From the Archives: Education for a Democracy

How did Jefferson understand the idea of an “informed citizenry?”

I originally published this piece in March 2012 when I was writing my Patheos column “Confessing History.”  I loved writing that column and still stand by most of what I wrote.

Eventually Patheos moved away from individual columns in favor of blogs.  The editors moved me over to a new blog (at the time) called The Anxious Bench, where I stayed for several months before deciding to leave in order to focus more attention on The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Much of what I wrote below found its way into my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I still think it is relevant today in light of recent cuts to the humanities in college and K-12 education.

Here we go.  Again, from March 2012:
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.
In other words, the founders understood that a liberal education was important to the democratic-republic they were building.
Now I realize that all of this might sound rather elitist. As the product of a working class family, it has always sounded elitist to me. I am the first person in my family to get a four-year degree. I have thus long appreciated and respected those who work with their hands. Our society needs carpenters and history majors, mechanics and sociologists. My brother is a plumber. My other brother is an interior trim contractor. My father was a general contractor and now, in his retirement, he is about to start working at Home Depot. Indeed, Santorum and Obama are right when they say that not everyone should get a four-year college education. In order for our economy to function we need people who are trained in professional schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and apprenticeships.
But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.
Here’s a thought: What if all Americans were required to take two years of post-secondary liberal arts training? Many high school teachers do excellent work in teaching liberal arts subjects, but others do not. The incivility of our culture wars and the toxic nature of our public discourse suggest that more training in these fields is needed. Our students need information, but they also need to learn how to critique an argument, speak clearly and with respect to those with whom they differ, and entertain opposing beliefs in a benevolent fashion. I would even suggest that this training should take place after a person reaches the age of 30, when citizens are more aware of the practical benefits of the liberal arts in their daily lives.
But let’s not stop there. What if we also required American citizens (who are able) to do two years of physical labor—on a construction site or a road crew or a farm or someplace else? Such a requirement would give us all a deeper respect for the virtues of work. It would connect us to the land. It would teach us humility. It would be good for our bodies. It would teach us to work—literally—together. Jefferson, the same founding father who called for an informed citizenry, also said that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.”
We should be worried about our democracy. We have replaced reasoned argument and debate with shouting matches. We need education—a liberal arts education rooted in the social sciences, hard sciences, and especially the humanities—to help cure our societal ills. We have proven that we can educate people for a capitalist economy, but we may have lost the founders’ original vision of education for a democracy.

Goodbye Patheos

Today’s post at the “The Anxious Bench” was my last as a regular contributor.  I am stepping away from my weekly spot at the blog so I can devote more attention to other projects, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home

It was a great run at Patheos. My Confessing History column enabled me to try out ideas that complimented my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation and would eventually find their way into Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I put a lot of effort into that column and I think it represents some of my best work to date in the op-ed/column format.  Thanks to Tim Dalrymple for giving me the chance.

And I was honored to blog alongside Tommy Kidd, John Turner, and Philip Jenkins at The Anxious Bench.  I wish them well as they continue to provide compelling commentary on religion, American history, and public life.  

I still hope to write occasional pieces for the website (if they will have me), so stay tuned. 

Blog of the Month!

Congratulations to the authors of The Anxious Bench, a Patheos blog for which I write a weekly post.  Chris Gehrz, known in the blogosphere as “The Pietist Schoolman,” and the Bethel University History Department, has named it “Blog of the Month.”

Here is the official announcement:

One of the objectives of this blog is to encourage alumni and students of this department to cultivate habits of lifelong learning. While many of our former students don’t work in jobs directly related to history, we assume that their undergraduate interest in the past never entirely went away — and ought to be nourished by continued reading, museum visits, film watching, and other activities.

That’s why we collect a series of historical blog posts from around the Internet and post them as “Weekend Reading” every Saturday morning.

To a similar end, each month we highlight other blogs that discuss history in an interesting, well-researched, and well-written fashion.

This month, a group blog that features four leading Christian scholars examining “the relevance of religious history for today.”

Read the rest here.

Changes at Patheos: Goodbye "Confessing History," Hello "Anxious Bench"

My relationship with Patheos has slightly changed in the last few months.  From this point forward, I will no longer be writing my “Confessing History” column.  The column had a nice run (49 entries in all) and it was a pleasure to write.

