Today we commemorate the birthday of our first president, George Washington, although he was actually born on February 22, 1732. This does provide an official government holiday, but what purpose does this day serve? In my field, it is often selected as a day of professional development and therefore, for me, a day to reflect on why this profession is important in terms of the ideals of Washington and so many others who helped form and shape our constitutional republic.
In his Farewell Address, Washington stated, “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” As he willingly and peacefully relinquished his presidential power, he stated his firm belief that public opinion must be enlightened. Education is a critical component of creating that enlightened citizen. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a speech during a time of great global turmoil and uncertainty, but unfortunately, it was not delivered prior to his death. As World War II was drawing to a close in 1945 and Roosevelt was contemplating how governments and societies would be structured to promote and secure freedom, he wrote, “Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”
Former Undersecretary for the US Department of Education, Eugene Hickock, asserted that “Education is the essential work of a democratic people…” and many of our districts around the nation have committed to goals similar to that in my district where our objective is to “prepare all students to be productive and responsible citizens ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
As educators, we have a profound civic responsibility. We must help facilitate learning that extends past 2017 and prepares students for 2037 and beyond. We must instill a desire to make progress in science, economics, medicine, technology, mathematics, justice, and compassion. As the Framers wrote in the Preamble to our constitution, we must create the next generation of citizens who will form “a more perfect union.” Our statesmen recognized the important role education would play in the foundation of our society and in its advancement. This has held true in the beginnings of the Republic and even through the darkest days of the Civil War. We must commit ourselves to what Lincoln referred to in the Gettysburg Address as the “unfinished work” of our soldiers so that “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
With this resolve, I wholeheartedly accept the enormous responsibility I have to work with each student each day. I recognize that families have sacrificed and soldiers have given their lives that I can live in a free society and raise my family in one as well. I do not take that for granted and I choose to honor that sacrifice through the education of what Washington once called “the future guardians of our liberties.” It is with this resolve that I take inspiration from a playwright that both Washington and his successor, President John Adams quoted. They borrowed a line from Joseph Addington’s play Cato which read, “We can’t guarantee success, we can do something better, we can deserve it.”
As a society, we can’t guarantee success, but we can do something better. We can deserve it. As an American educator working to prepare students for the 21st century and the responsibilities of citizenship in this democratic republic, I can’t guarantee success, but I can work to deserve it. I do it because the legacy of our Founders deserve it, our country deserves it and my students deserve it. I do this for them.
Washington’s Farewell Address
Remarks from David McCullough on Washington and Adams