Academic journal article Journal of Thought

A Good Idea Gone Awry: A Comparative Study of Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge and Bush's No Child Left Behind Act

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

A Good Idea Gone Awry: A Comparative Study of Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge and Bush's No Child Left Behind Act

Article excerpt


When it comes to analysis of trends and policies, educational historians have advantages over other educators. Educational history, as described by David Tyack and Larry Cuban, "provides a generous time frame for appraising reforms. It is not driven by the short-term needs of election cycles, budgets, foundation grants, media attention, or the reputations of professional reformers" (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 7). Educational historians actively discuss educational reforms in terms of the contemporary's use of the past; they know that there is very rarely anything "new" in educational reform.

Such is the case with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Standards, highly qualified teachers, funding, and accountability are just four of the many areas of contention surrounding nineteenth and twenty-first century public schools in the United States. While the philosophical purposes of both NCLB and Thomas Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge were arguably different--Jefferson's 1779 Bill had a political purpose, while the 2001 Act had an economic purposes--Jefferson's, in fact, shared many of the same facets as NCLB and led to the same debates.

It would be impossible for a work of this size to present, even in pithy summaries, all Titles, Parts, and Subparts of NCLB's near-670 pages, let alone its basis in proposed legislation of the early national period. However, an examination of shared legislative features (similarities in context, purpose, and provisions) is possible, as is a discussion of the primary student beneficiaries and those negated, as well as an investigation of legislative and public reaction to each.

Contextualization and Purpose

Although separated by more than two hundred years, the two pieces of legislation were crafted in remarkably similar social and political contexts. In 1779, the new nation experienced a rise in patriotism even as the country was reeling from the effects of the Revolutionary War. In 2001, the nation was experiencing a rise in patriotism in response to the effects of 9/11. During both periods, deep political and ideological divisions separated Americans--Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists or Democratic vs. Republican. Accordingly, during both periods Americans looked to the schools to simultaneously help heal wounds and draw the country closer together.

When Jefferson drafted his first bill, the United States was still a fledgling nation. Jefferson and many of the forefathers perceived education to be a means to preserve the republic. As noted by historian Bernard Bailyn, "[m]ost of the major statesmen had sweeping schemes for national systems of education and national universities, or other programs by which the new nationalism and its republican spirit might properly be expressed" (Bailyn, 1972, p. 45). (1)

The founding fathers recognized that an educated populace was a need more than a desire. Words--and the ability to read them--were of the utmost importance in the new republic. Indeed, while the war gained independence, "the meaning of that independence was largely determined through writing" (Trees, 2004, p. 3). Subsequently, in 1779, Jefferson proposed his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge to the Virginia State Legislature. In Section I of the Bill, Jefferson outlined the two facets of his argument for public education: prevention of tyranny and the production of educated legislators.

First, Jefferson (1779) indirectly warned his audience that, even in a new republic, the adage "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" could still become true. He wrote in terms of introduction:

   Whereas it appearath (sic) that however certain forms of government 
   are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the 
   free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time 
   themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath 
   shewn (sic), that even under the best forms, those entrusted with 
   power have, in time and by slow operations, perverted it into 
   tyranny. … 
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