Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Jefferson and Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 02, 2002

With all due respect, I think that Bob Heterick's article (Available here) is a disingenuous way of associating Thomas Jefferson with the idea of a voucher system and private education where no such association is warranted.

The article even recognizes that Jefferson is noted for his support of a public education system, even going so far as to support a Spanish resolution that required all citizens to read and write before they could take part in civic affairs. (ME 14:130)

In a 1787 letter to Madison (ME 6:392) Jefferson wrote that the provision of a public education "is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government." He proposed a bill in support of public education and was a strong proponent of the public university. ""What object of our lives can we propose so important [as establishing a State university]? What interest of our own which ought not to be postponed to this?" (ME 15:312)

Heterick writes that he "searched in vain" for a good reason to oppose a voucher system. And while he found references to same-sex schooling, religious colleges and home schooling, none of these references supported a position against a voucher system.

I think that arguments may be made for a system in which the student or parent selects the mode of education, but you will not find these arguments, or any other support, for them in the writing of Jefferson. Placing decision making powers in the hands of uneducated people, especially in the area of public policy, was one thing Jefferson resolutely opposed. Yet this is exactly what a voucher system proposes.

Moreover, while it is clear that Jefferson supported a public education system, it is also clear that he endorsed a "wall of separation" between the church and the state. (ME 16:281) Thus the idea of a state-supported religious education system would be anathema to him. Questions of religion, argued Jefferson, should be "a matter which lies solely between man and his God," (WJ 16: 281-282) something that cannot be the case when religious education is supported by public policy.

I think, though, that Heterick - and possibly even the writers of the editorial in the local newspaper - is missing the fundamental and substantial argument in favour of a public education system. And this is the idea that there is a substantial social function of a public education system, one that reaches far beyond mere gains in productivity and employability.

Jefferson recognized this. Education, he wrote, is the fundamental guarantor of democracy. "The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large..." (ME 2:221) Education, moreover, ensures the future growth and prosperity of society. ""By... [selecting] the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated." (ME 2:206) It has a role in promoting personal values and civil behaviour. "If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education." (ME 10:99)

When the role of the state is removed from the provision of education, and reduced to that merely of funding education, then there is no means to ensure that the social values promoted by education are preserved. For it is possible - indeed, likely - that the provision of education when placed in purely private hands will have an objective and a goal at odds with some of these social values.

Robert D. Kaplan, in his recent book The Coming Anarchy, compares the promotion of democracy in the 21st century would as akin to the promotion of Christianity in the Roman world as depicted by Gibbon. Kaplan's depiction is that democracy is as destabilizing in our world as religion was in Gibbon's Rome, and that it should represent the capstone, not the foundation, of other social and economic achievements. This view - to which I to a large degree subscribe - is also present in Patrick Watson's The Struggle for Democracy.

The provision of a public education, in which the values and means of life in a civilized society are promoted, is one of those prior conditions for a democracy, and therefore, to the freedoms and liberties toward which we all aspire. The promotion of democratic ideals in an environment where the differences between people are not based on public policy, but rather, are based on religion, nationality and ethnicity, can lead only to a harmful factionalism and divisiveness. When, as Kaplan notes, the engagement in civil war and public strife represents an improvement in the lot of people, no civil order can survive, no institution remain unscathed.

As Rousseau noted in (I believe) the Social Contract, the placing of public policy into private hands ensures that the needs of those private hands will be served by the instruments of government, and not the needs of the public good.

When we consider the arguments of the proponents of a private education system, our first question must be to ask about the ends toward which they promote this system. By and large, what we find when we look at such efforts is an effort to employ the education system to promote values contrary to the public good. In some cases, for example, it is to by a subterfuge incorporate the teaching of religion into the education funded by the state. In other, extreme, cases, it is to foster and foment uprisings and rebellion. The extreme acts of people such as Timothy McVeigh and the followers of Osama bin Laden do not occur in a vacuum; they are nutured and fostered through a system of education in which even innocent lives may be subject to the excesses of idealistic fervour.

Many promoters of private education, of course, have much more benign ambitions. The owners of Edison Schools, for example, seek in their management of Philadephia Schools an activity no more harmful than the mere making of money. And of course this is an objective to be lauded: they, like all of us, seek to sustain and prosper through the provision of services. But Edison's financial difficulties, along with the difficulties faced by other enterprises, such as Enron and Arthur Anderson (to name just a couple of recent examples) exhibit the risk.

Not all, but at least some, businesses cannot be trusted to complete in an honest and ethical manner the tasks to which they have been entrusted. Indeed, it is by no coincidence that the first act following the privatization of any major segment of public endeavour is the establishment of a regulatory body to ensure that these private agencies will perform the tasks to which they have been entrusted. And even in an environment of tight regulation and control these companies management to circumvent the public good, to act in manners dishonest and even illegal. When even such large and respected companies such as Merrill Lynch are found to have been misleading investors, how can we trust that our educational system will be managed in such a way as to promote the public good?

It seems clear to me that Jefferson, though not furnished with such 21st century examples, was well aware of the dangers they represent. Were the proposals envisioned in charter schools, voucher systems, and similar mechanisms for substituting the public good for private interests in education, Jefferson would sound the same sort of alarms he raised when presented with similar petitions and proposals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


ME: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors) 20 Vols., Washington, D.C., 1903-04.

Heterick, Bob. What Would Jefferson Think? The Learning Marketplace, June 1, 2002.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Coming Anarchy. New York: Random House, 2000.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract.

Watson, Patrick. The Struggle for Democracy.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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