“What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?” — James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry — 1822
In the first part of this essay on government intervention in education I covered the vision of our Founding Fathers for learning and liberty. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 demonstrated not only the vision of our Founders, but their actions toward supporting learning at the local, municipal and state level. In this part I will move forward to the 19th century and the beginning of the progressive takeover of education in the United States.
There were several proposals for the support of education in a more direct way at the time of the founding. George Washington, the "Father of our Country" and the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, was among the chief proponents of a military academy, which was eventually established at West Point. He was also a strong proponent of education generally, including the establishment of a national university. As our first president, Washington gave "annual messages" as required in Article 11, Section 3 of the Constitution-now known as "State of the Union" messages. His were very different, especially in their brevity, from State of the Union messages today. They seldom strayed from topics of direct and immediate concern of the executive administration or of legislative deliberation. In those days, such topics were few, generally fewer than ten items per speech. Among these few, education recurs.
In his first annual message, Washington stated the common view of the Founders that: "Knowledge is in every Country the surest basis of public happiness. In one, in which the measures of Government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the Community as in ours, it is proportionably essential." But he goes on to recommend that Congress promote this knowledge. In a passage that definitely foresaw the possibility of direct federal aid to colleges, he stated:
“Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to Seminaries of Learning already established by the institution of a national University-or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the Legislature.”
The national university has never been built, and federal aid to "seminaries of learning" would not come to be for more than 150 years. Washington himself took no detailed position on the constitutionality of either proposal. The Founders conducted an extensive discussion of the national university, and its constitutionality was an issue debated by several of them.
Washington pushed the idea of a national university with all his might. He mentioned it several times in his annual messages and in letters to colleagues in the government. In his will he left a bequest of 50 shares of the Potomac Company "towards the endowment of a University to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the general government, if that government should incline to extend a fostering hand towards it." Attempts to establish this university would continue for more than 100 years. These attempts ran afoul of concerns about the cost —such concerns being much more common early in our history than in recent years. But there was also a constitutional concern, and it was serious.
The Eleventh Congress, meeting in February 1811, referred to committee a suggestion by President Madison that they consider "the establishment of a seminary of learning by the national legislature." Madison explained the idea in his Second Annual Message, December 5, 1810:
“Whilst it is universally admitted that a well instructed people alone, can be permanently a free people; and whilst it is evident that the means of diffusing and improving useful knowledge, form so small a proportion of the expenditures for national purposes, I cannot presume it to be unseasonable, to invite your attention to the advantages of superadding, to the means of Education provided by the several States, a Seminary of Learning instituted by the national Legislature, within the limits of their exclusive jurisdiction; the expense of which might be defrayed, or reimbursed, out of the vacant grounds which have accrued to the Nation within those limits.”
Thus under the guiding hand of Madison, the idea of support for "seminaries of learning" was restricted to one national university, located within the limits of the District of Columbia. Funds for the university were to be provided by the sale of vacant lands within the confines of the District. Of course Madison had as much authority as any man to speak on the constitutionality of any proposal, and here he is speaking as president of the United States to a friendly legislature. This makes the response he got all the more surprising.
New York Congressman Samuel L. Mitchill, who with President Madison was a Republican, was the chairman of the reporting committee at the time. Mitchill began his response by agreeing that the national university was a splendid idea. Anyway, he admitted that it was endorsed by "authorities so respectable" as to carry great weight. He then raised a problem, however:
“[I]t was necessary to consider whether Congress possessed the power to found and endow a national university. It is argued, from the total silence of the Constitution, that such a power has not been granted to Congress, inasmuch as the only means by which it is therein contemplated to promote the progress of science and the useful arts is, by securing to authors and inventors exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries for limited times. The Constitution, therefore, does not warrant the creation of such corporation by any express provision.”
(House Select Committee, "which relates to the establishment of a seminary of learning by the National Legislature," Report to the House of Representatives, read by Rep. Samuel L. Mitchill (Republican-NY), February 18, 1811, 11th Cong., 3d sess., 1811, Annals of Congress, 976)
Mitchill and the committee went on to admit that the land of the District of Columbia was wholly within the power of Congress, thus that they might be able to devote some of it to the purpose of a university. Still, the problem persisted that "the endowment of a university is not ranked among the objects for which drafts are to be made upon the treasury. The money of the nation seems to be reserved for other uses.
