On January 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his state legislator, Colonel Charles Yancey. As we might expect, Jefferson’s letter contains reflections of general interest on many topics, ranging in this case from the dangers of a large public debt and paper money to the advantages of beer over whiskey. Near the end Jefferson mentions his support for the legislature’s paying for roads and schools, but regrets that government does such a better job building roads than maintaining schools. (How things have changed!) He goes on to say, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” This sentence is often quoted nowadays in support of greater tax support for America’s public schools, perhaps not very legitimately. We know what Jefferson wanted schools to teach from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, and public schools today do not provide that education.

The first level is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Children at that age are too young to be reading the Bible, Jefferson thought, but “their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.” Like William Kilpatrick, Jefferson believed that “the first elements of morality” should be taught in elementary school and his explanation of what he meant by morality indicates that he would have shared Kilpatrick’s lack of patience with Values Clarification curricula. Jefferson destined the next level, for children from eight to sixteen, “for teaching Greek, Latin, geography and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic.” Jefferson had observed what has been often confirmed: that in the years before puberty children have wonderful memories and, “the learning of languages being chiefly a work of memory,” schools should teach “the most useful languages ancient and modern.” Jefferson ranked Greek and Latin chief among these useful languages, “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 in us to follow their example in this instance.” Jefferson was no conservative. His chief commitments were to freedom and creativity, democracy and science. He understood that democracy and science exist among us as traditions that go back to the ancient world, traditions that have to be learned by hard work and study and that a mastery of the languages that helped form and shape those traditions is essential for success in keeping them alive.

This view was not an eccentricity of Thomas Jefferson. When John Stuart Mill was elected honorary president of St. Andrews, the inaugural address he delivered on February 1, 1867, presented the arguments for a university education that concentrated on science, mathematics, Greek, and Latin. Like Jefferson, Mill was no conservative. Like Jefferson he was committed to a future where progress was founded on self-government and technology based on science. Like Jefferson, he understood that access to the traditions that keep self-government and science alive depends on knowledge of the languages that preserve those traditions. Two generations later, in 1931, Albert Jay Nock delivered the Page Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia as The Theory of Education in the United States. A deep student of Thomas Jefferson, Nock had been the beneficiary of a Jeffersonian education, as he reveals in his classic Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Nock was a libertarian, and he understood that the traditions of liberty and individualism could only be kept alive and creative by those who had worked hard to learn those traditions and then live in them and by them.

I do not suppose that many will deny that science represents a difficult and demanding discipline which requires hard work and a long apprenticeship. That is one reason why America’s graduate schools are filled with foreigners and why, for example, only 40 percent of the engineering degrees granted by America’s Colleges of Engineering in 1990 went to American citizens. Even the Americans who do receive higher degrees in science and technology are monoglot ignoramuses. (The last educated generation of Americans was graduated in the late 1960’s.) When it was discovered a few years ago that nearly 20 percent of the research on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar research project on breast cancer, directed by Professor Bernard Fischer of the University of Pittsburgh, was fraudulent, one of the excuses for the years of delay in reporting the malfeasance was that the work had been done by a French Canadian, Dr. Roger Poisson, and since he published in French, they found it hard to check his results.

The traditions of self-government, like the traditions of science, date back to ancient Greece, to the fifth and sixth centuries before Christ, and those traditions are just as rigorous and demanding. “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents,” Jefferson wrote to Colonel Yancey. “There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.” Where did the pleasing notion arise that liberty is a spontaneous growth, that will appear without effort as long as it is not positively suppressed by tyrant or bureaucrat?

In the first generation of the Republic, the French immigrant who called himself Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur proclaimed this easy doctrine in his famous book Letters from an American Farmer (1782), “What then is the American, this new man? He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater.” Peter Brimelow revealed from his own experience the modern version of this vision. An immigrant comes to the United States, gets a job, studies for a few months, and, once a federal judge has waved his magic wand over him, he is told that “he is as good an American as those who have lived their whole lives here.” De Crèvecoeur is quite explicit about the kind of human being who is so easily transmogrified into an American. “Men are like plants. . . . We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.” He had already explained quite bluntly, “Ubi panis, ibi patri is the motto of all emigrants . . . his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence.”

Two generations later another Frenchman came to America, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was not only wise but educated, and he had no intention of settling in America. He said the United States “possessed two of the main causes of internal peace; it was a new country, but it was inhabited by a people grown old in the exercise of freedom.”

