Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Education and the Founding Fathers

It was back to school night down at Not Bad President Elementary.

Every year the School District sends us a pile of forms to fill out that looks suspiciously like the pile of forms we filled out the previous year. They want to know our phone numbers, email addresses, and emergency contacts. They want to know if our kids can go on field trips. They want to know if we have insurance, because you never know what might happen on those field trips. They want to know quite a lot of things, really, and they want these things written down. At least they’ve started mailing out the forms ahead of time now, so you don’t have to sit there in the gym balancing things on your knees and trying to remember your doctor’s phone number.

They also want a pile of checks, one for each sub-fee per child. This year that came to nine different checks, seven of them made out to the School District and two others made out to the PTA. After a while you start to feel like you’re in the middle of George Carlin’s old routine about driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, the one that ends with him asking if he could just send the state a blank check when he crossed the state line and let them fill it out when he left.

Inconvenience aside, though, I don’t object to writing these checks the way a lot of people seem to do these days. Education costs money, and for some reason most Americans seem to regard it as an expense rather than an investment these days.  This is a steaming load of nonsense.

As part of my research in graduate school I read every issue of almost every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. I was actually looking for some very specific information, but this was long before the invention of the headline so I ended up having to read pretty much every word of each edition. They tended to be short editions – four pages was about average – but they also tended to be large pages composed in 6-point fonts with almost no white space, and at least at the time I was reading them they were preserved in micro-formats accessible only at the cost of serious prescription eyewear.

They also had those goofy 18th-century s’s that look like f’s. Those took a while to get used to, and then suddenly a switch would flip in your head and you would end up taking them for granted and wondering what a “sig newton" was and why people would want to eat one.

So I read a lot of old newspapers, is what I’m saying here. Newspapers from the early republic. Newspapers that the Founding Fathers read as well, since Philadelphia was the nation’s capital for most of that period.

And I read them all, even the stuff that wasn’t relevant to my studies, because there were no headlines to help me sort stuff out. This turned out to be something of a disadvantage, not because it represented unwanted work but in fact quite the opposite: because I would often get so absorbed in the other stuff that I would forget what I had come there to do.

Story of my life, really.

What made these papers so fascinating, in part, was the fact that they were utterly ruthless.

For one thing, the idea of journalistic objectivity had not really made much of an impact on the guys who published these things. They had positions and they very well let you know what they were in no uncertain terms. These papers supported the Federalists. Those papers supported the Democratic Republicans. And never the twain shall meet. Remember, this was only a few years after the Constitution had been written – the third major framework of national government Americans had lived under in the previous two decades – and there was no guarantee that it would last any longer than the previous one had. The stakes were high, the other side was leading the new republic astray, and being on the correct side mattered. These guys were a lot of things, but wishy-washy wasn’t one of them.

For another thing, I have no idea when this country passed libel laws, but I have a strong suspicion that it was not until well after 1801. When I say that each paper had a strongly held and urgently defended political point of view, what I mean is that the language they used regarding their opponents was both elegant and vitriolic in that uniquely 18th-century way. These guys could cut you up rhetorically in so many ways so quickly and so efficiently that you’d bleed to death before you even noticed, and they did this to people we today regard as demigods. People think that politics today has gotten nasty, and they’re right – it is nasty – but even so our politics cannot even begin to compare with the politics of the 1790s on this score. The things they said in these newspapers then about the people on our money today are just astonishing.

Federalists, for example, derived no end of amusement from the fact that Thomas Jefferson had invented a swiveling chair. “The celebrated whirligig chair,” they called it, “which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain, by a counter turn for every occasion.” You have to admire the artistry of that put down.

But the one thing that all of these newspapers agreed on, no matter how much they hated even the mere existence of each other, was the need for public education.

In an era when newspapers routinely lifted entire articles from each other, often with the express intent of ridiculing them, the Federalist Gazette of the United States and the Democratic-Republican Aurora would always approvingly reprint articles from the other defending the idea of public education and the burden that it inevitably imposed on the citizenry.

As Benjamin Franklin Bache – editor of the Aurora and named after his grandfather – put it in 1792, during George Washington’s presidency,

Let the education of children become a common charge. If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men’s children. The more knowledge, the safer his property. It is better protection than armies.

We have forgotten this precept of late, as we have forgotten quite a lot of the things this country was founded upon.

I am perpetually amazed and appalled at the unwillingness of the average SUV-driving voter to pony up a few bucks for the education of the next generation – the short-sightedness and mean-spiritedness that goes into a decision like that is astonishing.

When we educate our children – all of our children, not just the ones that happen to spring biologically from our very loins – we strengthen this country economically, militarily, politically and socially. It is an investment in our future – not just their future, OUR future – and as such it often requires sacrifice on our part, because in the long run the nation comes out ahead for it. That’s why it’s an investment, not an expense. The Founding Fathers understood this, and far too many Americans today – pointedly including the vast majority of those morons who so fervently claim to be worshiping those same Founding Fathers with their tin-hat junior-high-grade to-hell-with-you-I-got-mine brand of vaguely libertarian social “conservatism” – simply do not. Bache would have thrashed those idiots with his bare hands, the way editors of rival papers often tried to do back then, and they would have deserved it.

So I go to Not Bad President Elementary and write out my checks and I am happy to do my part, as I was happy to pay my school taxes long before I was married (let alone had kids) and as I will be happy to do when my children are long since graduated and moved on with their lives.

That’s called a traditional American value, folks.

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