"Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education, and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation, instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many."
When I encountered this passage a few days ago in one of John Adams' letters, I was surprised. I knew, of course, that Adams cared deeply about education and was one of the most well-educated men of his age. I did not realize, however, that he had so clearly and unequivocally asserted two propositions that have been so frequently denied in our own political discourse — often by people claiming to speak for "the original intentions" of the Founding Fathers:
That the federal government has a responsibility for education that includes paying for it.
And that a primary purpose of education is to "raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher."
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I suspect that if President Obama were to make these same two observations today, he would invite yet another barrage of criticism featuring phrases such as "socialist," "communist," "social engineering," "nanny state" and "overreaching federal government."
Certainly, we would all be reminded once again that no responsibility for education is delegated to the federal government in the Constitution and so, under the terms of the 10th Amendment, it belongs entirely to the states. That, after all, is what the founders intended.
Except that it isn't. Not Adams at least. His vision for America included broad access to education, including higher education, across social classes. He understood very clearly that universal access to education was the key to the kind of democracy he wanted to build.
The only way for America to become a meaningful democratic society was to make both schools and colleges "the national care and expense for the formation of the many."
Where higher education is concerned, Adams' vision for the future languished for more than a century, during which there was no appreciable rise in the number of American students who attended or graduated from college — which accounted for fewer than 5 percent of the population until the end of World War II.
Two things happened in the 20th century to move that number — both of them directly related to the federal government. The 1944 GI Bill sent an entire generation to college and transformed America more rapidly than anything since the Revolutionary War. The 1965 Higher Education Act (which ultimately resulted in the Pell Grant and various loan programs) put college within the reach of every American.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the amount of the Pell Grant, in real dollars, has been declining steadily since 1980. The federal commitment to the education of low-income students now comes primarily in the form of subsidized loans, and even those are in jeopardy in the current round of budget slashing. And we are already beginning to see the first signs of declining college-going rates among our poorest populations.
Ironically, much of the current defunding of education at the national level is being done in the name of what some mythical group of "Founding Fathers" might have thought about the national government. In such an environment, it is worth noting, at least, what the real founders had to say.