[Editor's note: This post originally ran in May 2012. We are reviving it at this time in conjunction with Bernie Sanders' call for a free public college education for all. We hope it sheds some light on why this not only isn't a radical idea, but is one deeply rooted in our nation's history. Let us know what you think in the comments below.]
As I prepare to send my youngest child off to a state university, recent Congressional kerfuffles over student loan interest rates have left me wondering when our nation abandoned our core values. When conservative pundits like George Will actually call student loans "entitlements" and Cal Thomas of the Baltimore Sun says student debt problems are simply a failure of the students themselves, something distinctly un-American is happening. Here's a dose of truth for those so-called conservative values types: Public education paid for by all citizens was one of the core values our Founding Fathers named as fundamental to a free, democratic society.
In April 1776, John Adams put his Thoughts on Government in writing in response to a resolution by the North Carolina Provincial Congress. He begins by making a case for the purpose of government, writing "the happiness of society is the end of all government" which naturally follows his belief that "the happiness of the individual is the end of man." Using these as guiding principles, Adams then sketches an outline of what he believes good government should be.
After outlining a legislative framework, Adams moves on to specifics. After a well-armed militia, Adams wrote, "Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant."
To a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant. Imagine waking up to a 21st century in the United States with that core value. Imagine.
John Adams wasn't alone in this belief. Thomas Jefferson was so committed to his belief that self-government was doomed to fail without an educated electorate that in his 1806 State of the Union address, he called for federally funded public education, saying "An amendment to our constitution must here come in the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among all people." When he could not garner support for a constitutional amendment, he set about to create a framework for his vision for public education, which ultimately failed to pass the Congress. IIn the end, Jefferson settled for the establishment of the University of Virginia as a legacy to his undying belief in public education.
In all the research and reading I have done on this subject, I've been unable to find one Founding Father who devalued public education or argued against education of the general public. There was disagreement around who should control public education. The same conflict we see today between federalists and state's rights advocates hindered the question of whether public education should be a state matter or a federal matter, which ultimately led to the defeat of Jefferson's initiatives. Yes, tension existed as to whether states, municipalities or the federal government should control public education, but no one opposed the idea of providing one at public expense.
As I dug into the question of our core founding values, I was struck by how far astray we've gone. Jefferson believed that public education was the "key-stone of the arch of our government," and paying for it was a patriotic act. Indeed, he believed it as patriotic as paying for a well-armed military or saluting the flag.
Look around at what we've become and wonder how we came down this road where the destruction of public education is a goal of "reformers" and legislators alike. Access to a university education now comes at the expense of people's futures, trouncing all over Jefferson's belief that the "dreams of the future are better than the history of the past." Then, the dreams were to be the core value of a democracy. Today, the dreams are of indentured servitude to repay the cost of a higher education, assuming one is lucky enough to actually have access to one.
There was no greater destructive force to these core values than Ronald Reagan, first as Governor of California, and then as President of the United States. Reagan paid reams of lip service to core American values while systematically dismantling the institutions which upheld them. Reagan, himself a graduate of a small private Christian college in Oregon, believed that public universities encouraged rebellion against the establishment.
As governor, he fired Clark Kerr, University of California president and architect of the three-tier college and university system in California. In order to expand access to a public college education, Kerr created the California State University system and separated it from the University of California system, alongside community colleges. The first was a system to give students a practical and solid foundation for their careers, while the UC system was intended to be the top-tier research leg of the stool, with community colleges providing training for trades and skilled jobs. Kerr's vision for California modeled the core values of Jefferson, Adams, et al: A free public education for all California citizens.
Reagan loathed Kerr for standing up for war protesters at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. Condemning the protesters as "brats," "freaks" and "cowardly fascists," Reagan stood up and called for an end to the protests, saying "if it takes a bloodbath, then let's get it over with!"
After setting about the business of making sure all Californians were fearful of students on university campuses, Reagan undertook the legislative battle to change their very character so that students would pay tuition to attend, regardless of whether it was a community college, California State University, or UC campus.
As he brandished his pen while signing California's university tuition law into being, Reagan restated one of America's core values, perverting the framers' intent in the process, declaring that forevermore, "the state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity."
