Every young American is entitled to a K-12 education. Mostly, we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for that. He championed his idea of tax-funded general education for all children of citizens. Nearly the entire world has since adopted his concept.
Literacy, once reserved for aristocracy, makes social mobility and the middle class possible.
Jefferson’s proposals grew from a modest three-year program to include primary school for ages 6-8, intermediate school for ages 9-16, and university for ages 17-19. He believed an educated public was essential for a democracy to work. “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness,” he wrote.
I wonder what Jefferson would say about how America has implemented his concept?
Today, the vast majority of our citizens attend school and master “reading, writing and arithmetic.” He would be impressed by the vast tax-supported investment in education, and he’d be proud that some of America’s universities are counted among the world’s best.
It might surprise Jefferson, a slaveholder, that all races now attend school together, but I think he would have recognized the wisdom and justice supporting integration.
Jefferson would be proud that America has maintained separation of church and state in our schools. He was a spiritual person, but he believed both government and religion benefited when the two were kept separate.
Jefferson designed and built the University of Virginia. Universities at that time were typically built around a central church with which the university was affiliated. His UVA plans initially had no church at all; instead there was a central library. The only other university then in existence without church affiliation, as far as I know, was the University of Bologna, founded in 1079.
He would be opposed to school vouchers, which siphon public tax money away from public schools to religious schools.
Jefferson would be perplexed that we have so elevated sports within our academic institutions. Our society invests millions in student sports arenas, coaches’ salaries and equipment. Across the nation, sports coaches and programs are lavished with more money than university presidents, governors or brilliant academicians. In 40 states, Tennessee included, the highest paid person on the public payroll is a sports coach. Yet only 1 in 16,000 high school athletes and fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to become professional athletes.
I was recently in an orthopedic surgeon’s office, which was decorated with a photo of Gate City High School. There is an imposing bronze statue of a football player in front of the building, on a raised platform — the first thing students see, every day, as they approach the front door. This emphasis on high school football generates a large portion of my orthopedic surgeon’s income.
I appreciate a good sports program. Tennis, track, volleyball, swimming — sports that can be used throughout one’s life — provide a healthy outlet for youthful energy, kids learn to work together, it upholds courage and perseverance, and vigorous activity improves general health.
But it makes little sense to lavish millions on a few sports with little relation to academics or future employment, while teachers have to reach into their own pockets to buy paper and pencils. Thomas Jefferson might wonder why.
Jefferson argued in his day that university attendance should not be based solely on ability to pay. He advocated for tax-supported tuition and the widest possible availability of advanced education for citizens with desire and ability.
I think Jefferson’s biggest disappointment would be that in spite of all this education, so many Americans are being misled by falsehoods. For example: myths about “rigged elections,” or vaccines, ivermectin, chloroquine and the like. I suspect some of those being manipulated include the people in my high school science class who refused to study, saying “I’m never going to need to know this!”
Whenever I’ve written in this column about vaccines, my inbox becomes speckled with outlandish antivax propaganda — probably from Russia or China. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t trust mainstream media, so I do my own research,” but then many of them rely on junk science sources. That suggests the education we provide should provide better research and analytical skills.
Public education may not be perfect, but broadly based, publicly funded education is one of the great success stories of the American experiment.
David Kashdan, Ph.D., is retired director of Eastman Chemical Research Division and a senior consultant with RISE: Research Institutes of Sweden. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.