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One of my major writing projects this summer has launched me into the world of the Founding Fathers–that vague and often misrepresented collection of white guys who either A) signed the Declaration of Independence; B) argued about the Constitution; or C) knew somebody who did a and/or b. I haven’t been looking specifically at their views on education, but, as I have come across things that they said on the topic, I have made notes for a writing project in some future summer.
Yesterday, I came across a passage in one of John Adams’ letters that came close to blowing me away. Here it is:
“Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”
I was not surprised to find that John Adams cared about education; he was one of the most extraordinarily well educated men of his age, after all. What surprised me was how clearly and unequivocally he asserted two propositions that have recently been denied vigorously by commentators (mainly right-wing radio hosts and their allies in Congress) precisely because they supposedly go beyond the intentions of the Founding Fathers:
1. That the federal government has a clear responsibility for education that includes paying for it.
2. That a primary purpose of education is to “raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.”
I suspect that, if President Obama were to make these same two observations today, he would invite yet another barrage of criticism, featuring words like “socialist,” “communist,” “social engineering,” “nanny state” and “overreaching federal government.” Certainly, we would all be reminded once again that no responsibility for education is delegated to the federal government in the Constitution and so, under the terms of the 10th Amendment, it belongs entirely to the states. That, after all, is what the Founders intended.
Except that it isn’t. Not John Adams at least. His vision for the future of America included broad access to education, including higher education, across social classes. He understood very clearly that, in the kind of democracy he was building, education would be the key to social mobility. If only the wealthy could afford education from one generation to the next, America would end up with a permanent aristocracy in everything but the monograms on the towels. The only way for America to become a meaningful democratic society was to make both schools and colleges “the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”
Where higher education is concerned, Adams’ vision for the future languished for more than a century, during which there was no appreciable rise in the number of American students who attended or graduated from college–which accounted for fewer than 5% of the population until the end of World War II.
Two things happened in the 20th century to move that number–both of them directly related to the federal government. The 1944 GI Bill sent an entire generation to college and transformed America more rapidly than anything since the Revolutionary War. The 1965 Higher Education Act (which ultimately resulted in the Pell Grant and various loan programs) put college within the reach of every American.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the amount of the Pell Grant, in real dollars, has been declining steadily since 1980. The federal commitment to the education of low-income students now comes primarily in the form of subsidized loans, and even those are in jeopardy in the current round of budget slashing. And we are already beginning to see the first signs of declining college-going rates among our poorest populations.
Ironically, much of the current defunding of education at the national level is being done in the name of what some mythical group of “Founding Fathers” might have thought about the national government, through taxation, assuming financial responsibility for the higher education of poor Americans. In such an environment, it is worth noting, at least, what the real Founders had to say.