The authoritative statement regarding education from the period of the American founding is contained in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That document provides for the first time a way for a free government to control territory not properly part of its domain, and a way for that territory to join its domain by a regular procedure. It follows on the Land Ordinance of 1785 as the defining document for the control of the "Northwest Territory," which would eventually become the states of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance is still included as the third item in the United States Code. Alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States, it is one of the four organic laws of the United States.

The third article of the Northwest Ordinance declares: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall ever be encouraged."

Notice that these goods are said to be "necessary." This is a strong term. It means that without the one, there cannot be the other. Religion, morality, and knowledge are therefore essential for the highest reasons, reasons that transcend politics—that is why "happiness" is mentioned. But "good government" is mentioned, too. Both from the political point of view and from the higher point of view—both from the perspective of this world and of the next—"religion, morality, and knowledge" are indispensible.

 

Latest Videos

 


Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources  |  Further Reading  |  Education in History

 

FUNDAMENTAL WRITINGS AND VIDEOS

The Crisis of Higher Education
Larry P. Arnn  |  November 2006  |  Imprimis

The Making of an Educational Conservative
Terrence O. Moore  |  June 21, 2010  |  Claremont Review of Books

Liberal Education vs. Liberalist Education
Nathan Schlueter  |  October 16, 2013  |  National Review Online

It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child
Daniel B. Coupland  |  November 23, 2013  |  National Review Online

"Let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage"
Michael Flaherty  |  February 2007  |  Imprimis

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Written in the tradition of Aristotle's teacher, Plato—and of Plato's teacher, Socrates—the Nicomachean Ethics addresses the question, "What is the best life for man?" An extended reflection on virtue, happiness, and friendship, it helped to inform the moral and political thought of America's Founders. There are echoes of it, for instance, in President George Washington's First Inaugural Address, when he states "that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."

Northwest Ordinance

Adopted by the Congress of the Confederation in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance set forth a model for the expansion of the American republic. Providing a governing structure for the territory that would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, it prohibited slavery, protected religious liberty, and encouraged education. Following the adoption of the Constitution, the new Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance again in 1789.

Federalist 51

James Madison

Publius argues that the Constitution will maintain separation of powers by means of its "interior structure." The "great security" against tyranny is to give the members of each department the "necessary constitutional means" combined with the requisite "personal motives" to resist encroachments on their power. The fact "that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government" is a "reflection on human nature."

Federalist 57

James Madison

Publius explains the necessity of virtue in elected representatives and of a spirit of manly vigilance in the American people.

Liberalism and Social Action

John Dewey

As a leading Progressive scholar from the 1880s onward, Dewey, who taught mainly at Columbia University, devoted much of his life to redefining the idea of education. His thought was influenced by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and central to it was a denial of objective truth and an embrace of historicism and moral relativism. As such he was critical of the American founding.

 

FURTHER READING

 

 

Liberty and Learning

Larry P. Arnn

The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core

Terrence O. Moore

 

 

EDUCATION IN HISTORY

 

The Northwest Ordinance
1787

Adopted by the Congress of the Confederation in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance set forth a model for the expansion of the American republic. Providing a governing structure for the territory that would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, it prohibited slavery, protected religious liberty, and encouraged education. Following the adoption of the Constitution, the new Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance again in 1789.

University of Virginia Chartered
1819

Towards the end of his career, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, which he envisioned as a new and prestigious public university focused on keeping alive “the vestal flame of republicanism,” as he wrote to his partner in the enterprise, James Madison.

Democracy in America
1835

Alexis de Tocqueville directed this study of American politics, religion, economics, and culture to a French, mainly aristocratic, audience in order to increase support for and acceptance of democracy.  It remains a leading foreign commentary on America.

The Smithsonian Institution Founded
1846

After British scientist James Smithson willed his considerable estate to the United States for the purpose of creating an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men," Congress established the Smithsonian Institute to be an institute for scientific advancement and a depository of national treasures. Today the Smithsonian serves as an educational and research institution as well as the largest museum complex in the world.

Homestead Act
1862

The Homestead Act provided for the settlement of the Western territories by independent farmers. It led to the transfer of hundreds of millions of acres of federal land into private hands.

The Great Society
1964

As president, Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a series of domestic economic programs in pursuit of creating what he called the "Great Society." It included many new agencies and entitlement programs including the War on Poverty, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act
1965

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides federal funding for primary and secondary education throughout the nation. The most far-reaching federal education bill in American history, the ESEA was a Great Society program.

Higher Education Act of 1965
1965

Often paired with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act was a Great Society program expanding federal involvement in post-secondary education. It increased federal funding for colleges and universities, established federal scholarship programs, and provided low-interest loans to college students.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
1978

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that universities could not use racial quotas in their admission decisions, even though general affirmative action programs were still constitutional.

The Department of Education
1979

The Department of Education, signed into law by Jimmy Carter, has assumed an ever-expanding role in the regulation and management of all levels of education.