A Founder's Vision for Education

By Travis Copeland

On May 12, 1780, John Adams, the Massachusetts-born Founding Father, penned a letter from France to his wife Abigail back in New England. He was pondering education in light of the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775. Adams had come to France to represent the Continental Congress for the Thirteen Colonies. While there, Adams wrote numerous letters on the consequences of the revolution. He considered the liberty of the people, and what he hoped the fruits of the revolution would be for the fledgling nation. In his May letter, written to his wife, Adams offers a vision for education. He tells Abigail:

I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

At a time when war occupied the colonies, education took a back seat. Adams lamented setting aside art, such as Cicero’s rhetoric, for the study of war. Men like Washington went to war instead of college; although Adams was well educated, he too was obliged to study war. He looked to future generations to enjoy the fruits of the founding generation’s labor. For the purpose and crown of education, to his mind, was art. While much of our nation’s current education is oriented toward work and money, Adams asserts that it was a right to study art. Financial stability or well-being was not the goal of a strong education system. However, this prompts the question: why did Adams argue that the end of education was art?

The founding generation, and John Adams in particular, venerated education as the path to a nobler soul. Art, the high, eternal pleasure, was both the end and pursuit of a society built on liberty, peace, and the voice of the people. It elevated people into meaning that outlasted their vocations and even their lives. This is the bedrock of a nation not at war, but at peace, and it deserves to be the pursuit of all education.

You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.

John Adams, letter to his son

More than two hundred years later, Adams’ late night musings continue to echo. With the coming inauguration of a new President, education remains a hotly debated topic. Partisan tension creates an inevitable pendulum. With each presidential transition, the professed aims of education swing back and forth. The press is littered with opinions regarding Biden and Trump, their educational philosophies, and where the nation’s students should be heading. However, we need not confine ourselves to either Democratic or Republican perspectives on public education. Education is not just left or right. Instead, it can be an opportunity for a rich variety of choices in schooling. The goal of education ought not be partisan, nor restricted to state intervention.

Every presidential administration should look to Adams’ depiction, and pursue this end. If they cannot, or will not, they should at least defend the right to a variety of opportunities besides public-sector schools. Yet, in this variety, education should maintain one end—art. A career is an offshoot and helpful by-product of education, which we should be thankful for. But education is about the pleasures of learning, the wonders of wisdom, and the beauty passed down from previous generations.. This is why Adams praises it, and contends that subjects like math or war or geography are ultimately directed to deeper aims. A truly happy nation will come only after our students have the chance to look beyond themselves into the riches of the Western tradition. The profundities it offers promise peace to a nation entrenched in partisanship. Dialogue and delight would replace division and dissent.

In the meantime, while government support of educational variety should increase, private sector education ought to heed the directive of Adams carefully. In particular, classical education is the best realization of Adams’ vision. The classical model seeks to educate the whole person. James Truslow Adams writes again that education, “should teach us how to make a living, and … how to live.” At its best, classical education trains the student both for vocation and for life. That should be the standard for governments, and it is the unique mark of, and defense for classical learning. Despite the pendulum of partisanship, classical education has endured, and will.

Travis Copeland holds a bachelor’s degree in history and humanities, and is studying for a postgraduate history degree. He teaches at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. When not writing and teaching, Travis enjoys poetry, gardening, and conversation with good company around good food.

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If you enjoyed this piece, try one of our profiles of the names from our author bank, like ancient theologian pseudo-Dionysius or civil rights activist James Baldwin. You might also enjoy our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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