic local community. Instead, Jefferson proposes a practical means by which to accomplish a similar goal.

“But of the views of this law,” Jefferson continues, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.”[17] Although only a relative few would directly benefit from the higher levels of education in Jefferson’s plan, all would be enabled to attain an education that would provide them with the knowledge and habits necessary to citizens of a republic and members of a free society. The rudimentary liberal education each received would make it possible for each to seek his own happiness and to contribute to the good of the nation as a whole.

While the implementation of Jefferson’s plan today is impractical as it would entail a massive and infeasible overhaul of the American public education system, there is a great deal of insight to be gained from his vision, which, in turn, can be applied to education today. Jefferson’s central goal in the first level of education, for example, is a worthy central goal for primary and secondary schools today. The dual emphasis on teaching historical knowledge and inculcating moral virtue in the course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic is certain to provide the sort of education that a free society requires, and that students in many American schools are not being provided today. Such an education-for-liberty presents a stark contrast with the vocationalism and moral bankrupcy which currently permeate public education and are certain to produce an ignorant and ineffective electorate.

Similarly, Jefferson’s emphasis on the knowledge of language in adolescence is sound advice that could easily, and no doubt with great rewards, be implemented at the primary and secondary levels. Greek and Latin, in particular, are languages that put one in touch with the heritage of Western Civilization, grant one access to the wealth of wisdom recorded in these languages, and contribute to the development of logical thinking in children. This latter point, especially, is one that might be emphasized in response to the current clamoring after the rather nebulous and ever-shifting skill of “critical thinking.” A mastery of the English language and a fair knowledge of Latin or Greek and one additional European language seems hardly too much to ask of graduates from America’s high schools, yet it is a great deal more than is being asked now.

Ultimately, what Jefferson is proposing is a liberal education adapted to the needs and abilities of each citizen, which will, in turn, contribute to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In so doing, he undermines the pseudo-aristocracies of wealth and birth which had led to the despotisms of the old world while simultaneously avoiding the opposite extreme, which is taking hold in the United States now, of an enforced and artificial equality. Jefferson’s plan of an informed and virtuous citizenry coupled with equality of access to quality education for persons of natural talent is worthy of serious consideration today. A liberal education of the sort outlined by Jefferson is the only kind of education suited to a people who possess liberty and wish to keep it.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams–Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 389.

[2] Ibid., 389–390.

[3] Ibid., 388.

[4] Ibid., 390.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 153.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 154–155.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814, in Cappon, The Adams–Jefferson Letters, 432.

[16] On which, see Plato, The Republic 451–457 and 415, respectively.

[17] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 155.

Book Review: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck


This book is one of the most interesting that I have read in a very long time. It is the thoughts and experiences of one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck, as he travels across the United States with his dog, Charley. He begins his travels from his home in New York, driving across the northern half of the country on his way to his childhood home in California. In his journey back east, he travels the length of Texas as well as a South in the midst of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

Along the way, Steinbeck experiences America through conversations with average Americans of all sorts. His focus throughout the book is largely upon these conversations and the impressions they make upon him as well as the insights they grant him into what makes America and its people unique and what binds them together.

I found the second half of the book, which features his travels through Texas and the Deep South, the most interesting. It is here, as Steinbeck sees the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s racial attitudes first hand, that we get to see Steinbeck at his best, both in his ability to empathize with black and white in the South, to see the complexities of the situation. Rather than reducing the South and its relationship to race to simple assertions of good vs. evil, Steinbeck sees the human element throughout and allows the reader to see it as well.

Although it is now 50 years old, the America that this book shows remains largely the same in spirit and substance. Travels with Charley is essential reading for anyone looking for the meaning of America.

The American identity

This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be no only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it is true, that agreement would only mean we are alike in our Americanness.

From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself. If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners. And descendants of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish are essentially American. This is not patriotic whoop-de-do; it is carefully observed fact. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart. And this is the more remarkable because it has happened so quickly. It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman Scot like the Highlander. It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, pp. 207-208

Book Review: The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Ed.)

Don’t be thrown off by the title. What is contained in this book is not merely four “slave narratives,” a phrase that implies the contents would only be of interest to those who want to learn more about African American history or literature. On the contrary, what is herein contained are four of the best pieces of literature in the English language that I have ever had the great privilege of reading. Each of them is an exhibition of excellent writing, skillful storytelling, and the resiliency of the human desires for respect and freedom. This is particularly true of the last two narratives in this collection, those of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent.

