“In a state of civilization,” opined Thomas Jefferson, it is not possible to be both ignorant and free. In Query XIV of his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson laid out his plan for public education. Every free man would learn “the most useful facts” from ancient and modern history. The “best geniuses” would go on to grammar school. “The learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged for us to follow them in this instance. . . . I do not pretend that language is science. It is only an instrument for the attainment of science. But that time is not lost which is employed in providing tools for future operation: more especially as in this case the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.”
Important educators, including Benjamin Rush, attacked the traditional classical education, but the example and precept of Jefferson and other Founders kept America’s leaders educated for freedom and creativity by maintaining their direct contact with the languages that preserved the history of freedom and the works that exemplified and molded that history. Near the end of the 19th century America’s most prestigious universities, with Harvard in the lead, moved away from difficult foreign languages and replaced them with the study of “English.” (The victor’s history has been told by Gerald Graff in Professing Literature: An Institutional History.) It is per haps not completely accidental that America gave up its direct contact with the tradition that developed democracy and republicanism at the same time that it started hiring police, instituting an imperialist and interventionist foreign policy, losing its fear of a national debt, and replacing informed republicanism with the worship of flags and expensive public monuments. The disappearance of the old educational regime did not take place overnight, and America remained creative and strong, even as the basis of its traditional ideals of freedom were at first slowly and then more rapidly eroded.
The regime that runs America today is the heir, the legitimate heir, of the government that deserted republican education and foreign policy a century ago. When America first set foot on this path, William Graham Sumner warned that the early power and prosperity that was coming would lead in the end, and perhaps no very distant end, to bankruptcy and ruin. A century has gone by. We owe more than we can possibly repay. Our economy is being successfully cannibalized by harder working and better educated competitors. Most ominously, our educational infrastructure is in ruins. Since we spend so much money on it, we find this hard to believe.
In the late 40’s Japan and Germany looked out upon ruined cities and industries. Their educational systems, however, remained intact, and over the course of nearly two generations they worked their way back to world economic hegemony. In the 1990’s, Americans can still travel on roads and bridges and live and work in buildings, hut our educational system is in worse shape than Dresden was after World War II. You can sec and touch a physical ruin. You have to be educated, at least minimally, or in touch with educated people, to appreciate educational ruin. The works of Jefferson and Adams, of Hawthorne and Thoreau are in print. Oxford University Press keeps Plato and Aristotle, Livy and (last year for the first time) Sallust available in the original texts that Jefferson desiderated for full comprehension. Most Americans, however, cannot read any of these authors. They do not understand that they are borrowing a fortune to produce an educated elite fit for a Third World country.
It is not just the horror of comparing Jefferson and Adams with George Bush and Bill Clinton, although the comparison is not unfair. We are talking, after all, about a Yale graduate and a Rhodes scholar. Neither of them can really speak English. Neither can write his own speeches or even his own letters. Yet there is no reason to think that they do not represent the crème de la crème of America’s elite. They do not, however, seem to belong to the same species as Jefferson and Adams. The same is true of our literary and business elite. It is frankly humiliating to be present at a dinner with successful American academics and successful Europeans. Again one has the feeling of seeing two different species confront one another. This is the true horror of the situation. Trade balances can shift: debts can be repaid. A nation that has consistently thrown away the crucial years in which language and the higher mathematics can be mastered cannot win back the lost ground in its graduate schools. A visit to our best research labs and graduate programs shows at a glance that they are filled with foreigners, because Americans are too hopelessly ignorant to take advantage of them.
Of course, we have to know things, be trained in areas that Jefferson and Adams never dreamed of, and our children and grandchildren will have to know things and study areas that have not been invented yet. To be capable of training and retraining, however, you have to be educated. If the years be fore puberty are not spent learning languages and mathematics, Jefferson reminds us, “the mind becomes lethargic and impotent, as would the body it inhabits if unexercised during the same period.” Our ruling elite faces a painful dilemma. If it docs not move to junk the current educational establishment, America will not be able to catch up in another generation with the vastly better educated Japanese and Europeans in a future that will be dominated by high technology and new intellectual challenges. If it does move to educate all Americans, according to their ability, those educated Americans will repudiate the corruption, illiteracy, and innumeracy of a political class that has run our country into the ground.
Reform will not be easy. As with every other sector of our nation, from welfare to the army, the educational establishment is founded on the principle of entitlement, not accomplishment. It hates merit with all its not inconsiderable pow er, and rewards on the basis of status, race, and gender. Its curricula are arranged to award quotas of time to relevant interest groups. Serious attempts to assert the importance of objective minimal standards arc treated as personal attacks on the minions of the regime and, of course from their perspective, that is precisely what they are. The educational establishment will fight to the death any attempt to impose re al standards (such as a triple language requirement for anyone seeking teaching certification).