The contemporary reader will likely not be quick to grasp what has happened here. George Washington and James Madison, each in his capacity as president, asked the Congress for something. The one is the chairman of the convention that adopted the Constitution; the other is its principal author. And the Congress replies that the document neither justifies nor empowers them to accede to the request.
Admittedly, the view of Mitchill's committee was not quite the uniform view. In 1816, under the presidency of James Monroe, another committee recommended to Congress the expenditure of some $200,000 for the purpose of building a national university. This money, too, was to be raised by selling vacant land within the District of Columbia. The committee recommended that action because "the means are ample, the end desirable, the object fairly within the legislative powers of Congress. The bill was "indefinitely postponed" on the floor of the House in March of 1817.
Even if some thought that land could be sold and the proceeds used for education, that is a far cry from direct taxation to support it, and further yet from the system of detailed federal regulation that now persists. Scruples about the extent of power granted to the federal government were very common in the first decades of American history. Today, by contrast, such scruples are almost nonexistent. Entire presidential campaigns take place with hardly a mention of the Constitution, and generally none about any restriction it might place on federal government action. Thus the fact that in recent decades education has become a matter of federal government administrative control is hardly considered controversial. There is not even a memory that such issues were once — not even that long ago — a matter of serious debate.
One might say that it is because the Founders possessed a liberal education that they knew better than to make education an administrative fiefdom of a central power. It is the loss of that education among powerful people today that works to deny it to others. How did that loss occur? To find the answer to that we must move forward into the next century.
The 19th Century — The Age of Progressivism
For most of our history the central government was powerful, but limited to a few objects. Today it is powerful, and limited almost not at all. It is hard to think of anything it may not and does not do. 'There are federal sidewalks and bike trails in many small towns across the nation, which lead the rare pedestrian up to rarely used but nicely appointed federal tennis courts. 'There are federal crops growing across the Midwest. There are federally subsided solar panels on the roofs of houses and the federal government will weather proof your home.
Drive — or better, ride a motorcycle-across the heart of America on the back roads. You will come across one after another of the small towns that are scattered across the vastness. As you enter you will often see a building out of character with the rest. It is newer and built to more sumptuous standards. It exudes not grace but imposition. It is not quite a fort. It is an establishment. It is the federal building, the place from which the authority of Washington, D.C., radiates locally. 'The newness of the building often gives a clue that the thing it houses is new, or recently prospering. Sometimes this new activity takes over old buildings, and from that one can measure the scale of it.
This change is significant. An earlier and perceptive traveler across America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed the importance to us of local government. He said that great nations are always able to build central assemblies, because they are big enough to produce talented people to fill them. The danger in such nations is that these assemblies will hold in contempt all attempts at local independence. Municipal assemblies, he explains, can survive only if "the institutions of a township have been mixed with national ideas and habits." These local assemblies of citizens constitute:
“The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it.”
Self-government was in Tocqueville's view connected to a disposition of mind and heart that was typically American. It had to do with the attitude of ordinary people toward government-and not only government. Americans have an individual spirit of independence, meaning the habit of being responsible for themselves and of exercising the concomitant authority. Tocqueville finds the source of this in local towns. This spirit goes so far as to influence how we stand before or address a public official, and the mood that comes to us when we see one:
“Often the European sees in the public official only force; the American sees in him right. One can therefore say that in America man never obeys man, but justice or law.
This spirit, moreover, is productive of energy and accomplishment in the private and the public sector alike, driven by the initiative of private citizens.
Thus he has conceived an often exaggerated but almost always salutary opinion of himself. He trusts fearlessly in his own forces, which appear to him to suffice for everything. A particular person conceives the thought of some undertaking; should this undertaking have a direct relation to the wellbeing of society, the idea of addressing himself to the public authority to obtain its concurrences does not occur to him. He makes known his plan, offers to execute it, calls individual forces to the assistance of his, and struggles hand to hand against all obstacles. Often, doubtless, he succeeds less well than if the state were in his place; but in the long term the general result of all the individual undertakings far exceeds what the government could do.”
This observation by Tocqueville shows how powerfully the principles and constitutional arrangements of a nation affect the character of the citizens. In the ancient world, the term "constitution" meant something more than a written document prescribing the arrangements of government. It meant the way of life of a people. Under a system of limited government, in which the constitutional powers do not dictate every mode of life, that, too, has the effect of shaping character and refining outlook. The restraint upon government, properly arranged and directed, breeds both restraint and assertiveness in the right degree and direction among the people.
