The generation that produced the U.S. Constitution lived at a time when liberal education was being rethought, redefined, stretched, and challenged.
The Founders lined up on different sides of that debate. They argued over whether or not a liberal education worthy of the name had to be a classical education based on instruction in the Greek and Latin languages. They divided into factions we might call, for convenience, “classicists” and “anti-classicists.”
Among the things most surprising is how early in the Colonial period objections were raised to the teaching of Greek and Latin; how widespread the resistance was; how many very famous Americans weighed in on the debate; and how modern the arguments brought by the anti-classicists sound.
The past is different and distant from us, and yet, in this case, the similarities are striking, leading one to wonder if there is a timeless element to America’s quarrel over the means and ends of good education. We sound like them to a surprising degree, and they sound like us. But not exactly, and the differences do matter.
The anti-classicists appeared in print as early as 1735—40 years before the Revolution. In that year, an anonymous Philadelphian called for a system of private education that would recognize the needs of different students and their families.
Debate Over Dead Languages
Not everyone was destined to be a scholar. Not everyone aspired to the professions of law, theology, or medicine. A thriving society needed farmers and tradesmen, clerks and accountants. Why should these children spend precious years trying to master languages they would soon forget? Why teach them Latin when what they needed in life were skills in English grammar and composition?
This anonymous author cited the English empiricist John Locke, who ridiculed the folly of wasting time teaching Latin to students who would never use it.
Over the ensuing 70 or 80 years, these arguments found renewed expression among some of America’s most articulate statesmen and reformers. Future scholars, they allowed, could continue to devote their childhood to mastery of Greek and Latin, but a young, ambitious, expansive republic on the rise needed to train its citizens in plain and vigorous English and in modern foreign languages for the sake of commerce in goods and ideas.
The nation needed to equip them for a vocation; to provide them with a utilitarian education for the sake of tangible “advantages” in life; to lay the groundwork for progress in science and the discovery of new knowledge; to offer a “universal” education (one open to common people, not just the elite); and to promote a distinctly American, even nationalist, education free from the dead hand of Europe’s antiquated ways of teaching and learning.
(These calls for reform sound like we’ve stepped into a modern debate over STEM education in our schools today.)
To understand the Founders and liberal education, we need to know first that among the Founders, there were champions of the classics who had every intention that Greek and Latin remain central to liberal education in the American republic; second, that there were dissenters who objected strenuously to the classics’ powerful grip on American education; and third, that even the champions of the classics tossed onto the rubbish heap some of the most venerable of the ancients.
All three parts of this argument matter if we want to arrive at a balanced judgment of the Founders and liberal education.
The takeaway from this is that the Founders’ legacy for classical and liberal education is a mixed one: It depends on which ones we quote.
Founders Against Founders
Classical and liberal education have proven to be resilient. So has the opposition. Classicist and anti-classicists alike would be partly pleased, partly disappointed, and partly alarmed if they could visit 21st-century America and the jumble of public schools, private schools, home schools, online schools, classical schools, and vocational schools that make up our educational “system.”
Among the “classicists” we find the ornery New England statesman John Adams, our second president. As an adult, Adams maintained his skill in Latin and Greek along with proficiency in a number of modern languages. Adams read widely in ancient and modern history, philosophy, constitutionalism, and political theory. His indebtedness to liberal learning could not have been greater.
Adams argued that the stability and durability of the young United States rested on the twin pillars of knowledge and virtue, a common refrain among the Founders.
Though a voracious reader of the classics himself, Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ bitter rival during the early years of the republic, was somewhat ambivalent and spoke rather disparagingly of the classicists: “They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backward, not forward, for improvement.”
One of the earliest critics of the prevalence of the classical languages was Benjamin Franklin.
His opposition to a certain kind of instruction in Greek and Latin came not from any anti-elitism, but from a conviction that time spent in this way had become an impediment to education, even an impediment to liberal education, depending on how we define liberal learning.
If “liberal” meant a broad, generous education for a man of the world able to navigate through polite society, then Latin and Greek seemed cramped and pedantic.
Franklin himself was a multilingual, learned man of cosmopolitan tastes and interests, yet he still opposed the classics. Why?
Franklin aimed at a utilitarian education that would equip ordinary citizens for their professions, including competence in their own language.
Education must be useful. The curriculum must include, he wrote in 1749, penmanship, drawing, English grammar and style, public speaking, history (with an emphasis on politics), geography, chronology, morality, natural history, and what his generation called “good breeding.”
The ultimate aim of this useful education was public service to the community. Franklin wasn’t opposed to the training of classical scholars, but not everyone was destined to be a scholar, and a practical education suited to the needs of a dynamic and prosperous society could not pretend everyone was going to be an academic.
Another Founder named Benjamin—Benjamin Rush—in 1789 argued for “liberal education” (his words) without instruction in Greek and Latin at all. Note the flexibility of the phrase “liberal education.” It could be divorced from classical education. Rush regretted the prominence of the “dead languages” as an obstacle to the promotion of “useful knowledge.”
By being so specialized, he thought, classical education could never meet the demands of “universal knowledge.” That is to say, it obstructed not only the progress of practical knowledge, but also the spread of knowledge through all levels of society that would make participatory government possible. The times demanded a new system of education to meet the needs of a new kind of government and society.
The criticism articulated by Franklin, Rush, and others formed part of a much larger story. We see by the end of the 18th century the opening of a distinct divide in educational theory and practice that runs right down to the present.
The emerging industrial, mass democratic, utilitarian, market-driven age turned out to have very different expectations for the kind of people schools ought to produce.
Importance of the Ancients
It should be noted, however, that opponents of classical education did not wage a war of extermination against the classics themselves: 1) They still wanted scholars to master Greek and Latin; 2) they still wanted the ancients read in good English translations; and 3) they wrestled with the inescapable question of whether an education for everyone could be built on instruction in the Greek and Latin languages.
At the same time, the defenders of the classical languages were not necessarily supporters of the whole of the Greek and Roman tradition. They were selective in their judgments. They even rejected parts of the ancient heritage that today many advocates of classical education in particular consider to be foundational to the whole tradition.
Indeed, for the generation of 1787, for the culture that gave the United States its Constitution, the ancient world and its authors and their ideas mattered very much. The Greeks and Romans provided examples of success and failure, models to follow and models to avoid.
If any of the Founders rejected the study of Greek and Latin, that did not mean they rejected reading the ancients in good modern translations. It did not mean removing grammar, logic, and rhetoric from the curriculum—the trinity of subjects at the very heart of liberal education.
That even the generation of 1787 argued about education reminds us that the problem of education in American society and politics has never been a settled question. Not even close.
This column was adapted from a speech given Sept. 15 at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Center for Reflective Citizenship.