Education and Democracy

Article excerpt


Unintended irony can be sweet or sour. Consider our national commitment to spreading democracy - right on the money, hard to do, necessary, noble and inspired. Now place that beside our flagging intergenerational commitment to public education at home. The irony, of course, is that democracy depends, fundamentally, on well-educated people.

Not surprisingly, the author of our Declaration of Independence and America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, believed both in spreading democracy and in education - which he considered the lifeblood of democracy.

On spreading democracy, he wrote to a friend the year after the Constitution was ratified: "It is indeed an animating thought, that while we are securing the rights of ourselves and our posterity, we are pointing out the way to struggling nations, who wish like us to emerge from their tyrannies also." He added, "Heaven help their struggles, and lead them, as it has done us, triumphantly through." He knew the future, in his time and in ours, would be about freedom.

But this founder of the University of Virginia, reader of many languages, Holder of The Lamp, was also clear on the second point: Democracy cannot survive without an unswerving commitment to education. In Jefferson's view, every generation owes a duty to the next. Part of that duty is passing facts and values, history and science - not fluff, entertainment, opinion or ignorance - on to our young. We are charged to empower them, so they will empower their own young, and they theirs.

To fail in this fundamental obligation would be to break the chain, betray the trust, void the bond for which the Founding generation fought. Jefferson's faith in America - as a place, nation, system and people - was strong. With confidence, he wrote: "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

He was not alone. George Washington's commitment to education, as the principal guardian of democracy, was equally strong. Well before Jefferson designed a university, our first president considered placing an appeal to education in his short Farewell Address. Alexander Hamilton, more interested in coins and banks, advised against it. The paragraph was stricken. But history has not forgotten. Or has it?

Today, despite gains from President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, a recent study of our educational system shows deepening cracks. The fissures are swallowing children of new immigrants in disproportionate numbers. Too often, young people are landing in the forbidding darkness defined by illiteracy, drug abuse, gang crime, unemployment, misery. …