Three years ago on President’s Day weekend, I posted a blog to not only commemorate the holiday but also reflect upon thoughts and statements some of our leaders have made about education. If you’re interested, you can find that post at https://ericlfox.com/2017/02/20/do-it-for-them-this-presidents-day-and-each-day/
This year I decided to revisit the topic. Perhaps we’re already tired of being in an election year although there will be many more TV spots, debates, polls and candidate statements to come between now and November. I won’t dive into the politics at this point but want to think first about the needs our students and our democratic republic face.
What do students need to be able to do in this century? What do students need to know? How do they need to interact with adults, peers, technology, employers or any number of stakeholders? These are complex questions that must be addressed by educators, parents, leaders and communities who are concerned about providing students with an education that prepares them to successfully navigate our pluralistic society and the world at large. Students in this century will have to demonstrate such skills as collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking and develop their own creativity and literacy in information and media sources. But how different is this than the needs identified earlier in our nation’s history?
Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1820 letter to a contemporary merchant and diplomat, William C. Jarvis, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, (A)nd if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” Education was a necessary tool or even weapon aimed at curbing those who would abuse power and take advantage of the people.
Although he was no president, Samuel Adams was a Revolutionary leader, Founding Father and cousin to future president John Adams. He also saw education as an instrument of surety when he wrote during the Revolution, “If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslav’d. This will be their great Security.” (letter to James Warren, February 12, 1779) This security would protect from enslavement of the people as well as enslavement from oppressive ideas. Jefferson stated in a letter to John Adams, “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.” (letter to Adams, August 1, 1816)
How important it must have been to Jefferson to have the free exchange of information and ideas in order to think critically and then act courageously in the face of bigotry and prejudice. This proves relevant for our times as well. (Yes, I understand students and society today must wrestle with the seeming contradictions of Jefferson who was both the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner who fathered children with one of his own slaves, Sally Hemmings; but perhaps this illustrates both the need and the benefit of quality education – to be able to wrestle with inconsistencies, flaws and paradoxes and learn from those who have come before us.)
To me, the critical business of educating our nation’s young people is synonymous with securing our country’s future. In Lincoln on Leadership, author Donald T. Phillips relates an 1864 speech President Lincoln delivered to the 166th Ohio Regiment:
It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained….the nation is worth fighting for… (Phillips, 164-165)
I respectfully submit on this 2020 President’s Day weekend that this nation is worth fighting for and the students in our schools are worth fighting for as well. They are our hope and our future. I’m resolved to do it for them and I hope you are also.
Lincoln image from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/resource/freepix.htm
You can find the speech at http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/speech-to-166th-ohio-regiment-august-22-1864/