American revolutionary thinking and education

Recently, I reflected on the importance of July 4 with my educator’s hat on.

It was a day to celebrate the beginning of a great gamble by individuals wishing for freedom from the rule of a faraway king and parliament. The gamble was won, and the U.S. – an experiment in representative democracy and creation of a federal system of government – was launched.

This revolt echoed Enlightenment-thinking as seen in the writings of many intellectuals of that day.

It promoted the idea that individuals had the ability to use their own reasoning capacity to make rational decisions for their life; and therefore, their own governance.

Without the skill of reading and availability of information, good decisions and the use of reason would have been threatened.

Thus, revolutionary leaders saw the importance of making education available to all for the sake of the new Republic. Benjamin Franklin founded the idea of libraries for the public in hopes of supporting self-education. Thomas Jefferson promoted the idea of free education including college for students in Virginia.

Schooling at the time of the Revolution was a mix of private, home, and community schools, and, later in larger cities, charity schools.

The notion of a common or public school system became more popular in the 1800s with the ideas of Horace Mann who saw common schools – supported by the public – as a way to teach national values, and a way to lift society to a higher level of morality.

These ideas gave foundation to the development of the American public school system, which became the envy of the world.

Over the years, the universality of the schools grew by becoming more inclusive of all children.

Today, there are calls to disengage from reliance on our public schools and to use public money to support private schooling or charter schools – publicly funded schools without many of the governance rules followed by public schools. Looking back at the purpose and importance of education in the founding of the U.S., we, as a nation, need to ask ourselves, “What is the ultimate purpose of education, and why do we all pay to support schooling?”

Jefferson might want to give us a July 4 thought and restate the following, which he wrote in a letter to George Wythe on Aug. 13, 1786.

“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness. … Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance: Establish and improve the law for educating the common people.”

Diane Prince is an education professor in the UHV School of Education, Health Professions and Human Development.


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