What specifically should children, in Jefferson’s words, “say from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” be studying if the United States is to restore a legitimate regime and regain in a generation a competitive position in the world? (I assume that the current regime has utterly lost the confidence of the people and that there is no hope of our being competitive in the short run, say over the next decade or so.) Pupils need to be so rooted in mathematics that they may progress to geometry and algebra at least by high school. Of them before entering high school. Creek and Latin are the basis of the English of the professions and of most serious dis course. Works written in these languages include the founding documents of our literature, political thinking, and science. Those who know these works can participate in and contribute to our tradition. Those who do not are condemned to re main parasites, although perhaps hardworking and otherwise salutary parasites, like the Japanese. In the last several centuries, German has been a key scholarly language, and it will probably dominate the economic and perhaps the scientific world of the future.
Our first obligation is to transmit to Americans before puberty the basic intellectual tools, mathematical and linguistic, which will enable them to be full participants in our very creative European culture. These same tools will grant children access to our literary, artistic, political, and religious heritage. The last consideration intrigues me. Most of the Bible is written in Greek and Hebrew, and most important comment on it is in Latin and German. “Bible-believing” Christians are strongly opposed to learning these languages and al lowing their children to study them. I wish I knew why. These tongues are the basis of creativity in the future, but they are al so the languages through which we have access to Holy Scripture. My own church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, maintains a large school system, and it often points out in its official propaganda that Martin Luther advocated Christian education. It never mentions how much of Luther’s writings on education is devoted to the importance of learning the Sacred tongues. In some areas one can visit Lutheran schools that do not teach German, Catholic schools that do not teach Latin, and no Christian school teaches Greek. The laity demands no linguistic competence from the clergy, who make every kind of error in teaching and preaching a work that is officially proclaimed to be God’s Word. Even churches with a heritage of scholarship and learning, such as the Catholic and Lutheran churches, have evolved into bizarre cults teaching silly mistakes rooted in misinterpreting translations. (Jacques Maritain complained that the French version of the Nicene Creed reintroduced Arianism.) If Christians do not care about education, why should other Americans?
It is increasingly difficult to pretend that ignorance of languages has no effect on the sciences now that we know that one of America’s rare scientific triumphs of the past decade, the discovery of the HIV virus by Dr. Robert Gallo, was in fact due to Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Institut Pasteur of France. The precise details of malice and incompetence re main to be clarified. The affair could not have continued for a decade, however, if the American government and our scientific establishment were not monoglot, cut off from access to discovery in the rest of the world.
I am not arguing for an education for language teachers. We need teachers and scholars of language, but the educational value of language is rarely exemplified by “language professionals,” as the value of education is virtually never found in “education professionals.” We have stopped “communicating to the student the idea of Latin as a window,” Ezra Pound wrote in his essay on “The Jefferson-Adams Letters.” “If anyone had told me or any student of my under graduate days that I would extend my Greek vocabulary be cause I have been infuriated to a curiosity as to the nature of money they would have been greeted by (let us hope at least bland) amazement.” We may disagree on the value of the creativity of Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, but they had the tools to create. Contemporary Americans have been denied those tools, although creativity is the only lifeboat away from the iceberg of debt and sterility that is sinking the good ship Titanic we are merrily sailing on.
Our system does what it was designed to do. People riot over a 15-second videotape and feel no obligation to examine the entire record of the trial, nor even the entire 81 seconds of the original tape. They see a two-hour movie and know the secrets of the Kennedy assassination, without the burden of reading the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission and its 633-page report. They cannot understand or dream of the contempt that educated people feel for them. How could they? They have, after all, a right to their opinion, and they have no duty to ground that opinion in evidence weighed and judged with prudence and maturity.
You see, they have never been flunked. That is the real F-word of our society. The F-word one hears all the time is the leitmotiv of our popular movies. Flunking, on the other hand, has disappeared from popular consciousness. Recently a principal in Denver was suspended for changing some 35 failing grades, but the classes were remedial. In Europe as much as a third of a district may fail in the exams at the end of their equivalent of “high school.” Those who failed study all summer and take the exams again in the fall, and most pass. (Some say that the fall exams arc easier.) In America such an event is unthinkable. A university level regent says that students fail because of poor teaching. Even too many C’s in a class are a basis for complaint to the dean. American students have the highest grades in the world, give their teachers good grades (B average) on student evaluations, and are hap pier about their public schools than many foreigners. (The Japanese are perennially worried about their schools.) We do not want to bore our children with dull subjects. We do not think with Ezra Pound that “subjects that have interested the best minds for three, five or twenty-five centuries are not per haps very dull.”
Is there any hope? Christians do not want their children to read the New Testament in Greek. Catholics do not care if their children can read Augustine or Aquinas in Latin. Lutherans are indifferent to their young people’s understanding Bach or Luther as they wrote or sang. The secular American is con tent to sec our science graduate programs filled with foreigners because young Americans do not want to get into them. If America’s hope lies in teaching its young people math and difficult languages and failing those who cannot or will not learn, then let us speak frankly. The Statue of Liberty will need a new motto: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!