“But the point is now determined, and I shall have the liberty to think for myself.”
So wrote John Adams—the second US President—upon entering the study of law. Like the Berean Jews (Acts 17:11), Adams demonstrates the independent thinking of a free people.
In his 2003 Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, “The Course of Human Events,” historian David McCullough speaks of John Adam’s thoughts on the importance of education to prepare people to think independently, in order to establish free societies.
In other words, societies not educated in virtue and free thinking will be enslaved. As we have said elsewhere, free societies require citizens who are self-governing.
Standing before the wonders of God and His creation, Adams considers the mind of man to be God’s greatest gift.
But all the provisions that He has [made] for the gratification of our senses … are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision, that He has made for the gratification of our nobler powers of intelligence and reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth, and the real design and true end of our existence.
While God has given us our senses to enjoy the wonder and grandeur of creation, He has also given us the power of inquisitive minds – “intelligence and reason.” For what end? So that, as distinct from the rest of creation, we can discover the truth in the creation and come to know the purpose of our existence in God’s greater scheme of things.
An unprecedented paragraph on education
Adams’s original draft of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1778 included a paragraph on education which he expected would not survive the ratification process. He believed it would be found too radical. McCullough describes it as “a paragraph on education that was without precedent.” Read the paragraph here (with McCullough’s commentary in brackets).
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties. [Which is to say that there must be wisdom, knowledge, and virtue or all aspirations for the good society will come to nothing.] And as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people [that is, everyone], it shall be the duty [not something they might consider, but the duty] of legislatures and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests and literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them … public schools, and grammar schools in the towns.
Several observations are worthy of note here.
- Education is not just about acquiring knowledge. It is also about acquiring moral virtue and wisdom, the moral application of truth. It is not simply schooling, it is nurturing and forming the human soul. Knowledge alone in a people will not produce a free society. The citizens must be virtuous as well.
- It takes both knowledge and virtue to establish and preserve a nation’s civil rights and liberty.
- The goal is not simply a wealthy society. The goal is a good Abigail Adams, John Adam’s wife, was fond of saying, “To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man comprised in a few words.” It is more important that a nation be good than it be wealthy.
- Education is for everyone, not merely the wealthy and powerful. It is as much for the boy on the farm and the girl in the seamstress shop as it is for the governor.
- Adams was probably part of the legacy of the Czech Moravian educational reformer and Father of Modern Education, John Amos Comenius, who introduced the pansophic principle: everything must be taught to everyone.
- It is the duty of good government to cherish an integrated, wholistic education that encompasses both the arts and the sciences. This is universal education based on a unified field of knowledge.
Education is for everyone
McCullough continues: “And he goes on to define what he means by education. It is literature and the sciences, yes, but much more: agriculture, the arts, commerce, trades, manufacturers, ‘and a natural history of the country.’” McCullough goes on to quote Adams, who says a nation’s leaders have a duty,
to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty [we will teach honesty] … sincerity, [and, please note] good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.
- Education for Adams involved both literature and science, but also practical enterprises such as business, agriculture, etc. It is to prepare people with principles in every vocation.
- Education shall include the history of the country so that all citizens may know and understand their roots and why the country exists.
- Education is to promote personal and public virtues as exampled in Adam’s words. These are the virtues of good people and a good nation.
McCullough ends by declaring what Adams has written “a noble statement!”
So much of what Adams has declared comes from the Puritan concept of education – Technologia – that founded his alma mater, Harvard, and the other outstanding educational institutions of the early nation. The Puritan philosophy of education embraced three fundamental principles:
- Veritas -The Pursuit of Truth
- Encyclopedia – The Circle of Knowledge
- Eupraxia – The Practice of Right Living
If you are interested in the kind of education that will build a free, good and bountiful nation, go here to read one or more of nine posts about Technologia.
Go here to read McCullough’s lecture.
- Darrow Miller