Education for a Democracy
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made news recently when he called Barack Obama a "snob" for saying that all Americans should get a college education. He supported his attack on the president with the now popular refrain, "college is not for everyone." Some Americans, he said, might be better suited for vocational training, community college, or apprenticeships.
It took only a few hours for pundits to figure out that Obama had basically said the same thing in a recent State of the Union Address, but in the world of presidential politics Santorum's remarks probably scored some points among the conservative faithful.
But let's consider the position taken by Santorum and Obama on this issue. Are the President and the former Senator correct in asserting that a liberal arts education is not for everyone? Maybe another lesson from the founding fathers is in order.
Most of the founders did not trust the uneducated masses. Many of them believed that common people, because of their lack of education, were not fully equipped for citizenship in a republic. Thomas Jefferson said that a "well-informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will." When Thomas Paine published "Common Sense," a 1776 pamphlet that proposed a new American government based on the "common sense" of ordinary people, John Adams called it a "poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) that "government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone."
Were the founders right? The debate will continue, but the founders now have some psychological research on their side. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, a former Cornell graduate student, have found that incompetent people are unable to judge the competence of other people or the validity of their ideas. And their study implies that most people are incompetent. Dunning and Kruger conclude that "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don't have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is." They add: "To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people."
Moreover, Dunning and Kruger have found that most people think too highly of their ability to understand complex ideas. They are self-delusional about their own knowledge. Even when they are judged by an outside evaluator as being poor at a particular task, they claim that their performance was "above average."
If Dunning and Kruger are correct, then what does this say about American democracy? Perhaps the founders were right after all.
The founders believed that because people were ignorant by nature, and thus incapable of understanding what was best for the common good, education was absolutely essential to the survival of the American republic. This is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, the nation's first public university. This is why George Washington, in his 1796 message to Congress, called for a national university that would teach the arts and sciences.
When the founders talked about education, they did not mean vocational training or apprenticeships. While this type of training was certainly important, they also wanted a citizenry trained in government, ethics (moral philosophy), history, rhetoric, science (natural philosophy), mathematics, logic, and classical languages, for these subjects made people informed and civil participants in a democratic society.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.