But if you enjoyed reading my weekly column have no fear!  I will migrating my commentary over to a new Patheos blog called “The Anxious Bench.”  Here I will be joining Thomas Kidd of Baylor University (another former Patheos columnist), John Turner of George Mason University, Philip Jenkins of Penn State, and perhaps one or two others.

My piece will continue to appear on Wednesdays.  I hope you will continue to read.

Of course the daily blog posts will continue here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Update:  Thomas Kidd just informed me that Philip Jenkins has retired from Penn State and is now at Baylor.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Bruce Springsteen’s Spiritual Vision for America"

Ten years ago, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Bruce Springsteen released his first studio album in seven years. It was called The Rising and it offered a moving reflection on that fateful day in American history. Springsteen described firefighters wearing crosses around their necks (“the cross of my calling”) and fulfilling their vocations as they charged into flaming buildings. He encouraged people to find a way to get “through this lonesome day.” He took a song (“My City of Ruins”) originally written to describe hard times in his home town of Asbury Park and made it speak to the tragedy suffered by the people of New York City. As the story goes, in the days after the attacks a fan in a car stopped next to Springsteen, rolled down his window, and yelled “We need you now.” Springsteen took heed and delivered what many consider to be his most important album.

Springsteen is 62 years old and still going strong. His new album, which was released yesterday, is entitled Wrecking Ball. It does for our current economic recession what The Rising did for 9/11. The songs explore themes of work, community, and the tragic and hopeful dimensions of American life. Wrecking Ball is an album about America, but it is also an album of faith, rooted in the Christian tradition. In fact, fans of Christian music might be familiar with its producer. His name is Ron Aniello and he has produced albums for Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "John F. Kennedy, Rick Santorum, and the Separation of Church and State"

In case you haven’t heard, John F. Kennedy’s view on church and state makes Rick Santorum want to throw up. Yes, you read that correctly. This weekend in an interview with George Stephanopolous, Santorum stood behind an earlier campaign statement in which he said that he almost vomited the first time he read Kennedy’s September 12, 1960 speech to a group of southern Baptist ministers in Houston.

What was it about JFK’s speech that made Santorum so nauseated? According to the former Pennsylvania senator it was Kennedy’s statement: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Since this statement prompted such gastronomic discomfort for Santorum, it is worth looking closely at how Santorum interpreted that line from Kennedy’s speech and what exactly Kennedy meant when he uttered it.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Would You Vote for This Man?"

A taste:

I remember sitting in the Brubaker Auditorium at Messiah College on the evening of April 13, 2008, when Barack Obama entered the room to a standing ovation from Messiah students and others in attendance. The event was called The Compassion Forum and Obama was there, along with his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton and the CNN cameras, to discuss how his faith might inform his policy if he were elected president.

Obama talked about religion as a means by which people get through difficult economic times.  He discussed the mystery of God’s will and his inability to decipher it entirely. He talked about the need to find ways to reduce abortion. He said he would fight AIDS and poverty around the world. He talked about the discipline of self-sacrifice for the greater good of the planet and each other.

Read the entire column here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Taking Care of Our Own"

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Obama and Santorum: A Clarifying Contrast"

Thanks to C-SPAN, I spent some time this weekend watching Rick Santorum speak at a campaign stop in Florence, South Carolina. I must admit that I was not listening carefully to what my former United States Senator was saying until he dogmatically and boldly asserted: “America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise.” 

Santorum used the “moral enterprise” remark to distinguish his campaign from that of Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner. Romney won the Iowa Caucus, and the New Hampshire primary, and is currently atop the polls in South Carolina because he has proposed solutions for America’s economic woes. Although Santorum is not ignorant of the country’s economic problems, for him the most serious issues facing the United States are moral in nature.

This was not the first time I have heard Santorum call the United States a “moral enterprise.” Back in April, at a speech at the National Press Club, he defined exactly what he meant by this phrase.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Presidential Poltiics at Its Worst?"

As I write this week’s Confessing History column, the residents of New Hampshire are preparing to go to the polls in the first primary of the 2012 presidential election. By the time you read it, the New Hampshire winner will, most likely, be declared.

