Higher Education and the Roots of the "Envy of the World"
The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education released their report Thursday including their recommendations. 18 of the 19 commissioners from various fields signed the report which will be delivered in final form to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings next month according to seattlepi. The one voice of dissent represents nonprofit colleges. The report starts out strong enough.
Three hundred and seventy years after the first college in our fledgling nation was established to train Puritan ministers in the colony of Massachusetts Bay, it is no exaggeration to declare that higher education in the United States has become one of our greatest success stories. Whether America's colleges and universitites are measured by their sheer number and variety, by the increasingly open access so many citizens enjoy to their campuses, by their crucial role in advancing the fronteirs of knowledge through research discoveries, or by the new forms of teaching and learning that they have pioneered to meet students' changing needs, these postsecondary institutions have accomplished much of which they and the nation can be proud.

Most of the rest of the report could simply be thrown away. There are clearly difficulties with higher education. Personally, I would say that has something to do with the amount of tax money already flowing into them, making them unresponsive to normal free market pressures. But that isn't where I want to go with this. Instead, I'd like to go with the thought contained in the opening lines of the report.

In the first 200 years of American history, there was no such thing as a "public education." Education was begun in the home by the mother's side and completed in the fields by the father's side. The bible was the main textbook, and the ashes in the fireplace served as a slate. Even as schools began to spring up (sometimes with tax money, but always completely under the control of the local community), most children entered school already knowing how to read.
Parents believed that it was their responsibility to not only teach them how to make a living, but also how to live. As our forefathers searched their Bibles, they found that the function of government was to protect life and property. Education was not a responsibility of the civil government.

And yet America, at the time nothing but a loose set of colonies, had the highest literacy rates in the world. This education system, with no state oversight, no accountability measures, no teacher training institutes and no tax money gave us some of our greatest thinkers. Many of them never attended college, yet they would go on to lead these colonies in a war against the greatest military might in the world, create a government, write a constitution and circulate papers throughout the colonies to educate the masses about the advantages of this form of government never tried before. The Federalist Papers, rarely read today even in Universities, was written for and read by the common man. In 1772, Jacob Duche, the Chaplain of Congress (who would later turn Tory) wrote,
The poorest labourer upon the shore of Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiments in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar.... Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader; and by pronouncing sentence, right or wrong, upon the various publications that come in his way, puts himself upon a level, in point of knowledge, with their several authors.

This is exactly the kind of education needed to preserve our liberty. One which trains both the character and the mind and reaches every level of society. As we continue this debate about how much our education system has fallen in recent years, we need to look at what characteristics were in place when the "system" was at its pinnacle.

And what of higher education? It wasn't seen as very necessary as our early colonists preferred to judge a man by his character than by the degrees conferred upon him. They were largely set up to train men for the ministry. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin all got along quite well without any college education.
Although some of the colonial colleges were started by colonial governments, it would be misleading to think of them as statist institutions in the modern sense. Once chartered, the colleges were neither funded nor supported by the State. Harvard was established with a grant from the Massachusetts General Court, yet voluntary contributions took over to keep the institution alive. John Harvard left the college a legacy of 800 pounds and his library of 400 books. "College corn," donated by the people of the Bay Colony, maintained the young scholars for many years." Provision was also made for poor students, as Harvard developed one of the first work-study programs. And when Harvard sought to build a new building in 1674, donations were solicited from the people of Massachusetts. Despite the delays caused by King Philip's War, the hall was completed in 1677 at almost no cost to the taxpayer.

As we talk about our nation's "greatest success stories" and a University system that has been "the envy of the world for generations," it will serve us well to re-examine its roots and the fertile soil this sytem grew up in...one which emphasized personal responsibility, local control and the Word of God.

All block quotes (other than the opening one) come from the article Education in Colonial America by Robert A. Peterson.

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