Independence won, George Washington faced a near-mutiny of his officers, unwilling to return to civilian life until their arrears of salary had been paid. Washington appeared unexpectedly at a meeting of the officers and
gave an impassioned appeal to reason and moderation, to the men’s duty, their patriotism, and their honor. Sensing that the officers’ smoldering resentment was still unquenched, he produced a reassuring letter from a congressman. He began to read it, stumbled, paused, and pulled out a pair of spectacles. “I have grown gray in the service of my country,” he said, “and now it seems I am going blind.” His officers wept, and the uprising crumbled. As Jefferson later observed, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.”
This incident was familiar to every schoolchild a century ago, but few are told such stories today. Honor, patriotism, moderation, and virtue, and what would once have been called “manly tears,” are out of fashion in our schools. Children are told of victims, not of heroes, much less of the courage and integrity that can transform victims into triumphant witnesses (martyrs) to what is good and true.
What does this little tale, related toward the end of The Learning of Liberty, have to do with the educational ideas of America’s Founders? The teaching of civic virtue like Washington’s was central to the discussion of schooling by Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and other members of the generation that lived through the struggle for independence. Their arguments for a national system of education were based not on considerations of vocational skills or economic development but on the conviction that a republican form of government could only survive with a worthy citizenry, and that to shape citizens through schooling was for such a government a matter of fundamental self- protection.
The Pangles provide an illuminating discussion of the source of this idea of civic education, from Aristotle, Plato, and Xenophon through Milton to Rollin and Locke and so to those American leaders who read all of them with close attention. In so doing, the authors help us to understand more clearly the implications of various ways of thinking about the formation of character. Thus the book is to be recommended unreservedly to everyone for whom this is an urgent concern, whether or not the history of formal schooling is among their interests. Indeed, The Learning of Liberty does not in fact cast much light on the actual development of the American educational system; it is, rather, a study of unrealized hopes, or of hopes that were realized in unanticipated ways.
The great merit of the Pangles’ book is the clarity with which it lays out alternative assumptions about the nature and origins of virtue, especially as these were held by the Founders. We need to be reminded of the intense moral seriousness that shaped their vision of the new nation. We need also-and this is a recurrent theme of this study-to be reminded that there are excellencies beyond civic virtue, that education should seek
not only to lend support to moral integrity but to satisfy the human need for objects of reverence that can give life a higher and more compelling purpose. True education must touch the deepest longings of the spirit; it must appeal to eros, to the imagination, and to the love of beauty. It needs, then, to explore some of the sternest and noblest challenges presented by previous ages, with their alien conceptions of happiness and human flourishing.
Aristotle’s concept of “greatness of soul” as the fulfillment of human nature was not an important theme to Jefferson or Franklin, and that it was not may reflect something stubbornly pragmatic and even pedestrian in the American character. Or perhaps not: the heroes around whose examples American civic education has until recently been centered, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were offered as examples of just such magnanimity. The relentless debunking of Martin Luther King in our own time is a sign of degeneracy, of a preference for social and economic factors to the exclusion of character as a decisive influence on events. There is something like a native tradition of moral education through biography (unfairly dismissed today as “hagiography,” as though it were something beneath contempt) that deserves to be reclaimed.
That The Learning of Liberty offers little insight into the actual development of popular schooling in America is a limitation acknowledged by the authors themselves. The development of popular schooling in America did not grow out of the ideas of Locke, Franklin, or Jefferson, with their advocacy of a non-biblical source of moral teaching. It grew instead out of religious impulses with roots in the Pietist tradition of sanctification through schooling as well as practical needs for literacy and numeracy in a mobile and commercial society. The Pangles do scant justice to the highly decentralized, local form that American schooling took during its formative decades, though their discussion of the influence of Noah Webster’s school readers, themselves solidly in the Pietist tradition of moral uplift and religious exhortation, should alert the reader to a stream of influences that owed more, ultimately, to Francke and Comenius than to Locke. It was, as the authors note, not Jefferson’s Enlightenment- inspired University of Virginia but the strongly Evangelical Yale and Princeton that provided a model for the development of higher education in the nineteenth century. “The Founders,” they write, “learned that appeals to the political importance of citizenship education could not produce good schools in the absence of powerfully felt religious motives or vocational needs.”
Despite the eloquence of those who called for a national system of civic education, the authors of the Federalist Papers did not put their trust in shaping a virtuous citizenry, nor does the Constitution itself mention education among the safeguards of liberty and order. These founding documents rely not upon the inculcation of universal virtue but upon a legal and governmental system holding in check the human propensity to selfishness and disorder. State schooling in the European sense is not part of the American tradition; schooling in virtue is a concern of government at the state level, to be encouraged and supported without imposition of a pedagogue d’etat . This was expressed eloquently in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, drafted by John Adams, whose article on education admonishes that
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them . . . to encourage private societies and public institutions . . . to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.
Though schools started under the auspices of locally elected school boards and local churches under indirect government oversight, the actual provision of schooling in the United States has been largely entrusted to the civil society. As the authors point out,
The fate of the national university and national plans for education suggest what Madison more than once proposed: that our strengths will be found not in uniform schemes imposed from a centralized government above, but in local initiative, diversity, and competition, including both the freedom of students to choose schools and the freedom of schools to experiment. Moreover, we find in both Franklin and Jefferson support for the idea that local initiative should mean above all parental involvement, not only because the school and students’ development require it, but equally because parents need the civic education that comes through collectively formulating and pursuing serious goals.
The models offered by Washington and Lincoln had a powerful influence on the development of a sense of nationhood and of the civic virtues necessary to sustain a republic, not because they were imposed through a national system of schooling, but because they were sufficiently compelling to make their way into tens of thousands of locally controlled schools. These models served and can serve again, together with others drawn from the diversity of American life, but only if somehow Americans and those called to teach can learn not to be embarrassed by honor, patriotism, moderation, and virtue, nor even by the manly and womanly tears that are a tribute to greatness of soul.
Charles L. Glenn, Professor of Educational Policy at Boston University, is the author of Myth of the Common School.