“To Illuminate…the Minds of the People at Large”

In my previous post, I described the Jeffersonian foundation of Virginia’s public school system and argued than if no less a lover of liberty as Mr. Jefferson supported public education, then it should be acceptable for conservatives today to share his zeal for public education. In response, several commenters rightly noted that today’s public school system bears little resemblance to the system Mr. Jefferson outlined in 1779. This is where I will resume our discussion.

Mr. Jefferson’s “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” called for the creation of local public schools that provided free boys and girls with a three-year education in reading, writing, and math—at taxpayer expense. The best and brightest would continue on to regional grammar schools, and the crème de la crème would finish their education at a public university. In the preamble to his bill, Mr. Jefferson stated that the purpose of this proposal was to “…illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.”

While his plan was revolutionary for his era—a time when relatively few individuals received any formal education—it was also wholly adequate to serve the needs of late-18th Century, agrarian Virginia. Almost all of the skills these children needed to earn a living could be learned by working on the family farm (horticulture, animal husbandry, food preservation, carpentry, cooking, sewing, etc.). The subjects to be taught in the public schools augmented those life skills, making students not only economically self-sufficient, but now intellectually self-sufficient (a condition Mr. Jefferson noted was regrettably absent from the common people of France during his tenure there as the American Minister).

It’s difficult to imagine that this same system would be sufficient to “illuminate” the minds of 21st Century students who live in a more urban, complex, globalized, post-industrial Virginia.

Recognizing that the existing system was inadequate to the demands of the Industrial Age, in 1892, the National Education Association assembled a group of educational reformers, known as the “Committee of Ten,” to develop reforms for America’s public high schools. Their recommendations sound familiar to anyone who has attended school during the past century: 12 grades and a standardized curriculum of English, math, science, foreign language, and social studies. This system has been compared to the assembly line (an apt analogy considering the time period in which the Committee of Ten met) producing a relatively well-educated workforce for America’s burgeoning factories and offices.

Public high schools came to our Commonwealth in 1906 after the Cooperative Education Association and Governor Andrew Montague barnstormed Virginia promoting educational improvements in response to the new Constitution of 1902. These high schools, organized along the lines of the reforms promoted by the Committee of Ten, received additional state support and guidance in 1917.

Today we face a similar challenge: just as a system championed by Mr. Jefferson in 1779 would have been inadequate to the demands of the Industrial Age, so too the system proposed by the Committee of Ten in 1892 seems antiquated in many ways to students in a time when Netflix, Pandora and Fitbits make television/movies, music, and fitness intensely personalized. Today’s education reformers still strive to do what Mr. Jefferson envisioned: “illuminate…the minds of the people at large” and prepare students to be both economically and intellectually self-sufficient–all while operating within the current system of SOLs and high-stakes testing. These reform-minded administrators and teachers (encouraged by the McDonnell Administration) are developing and implementing innovative, personalized pedagogical practices that make classroom instruction meaningful, enriching, and fun.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the promising reforms occurring in Virginia’s public school system today.

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