CHAPTER TWO
THE PURPOSES OF
PRIMARY EDUCATION

“Education, in a great measure, forms the moral characters of men, and morals are the basis of government.”1 The implications of Noah Webster's claim are at least as controversial today as they were in 1790. “Education,” Webster argued, “should therefore be the first care of a legislature, not merely the institution of schools but the furnishing of them with the best teachers. … I shall almost adore that great man who shall change our practice and opinions and make it respectable for the first and best men to superintend the education of youth.” That great man— or woman—has yet to appear. If “it is much easier to introduce and establish an effectual system for preserving morals than to correct by penal statutes the ill effects of a bad system,”2 then perhaps the United States has taken the harder trail. Or perhaps the trail is less easy to blaze than Webster implied, at least in a society where citizens have diverse commitments, which lead them to disagree over what kind of education is necessary for educating citizens.3

“The only practicable method to reform mankind is to begin with children, to banish, if possible, from their company every low-bred, drunken, immoral character.”4 Even if a great leader could follow Webster's method, he could not simultaneously maintain a democratic republic. Citizens of a democratic republic must be free to disagree over what constitutes low-bred and immoral character. Webster's prescription would require the establishment of an educational dictatorship, akin to Plato's Republic, but undoubtedly falling far short of its promise. How many, if any, thoroughly moral men and women have lived in even the best republics? Would any have remained thoroughly moral had they assumed the role of unaccountable educators?

We can, however, revise Webster's claim to make it simultaneously

____________________
1
Noah Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America” [1790], in Frederick Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 64.
2
Ibid.
3
For a discussion of Webster's many ideas for making the United States an independent nation, see Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876 (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), pp. 261–70.
4
Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America,” p. 63.

-48-

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