Plato viewed society as being comprised of four levels, those who were either: gold (those who governed, the guardians), silver (those who supported the guardians), brass (artisans and laborers), or iron (farmers). The many slaves were not considered. Aristotle had more divisions, but his approach was basically the same. The structure of these societies resembled a pyramid. The guardians were the smallest group, their assistants larger in number, and finally by far the largest segment of the population consisted of the remaining groups. These views were not uncommon in state religion societies like Rome and Greece.
This is because rule was to be held by the small number who excelled in virtue, the elite, while those who labored for a living were not considered capable of practicing virtue (Politics III). Citizenship could be obtained only by those who had been freed from such menial service, those considered to be gold or silver. The artisans and farmers occupied a level between the citizens and the slaves, freemen but without the full rights of citizenship. This lack of citizenship would exclude them from holding office, and from being included within society’s elite. Once established, these classes were largely permanent, as it was believed that parents usually produced children like themselves (Republic II). Both men believed that education should be provided only to the members of society, and it was to be an education that prepared one for their future occupation. The best education was to be reserved for those who would most need it – those who would be citizens and participate in governance. Further education was to be paid for out of public funds.
Initially, public education in America had a Christian basis, grounded in the scholastic curricula of the trivium and quadrivium, the very education received by our Founders. Our present approach to public education began only about a century ago and is not very different from the views of Plato or Aristotle noted above. How? Few remember today that the original purpose of our current public education system was not to inculcate morality and virtue, but instead to produce skilled laborers for employment within factories by creating general skills in reading, writing, math, and a capability of following directions. In short, an education needed to prepare individuals for their future occupations – just as Plato and Aristotle believed. In addition, it was to be paid for with public funds – just as Plato and Aristotle believed. More advanced education was reserved for those who either had the means or exhibited great promise – just as Plato and Aristotle believed.
Our current system reflects the belief that it is the elite who can best determine the values to be taught and who they should be taught to – just like Plato and Aristotle believed. Don’t think so? Look at the ‘health’ mandates in support of ‘reproductive’ rights, the ‘speech codes’ at places like the Universities of Delaware or North Carolina, and the activities aimed at the forced acceptance of homosexuality done in the name of anti-bullying being performed in our public schools – just to name a few. It is the same root. Underlying it all is the bigotry that you are not capable of making your own decisions, and the movement away from individual virtue, morality, and responsibility towards a collective morality – just like Plato and Aristotle believed. When you lose your ability to make your own decisions, you lose your freedom. Period. My how far we’ve come.
With this change we risk losing what has brought us so far, and if we think that we will avoid the repercussions that have occurred to other civilizations before us who have thought the same things, we are sadly mistaken. Insanity is doing the same things over and over again, but expecting something different to happen. What are those things that have brought us so far in relation to education? First, that everyone within a society has the same nature, therefore they should have access to, and receive, a common core curriculum which teaches the languages of both reason and faith. The purpose is threefold: (1) to inculcate morality in its students, (2) to learn from the past and develop critical reasoning skills so that they can achieve their purpose, and (3) ensure they are equipped to govern themselves – to prepare them for the gift of freedom.
A free society can only function if its members have acquired virtue and learned how to govern themselves. Freedom, in conjunction with virtue, enables a society to develop and flourish as each individual contributes what they are best at – fulfilling their pupose – which in turn results in progress being made within a society. One piece of evidence to support this. Florence, Italy was one of the early cities where freedom developed by the tenth century and was a very prosperous city. Rodney Stark in his book The Victory of Reason, cites a 1338 survey from that city which indicates that almost one-half of all school age children were engaged in some type of education. This is a level that would have been unheard of in Plato or Aristotle’s day.
Second, the control of this common subject matter is best left in the hands of those closest to the students, the community in which they live. We all learn differently. I taught 2 – 4 year olds for a year in Sunday School. I was most successful when I prepared two different approaches to a topic, one for those who learned best by listening and talking and another for those who learned by doing. Even then, each child had different aptitudes for specific kinds of information. Only a community is in a position to determine what its students need in terms of education, as they know them best. As for higher education, should this not then be left either in the hands of the individual college or university if it is privately funded, or in the hands of the community itself if public funds are used to provide that education? The question then becomes should public funds even be used for education?
Both Madison and Jefferson believed learning both the languages of faith and reason were important, but struggled with how to incorporate religion and morality into public education. Both, like many of our Founders, believed this aspect of education was critical for society – but they also understood that government must be kept out of religion. Religion was to have an indirect influence on governance through the morality and virtue it taught the people, but the Federal government was to have no role in religion – including its teaching. That is the intent of our Constitution for the Federal government. Whether they would have extended this prohibition to the States is unknown, as nine of the thirteen Colonies had official State religions when the Constitution was ratified. Both had seen first-hand the corrupting influences of state supported religion within the Colonies. Both also participated in a project where these issues were brought into focus.
Jefferson and Madison late in their lives served in creating the University of Virginia. The university was publicly funded by the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Their first hire to head the school was a man by the name of Cooper. He was widely regarded as brilliant, but of at best questionable moral character. Such public pressure was brought to bear on the young institution that it was forced to release Cooper. This pressure included the threat of withholding public funds to the university as ‘it was not religious enough’. In the end they determined that religion should not be taught using public funds, but that an extensive collection of religious materials, both Christian and non-Christian, should be purchased with public funds, maintained at the University, and made available for all students – who should be encouraged to study them and learn on their own. I believe they made a mistake in using public funds for education. Is there any clearer argument against their use for this purpose? Wouldn’t a better choice be using the philanthropy of the individuals within a community itself to fund the education of its own young? Most schools, colleges, and universities during the time of this countries founding were in fact privately financed. What other answer could there be if government must be kept out of religion, but yet the morality and virtue provided by religion must be a part of a person’s education?
Third, beyond this set of core subjects, the choice of whether to continue with an education, and the direction of that education, should be left in the hands of the individual student him or herself. It should not be decided by an ‘elite’ or based upon the occupation of one’s parents. Otherwise how can each individual fully understand and use the talents, skills, and abilities that they have received? If they do not achieve their potential, how can a society succeed? Underlying this notion is the belief that things can be better tomorrow than they are today. It is a uniquely Christian perspective – rooted in the virtue of hope. But this hope requires individual effort and responsibility to achieve.
Augustine realized the need for this type of education. To close, I’ll simply cite a quote from Book XXII, Chapter 24 of his City of God. It reads as follows, ‘What wonderful—one might say stupefying—advances has human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation! With what endless variety are designs in pottery, painting, and sculpture produced, and with what skill executed! What wonderful spectacles are exhibited in the theatres, which those who have not seen them cannot credit! How skillful the contrivances for catching, killing, or taming wild beasts! . . . Who could tell the thought that has been spent upon nature, even though, despairing of recounting it in detail, he endeavored only to give a general view of it? In fine, even the defence of errors and misapprehensions, which has illustrated the genius of heretics and philosophers, cannot be sufficiently declared. For at present it is the nature of the human mind which adorns this mortal life which we are extolling, and not the faith and the way of truth which lead to immortality.’ Perhaps because it represents the alignment of mind with its purpose.