As the Schools Go, So Goes the Nation

Editor’s Note: The character of a regime will be determined by the education it provides to its citizens. This is why the capture of the universities has been so essential to the advance of the group quota regime. Yet conservative efforts to combat the woke domination in this field have been scattered and piecemeal, rarely countering the group quota regime on the fundamental questions. Pavlos Papadopoulos looks to John Adams and the early history of our republic for a comprehensive, alternative vision that will educate citizens prepared to defend and sustain the American regime.

Confronted by the manifold crises, dysfunctions, and corruptions of the contemporary university, conservatives have excelled at proposing, and adopting, highly-targeted solutions. Is the canon being deconstructed, or simply ignored? Set up an honors program, so students can still choose to study the classics. Are conservatives under-represented in the academy? Establish advocacy groups to promote “viewpoint diversity.” Are left-wing students, faculty, and administrators invoking micro-aggressions and political correctness to silence or exclude speakers and teachers? Invoke, once more, the liberal principles of academic freedom, and pressure university administrators to secure them even for right-wing faculty.

Each of these responses is admirable in its intentions and beneficial in its effects. But they are all partial and reactive in nature. Even the most comprehensive and daunting efforts—establishing special institutes and programs, or founding entirely new colleges and universities—rarely challenge the fundamental assumptions of our present educational regime. They typically claim to be returning to the scholarly principles and practices of the very recent past (a decade or two ago), and promise, this time, we won’t slip back down the slope.

Even if we continue to pursue piecemeal reforms, we must be clear about the assumptions of our educational regime—and what the alternatives might be. Typically, when they set aside the immediate past, conservatives will reach instead for the very distant past, of ancient Greece and Rome or the great universities of medieval Christendom. But we should not ignore the genuine alternative we find in the early history of our own nation.

Many of our founders were intimately involved in the higher education system of the early republic, and even more wrote and spoke insightfully about its benefits for the nation. John Witherspoon was president of what we now call Princeton while serving in the Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson famously founded the University of Virginia. Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and others wrote perceptively on specific questions pertaining to “the mode of education proper in a republic.”

Here, I’d like to highlight another founder who, though politically prominent, is often left out of discussions of education. John Adams did not write at length on the subject, but it was one to which he returned frequently. In these scattered remarks we find a coherent and compelling vision, sensible in itself, and directly bearing on our present concerns. Like the classical philosophers and his fellow founders, Adams understood that education was among the preeminent political questions.

Adams understood how early America’s educational regime supported a political order of liberty and self-governance. In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, Adams celebrates the Massachusetts colonists’ tradition of public support for education, elementary and collegiate, and affirms their view that widespread knowledge is vital to the preservation of liberty:

They were convinced, by their knowledge of human nature, derived from history and their own experience, that nothing could preserve their posterity from the encroachments of the two systems of tyranny, in opposition to which, as has been observed already, they erected their government in church and state, but knowledge diffused generally through the whole body of the people. Their civil and religious principles, therefore, conspired to prompt them to use every measure and take every precaution in their power to propagate and perpetuate knowledge. For this purpose they laid very early the foundations of colleges, and invested them with ample privileges and emoluments; and it is remarkable that they have left among their posterity so universal an affection and veneration for those seminaries, and for liberal education, that the meanest of the people contribute cheerfully to the support and maintenance of them every year, and that nothing is more generally popular than projections for the honor, reputation, and advantage of those seats of learning. But the wisdom and benevolence of our fathers rested not here. They made an early provision by law, that every town consisting of so many families, should be always furnished with a grammar school. They made it a crime for such a town to be destitute of a grammar schoolmaster for a few months, and subjected it to a heavy penalty. So that the education of all ranks of people was made the care and expense of the public, in a manner that I believe has been unknown to any other people ancient or modern.

It is the specifically republican character of the colonies that required the general diffusion of knowledge “through the whole body of the people.” It is especially in a republic—a res publica (“public thing”) in which the public care is the care of the people—that the “education of all ranks of people” is a preeminent “public” concern, instituted and paid for by the people as a guard on their regime.

A decade later, Adams translated this historical account of his colonial forebears into practical advice to his patriot colleagues. Mere months before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress urged the colonial assemblies to adopt new constitutions. Adams was known as one of the best-educated statesmen at the Congress, and many sought his opinion. The result was Thoughts on Government: Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies, published in May 1776. In it, Adams emphasizes the civic need for widespread liberal education:

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Conservatives reading this today might have the precisely opposite response: “Why should the state subsidize ‘liberal education,’ especially of the poor, rather than a practical and useful education?” Here, we need to keep in mind what Adams means by “liberal education.” For Adams, as for the great tradition of the West, the character of the people strongly influences the viability of a regime, and a liberal education, because it works to free its students from slavery to ignorance and vice, helps equip them to be true citizens of a free, self-governing polity.

In a 1781 letter to his not-yet-fourteen-year-old son John Quincy, the elder Adams articulates a harmony between liberal and civic education pursued through the study of the classics. By studying the Roman historians, young John Quincy will “learn Wisdom and Virtue,” because Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy represent them “with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Honor.” Adams goes as far as to say that “all the End of study is to make you a good Man and useful Citizen.” The moral and intellectual formation provided by a classical liberal education is an indispensable aid to achieving excellence as an individual and rendering service to one’s country.