There is no more important insight to be found in a work replete with important insights. Europeans did not know of the New World until 1492, but the people who settled here had left behind none of “their ancient prejudices and manners.” They brought their traditions and their education with them, Anglo-Saxon and classical. The grammar to be taught in the schools that Jefferson wanted for Virginia was Creek and Latin grammar. For him, American freedom was a restoration on new soil of “the ancient Saxon laws.” When he taught at the University of Virginia, Jefferson did not teach Public Policy like a modern politician. He taught Anglo-Saxon. This decision was not due to the newborn conservatism of a retired politician. On August 13, 1776, the same year he penned the Declaration of Independence, he wrote to Edmund Pendleton, “Has not every restoration of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once to that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man?”

The Founders of the American Republic understood that their mission was to recreate in a new environment, to continue in their own way the traditions they had inherited from the past. Science and democracy are not the only ancient traditions. There are also philosophy and history and philology. Christianity itself was born, like Jesus, in the classical past, and its sacred texts survive in languages spoken and written on the shores of the Mediterranean two millennia ago. The future most Americans want will not be a spontaneous growth. It involves entering into challenging and demanding disciplines that can be practiced best by those able to master the difficult languages that preserve them, Greek, Latin, and mathematics.

It is hard for Americans to accept the idea that participating in creativity and progress means participating in traditions, not to mention participation in traditions that are thousands of years old. We want to believe that we did it our way. The aspect of multiculturalism that is most sympathetic to American ears is the notion that our society and its values are “socially constructed,” due to human choice and subject to human review and revision. Just as we walk through our supermarkets, filing past aisle after aisle of breakfast cereals and toothpaste to choose from, so we can choose our lifestyles, our religion, our system of values, our form of government. Well, maybe not our form of government. That has to be democratic, of course.

Few Americans ever reach that sure marker of maturity, the realization that we are the creation of forces and events we never choose. To begin with, we did not choose our parents. That means we did not choose our genes, or our environment for the nine months following conception, or our life for the years following birth. Experts can predict the broad outlines of a child’s life when the youngster is two with more accuracy than we usually get from weather reports, at least in the Rocky Mountain area. Regarding culture, we also did not choose our first language. If that language is English, it was not our choice that serious discourse in many important areas, including law, politics, ethics, the physical and humane sciences, to mention a few, is conducted in a vocabulary that is heavily Latinate, with a large contribution from Greek. It is a short step from realizing the formative power of language to understanding that many important activities in our society involve participation in traditions that go back to the Ancient World, activities that range from science to civil disobedience. A little attention shows that these and many other activities are best and most creatively performed by those who know the shaping origins as well as the latest slice of the cutting edge. Of course, we may refuse to participate, but even that choice is limited.

How often a teacher hears students proclaiming that they are not going to be like their parents. Many teenagers do look very different from their middle-aged folks. Like the late Sam Cook in the popular rock-and-roll priamel, they don’t know much about geometry or about the French they took, but they do know that they are free to choose. By the time they have reached the middle of life’s path, to quote another poem from the canon, they may look one morning into the mirror and see how impossible, how quintessentially childish, is the desire to escape their origins. No one can choose his genes, although he may make wise or foolish use of what they afford him. We can no more choose our culture and its languages, although we may refuse to take advantage of what they can give us. A trendy academic recently urged his peers to make a careful selection among what he called our “cultural baggage.” The metaphor has a certain piquancy. We should not deceive ourselves, however. If our culture and its traditions are baggage, we are not carrying it, or paying academic redcaps to haul it behind us. It is carrying us.

The regime that now rules the United States believes that it can stay in power by keeping its subjects enthralled in ignorance and importing educated folk from Europe to maintain its complicated machinery and poor folk from Asia and Latin America to do its scut work. Both the regime and its subjects may soon learn what does arise spontaneously for those who will not learn the difficult lessons of the past: hunger, violence, chaos, and entropy. Those who will not learn the lessons of Jefferson and Mill are condemned to repeat the fall of civilization. “The hardest thing in politics,” writes Regis Debray, “what distinguishes the statesman from the politician, is to want the consequences of what you want.” If we want self-esteem and multiculturalism, then we need to learn to want the ethnic wars and cultural ghettoes that are their consequences. If we want self-rule and science, then we need to learn to want the hard work and the mental discipline necessary to maintain and use the mental infrastructure transmitted to us by the classical tradition. If we choose that future, we shall live every day in the shadow of our superiors, but in return we and our children will once again have access to our heritage of freedom and creativity.