#Occupyhistory 1785: “A wise and liberal education?”

“But hitherto education has been conducted on a contrary plan. It has been a contraction, not an enlargement, of the intellectual faculties, an injection of false principles hardening them in error, not a discipline enlightening and improving them.”

I was initially going to write on Paine’s Rights of Man for President’s Day, but got waylaid with other work before deciding that a discussion of RM would be much more effective with a discussion of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  No sooner did I begin to write on this than I decided to backtrack not just once, but twice more to Richard Price (1723-1791), who’s actually a significant intermediary figure between James Murray and Paine. Like Murray, Price has mostly been forgotten–and would probably remain as equally unknown were it not for his sermon, Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789), that effectively launched the French Revolution debate and the Left-Right debate on both sides of the Atlantic.  Here, I’d like to focus on his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1785),  an essay published nearly two years after the victory won by the American colonies and two years prior to the writing of the Constitution. It was a work much admired by Thomas Jefferson himself, who “read it with very great pleasure,” claiming that “The spirit which it breathes is as affectionate as the observations themselves are wise and just.” Nearly 230 years later, Price’s observations remain as “wise and just” as ever—particularly his eerily prescient remarks on education.

Let’s take a cursory glance at this little nugget.  No standing armies, please, because “Free states ought to be bodies of armed citizens, well regulated and well disciplined, and always ready….to execute the laws, to quell riots, and to keep the peace.” There should be “liberty of conduct in all civil matters, liberty of discussion in all speculative matters, and liberty of conscience in all religious matters”; for too long,  man has been “more or less cramped by the interference of civil authority in matters of speculation, by tyrannical laws against heresy and schism, and by slavish hierarchies and religious establishments.” Evidently, our founding fathers who proposed and enacted the 1st amendment agreed with Price: even if some on the Right today might not. Price would also caution the new republic against “too great an inequality in the distribution of property.”  If relative equality amongst men proved favorable to forming “new constitutions of governments,” it was not less true that “The happiest state of man is the middle state between the savage and the refined, or between the wild and the luxurious state.” He feared, however, that this ideal state of equity would not be “of long duration” and that the 1% would eventually begin to oppress the 99%. How terrible it would be for “simplicity and virtue” to degenerate into “depravity” so that “equality will in time be lost, the cursed lust of domineering shew itself, liberty languish, and civil government gradually degenerate into an instrument in the hands of the few to oppress and plunder the many.”  Indeed.

A strong nation, however, cannot be built without sound education—because “nothing is more necessary than a wise and liberal plan of education.”  Whatever we make of Niall Ferguson’s “6 killer apps” that distinguished the West from the rest—competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the Protestant work ethic—few can argue that at least 4 of these “killer apps” have been seriously compromised over the last 30 years. Consider the mediocre performance of American teens on the reading, math, and science tests administered in 2009 by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) amongst a pool of teens from other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)- and OECD-partnered nations  where the likes of China, South Korea, and Singapore dominated the top 5 places. The US not only failed to rank amongst the 10 or 15 in any of the tests but also managed to dip a few notches below average in math while barely squeaking in by just one point above average in science.  Even if east Asian students are conceded to be more exam-oriented than their Western peers, such a distinction fails to explain why the US also lags behind Finland, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Poland.  Our downward trajectory is especially tragic in light of our halcyon days when American primary and secondary schools were viewed by our competitors as a model worthy of emulation. What happened?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve chosen to ignore the wisdom of Price and other voices from the Enlightenment.  The business of education, according to Price, was to prepare students “how to think, rather than what to think, or to lead into the best way of searching for truth, rather than to instruct in truth itself.” For too long, education has been

conducted on a contrary plan. It has been a contraction, not an enlargement, of the intellectual faculties, an injection of false principles hardening them in error, not a discipline enlightening and improving them. Instead of opening and strengthening them, and teaching to think freely, it hath cramped and enslaved them, and qualified for thinking only in one track. Instead of instilling humility, charity, and liberality, and thus preparing for an easier discovery and a readier admission of truth, it has inflated with conceit, and stuffed the human mind with wretched prejudices.”

Citing Oxford University’s reprobation of Newton’s Principia as an example of backwardness, Price lamented that “Even now, the principal object of education (especially in divinity) is to teach established systems as certain truths, and to qualify for successfully defending them against opponents and thus to arm the mind against conviction and render it impenetrable to farther light.” The academic powers-that-be back then were doing their damnedest to stall progress.

Hmmm. Does this sound a bit familiar? Consider some of the changes made to the curriculum by the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 involving none other than Price’s very own Thomas Jefferson–soon to be replaced by John Calvin.

” And then there were none…”

But that’s not all. Uncomfortable with the idea of an “enlightenment”–the very principle that inspired all of our founding fathers–one board member decided to nix the concept of the Enlightenment altogether: “enlightenment ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire…” will be replaced by “the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes…” Similarly, teachers will be expected “to address the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state.” As one board member proudly declared, “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.” (Um, 1st amendment?) Not surprisingly, the Board also ditched a requirement for students to be taught that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government “from promoting one religion over all others.”

Not long afterwards, Tea Party activists in Tennessee would also attempt—literally and figuratively speaking—to whitewash their history curriculum. As one attorney put it, there’s  “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.” Huh?  What about George Washington’s granting of manumission to his family slaves then? Was he a “hypocrite”? Too bad the good attorney never bothered to consider the pedagogical benefits of discussing the founding fathers’ range of attitudes towards slavery, from some genuinely believing in liberty for all to others hedging.

Indeed,  if misinformation and omissions are bad enough, our methods are even worse. As Price usefully observes, any system of thought should be

attended with a fair exhibition of the evidence on both sides of every question, and care should be taken to induce, as far as possible, a habit of believing only on an overbalance of evidence, and of proportioning assent in every case to the degree of that overbalance, without regarding authority, antiquity, singularity, novelty, or any of the prejudices which too commonly influence assent.

Pupils, in short, should be taught to think critically: that is, to seek and weigh evidence before arriving at a conclusion.  Again,  the Texas curriculum and Tea Party proposals fail on this measure.  As Keith A. Erekson rightly suggests in his report, Bridging the Gap between K-12 and College Readiness Standards in Texas, the new curriculum does little to provide critical thinking skills:  an essay topic that requires a student to “evaluate the strength and weakness of different economic systems” is superior to one that merely expects the student to “describe the characteristics and benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system”–leaving aside for now the glaring issue of bias.  (Incidentally, if you’re wondering why “capitalism” is not used in the question, that’s because the Board deemed it a “negative term.”)  As such, it’s not surprising either that the Board’s patent inability to reason results in other less intellectually stimulating essay topics: for instance, the changing of a relatively thought-provoking question such as “examine how and why historians divide the past into eras” to a more pedestrian “Identify the major eras in U.S. history from 1877 to the present and describe their defining characteristics.” It does not take a Ph.D. in history to discern that the first question expects students not only to know their events and dates, but also to reflect on similarities and differences across periods–in other words, to think analytically rather than descriptively.

The question is why is this nonsense being pedaled? Could it be so that future voters will not be able to catch such howlers as Newt Gingrich’s claim that the “secular left” is undermining the principles of the founding fathers? Or that “George Washington would not have approved of Obama’s apology for the burning of the Quran?” Maybe–gasp–he would have done the same: because anyone with some cursory knowledge of Washington will recall that in 1775 he famously refused to allow his army to burn an effigy of the Pope on Guy Fawkes day. And that he hoped in 1790 “ever to see America amongst the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.” (There it is again–that pesky enlightenment concept, liberality.)

Stay tuned for more shenanigans in the science curriculum…

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)