Education for a Classless Society

Charter Day Address delivered at the University of California on March 28, 1940.

The United States was once proclaimed as the land of the free. Now we are more often reminded that it has been the profitable home of an acquisitive society. Greed and 'lust for money,' we are told, determined the course of development of even the first years of the republic.

Yet, as early as 1800 a potent but silent ferment was at work which had nothing to do with the almighty dollar. In describing conditions at the beginning of Jefferson's administration, Henry Adams writes as follows: 'European travelers who passed through America noticed that everywhere, in the White house at Washington and in log cabins beyond the Alleghenies, except for a few Federalists every American, from Jefferson and Gallatin down to the poorest squatter seemed to nourish an idea that he was doing what he could to overthrow the tyranny which the past had fastened on the human mind.' This idea so widely disseminated among the citizens of the raw republic of sixteen states seems to me one of the most essential and continuing elements in the development of American education. I have ventured to associate with this passion for freedom of the mind two other closely allied elements—namely, a belief in careers open to all through higher education, and a faith in universal schooling. I have labeled the whole with Jefferson's name. I trust that neither his shade nor American historians will be unduly offended by my terminology.

In his brief autobiographical sketch Jefferson wrote that he deemed it essential to a well-ordered republic to annul hereditary privilege. He proposed 'instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions....' Elsewhere, in describing his new educational scheme for Virginia, he speaks of that part of his plan which called for 'the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor.' He declared, '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.' These quotations sum up for me the second component in the Jeffersonian tradition in education—a sincere belief in the paramount importance of careers freely open to all the talented.

Most important for its effect on the development of American educational practice was the third element of the tradition—Jefferson's devotion to the principle of universal schooling. This doctrine naturally has had more general popular appeal throughout the years than either concern for freedom of the mind or desire for opportunity through higher education. For here was a proposition which directly affected every family in the land. To quote from the proposal for Virginia, 'The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all the children of the State reading, writing and common arithmetic...' These words of Jefferson may now seem to us to describe a degree of general education so small as to be negligible. But when they were written they expressed a revolutionary doctrine—a belief that every potential citizen in a democratic republic should receive at least a minimum of formal instruction. The campaign against illiteracy had begun in earnest.

As a recent biographer has said, Jefferson believed that any boy or girl was capable of benefiting from the rudiments of education and would be made a better citizen by acquiring them. He believed in keeping open the door of further opportunity to the extent that a poor boy of ability should not be debarred from continuing his education. 'To have gone farther and made a higher education compulsory on all,' suggests this biographer, 'would have seemed as absurd to him as to have decreed that every crop on his farm, whether tobacco, potatoes, rye, corn, or what not, must be treated and cultivated in precisely the same way as every other....In terms of the citizen, he believed in the maximum of equality of opportunity. In terms of the state, he believed in the minimum of compulsion and interference compatible with the training of all its citizens as citizens to the maximum of the capacity of each.'

To understand the bearing of Jefferson's ideas on the development of American schools and colleges we must realize, of course, that they represented only one aspect of a wider social philosophy. As this philosophy was understood by large numbers of the citizens of the young republic, it included the following points: a belligerent belief in individual freedom; complete confidence in the powers of man's intelligence to overcome all obstacles; the assumption of a society without hereditary classes, without an aristocracy; a differentiation of labors with a corresponding differentiation in the types of education (but no ruling caste, no hereditary educational privileges, everyone to be 'as good as everyone else'); widespread education for all citizens so that political decisions might be 'rational.' Dominating all was the doctrine of the maximum independence of the individual, the minimum of social control by organized society.

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