Thomas Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments.
He was, by almost any definition, one of the most successful political leaders of his day. He was a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Virginia House of Delegates in the early years of the American Revolution, and served as the Governor of Virginia during the later years of that conflict. He served in the Continental Congress after the war and was appointed Minister to France from 1785 to 1789. George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State under the new Federal Constitution of 1787, and from there he went on to become the second Vice President (under John Adams) and the third President of the United States.
He was also an accomplished architect, a successful inventor, and one of the few American natural philosophers (what we would today call “scientists”) to gain the respect and admiration of his European peers.
Not a bad resume, really.
And yet, when given the opportunity to design his own tombstone, none of these accomplishments were sufficiently important in his mind to ask that they be carved there for future generations to remember him by. Instead, he asked that posterity remember him for three other things.
One was that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document that more than any other we have since adopted as an American creed. Do you ever wonder what it means to be an American? Read the second paragraph, and wonder no more.
Another was his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a bill explicitly designed to separate church and state for the benefit of both. We as Americans would have a much-improved civic climate if that bill were made required reading for all voters and candidates in every political campaign.
The third was his founding of the University of Virginia. And that bears some explanation.
Jefferson was a firm believer in education, particularly primary education. It was, in his opinion, the cornerstone of a republic’s survival. Ignorance and self-government were contradictory things, and the only way a republic could survive was to educate its people. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” he said, “it expects what was and never will be.”
Similarly, if a despot – the preferred term for “dictator” back then – wanted to keep his people in chains, he could do no better than to attack the educational system by which people maintained their liberties.
To counter this, Jefferson proposed a system of public education. “[D]emocracy cannot long exist without enlightenment,” he said. “[I]t cannot function without wise and honest officials, … talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition, … [and therefore] the children of the poor must be thus educated at common expense.” The system was never approved by the Virginia legislature, but he did manage to get the University of Virginia through. At least that was something.
In 1806 Jefferson even went so far as to propose a Constitutional Amendment requiring public education. For a Strict Constructionist like Jefferson, that was the ultimate in approval.
This desire for public education was actually a fairly common position among the Enlightenment thinkers who founded the United States. You would be hard pressed to find any significant figure among the Founding Fathers who disagreed.
In graduate school I read every issue of every newspaper published in Philadelphia – the nation’s capital for most of the early republic – between 1787 and 1801, and in an era where an explicitly partisan press was considered healthy the need for public education is perhaps the only issue that they all agreed on.
"Let the education of children become a common charge,” said Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora and a man named after his grandfather. “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."
And thus we come to the situation at hand here in Wisconsin. Again.
Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) released his budget the other day.
This is not the Budget Repair Bill that sparked all the protests – the one that sought to close a budget shortfall that he caused giving away millions in tax breaks to his wealthy supporters by destroying unions and cutting the pay of the middle class.
That’s a separate crisis.
No, this is his proposal for how Wisconsin should spend its money over the next two years, and as such provides a clear blueprint for what he wants this state to look like when he finally slinks back to whatever rock he crawled out from under. It’s an astonishingly barbaric document, even if you ignore the provision allowing animal shelters to sell strays for medical experiments after as little as three days.
What caught my eye, of course, was his concerted assault on the educated and informed electorate that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers considered so important to the new American republic.
He proposes to cut a quarter of a billion dollars out of the University of Wisconsin System, even as he separates the main campus at Madison off and ensures that what money does go to the UW gets wasted by duplicate administrations.
He proposes to cut nearly a billion dollars out of the public schools. Wisconsin’s public schools are consistently ranked among the top in the nation, precisely because the citizens of Wisconsin have declared that they support public education and consider it a worthwhile expenditure of tax dollars. It’s not a coincidence that the worst-ranked public school systems are precisely those starved of public support by the greedy and the powerful. That’s what he wants for us.
He further proposes to cut funding for public libraries, where those who are not formally students may educate themselves and those who are may enhance the education they are already receiving.
In other words, if you buy the inflated budget deficits that this guy keeps hawking, nearly one third of the cuts are going to fall upon those institutions designed to educate and inform the public.
Clearly this guy has figured out that an educated and informed citizenry is the last thing he needs.
But it is the first thing Wisconsin needs, if it wants to keep its liberties and its prosperity.
Educated citizens are not easily duped by tin-horn dictators peddling false solutions to made-up crises. Educated citizens know when they are being lied to, and what to do with the liars when that happens. Educated citizens are what republics need to survive, if they are not to degenerate into tyranny.
No, educated citizens are not what Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) needs. A functioning republic is not his goal.
Educated citizens are also what Wisconsin needs to remain prosperous. This is not a ditch-digging economy, here in the 21st century. High-paying jobs are high-qualification jobs, and those qualifications are earned through education. If we in Wisconsin want to support a prosperous and profitable business community, we will invest in our schools. It really is that simple.
That apparently isn’t what Governor Teabagger (a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) wants either. Widespread prosperity is not his goal either.
But it is what Wisconsin needs. It's what America needs.
And it’s not what we’re getting with this guy.