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The Founding Fathers on Education—and Education Today

The Founding Fathers on Education—and Education Today

I was recently looking through Intellectual Takeout’s archives and once again stumbled upon Annie Holmquist’s article “Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today.” Annie’s comparison of how reading lists have changed reveals how students today aren’t held to as high of standards as students 100 years ago, and Annie’s commentary got me curious about how else education has changed through the decades, particularly since America’s founding.

What did the Founding Fathers, many of whom had a homeschool educational upbringing, think about education? And how does American education compare today?

Founding Fathers: Parents in Education

With declining public school enrollment, the left-wing agenda in public schools, and the rise of homeschooling, parents’ rights and authority is a hot topic right now. However, over 200 years ago, James Wilson—who signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft the Constitution, and served on the Supreme Court—spoke in no uncertain terms on the topic:

It is the duty of parents to maintain their children decently, and according to their circumstances; to protect them according to the dictates of prudence; and to educate them according to the suggestions of a judicious and zealous regard for their usefulness, their respectability, and their happiness.

Today: Parents in Education

While James Wilson thought parents had the ultimate authority—and responsibility—over their children’s education, many parents today play little to no role in their children’s schooling, and any role they do play is increasingly frowned upon by many education officials and teachers. As Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tweeted: “Teachers know what is best for their kids because they are with them every day. We must trust teachers.”

And if Cardona’s tweet leaves any doubt that parents aren’t welcome in public education, we only need look at a quote from a fifth-grade teacher who showed an LGBTQ film to her students: “[Parental rights] are gone when your child is in the public school system because there are students talking about these things.”

Founding Fathers: Religious Education

Over the last few decades, Americans have increasingly become less religious, but given the religious founding of the country, it’s not surprising that the Founding Fathers had strong opinions on the importance of religion. As Gouverneur Morris, Penman of the Constitution, said:

[F]or avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy … the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.

Today: Religious Education

Most of us would likely be surprised to see anything resembling “the duties of man towards God” being taught today in the public schools. In place of this moral education, ideologies like critical race theory are taking over. And the few feeble connections between education and religious and moral teachings are disappearing. For instance, in Minnesota, the state is moving to take away funding from students who wish to attend religious higher education institutions. Aletheia Hitz explains:

Since 1985, the Minnesota government has funded thousands of sophomore, junior, and senior high school students who are enrolled in postsecondary courses. Given the current legislation in the Postsecondary Enrollment Options Act (PSEO Act), high schoolers can enroll in college classes from a variety of eligible institutions without paying out of pocket, allowing them to jump-start their degree and lessen future college debt.

As it currently stands, the PSEO Act defines eligible institutions broadly, mostly restricting government funding to high school students who attend accredited colleges and universities. However, new proposed legislation qualifies the definition, saying, ‘An eligible institution must not require a faith statement during the application process.’ Under this new legislation, high school students looking for college credit would not be able to attend many seriously religious universities. …

Secular universities, just like religious ones, do promote a worldview; they just do not always do so as overtly or transparently as religious institutions. Under Minnesota’s proposed regulation, colleges that carefully and intentionally lay out their worldview (i.e., religious institutions) will be penalized, while state and non-religious institutions will be rewarded with more students and, from that, greater ideological power.

Founding Fathers: History in Education

History is another area of education that the Founding Fathers spoke on. Noah Webster, a prolific writer on everything from politics to spelling, wrote on the importance of learning history:

Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.

Today: History in Education

In stark contrast to Noah Webster’s vision for historical education, The Nation’s Report Card does not paint a flattering portrait of American students’ knowledge of their nation’s history. In 2022, only 13 percent of tested students were proficient in U.S. history, and scores have only been declining since 2014. It seems that it’s rare for a student today to be “acquainted with his own country.”

The Future of Education

It’s clear that education today falls short of what the Founding Fathers envisioned as well-rounded, quality instruction for the nation’s youth. And with Gouverneur Morris saying that “religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments,” it’s no wonder why our freedoms in America are under attack today.

Fortunately, the number of parents deciding to homeschool over the past few years has skyrocketed, allowing those parents to again take control over what their kids are learning. If these engaged parents can teach their children the history of this great nation and instill in their children “the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God,” then perhaps our “free government” can survive.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons-Daderot, CC0 1.0

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