or, "Liberty without Enlightenment"


...inequality of instruction is one of the principle sources of tyranny," for the majority of the uneducated "'liberty' and 'equality' can only be words which they hear read in their codes and not rights which they know how to enjoy."

- Marquis de Condorcet, "On Public Instruction"


The framers of the American Constitution hoped to found and protect liberty, but they forsook the values (or as I will argue, rights) of instruction and education to a criminal extent. The framers left education almost entirely out of their Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights, and in the two centuries since its ratification, the Supreme Court has fostered the development of educational institutions only in the form of a bow to state's rights, allowing them to regulate the education of children, so as to protect the state against a population so ignorant and unemployable as to be a burden.

The fact that the only anchoring expression of the educational process in American politics has been in the form of this negative right is disappointing especially in light of what some of the immensely promising enlightenment born philosophy in early American thought had to say about education and its value. Thomas Jefferson, especially, but even his sometimes adversary John Adams, bestowed an unequivocal worth on the concept of the education of an individual, and yet somehow it became a non-issue in the course of the American political debate. As Condorcet's thought epitomizes, education was a major part, if not the keystone, in the major enlightenment philosophies of progress; and yet even the great promise of progress that is the Declaration of Independence failed to realize education as a value and right of the citizenry.

To properly understand the reasons for this progression, it is necessary to turn to the American political culture immediately proceeding and just after the Revolution. This period can be explained in terms of two philosophic paradigms, both of which are widely contested by scholars to be the authentic foundation of American Revolutionary thought. One of the definitive divisions between these two belief structures, commonly referred to as early liberalism and civic humanism, involves the crucial concept of human nature, specifically in regards to morality.

The Paradox of the Rhetoric of the Revolution

Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, there appears to be some contradiction in the arguments used by various justifiers of the American Revolution and visionaries for the future of America. That is to say, although the American vision of democracy was dramatically progressive, and suggested a positive goal of human society and political institutions, a type of pessimism dominated the construction of its laws. America was a land of the free and the brave, home to manifest destiny, and yet the early liberalist views regarding consent of the governed, which clearly dominated the language of the Declaration, evolved directly out of the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of which depict the human being as inherently egoistical, selfish, and antisocial."

However, much of the essays, pamphlets, and newspaper articles glorifying war against the British called on ideas quite opposed to the Lockean value system. They focused not just on "human reason and natural rights, but also the principles of English common law that embodied the principles of natural law."1 A lot of these ideas were adopted from prominent English oppositionists, who were becoming more and more outspoken against the English government, which they viewed as growing dangerously corrupt and bureaucratic. This evolved, from the civic humanist perspective, into a growing abhorrence of power, specifically centralized power. These thinkers believed that power became dangerous in the hands of men not fit to wield it, and the resultant corruption was the chief enemy of the liberty in the republic. The civic humanist answer to this problem is twofold: first, a proper separation and balance of powers, but secondly, the moral and civic education of the citizenry in order to foster virtuous participation in politics.

The Origins of Civic Humanism

The concept of virtue in civic humanist thought comes from classical sources, the largest being Aristotle, and in examining it a bit closer the contradiction of some of the Revolutionary rhetoric becomes evident. For Aristotle, "virtue encompassed a balanced Constitution with independent parts and independent people concerned with public good."1 However, a quick review of both the Constitution and the Declaration shows that the "big idea" of moral virtue was largely ignored whereas the balance of powers is clearly at the center of the Constitution. Individual responsibility and moral obligation is similarly absent from the Declaration; in their place Lockean individual rights.

Thomas Jefferson basically created an entire school of American civic humanis, which was based squarely on the idea of educating the individual for liberty. He was devoted to the concept of an innate moral sense that allows human beings to coexist peacefully, according to their nature (rather than for the principle of expediency). Jefferson is thus more faithful to the continental enlightenment vision of the good society; one that demands education, not just in the superficial sense that Adams categorizes alongside wealth and beauty, but philosophically, because only the institution of the educated civic individual is a proper safeguard of liberty. In his words,

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness. In any body thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them here (to France). 2
And in the philosophical sense, human virtue could be cultivated in the method prescribed by Aristotle, by education and participation in acts of virtue. Education transcends the classification as an incidental property in its capacity to change the behavior (and thus essence) of the citizenry of a republic.

James Madison and the Ascendance of Pessimism

James Madison's Federalist 10 simply passes this whole debate right by, assuming a self-interested individual and brilliantly designing a system to stabilize the inevitable violence to liberty brought about by self-interested factions. Madison says at one point that "complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties" Madison's cure is, of course, the model for the famous federalist system, pitting faction against faction, and allegedly preventing any single group from gaining too much power.

Unfortunately, Madison's arguments comprise an implicit commitment to the persistence of self-interest in every aspect of political and social life. Of course, Madison assumes that the seeds of this are sown in every man, inextricable by any means, and thus "the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects." Madison's logic is crystal clear, but the larger part of the civic humanist tradition would take issue with his assumptions. I wonder if Madison considered his 'most considerate and virtuous" acquaintances in the formation of his Hobbesian generalization; it is interesting that their civic concern is a remarkable example of classical virtue. What about Madison himself? Was the entire effort he put into his thirty federalist essays reducible to some hidden item of self-interest? The point, I suppose, is moot but I think there is evidence to the contrary. If self-interest, rather than moral aptitude is innate then one might ask how all of Madison's virtuous friends became virtuous. They could only have been educated, scholastically and morally, to be that way.

