Where Did All the Good Statesmen Go?

In a political era characterized by demagoguery and partisanship, one has to wonder how previous generations of politicians accomplished anything. To be sure, necessity is the mother of all invention, but that approach hardly lends itself to good government. Despite being bitterly divided over their respective visions of government, our Founding Fathers still came together and formed a new government out of a bipartisan constitution. The real question is this: what made their generation so much different than ours?

The answer: our Founders had a classical education.

Classical education aims for a clearly established goal. That goal is the disciplining of the mind in order that the mind is trained to learn. The goal is to turn students into their own teachers, filled with a thirst for knowledge that will last for the rest of their lives. To that end, the Founders spent their early education learning Latin and Greek, studying history, and learning mathematics. Certainly Latin and Greek bore little practical application—note that none of the great documents of our nation have been written in anything but English—but learning those languages helped our Founders gain the tools to learn how to think, not what to think.

Classical education occurs in three phases. The first phase is called the trivium in Latin, meaning “three paths.” It consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar studies the rules of language; logic teaches how to construct an argument; rhetoric teaches a student how to eloquently express him or herself. The second phase is the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The final phase is advanced study in philosophy. Philosophy means literally “love of wisdom” and can be applied to in-depth study in any field.

While arithmetic does mean basic mathematics, the other core components of the quadrivium have a slightly different meaning than our contemporary understanding. Geometry is an extension of logic, emphasizing relationships between points, lines, shapes as well as the properties of space. Music covers nine of the disciplines inspired by the Greek Muses, particularly literature, all arts, and the sciences.

The results of this education can be seen in the works and actions of our Founders—from the Declaration of Independence to The Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton was 20 years old when he became a confidant and active advisor to George Washington. By 30 years old, Hamilton helped draft the Constitution and wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers. Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Edward Rutledge and Thomas Lynch, Jr. were the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence at only 26 years old.

Because of their education, age was no barrier to great achievement for our Founding Fathers. What changed between their generation and ours was a switch to a progressive, not a classical, education in the United States.

Progressive education is characterized by its emphasis on present experience and the flaws of the past. Ironically, by focusing on the flaws of the past, progressive education tends to ignore progress made from them as well as the significance of history. This poses a significant threat to our population because, as Edmund Burke so famously quoted, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Progressive education began in the United States in the late 19th century and found its champion in John Dewey. It emphasizes a radical departure from classical education. John Dewey himself went so far as to say that “education is the process of living and is not meant to be the preparation of future living” in 1897. Rather, in Dewey’s view, education should be relative to the present.

In moving to a system of progressive education, the United States broke with the model of success that had produced such great minds as Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and even Abraham Lincoln, though he classically self-educated. Is it any surprise then that our current generation of leadership is lacking in ability? Is it any surprise that our education system rejects truth in favor of relativism based solely on “empowering the individual?”

Classical education teaches the mind to love truth, to discern truth from deception, and to produce works of daring creativity that can truly alter the course of history. Without classical education, there would have been no Founding Fathers. Without classical education, there would be no United States of America.