I am spending a good part of the summer off campus, doing research for a book on why liberal education matters. Recently I’ve been reading Thomas Jefferson and also some of his contemporaries. The political importance of education has rarely found as powerful a proponent as Jefferson, one of whose proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia on a model of liberal learning that is ultimately practical. His friend and political rival John Adams was also a stalwart proponent of the importance of an educated citizenry. At the dawn of the Republic Adams, too, knew that only through education could citizens ensure that their government would remain responsive to their needs. As he wrote to Jefferson: “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people…arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”
Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and for him this meant faith that the accumulation of knowledge would improve public and private life. His conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious—extending from an array of languages to mathematics, sciences and history. He wrote: “Education generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue; and controls, by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.” The experience of undergraduates at Wesleyan, as we all know, doesn’t at all points stimulate the habits of moral organization that the author of the Declaration of Independence had in mind. But don’t we still hope that our students acquire a love of virtue, even as they discover through hard work and sociability just what “love” and “virtue” might mean?
Of course, we have grown accustomed to criticizing problematic aspects of the Enlightenment worldview of our nation’s founders. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is legendary; his insight into structures of oppression didn’t disturb his own personal tyrannies. If our third president understood that education was inexorably linked to the possibility of freedom, his racism and sexism led him to think that women, Africans, or native peoples should not enjoy that possibility.
But this summer, as I listen to the partisan haggling over the debt ceiling in Washington while the epidemic of unemployment rages on, and as I hear about school districts and university systems across the country slashing budgets and cutting back on educational programs, I read Jefferson with renewed energy and engagement. As Representatives in 2011 labor to preserve the tax advantages of multi-millionaires, I read how Jefferson recognized that a sure way to preserve the privileges of wealth is to curtail educational opportunity for those without them. In his proposal for public education in Virginia, he advocated a system for discovering youngsters with talent who would benefit from scholarships so that they could pursue their studies and serve the public at the highest level. He proposed that “worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.” In our own time, with school districts shortening their academic calendars to save money and universities struggling to replace financial aid support once provided by government, we are undermining the hope for change and improvement that is so essential to both learning and democracy. What will become of this nation if it turns its back on the promise of education as a vehicle for social and economic mobility?
At Wesleyan, we aggressively look for “worth and genius” in all areas of the country so as to create a diverse cohort of students who will stimulate learning for and from one another. Through programs like Questbridge and with many community-based organizations as partners, we find young men and women who can thrive in and contribute to our campus community. We do this so that every student at Wesleyan benefits, not just those who come to us through these programs. Many of our graduates, disproportionate to our numbers as Wesleyan President Victor Butterfield used to say, go on to contribute to the public good—using their education to engage with the world in positive, meaningful ways. I believe we do this, to paraphrase Jefferson, because education became the keystone of the arch of our lives.
These words from a letter of Jefferson to Adams seem just right for Wesleyan. May we be worthy of them!
We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry.... Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism.UPFRONT