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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Free Education and the Founding Fathers


I’ve just begun to read James Traub’s new biography, John Quincy Adams.  Traub sets the stage with Adams’ youth, starting with his mother, Abigail Adams, taking him to a hill where he can see the smoke and fire from the battle of Bunker Hill in the distance, and the care that she and John Adams gave to his education.  Herein lies a lesson for us as we look at the role of education in a democracy two and a half centuries down the path.
            The Adamses and others involved in the Revolution, notes Traub,
“understood that while a nation of masters and servants needed only to elevate the one and abase the other, a nation of free men needed to cultivate the gifts of all its citizens. ‘Every man in a republic is public property,’ as the physician and patriot Benjamin Rush put it.  A monarch could compel acquiescence, but a free people could be governed only through consent.  A republic would work only if citizens could be trained to overcome their natural selfishness, pettiness, and factionalism.  The virtues that John Adams prized in himself were those that needed to be inculcated in the next generation—disinterestedness, a contempt for meanness, and abhorrence of injustice.” (p. 11)

            For at least the last half of our nation’s existence, we have struggled with how best to realize Benjamin Rush’s vision in our public education system.  During John Quincy Adams’ lifetime, we made a commitment to tax-supported higher education with the founding of land grant universities and, a bit later, teacher education institutions—today’s network of state colleges and universities.  That vision was expanded in the twentieth century with the creation of community colleges and with the GI Bill and a range of tax-funded grants and scholarships to support individual students, so that today all colleges and universities receive some sort of public support, if only through taxpayer-funded scholarships.  The same happened at the K-12 level.  Originally, public schooling extended only through 8th grade.  In the twentieth century, a high school education became tuition-free and, ultimately, required of all students. 
            Which brings us to today.  As a nation, we seem to be of two minds about the social value of higher education.  On one hand, we hear the argument that higher education has become a private good—nothing more than a way for the select few to train for a profession.  On the other hand, we see proposals that community college education—or, perhaps, the first two years of the baccalaureate degree—be made available at not cost to students—essentially, that our commitment to universal high school be extended to the community college.
            I support the idea of making the first two years of undergraduate education—the associate degree or the first half of the baccalaureate—available at no cost to students.   It is the logical next step in our evolution as a nation that empowers citizens in order to sustain and evolve democracy.   Like high school, this should be funded by a mix of local, state, and federal taxes, with the goal of ensuring that all Americans have the skills they need to be successful in today’s global information society and, by extension, helping our communities thrive, both economically and socially.  In the short term, this would help generation of Americans find good jobs and, equally important, fulfill their potential as citizens of a participatory democracy.  In the long term, it will help make American communities healthier and happier places to live well into the future.
            This is not just a question of funding, however.  If American colleges and universities are to fulfill the promise inherent in this idea, they must respond not only by opening their campuses and classrooms to new students, but by offering a curriculum that will full the vision.  At the core of Adams’ idea of education was the study of ancient history—the classics—which Adams, in Taub's words, saw as a “lens through which to examine and understand the life around you.” (p. 14).  Today, however, most of higher education reflects not the needs of society but how academia has distributed knowledge across disciplines.  The first two years of study at most colleges and universities are devoted to “breadth” courses—survey and introductory courses that give students an introduction to the disciplines around which academia has organized itself—the arts, humanities, social sciences, hard sciences—as well as early courses in a professional major.   The result is that students get an exposure to a wide range of knowledge, but not necessarily a coherent understanding of the world around them.  The challenge is to design a general education curriculum that truly reflects the public mission of preparing students to live as contributing members of a democratic community.
            Making college free would also open new doors to collaboration between colleges and high schools and other community agencies, stimulating a potentially wide range of innovation at the community levels.  
           The founders saw education as a critical part of the democratic experiment.  It is time for us to take this next step.