Douglass’s narrative is the most well-known and widely read of slave narratives. In addition to being a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains a number of the most memorable and interesting stories of any of the slave narratives. Douglass’s insights and observations, in addition to his story, are brilliant and place Douglass among the greatest thinkers of the last several centuries.

Brent’s narrative has only been rediscovered as the excellent work it is in the last few decades and restored to its proper place as a masterwork of English literature. For her narrative, she recounts her story in the manner of a romance, which culminates not in a marriage, as most romances do, but rather in the moment at which her freedom and the freedom of her children is at least ascertained. Like Douglass, the depth of her insight into the mind of the slave and the depraved psychology of the slave owner are always fascinating and illuminating.

One one gains by reading these narratives is not merely historical knowledge about the institution of slavery nor is it merely background for the later, fuller blossoming of the African American literary tradition. It is, instead, an insider’s look at one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and the effect it had on both sides, on slave and on slave owner as the former was treated as a beast and the latter behaved in a manner fit for one. To paraphrase one of Douglass’s many stirring sentences, you will see how a man becomes an animal and how an animal becomes a man.

The mind of the Founding Fathers

Our most recent readings for the Great Books of the Western World reading project are, I believe, among the most interesting that we have read this year as well as the most truly essential. Included in September’s readings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few of the Federalist Papers, the editorials published by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison in defense of the Constitution.

Each of these readings is essential reading for an American and each is an exhibition of a belief that I have come over the past several years to hold: namely, that the United States is, while not the exclusive representative of Western Civilization, its most pure and significant representative. The work of the Founding Fathers is, in its essence, a distillation of all of the previous history and thought of Western Civilization. They drew, through their own classical educations, upon the history of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans of the ancient world as well as the Christians of the Middle Ages and later who brought these previous cultures into a great synthesis within their new ideological context.

In so doing, the Founders of the United States drew out of each of these aspects of the heritage of Western Civilization the best elements and avoided the worst errors. The subsequent history of the United States has, in large part, been the sorting out of what all of this means. The Civil War, the various social movements of the last 150 years, and so on each have at their heart the question of what it all of this heritage means and how it is to be lived out. Because of this, these works are essential readings for all Americans as well as the other denizens of Western Civilization.

Black Like Me

Identity is a funny thing. Almost as long as humans have been humans, we have derived our individual identities from the collective identities around us. We differentiated ourselves as individuals and tribes through our linguistic, ethnic, religious, and sexual groups. This is still, largely, the case in traditional cultures today. If one is born in a small, rural village in the center of Africa, one derives one’s identity from the tribal structure, the language of his people, their religious and cultural traditions, etc.

The modern world, though, has forced a reevaluation of our means of deriving identity. Witness, for example, the current conflicts raging in the Middle East. Iraqis, as one example, have traditionally derived their identity from their locality, their tribe, their religion (especially sub-groups within their religion), and, to a lesser extent, their language. When the nation of Iraq was artificially created following the end of foreign rule of Arab lands, one of the greatest challenges the new government faced (and is still facing) was the inability to get Iraqis to think of themselves as Iraqis, rather than as Sunnis or Shi’as or Assyrians or any number of other, more parochial, identities.

The United States presents a particularly fascinating example of the confusion regarding identity in the modern world. Americans are almost all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from other nations, beginning with Europe and Africa and now including immigrants from every continent and nearly every nation on earth. As these various immigrant groups came together, identity became an instant problem. What did it mean to be American? Could one still be, for example, Irish and American? Italian and American? African and American?

The problem reached a particular pique at the dawn of the 20th century with a massive influx of immigrants from nations which hitherto had very little representation in the United States. The changing religious and ethnic demographics prompted a great deal of soul-searching. There were those who asserted that American identity was contingent upon Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. There were others who argued for a broader definition. The conclusion was a kind of stalemate in which each immigrant group lost nearly all aspects of its traditional national identity, including its language and most of its cultural traditions, in favor of becoming American. Religion maintained itself as a holdout and largely does still today, though this is changing as well.

This inconclusive settlement blocked those of any and all European ancestries together under the umbrella term “white,” a conglomerate which necessarily derived its content meaning from its contrast with a similarly concocted idea of “blackness.” This status quo persisted in large part throughout the 20th century, but has proven itself unfit at the dawn of the 21st.

Witness, for example, the case of Rachel Dolezal, an African-American studies professor and NAACP leader recently “outed” as “white” by her own European-descended parents. Apparently, Ms. Dolezal has been passing herself off as a black, or at least biracial, woman for some time. She was, for a few years, married to a black man. Her “son” (apparently, actually her adopted brother) is African-American. She claims that her very curly current hairdo is “natural.” She participates in African and African-American heritage events. She champions social justice causes on behalf of the African-American community. Yet she seems to have had no ancestors from Africa at all.

