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Jefferson, Adams, and the Hope of Liberal Education

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Jefferson, Adams, and the Hope of Liberal Education

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Rembrandt Peale/Gilbert Sullivan)

The Founders’ friendship can save our paltry civics education.

Citizenship in America is in a troubling state. In 2015, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni conducted a survey of college graduates which found that only 28.4 percent could name James Madison as the father of the Constitution. Thirty-nine percent did not know that Congress had the war power, and roughly 45 percent did not know the length of congressional terms. In 2017, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37 percent of Americans could not name any of the rights in the First Amendment, and that only 26 percent could name all three branches of government. Gallup poll results from 2018 reveal that young Americans’ views of capitalism and socialism have switched since 2010, with only 45 percent of respondents now professing a positive view of the capitalist system. A November 2018 YouGov poll revealed that Americans’ patriotism and knowledge of civics was troublingly low. More recently, in January 2019, Gallup released survey results which showed that 30 percent of younger Americans, a record high, would like to permanently leave the U.S. Unfortunately, these results are not shocking. Each new poll extends the long line of depressing findings.

The answer to this crisis of civics and citizenship is a renewal of America’s commitment to liberal education. A consensus is growing among many on the left and right that a reinvigorated system of liberal education is necessary if we want a society of active, engaged, and informed citizens. As an article published in the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ journal Liberal Education noted, liberal education “is the best means to the desired end of having a citizenry with the knowledge, skills, and wisdom necessary to participate in democratic governance.”

Liberal education and citizenship are fundamentally linked. Concerned with the liberty of the mind, liberal education prepares young men and women for free thought and citizenship in a democratic republic. It imparts to students knowledge of the history of our country, the shape of our traditions and structures, and the accumulated wisdom of our greatest minds. It is the act of entering into the world of thought and creation generated by humankind throughout history. Liberal education is education for liberty. Proponents of this education understand that liberal learning is necessary if our citizens are to fully comprehend and act on all that is involved in their citizenship.

Rebuilding a system of liberal education that teaches our students to become active citizens will be far from easy. Fortunately, we have a guide in the famous friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two great Founders, though often at intellectual odds, maintained their roughly 50-year friendship through intellectual discussion, investigation, and a desire to learn. In 1784, John Adams wrote of Jefferson, “He is an old Friend with whom I have often had occasion to labour at many a knotty Problem.” Adams later wrote to Jefferson that this “intimate correspondence with you… is one of the most agreeable events in my life.” For these two men, friendship and education were intimately connected.

What does a spirit of friendship mean in the setting of liberal education? Looking to the letters of Jefferson and Adams, it seems that this spirit is not one of simple open-mindedness, but rather of committed engagement with each topic, idea, and argument. It involves a readiness and ability to defend one’s positions and to engage with the ideas of others, and cultivates enthusiasm for that exchange. All involved care enough to prepare, so all are pushed to think their arguments through. The discussion is unencumbered, unrestricted, and free. This leads friends to think deeply, defend vigorously, and argue fully. The best cases are made, and the strongest counters are given. Friendship fosters true intellectual engagement.

There is also an inherent sense of challenge that pervades Jefferson and Adams’s letters. In their questions and claims both men pushed each other and were willing to be tested. Although each laid out the best possible defense for his own position, victory was not the goal. Their end was a search for truth. In an exchange of letters from August to September 1813, Jefferson and Adams took up the question of the nature and role of aristocracy. After receiving two letters from Adams, which used numerous quotations from classical sources to argue that aristocracy should be looked to in the structuring of governments, Jefferson replied with a vigorous response and counter argument. In doing so, he perfectly characterized what disagreement and learning in a spirit of friendship means.

“On the question, what is the best provision [for aristocracy]?” Jefferson remarked, “you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.” Intellectual disagreement for Jefferson and Adams was not a barrier to friendship, but rather an opportunity to jointly investigate ideas and grow closer to the truth. When students learn in this way, it leads them to think together. Willingness to be challenged and openness to learning encourages bold intellectual explorations of new worlds and ideas. Above all, each student’s primary goal becomes the improvement of themselves and each other. Enthusiasm, challenge, and a drive to think at one’s highest level come to mark liberal learning. Joy results as these generate progress towards the truth.

Unlike much of the college environment today, students learning in the spirit of Jefferson and Adams will push each other and be pushed. Students will inevitably experience the discomfort of admitting there are things they do not know and answers they do not have. There may also be times when they encounter opinions and ideas foreign to their worldview. An ethos of friendship in liberal education, however, enables students to use this discomfort to become more open and to drive themselves to challenge ideas, think, and discover. The surprise of new thoughts and the joy of discovery will propel the search for truth, and ultimately liberal education may again be pursued for its own sake. If this is to happen, liberal education should be understood as the act of entering, in friendship, into the world of thought and creation generated by humankind throughout history.

When Jefferson and Adams were reaching their final years, and Jefferson learned of Adams’s declining health, he wrote, “the account I receive of your physical situation afflicts me sincerely; but if body or mind was one of them to give way, it is a great comfort that it is the mind which remains whole, and that it’s vigor, and that of memory, continues firm.” Adams replied, “Your letter of the 8th has revived me,” and ended by stating simply, “I salute your fire side, with best affection and best wishes for their health, wealth, and prosperity. Ever your friend John Adams.” The national discussion taking place over civic life would do well to be informed by the friendship of two of the country’s greatest patriots. If liberal education is to help remedy the problems we face, if it is to teach students to become citizens through opening them up to a universe of thought and allowing their minds to grow, freely roam, and interact with the world, then cultivating this spirit of friendship should be the focus of our greatest efforts.

While liberal education will never be a cure-all for the disgraceful state of civic life and historical knowledge in America, its renewal in a spirit of friendship is essential if we seek to tackle our citizenship deficit. Students educated in such an environment will not only deeply understand the ideas and principles of the Founders and of Americans throughout history, but they will also come to understand their own connection to those ideas. They will feel invested in the future of their country and in the principles that form its foundation. This educational environment will also affect the concern and interest students have in what government does, how it acts, and the way in which they see their rights and duties. Robust engagement in the classroom naturally translates to the open marketplace of ideas and the active world of citizenship. These students will serve as examples to their fellow citizens, expanding the education of the classroom to the entire country. In the fight to restore civic life and knowledge in America, the rebuilding of liberal education in the spirit of Jefferson and Adams’s friendship is an essential component.

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