One must ask how such a powerful and deeply embedded way of governing as Tocqueville observed here in the 1830s should have been eroded. The answer is that it took a very long time. The force that accomplished this erosion proceeded, like the original constitutional arrangements, from ideas. In education, those ideas were advanced early in the nineteenth century by progressive educators such as Charles Brooks and Henry Barnard, and by statesmen such as James Garfield, our twentieth president and author of the legislation that founded the Department of Education.
(President Andrew Jackson signed legislation that created the first Department of Education. At this time the department was a non-cabinet level and actually lasted less than a year. During that year the Department of Education collected many statistics about the nation's schools. There was great fear during this time that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, so the Department of Education was changed to the Office of Education. One legislative priority of his Garfield’s fourth term as a Congressman was a bill to establish a Department of Education, which succeeded, only to be brought down by poor administration on the part of the first Commissioner of Education, Henry Barnard)
Brooks, a Massachusetts Unitarian pastor, explained the hopes of the new movement in education in a breathtaking statement:
“All children by nature have equal rights to education. A republic, by the very principles of republicanism, is socially, politically, and morally bound to see that all the talent born within its territory is developed in its natural order, the proper time, and due proportion; thus enabling every mind to make the most of itself. The republican state stands in loco parentis to every child, and is therefore bound to use all the means and capabilities sent by heaven for its highest aggrandizement.”
As we have seen, the founders of America regard education as a matter of the first importance. On the other hand, they do not proclaim a "right" to it. Each of us may speak or pray with others as he pleases, and our fellow citizens may all do the same thing at the same time. These are rights readily available and natural to the human person. But many things that are necessary to the human being do not fit into the same category. They may be important or even vital, and it may be important to the society that everyone enjoys them. But these factors do not by themselves establish that the thing is a right.
Compare the right to property with the idea of a right to food. Each of us in entitled to his earnings, the product of his labor. These earnings may rightly be taken by the government only with our consent and for a common and public purpose. Because we are necessitous creatures, the business of making a living is primary for us. That is one reason Madison wrote in Federalist 10:
“The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”
Our own faculties are a natural property to us. We must use them to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Government exists to protect these faculties and the property we acquire with them. This does not mean, however, that we have a right to food. To assert that such rights exist is to assert that another is required by his own efforts to provide them. But of course that sets up a conflict, even a war, between one citizen and another. It pits the right of each of us to the product of our own labor against the needs of our fellow citizens. To require another to labor for us that we may do well is, in fact, a form of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address:
"It is strange that some men should pray to a just God to wring their bread from the sweat of other men's faces.”
Thomas Jefferson had written previously in his letter to Joseph Milligan, April 6, 1816:
“To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.” If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree; and the better, as this enforces a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it.”
This is not to say that we can or should permit our fellow citizens to starve, especially when they are victims of misfortune. We have many duties of charity that form the basis of every civilized society. How well the weak and the unfortunate are supported is a test of any society. Our own experience has shown that a society built upon the protection of the right to property is also the most philanthropic and generous of societies. It is also the most productive of wealth, which can be deployed to help those who suffer misfortune and to raise up those who are victims of chance or of the vices of others or of themselves. But the method by which it is deployed must not be contrived so as to undercut the system of responsibility and authority fostered by the protection of property rights.
In this sense, education is like food. It is a good thing, and for happiness and good government it is a necessary thing. But it is not a natural property of the human being in the same sense as the gift of speech. Education requires effort over a long period of time. The highest forms of education require abilities not granted to every person. The "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property" are matched by the different and unequal faculties of acquiring education. The protection of those different and unequal faculties does not require that each get the same amount of education; that is no more possible to achieve than that each should have the same amount of property. The protection and encouragement of the faculty to learn requires that none be obstructed in the improvement and exercise of his mind.
