History Makers A New Republic and Education For All By Suzanne Clary “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a Republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means
18TH CENTURY SLATE PENCIL
of obtaining a proper degree of it[.]” – John Jay to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1785
A s we to try to find clarity in today’s maelstrom of twitter wars and budget slashings, these unadulterated words penned in the 18 th century sound prescient. All our founders, whatever their political bent, agreed that ignorance was a threat to democracy. They envisioned vast horizons for our country but recognized that with liberty came responsibility. Their new government could not shirk from the duty of funding public education. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Jay and their affluent peers, thanks to family privilege, had been afforded the luxury of private tutors or elite academy training; Alexander Hamilton, despite impoverished beginnings, had received the same perks thanks to wealthy benefactors. They were taught to understand Latin and Greek or made fluent in foreign languages. By contrast, for the common child, access to the fundamentals of reading, writing or simple math was severely restricted. Provincial laws in colonies like Connecticut charged every town of 50 homeowners or more “to appoint one to teach children to read and write” yet little was done in practice to abide by this rule. Instruction was meted out on a voluntary basis at home – parents directed recitation of poems about virtue or memorization of passages from the family Bible. Depending upon the household, greater emphasis was placed on the passing down of trade-specific skills; girls might be
further exiled from any true introduction to literacy and relegated to painting and needlework; while enslaved children mastered domestic and field chores with infrequent exceptions.
InRye, the Society for thePropagationof the Gospel in Foreign Parts seemingly stepped in to fill this void; they recruited school-masters as early as 1707 to teach reading and writing of the scriptures to children of the parish as well as Native Americans and enslaved servants. Historian CharlesWashington Baird recorded the existence of one school on the Boston Post Road in the “Border Town” of Rye as early as 1739: “It stood not far from the spot where, thirty years ago, there was a little building which some of our citizens well remember as the place where they acquired the rudiments of knowledge…” But whatever the basic course offerings were, by 1774 when John Adams passed through the village, he still criticized the caliber of the curriculum as “elementary:” “They have a school for writing and cyphering but no grammar school.” Notwithstanding the gamut of regional and cultural differences that impacted opportunities for learning, the founders reasoned that if we as a nation were to adhere to our ideals and promises of liberty for all, independence demanded some measure of federal investment in the country’s youngest
citizenry. No one believed this more than George Washington whose own schooling had been less than rigorous and interrupted by the death of his father. With respect to the value of the “education of youth,” he declared, “Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.” Their vision for the future extended well beyond the “three Rs” to advanced intellectual and cultural pursuits and beyond their own life spans as Adams explained to his wife Abigail in 1780: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.My sons ought to studymathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." And so a consensus that learning mattered was codified even before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Public education was deemed so essential to the success of unifying the states that as delegates contemplated expansion by homesteaders outside New England and the South, the Continental Congress passed two acts – The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the
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