In Education, Character As Important As Skills

As printed in USA Today, November 20, 1997

When President Clinton announced during the last campaign that the education of America’s young people was to be the priority of his second administration, he joined a train of political freight cars that has been growing impressively longer over the past 200 years but which has seldom, if ever, left the marshaling yard.

The current debate over the value of national testing for elementary and secondary school students is a telling example of the confrontational character of educational issues today. (My friend and colleague Chester Finn has said that the right opposes anything with the word “national” in it, while the left opposes anything with the word “testing.”)

Such concerns are important. But I believe them to be at the margin of the most important issues about education in America.

This is because the highest values of education in a democracy are more than the competitive advantage of an increasingly productive labor force, however welcome such an outcome my be. Those values were understood by America’s founders the larger-than-life figures who pledged one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” that hot July day in 1776.

For while they had much to say about what we would now call “the economy” (they had, after all, consciously created a commercial republic), they were also aware of the French philosopher Baron Montesquieu’s observation that the laws of education ought to be related to the principles of government.

Without educated citizens, the popular government they founded, in James Madison’s unforgettable phrase, is “but a prologue to a farce or tragedy; or perhaps both.” Education in America was to be the “best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

The founders were heavily influenced by the English philosopher John Locke, who wrote, “Tis virtue . . . which is the hard and valuable part to be aimed at in education.”

They knew that teachers in America must educate not only the abilities of children the sort of thing the much-disputed national tests are intended to measure but also their character.

Samuel Adams described the mission of educators as nurturing the “moral sense” of children. “Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them,” Abigail Adams told her son John Quincy, “will be of little value and small estimation unless virtue, honor, truth, and integrity are added to them.”

American education was intended from its inception to plant virtue, to cultivate what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy,” and ultimately, to harvest patriots.

When Congress meets to debate the president’s education initiatives, or when the Education secretary issues policy directives on national standards, they might do well to remember the civic education the founder contemplated was about more than the acquisition of skills; it had to do with the architecture of the soul.

As Abraham Lincoln said it, “Let reverence for the laws . . . be taught in schools, in seminars, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs . . . .And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice upon its altars.”

Much was asked of American education at the time of the nation’s founding. We should not settle for less now.