Charles Brooks's idea that the republican state is the parent of every child follows from his idea that each has a right to an education. The family disappears in this conception. The rearing of children, which is the natural duty of parents, is a burdensome task that consumes at least a significant minority of the lives and. property of the parents. The natural love they bear their children corresponds to the duty they acquire in conceiving and bearing them. The family, like the free market, is in the conception of America's Founders a vital institution. But it is also to be a private institution, able to achieve both its public and its private purposes because it is private. Woodrow Wilson, who in his political career would become the point of the spear that such men as Charles Brooks fashioned, liked to say that it was his purpose to "marry" the interest of the individual to the state. The consummation of that kind of marriage can only impair and constrict the real kind. Is Brook’s idea any different than today’s “No Child Left Behind” or Universal Preschool.?
If the government is to stand in the place of parents in regard to the education of children, it will require new administrative methods. The chief education reformers of the nineteenth century looked to Prussia for the example of such a system. In German thought and practice they found the example for a new political system for America. Henry Barnard, who would be the first commissioner of education in the new U.S. Office of Education, founded in 1869, explained this:
“In Prussia the Minister of Education is one of the most important ministers of the State. The Department of Instruction is organized as carefully as that of War or the Treasury, and is intended to act on every district and family in the kingdom. We have not one State officer supported at the expense of the State to ascertain the conditions of our schools and to give his time and mind to the improvement of these valuable institutions. No serious responsibility in respect to public education rests anywhere.
The desultory and imperfect efforts of several hundred scattered individuals can never give a complete view of the defects of our schools or the best mode of remedying them. Hence one man familiar with the subject should traverse the whole ground, discover its actual state, compare different schools under different influences, ascertain the origin of the apathy and neglect so prevalent and the measures which would be at once effectual and acceptable. The energies of a single, well balanced mind should be employed in collecting and combining materials which shall give greater force and efficiency to the system.”
Notice the sharp contrast here with the attitude of Americans as Tocqueville observed them. To the Founders, and in American political practice until well into the twentieth century, centralization is seen as a danger. It obstructs our own efforts to care for our own interest. It denies us practice and experience in government. It thwarts our private efforts to raise our families, to run our businesses, to perform the labor by which we make our living. By this older way of thinking, centralization of these detailed matters into the power of a "single, well balanced mind" is dangerous above all because that mind is a human mind, and men are not angels. One human mind — even several human minds — cannot manage intricate localized affairs effectively. Nor, even if they could, can they be trusted with the power to do so.
The newer view of Henry Barnard, however, is a powerful force running through the middle history of our nation. Behind it looms the notion that the infinite improvement of the human being — his evolution to a higher state of perfection — is the first object both of government and of human life. Under this conception we are no longer equal souls, entitled to our rights by nature, rightly governed only by our consent. Rather we become the object of an experiment. No longer is the government to be organized to represent us. Now it will work upon us to make us better. In essence the statist masterminds new better than our Founding Fathers and the people as how to educate their children and manage their lives.
As these ideas were working their way into the political system, many people were of divided mind. One such person was Andrew Dickson White, founding president of Cornell University and one of the foremost academics of the late nineteenth century. He was a man who wished to preserve the old constitutional arrangements with modifications, but on principles that have more in common with the new understanding than the old. He gave a significant statement of his views on one of the highest ceremonial occasions in American history. This statement provides a fine example of the dilemma posed by the new progressive ideas to the original constitutional framework.
White was a speaker at the 100th anniversary of the Constitution of the United States, September 17, 1887. Already the Constitution was the longest-surviving written constitution in human history. Already the nation living under its dominion had expanded across the plains and the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Already it was becoming a power in the world. There had to be a grand celebration. The chief one was held in Philadelphia, the city where the nation and its Constitution were born.
The commemoration lasted three days. There were parties, rallies, and parades. There were seminars, speeches, and discussions. At the end there was a gala dinner featuring no fewer than thirteen toasts and responses, some of them lengthy. The opening remarks were given by President Grover Cleveland. Former president Rutherford B. Hayes gave the concluding remarks. Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, and Philip Sheridan, the swift and deadly Union cavalry commander, were among the speakers. From the founding of the Republic to its salvation through civil war, the great were gathered to recall and honor what had been done. In this august company, a speech was included on the subject of education by Andrew Dickson White. Nothing can better portray the importance of education to leading Americans at the midpoint of our history than the inclusion of this speech on this evening.
