As we approach another Fourth of July holiday, it’s critical that we grasp how important an educated citizenry is to maintaining our nation’s independence.
I’m certain that America itself would not have happened without literate founders knowledgeable of the failures of ancient governments and civilizations.
In studying ancient Greece, for example, our founders discovered that a pure democracy is nothing but a different kind of tyranny – a tyranny of the majority, where any fleeting idea or popular campaign with at least 51 percent of the votes can take hold. This often happens, they discovered, without regard to foundational principles – like our Constitution provides for America – and results in a society having little chance of surviving.
Their education allowed them to form what began as an “experiment” in representative government, and what resulted in an enduring contract – the Constitution. It was signed at a convention attended by 56 delegates, 30 of whom were college graduates, an astounding number for that time.
Then, there were those like George Washington, who, though not a college graduate, greatly admired classical thinkers. Washington once had Joseph Addison’s play about Cato the Younger –a famous Roman statesman – performed for the troops at Valley Forge.
Some of America’s key founders were homeschooled, including George Wythe, whose mother educated him in their backwoods home. Wythe became the “Teacher of Liberty” and had a grasp of the Greek language that was “accounted by his contemporaries to have been perfect,” wrote Martin Cothran, an educator and a policy analyst with The Family Foundation of Kentucky.
Our founders were historians and scientists, lawyers and merchants, farmers and pastors who – as a result of a rigorous education from disciplined minds – discovered the need for checks and balances on governmental power. Their education helped them conclude that the best hope for America’s future was to place that power in the hands of the people.
But I believe they assumed that such power would be placed in the hands of educated citizens.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “We must educate and inform the whole mass of the people; they are our only sure reliance for preservation and liberty.”
One wonders if this nation ever would have been borne had the founders been students in Kentucky’s public schools, where about two out of three eighth-graders are not proficient in math and reading.
How can most of our students, who are not skilled readers and thus apt to be historically illiterate, grasp the greatness of our founders’ vision of a free, self-governing and prosperous people?
But more importantly, how can they defend those constitutional principles that have resulted in the relative freedom and prosperity – as well as the fairly strong institutions – we enjoy today? Do they understand the uniqueness of a nation that actually codifies in a constitution protection for freedom of speech, religion, the press and the right to peaceably assembly and bear arms?
Can the 40 percent of high-school graduates unprepared for even basic college courses participate in a substantive debate – as our founders did and meant for future generations to do – about state sovereignty or how strong a central government should be?
It takes an educated people to oppose a despot who, with silver-forked tongue, attempts to persuade citizens of a free nation to surrender their liberties “for the common good,” and who places “fairness” over “freedom.”
In 1765, John Adams, who later would become our nation’s second president, said that to find an American who could not read or write was as rare “as a comet or an earthquake.”
Now, it’s becoming almost as rare to find a Kentuckian who understands what a stellar education has to do with maintaining – and defending – our independence.
— Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at email@example.com.