From 1776 to 1968, intellectual curiosity was a core value of this nation, one that each citizen paid for and benefitted from, but in the post-Reagan years, that value has changed to one where the state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity. From the Reagan legacy, others carried that thinking to its logical extreme. Recognizing that intellectual curiosity is profitable, they have promoted the principle that education is fine, but it should be private and turn a profit rather than be public and accessible to all. From textbook companies to private charter management organizations, from public universities to corporate-endowed research facilities established to benefit corporate interests, this principle has taken hold and corrupted our educational system. Nowhere is it more apparent than at the post-secondary level.
As a matter of course, students and their parents are expected to shoulder anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 in debt for a degree from a public university. Until 2010, interest on that debt along with fees and other costs lined the pockets of bankers and private lenders. Legislation attached to the Affordable Care Act returned the loan business to the federal government, but they are still loans, nevertheless, and some in our current Congress would like the interest rates to double in order to reduce the deficit.
It is time to reclaim our Founders' values. It must once again become an imperative in this country to educate our youth without asking them to take on ridiculous levels of debt before they've even begun to use that education for the betterment of our country. We must affirm that education and the attendant intellectual curiosity it fosters is not a privilege of a free society, but a duty of that free society to foster. It is time to reject the frames foisted on us by the right wing about what a failure public education is and instead embrace it as the single most important right—yes, right—afforded to all citizens in order to secure a more perfect union.
We have no time to wait. There is a crossroads right now, one where corporate interests will fight for their right to profit from the education of our children. It's incumbent on each and every one of us to reclaim the foundation of our democracy—a free and public education for all citizens. There is no corporate right to profits; but there is a public need to be educated.
I'll leave you with this lament of Jefferson in a letter to John Adams. He is mourning King George III's pillaging of England's resources and war-hungry governance, which left England deeply in debt and threatened by international instability. After imagining a future where "the reformation of extravagancies comes too late," Jefferson hopes England will also revolt against the king before it's too late, in the hopes that England may "no longer enjoy the luxuries of pyrating and plundering every thing by sea, and of bribing and corrupting every thing by land; but they might enjoy the more safe and lasting luxury of living on terms of equality, justice and good neighborhood with all nations." 1
So should our reformation come now, before it's too late. It's time to enjoy the more safe and lasting luxury of living on terms of equality, justice and good neighborhood not only with all nations, but with our own people, and making the investments in our future that guarantee a continuing, healthy, patriotic democracy. That begins with a freely accessible, publicly funded education.
Editor's Note: Call and Tweet your representatives in the House and Senate, as well as party leaders and people in the media and tell them to take control of the message by reminding the public that our country can only thrive when we have a well-educated populace. Without it, we devolve into a Third World nation where education is not valued and the average person isn't in a position to contribute to a fully-productive society. Our Founding Fathers understood this and saw to it that the United States of America established a free and public education system. It's time to put their philosophy back into place.
*Correction: The original article mistakenly stated the College of William and Mary was now the UVA and has been corrected for this error.
1 Thomas Jefferson's letter to John Adams, November 25, 1816
But Karoli is right — you’re missing an important concept. In the two documents that she cites, it’s clear that Adams and Jefferson steadfastly believed in investing in public education as a PUBLIC GOOD. Valuing public education as a public good is the fundamental statement they make; the task of designing & implementing viable public education institutions is a separate challenge they don’t address, which is where Horace Mann enters. We are still working on improving the models for public education institutions, but what remains constant is that education is an invaluable public good, and that the private sector cannot supplant the state in providing public education because of the inherent market failure.
Any discussion of how to invest in public education has to recognize this fundamental social structure — that public goods are always best provided by the state — and private goods are best provided by the private sector. (… and common goods need to be regulated and protected by the state, engaged with the private sector; and the delivery of club goods will usually benefit from collaboration between public and private institutions.)
btw her five quotes are from two specific sources that she cites correctly: John Adams’ “Thoughts on Government” and Thomas Jefferson’s 1806 State of the Union address.
In fact it wasn’t until even the mid 1850’s when the “father of public education” Horace Mann came on the scene and made head way into this idea.
I will agree on one fact that the founders valued education in its general sense, of obtaining knowledge. It did not promote “public” education.