Dolezal’s case is not the first of its kind in the fraught world of identity in America, however. Numerous examples could be brought to the fore as interesting case studies in racial identity. The story of James Weldon Johnson as he presents in his 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man presents one interesting example. Johnson, the son of a light-skinned black woman and a white man, did not realize that he was anything other than “white” like most of his classmates at a non-segregated school in Connecticut until a teacher accidentally “outed” him in elementary school. He records running home crying to ask his mother if he was indeed a “nigger.” Johnson spent much of his life confused about his racial identity, passing himself off at times as a black man and at others as a white man. Eventually, he became the first “black” president of the NAACP.

One might also cite the example of John Howard Griffin. For his 1961 book Black Like Me, Griffin, a white man, used heat lamps and chemicals to darken his skin. He was able to pass himself off as a black man in the segregated South in order to write his book about segregation from the perspective of an “insider.” For that matter, Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) fame was only 1/8th black and had to inform the authorities on the segregated train that he was African-American so that they would forcibly remove him from the whites-only train car.

An even more modern and interesting example is that of President Obama. Obama, the son of a white American woman and a black man from Kenya, does not share in the historical experience and culture of African-Americans. None of his ancestors were slaves in the American South. None of them were sharecroppers. None of them were part of the Great Migration. None of the unique characteristics of African-American culture are part of his inheritance from either of his parents, including the African-American vernacular language and the black churches. Obama has, however, largely adopted the African-American community as his own and they, in turn, have adopted him as one of their own.

But how is President Obama’s case different from that of Ms. Dolezal? Certainly, Obama looks more like the common African-American, yet he no more shares in the cultural heritage and history of that group than does Ms. Dolezal. And what about Johnson and Plessy, who were so fair-skinned that they appeared white to most people who saw them?

As I said, identity is a funny thing. And it is particularly a funny thing in the United States, where most of us have lost all of the means by which we might have traditionally derived an identity. Perhaps it is the United States, once the locus of racial conflict in the world, that will prove the concept of racial identity, a fairly modern idea compared to other traditional means by which identity has been derived, to be an absurdity.

Book Review: Three Negro Classics by John Hope Franklin (ed.)

Contained in this book are three essential works for those interested in the history in the history of African-Americans and even of the United States as a whole, as the African-American experience is one quite important aspect of the wider American experience. Each of these is a great book in its own right; the effect of reading the three successively, all combined in a single volume, is tremendous. Each tells the story, from a unique perspective, of one of the greatest injustices in the history of the world, namely, the enslavement and subsequent marginalization of millions of people because of the color of their skin.

The book begins with Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, his autobiography. He begins by recalling his earliest childhood memories as a slave in the Deep South as well as the long-awaited day of emancipation. He then discusses his rise from a slave boy to his international fame and leadership of a leading institution of higher learning for African-Americans, through the mentorship of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whom he adoringly refers to as “General Armstrong” throughout this book. Along the way, Washington seeks to explain and justify his preference for industrial training over liberal education for African-Americans. While I could not disagree with him more on that subject, it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into his intentions and the philosophy behind them.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk forms the centerpiece of the book, fitting, not only because it comes midway between the two chronologically, but because it is thematically a point of connection between both of the other works contained in this volume, completing Washington’s work and setting the stage for Johnson’s. It is also fitting, I believe, because it is the standout best of the three works featured here. Du Bois, a Northern black born into freedom, raised in a mostly white small town in Massachusetts, and granted a quality liberal education which culminated in post-graduate work at Harvard University, provides the insight that only he could provide as a simultaneously insider and outsider. As a well-educated Northerner, he saw the blacks of the South as an outsider would see them; as a black man who dared to venture into the Jim Crow South, however, he knew their suffering intimately and at firsthand. The insight he provides into a people group as yet unexplored makes this one of the greatest books not only of African-American literature, nor even of American literature, but of the literature of the world.

Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man caps off this volume with the story of a man with a white father and a mulatto mother who was able to pass himself off nearly everywhere he went as a white man. The result is a lifetime of confusion and hesitation, wondering at the duality into which he had been placed by his genetics, in which he could choose, as his conscience called him to do, to identify with the oppressed minority with whom he had a genetic and cultural connection through his mother, or, as his natural human desire for comfort and safety called him to do, identify with that aspect of his heritage granted him especially through his father. It is the story of a man ripped apart by the same policies which ripped the United States apart for a century, the malignant legacy of which still lingers in the air today.