Sunday, June 12, 2016



          When Jefferson left France in 1789 to return to the United States after his five years there as the American minister plenipotentiary, he sent ahead of him boxes of books to friends. One was a box containing six cubic feet of books to James Madison. These included the famous Encyclopedie, Diderot's compendium of current knowledge, one of the great projects of the European Enlightenment, along with various editions of the Greek and Roman classics, in their original languages, plus the works of Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and many other Enlightenment figures. Books were hard to obtain in America. In Paris and London they were plentiful.

          He sent books to his nephews as well. Jefferson had no white son, only daughters, and his ideas about their education were typical of their time--to wit, what was the point of educating women? He told his daughter Martha that she should become adept with the sewing needle, and otherwise master the social arts. For his nephews he developed a carefully thought out program of reading of the classics, studies in science, geography, and modern languages, and the law. The classics were to be read in their original languages. Other than that, he believed in walking. He himself used to walk six miles a day around Paris, no matter what the weather. "It's only water," he said of rain and snow.

          And then, years later, after his presidency came to an end, he founded the University of Virginia and did much to establish its curriculum, based on the same principles he wrote to his nephews about, the same books he sent to them and to Madison and James Monroe and other friends. He had in mind a classical education, and a preparation for political service in the government of the United States. For which a familiarity with Thucydides and Polybius and Cicero was as important as a familiarity with the U. S. Constitution.

          This was the sort of education that most of the founding fathers had. One exception was George Washington, and he felt the lack of it, but did what he could to catch up. When Jefferson sold his library to the government to help found the Library of Congress, and to pay a portion of his many debts, he owned more than 6,000 books. Washington had a few hundred. So this sort of education was not, strictly speaking, an absolute necessity to govern well. But it was a huge help. It gave the founders the mental equipment, and the common background, of an Enlightenment education in the theory and practice of government. To read Thucydides is to learn a great deal about what was essentially civil war, Athens vs. Sparta, from a writer who participated in it. To read Polybius is to discover how a small city in central Italy, Rome, could become the master of the whole Mediterranean. And Hume? Hume's words and thoughts can be found in the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu explained how republics worked, and we live in a republic. Only small ones survive, Montesquieu argued. The U. S. was small then. Now it is very large.

          A wiser time. And how do people prepare today for governing? Does anyone get this kind of education any more? I certainly didn't. In public school I remember a course in civics where the process of proposing and passing legislation was taught, but dully. And I was one of two juniors in high school who were sent to Boys State for a couple of weeks one summer, where we went through the process of running for office and electing mock legislators and a mock governor, who at the end gave a speech. It was run by the American Legion and I wonder whether it still exists. For personal reasons I was miserable the whole time and got nothing out of it. As far as the classics go, no course in them was available. Not until I got to college did I read anything of the Greeks, and then it was Greek tragedy and Greek philosophy. What I know of political life and government I know by educating myself, and by practicing it in the village where I live.

          We all know the consequences of the abandonment of political education in this country. People like Donald Trump, who flaunts his ignorance of issues, an avowed racist, bankrupt both morally and intellectually. People who serve in Congress, make laws, control committees, and have an approval rating, collectively, of 9%. People who serve in state governments, where corruption is an everyday occurrence. And the people themselves, who not only don't read the classics but don't even read newspapers any more, a people so generally ignorant that comparisons of the ability to do math or read or write consistently place us in the middle to low range with respect to other first world countries. How many people can name their state representative, their state senator? How many can name the three branches of the Federal government, and explain what they do? How many still believe that the sun orbits the earth? Or that the earth is four thousand years old? Or that global warming doesn't exist? America has become stupid.

          In a republic, life is inescapably political. You have to educate people to politics, to understand it if not participate in it. Jefferson saw that clearly, and founded a university to accomplish it. He rejoiced when a Pennsylvania farmer invented a new and more efficient way to make wagon wheels, based upon a reading of Homer-- in the original Greek. It's a big and complicated country, with innumerable interest groups, many different factions, and it takes educated people to run it, indeed to do such an elemental thing as vote. But education is the first thing to get cut, the last thing most state legislatures respect.

          So we sink deeper into ignorance, deeper into dysfunction, deeper into paranoia. The coming election is, more than anything, a test of American intelligence. And it's an open question whether we'll pass.