Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


An Education in Politics

George Thomas

Anxiety about the future of democracy is nothing new. Current concerns about democratic decay, and particularly about America’s dysfunctional political institutions, are just a timely reminder that creating political institutions is no guarantee of sustaining them. Successful political institutions depend, among other things, on culture and ideas and almost certainly some luck. But luck favors the prepared. So political thinkers have long asked how we can foster political attitudes in the minds of the people and, perhaps especially, in the minds of those who occupy public office to better secure democracy’s future.

Education has been a longstanding answer. Education is the “keeper of the republic,” or so insists the Heart of the Matter, a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned by Congress echoing Montesquieu’s famous line on the crucial link between education and democracy. In America, since at least the days of Noah Webster, we’ve insisted on this link while bemoaning the fact that we don’t give it its due: we love to point out, as Webster himself did, that we don’t know our own history, which is bound up with the nation’s civic identity. Insofar was we don’t know our history, we lack knowledge of ourselves.

Among the history we tend to forget, is that many of the leading political and educational thinkers of the founding generation wanted to establish a national university. The idea of a national university was widespread during the founding generation and persisted, in one form or another, until the early years of the twentieth century. Compiling a list of advocates of a national university is to name the seminal political and educational figures of the day: Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and both John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

The national university was envisioned as a supplement to America’s political institutions, but it was also a means of patching over and overcoming potential defects by relying on more than self-interest and checks and balances. In James Madison words, a national university would promote “national feelings” and  “liberal sentiments” that were necessary to carry the constitutional experiment forward. Adopting certain habits of mind and beliefs—liberal tolerance, ideas about church and state, and the public and the private, for instance—was an important part of bringing the Constitution to life.

Early American colleges, church-state schools such as Harvard and Yale, were ill suited to this task. They were largely sectarian institutions (as well as regional institutions) that were not conducive to fostering unifying political ideas of a liberal nature. Part of the story, then, was to create a university where theology was removed from the center to complement the constitutional order being created, which separated church from state and therefore should separate church from college. While the national university was never established, the idea shaped American educational institutions such as the University of Virginia, which was founded on a secular basis.

Yet this is really a story about the American present. How do we foster a commitment to maintaining America’s constitutional experiment? What sort of education does this require? How are existing colleges and universities doing this? For all the talk of leadership at elite colleges and universities these days, do they promote the sort of publicly spirited leadership beneficial to maintaining America’s political order? These questions preoccupied the advocates of a national university and we, too, must take up such questions against the presumption that political institutions set in motion by an earlier generation will be self-sustaining.

About The Author

George Thomas

George Thomas is the author of The Founders and the Idea of a National University....

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