Thoughts on Government served as a constitutional blueprint for a number of states, and in 1779, Adams was asked to draft a new constitution for Massachusetts. He included in it a section entitled “The Encouragement of Literature, &c.”:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge [namely, Harvard], public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments among the people.

Adams writes into the constitution of his own commonwealth the affirmation that widespread “opportunities and advantages of education” are necessary for the general diffusion of “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue” in the people, upon which depend “the preservation of their rights and liberties.” In other words, republican liberty depends upon proper education. 

“Education” here includes liberal and non-liberal education alike: the study of “literature and the sciences” at Harvard wins pride of place, and is to be “cherished,” but agriculture and the mechanical arts are to be encouraged as well, and widely spread all of these together will yield “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue.” The political consequence is “the duty of legislators and magistrates” to care for and promote liberal education, from the grammar school up to Harvard College, and to encourage a variety of other forms of education, private and public, practical and theoretical, literary and scientific, so that republican self-government might effectively secure the goods (“rights and liberties”) for which it is instituted.

Adams would later reflect on the colonial educational regime in the course of explaining New England’s role in the origins of the American Revolution. In an 1783 letter to the Abbé de Mably, who was then composing a history of the Revolution, Adams argued that four institutions—“1. the Towns, 2. The Churches. 3. The Schools. and 4. the Militia”—decisively formed both the American head and the American heart. Regarding the head, they “produced the decisive Effect” in “decisions” made by “publick Councils”; as for the heart, they produced “determinations to resist in Arms.” The one without the other would be insufficient to produce the result of revolution. And the two together—a political decision, matched by a spirited resolve to act upon it—served as the most effective rhetoric to persuade the other colonies; together, they “Influenc[ed] the Minds of the other Colonies to follow their Example.” Together, the towns, churches, schools, and militia constituted a regime that made the citizens who and what they were.

Adams provides a compact, revealing account of the educational regime of colonial New England:

The Schools are in every Town. By an early Law of the Colony, eve[r]y Town consisting of Sixty Families, is obliged, under a Penalty to maintain constantly a School House and a school Master, who teaches Reading, Writing[,] Arithmetick and the Rudiments of Latin and Greek. To this public school the Children of all the Inhabitants poor as well as rich, have a Right to go. In these Schools are formed schollars for the Colleges at Cambridge[,] New Haven, Warwick and Dartmouth, and in those Colledges are educated, Masters for the schools, Ministers for the Churches, Practitioners in Law and Physick, and Magistrates and officers for the Government of the Country.

New England schools are ubiquitous, local, legally mandated, and publicly supported. Their curriculum is foundational: the basic arts of language and mathematics, with special attention to the classical languages. Their doors are opened to all social classes. A grammar school in every town serves to diffuse wisdom and knowledge and virtue, as called for in the Report of a Constitution above. But this basic citizen’s education is not only for the many or vulgar. The grammar schools also “form[] schollars for the Colleges.” And these “schollars” become “Masters for the schools, Ministers for the Churches, Practitioners in Law and Physick, and Magistrates and officers for the Government of the Country.” Grammar schools thus serve the community in two ways. First, by providing a fundamental education to the general public which is necessary for basic citizenship in a republic. Second, by supporting the colleges, which themselves provide civic services through every course of study. The colleges prepare “schollars” to minister to all the needs—educational, spiritual, legal, physical, and political—of the Commonwealth.

Here we find the clearest contrast between the republican educational regime described, and lauded, by Adams, and our present situation. In the New England of John Adams, institutions of higher education were not divorced from the needs and welfare of the local communities from which they drew their students as well as their support. They were not (as ours are today) understood primarily as nodes in an international network, a “scholarly community” beyond borders enjoying a parallel existence to local and national communities. There was a civic quality to every level and course of study, from the grammar schools to the colleges and from medicine to ministry.

The last century has seen our constitutional republic largely replaced by a new administrative state. This replacement mirrored, and was midwifed by, a transformation in our dominant institutions of education. The sprawling modern research universities that, since the turn of the 20th century, have created an administrative state at home, sustained an American Empire abroad, and continue to dominate higher education today, were built on radically different foundations than the humble classical liberal arts colleges that taught the citizens and statesmen of the early centuries of American history, through our colonial, founding, and early-republican periods.

The regime-level function of the contemporary university is to catechize and credential managers whose expertise will legitimate their rule of the American people, and the wider world, via the federal bureaucracy and a suite of mega-corporations and non-governmental organizations. The regime-level function of our old classical colleges had been to train elites whose wisdom would prepare them to serve the material and spiritual needs of their communities. Today’s university presupposes, and reinforces, the bureaucracy of an empire and the careful management of subject peoples. Our older colleges presupposed, and reinforced, the civil society and structures of a republic and the moral and political self-government of its citizens.

It is well and good to offer discrete solutions to the acute problems pressing on American academia today. But if we wish to break the revolutionary cycles that have convulsed our universities for generations, and to lay the foundations for a less despotic, more republican form of government once more, we must begin by grasping the great gulf between our present educational regime and the kinds of schools and colleges that formed our founding fathers. Only after we have seen the great distance between their situation and ours can we begin to ask how we might retrieve some aspects of their institutions for our own times.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.