Furthermore, Madison also assumes that a faction with views dangerous to the liberty of the greater part of the society can be controlled by that majority in a large enough republic, and secondly that no malicious majority will dominate because their views will be filtered through an elite group of elected officials "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." Ironically, the system Mr. Madison wants to construct, in lacking a principle of education, must perpetuate the cultivation of self-interested individuals while seemingly still relying on a contingent group of individuals wise enough to not be directed by self-interest to protect the republic from itself. Obviously Madison had a conceptualization of virtue, and even references it as a positive value in some of his writings, but he simply never finds a place for it in his system. Partly as a result of this, pessimism has been the guiding principle for a large part of American thought since Madison's time. The Constitution is hailed as the pinnacle of democracy for the remarkable way in which it pits human interests against each other.

To Return to the Foundations

Even today, of the money spent on education in America, easily 99 percent of it goes to a cultural education for self-interested competition and the inculcation of complimentary values such as consumerism, consumption, and self-absorbed superficiality. In this sense, American political philosophy has proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, fostering a community truly in the Hobbesian spirit of "each against each," at least in the materialistic sense, if not at the bare level of life.

Obviously, I am somewhat guilty of hyperbole in this point, as there are in fact an admirable number of organizations with the sole goal of bettering the lives of the less fortunate, and promoting the welfare of those whose voices are lost in the din of the dominant clashing ideologies. And there are an even greater number of individuals who in casual ways commit themselves to the civic values of unprejudiced public awareness and generosity. However, even these are examples that speak against the sort of pessimistic starting point that Madison and other early liberals assume. In spite of living and participating in a culture that promotes self-interest as one of its primary values, thousands devote to lives that the more culturally adjusted members of society at best take for granted, or worse look down upon as fruitless or unproductive. If it doesn't make money it's not the future, it's not progress, it's not a good life; this is the aphoristic form of the economically driven system of values that has taken hold of the de facto American dream. The disillusionment of the 20th Century with this ideal is expressed in modern literature, music and philosophy.

As Sue Davis describes at the end of her analysis of the competing theories on the origin of political thought, "those who advocate a revival of civic humanist values imagine a transformation of American society from materialism and the pursuit of self-interest to a more caring, communitarian political culture-a society of virtuous citizens united in the public interest."1 Whether mankind is inherently good or evil is a debate that has spanned history and continues to be irresolvable. But that people are responsive to education, and universally capable of developing the virtues expressed in civic humanism is an apparent fact. Even Madison was well aware of this; his clause about a filter of wise and virtuous citizens is an outstanding demonstration of the inapplicability of a system that does not rely on the education of part of its citizenry. And if not some, then is not all a better conceptualization? According to some critics of civic humanist, not at all.

Moral Education not Indoctrination

As Sue Davis explains,
If civic virtue is incompatible with personal freedom, if the pursuit of self-interest provides the only means to self-fulfillment, and if the public good is a fraudulent concept that demagogues use to increase their own power and to manipulate the people, civic humanism represents dangers rather than solutions for contemporary Americans.
Americans have been brought up strongly in the individualist tradition, and any threat to their right to self-determination and freedom from influence immediately draws heavy criticism. Here I think it is beneficial to differentiate between two types of education: dogmatic or propagandist education which is not proper education at all, but merely a form of deceit, and honest instruction, which inherently involves the self-determination of the student.

Even the most liberal defender of the individual right to self-fulfillment will admit this distinction, and in order to justify it only remains to show how a moral education can be objective, scientific, and free from dogmas invented by any single individual or group. Along these lines, a moral education must be very philosophic, because an education in morality which has not started as a philosophy has already violated a constitutional right that I have no intention to abolish. Hegel would say that this means that it must start as an objective historical study of moralities that have existed before, and their outcomes. For an ideal, I would start with Socrates, one of the most dedicated educators in history. Socrates had no patience for the Sophists of his time that claimed to educate, but were in fact guilty of that type of deceit which is described as dogmatic education. Specifically, they attempted to persuade their students; a modern moral education of persuasion is not acceptable. This act of teaching is false, because it involves impressing the beliefs and values of the teacher upon the student without awakening that student's awareness of the truth. Thus sophistry has more to do with the selfish motives of the teacher rather than aiding the student in any valuable way. On the other hand, Socrates' method of instruction is more of a type of guidance for the pupil. Socrates leads the student to discover the truth within him, thus creating the activity of 'self-movement within his own soul.'

In modern terms, this involves a sort of dialectical guidance of the student through the multitude of possibility of truth so far discovered in the history of human thought, and invites the student to create his own perspective. This type of education, therefore, is not dogmatic, and it depends in the end on the self-determination of the student. Pragmatically, American education cannot even approach this question until the more basic institutions of public education are perfected. If need be, the constitution should be amended to include that necessary right which Jefferson demanded and even Madison valued, the fullest and most perfect education the state can provide. Until America begins educating its citizenry in earnest the same problems will continue to plague the American democratic process. Low voters turnouts and corresponding under-representation of specific groups, special interest politics and the dominance of wealthy groups in positions of power and influence, and business and financial interests in government. Madisonian checks and balances is a good device for temporarily easing these problems, but the nation as a whole cannot work towards true progress towards the true American ideal of freedom for all without heralding education as one of the natural rights.


1. Sue Davis, American Political Thought
2. Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to George Wythe," Paris Aug. 13. 1786.

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