The theme of the night was both continuity and growth under the Constitution. White had little to say about the former. His speech began with the arresting point that nothing could seem at first sight more "remote from the Constitution of the United States than the present growth of American education." He celebrated the Constitution by moving away from it: Schools, White said, now number "hundreds of thousands," teaching "millions on millions," with "hundreds of millions of money lavished upon it by the nation, the municipalities, the rural hamlets, and with a growth of private benevolence such as the world has never before seen;-and yet not a word in the Constitution provides for this growth or even foreshadows it." White conceded that "it would not be hard to prove" that "a vast educational development must follow normally and logically" from the Constitution, and that it must take "substantially its present formant no other." But he did not trouble himself to provide this proof.
This "vast educational development" is, White continued, essential to the preservation of the Constitution. The American people have developed "an instinct and conviction" that they have no security for the Constitution without this "vast complex" of educational institutions. Without these institutions the people would be a mob. And "what Constitution shall curb the despotism of a mob?" (One is led to wonder at this point how the Constitution can have survived the mob while this "vast complex" was building.) At last, White said, there would be atop the vast educational complex, an institution at the summit: the Bureau of Education. Here would be the "single, well-balanced mind" for which Henry Barnard had hoped (and which he would now personally direct). But it would be constrained, White assured the listeners — a servant, not a lord:
At the center of the whole, Congress has established a Bureau of Education. This would seem a logical outcome of our system — not its lord, but its servant, keeping, as it were, the standard time of the whole, recording the best results of experiments here and there, enabling all to profit by the example of each, and each to profit by the example of all, but without a particle of power to impose a central will.”
Here you can see the beginnings of a soft tyranny through education. Dickson claimed a “without a particle of central power” little realizing that when government takes something from the people it only wants to take more.
Henry Barnard might have wanted to emulate the Prussian system. But White had reservations. He feared the control of one "single, well balanced" mind:
“It was the boast of a minister of public instruction in one of the greatest European states that at whatever hour in the day he opened his watch, he knew exactly what study was at that time occupying the attention of every scholar in that empire. Under the political system of the United States no such boast can ever be possible. No autocrat, or bureaucrat, or mandarin can ever thus confiscate the developing thought of the nation to the ambition of any sect, party, or individual.”
Here was a step back toward the Founders. White did not mention the Constitution in this context, but he seemed to be referring to it. The Constitution has protections in it against autocracy, bureaucracy, or "mandarinism." White may have been willing for a vast complex to grow. He may have been willing for a federal office to be created to "keep the standard time of the whole." But he respected the Constitution enough to hope that central direction, or at least absolute central direction, would not be the result. This step back toward the Founders was powerful and moving. It must have made a strong impression upon those gathered to celebrate the centenary of the Constitution.
White gave a reason for opposing central control. Interestingly, it is not quite the same as the reason that prevailed among those who wrote the Constitution a century earlier. White objected to "mandarinism" and "stagnation" because the thought of the nation must continue to "develop." The job of the new bureau was to record "the best results of experiments here and there." The model was the scientific one of trial and error. For White, states were now laboratories conducting "experiments." The Founders, on the other hand, never imagined that the states would be laboratories conducting experiments in public policy. They thought that the job of governance required, not the invention of new methods of government, but rather the confrontation of practical problems that arise in real events. The ends are known. The means must be adapted to circumstance. This is not the model of the laboratory, but the model of prudence as it is known in classical literature. In short our Founders did not look to the states for new forms of governance, but for way to solve local problems created by governance. You might say the Massachusetts health care system is a state solution to providing universal health care — it does not change the way the state is governed, nor does it violate the U.S. Constitution.
In the end, White's understanding of the states as laboratories for experiments in national policy has proved a poor defense against centralization. Indeed, it carries within itself the principle that would prescribe rather than forbid centralization. After all, once an experiment is successful, should it not be made uniform across the country? The Federal Bureau of Education is now the United States Department of Education. Every state has its own similar department. Below them are districts, also replete with administrators. They compile reports from every school and college in their territory. They keep detailed records at every level. They write detailed standards for every phase and aspect of education. They measure local performance against those standards. The idea is preserved that local schools and colleges may practice policies that seem to them best. But substantial flows of money depend upon compliance through coercion, and often this idea is merely a fiction. The thing that Henry Barnard wished for and Andrew Dickson White believed impossible came to pass in the twentieth century. We have now the Prussian system.
In the next part of this essay I will show how a 184 pound object orbiting the earth and going beep, beep, beep, influenced our education system more than Madison, Washington, and Jefferson and even Dickson and Barnard would have never seemed possible.