Last week, Rev. Al Sharpton caused some titters to erupt across the internet by his commentary on the Trump indictment over the Jan. 6th issue.
“One day our children’s children will read American history,” Sharpton said, “and can you imagine our reading that James Madison or Thomas Jefferson tried to overthrow the government so they could stay in power?” As many noted, Sharpton apparently failed to get the memo that such is exactly what James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did when they helped found our nation.
We can joke about Sharpton falling asleep in history class, or learning from revisionist history books, but the sad fact is, his experience with history may not be much different than that of many of today’s students. Indeed, their experiences may be worse.
This realization about the state of education today got me thinking about the two famous men, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, that Sharpton mentioned. What did these two—who helped to overthrow the British government and establish our country almost 250 years ago—have to say about education and the knowledge we should be passing along to our students?
In brief, Madison and Jefferson thought students should be instilled with the academic basics so as to live as capable and good citizens, able to govern themselves and others in a proper way.
For James Madison, it was a given that every student learn the 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). In an 1822 letter to W. T. Barry, he also encouraged instruction in geography and simple astronomy “to expand the mind and gratify curiosity.” Learning about other countries, Madison explained, would “weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings,” making for good relations between the nations. Eventually, such knowledge would “create a taste for Books of Travels and Voyages; out of which might grow a general taste for history, an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction,” Madison wrote.
Thomas Jefferson agreed, writing in 1818 to encourage the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, particularly in higher education. But he also took time to note the importance of teaching the next generation “their rights, interests and duties,” putting emphasis on how the academic basics could be used in everyday life.
Math, Jefferson explained, would eventually help a student run his own business. Writing would “express and preserve his ideas.” The ability to read would enable him to “improve … his morals and faculties.” Learning civics would help him “understand his duties to his neighbors and country,” interacting with both in an upright way while also also exercising his own rights.
In so doing, Jefferson hoped “To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend,” as well as “To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”
Their words can’t help but show how far we have strayed today. Sure, our students learn all about diversity and inclusion, climate change and student activism … but do they know what really matters? Do they know how to live at peace with their neighbors, to live an upright, moral life that takes responsibility for their actions and provides for themselves and their families? Do they know the rights they’ve been given and how to defend them from those who would take them away?
Founders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson knew these things, and that’s exactly why they fought for independence from Great Britain. Let’s not let their sacrifices go to waste by failing to teach the next generation these basic forms of knowledge that they knew were essential to a free and lasting republic.
This article is republished with permission from Annie’s Attic.
Image Credit: Public Domain