As the GOP primary schedule moves forward, I have no doubt that the next few weeks is going to be a circus of incivility, shouting matches, and the exercising of personal vendettas that have nothing to do with the needs of the country.
Just think what has happened already.

Newt Gingrich used his “concession speech” in Iowa last week to slam Ron Paul and Mitt Romney for their negative ads. He even implied that such ads were not worthy of the sacrifices made by those in military service who died for our right to engage in such democratic debate. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called Newt’s speech “one of the most ungracious moments I have ever seen in politics.”

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Is a Historian Worth $1.6 Million?

Thanks to Newt Gingrich, people are talking about how much a historian is worth.

In a recent GOP presidential debate in which Gingrich was asked to explain why he earned $300,000 from Freddie Mac, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives claimed that he had given the mortgage company advice in his capacity as a historian. Later it was revealed that Gingrich had actually received between $1.6 and $1.8 million for his supposed work as a historical consultant.

By one definition, Gingrich is a historian. He has a Ph.D. from Tulane University where he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” He taught history at West Georgia College (now University of West Georgia) and, believe it or not, was influential in starting an environmental studies program there. When he did not receive tenure at West Georgia he set off on a political career.

Read the rest here and please “like.”

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Have You Started a Junto Yet?" (Original Title)

There has been much discussion over the last two decades about the state of the evangelical mind. Books such as Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and, more recently, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens’s The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, have pointed to a latent anti-intellectualism in modern American evangelicalism.

There are many places evangelicals can turn to strengthen Christian thinking. Recently, in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll has pointed to the Christology of the ancient Christian creeds as a source for a robust intellectual life. Others have suggested that evangelicals should rely on the theological resources of Dutch Calvinism or Roman Catholicism for their intellectual heft.

While all of these streams of Christianity offer solid theological grounding for loving God with our minds, let me suggest an unlikely source for helping us think about how to practice this kind of intellectual discipleship: Benjamin Franklin.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: The Historian as Activist

Tara is former student of mine. She was an undergraduate history major who now works at a children’s hospital in the Republic of Malawi, Africa. Her job consists of spending time with sick African children. She plays with them, builds relationships with them and their parents, listens to them, empathizes with their struggles, and then tells their stories to western Christians through a variety of social media outlets.

To borrow a phrase from James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, Tara is “faithfully present” in the lives of these Malawi children and their families. She is devoting her life to something greater than her own ambitions. She is an agent of change in the world.

And she landed this job because and not in spite of the fact that she was a history major in college.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: What Should Christians Think About Democracy?

Last week Frances Fox Piven, the nationally-known political scientist and activist, visited Messiah College (the college where I have taught American history for the last decade) to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. Piven has been under fire of late, largely because some of her work has caught the attention of conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. She has received death threats and hostile emails from Beck’s followers—many of them claiming to be evangelical Christians.

It is not my intention to revisit this sad chapter in American political discourse. Instead, I want to reflect on the subject of Piven’s lecture: American democracy. Whatever one thinks about the views of Frances Fox Piven, her visit has led to a renewed conversation on campus about the meaning of democracy in American life. Such conversation is good, especially at an institution of higher learning.

What should Christians think about American democracy? A democracy requires universal suffrage and a commitment that all votes have the same value, regardless of the voter’s race, class, gender, social position, or economic well-being. When understood in the context of the Bill of Rights, a democratic state must permit the freedom to organize in defense of individual rights. It requires a government that responds to the will of the people.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Remember the Pile-Men

Anyone who has ever worked on a construction crew, especially one that specializes in home repairs and remodeling, knows about the “pile-men.” These are the members of a crew assigned to remove the piles of garbage, unusable wood scraps, insulation remnants, broken shingles, and cracked bricks that accumulate over the course of a given project. As the sons of a general contractor, my brothers and I spent many summers during our teenage years as “pile-men” on different construction sites. The scenario was always the same: arrive at the job early, get a cup of coffee, strap on our tool belts, and wait for the day’s assignments. Dad would issue the important ones first—framing the walls, sheathing the roof, or spackling the drywall. Then he would turn to us: “John, Mike, and Chris,” he would bark, “I want you guys to start getting all the junk on the pile into the dumpster.”

While we were never surprised by our assignment—it’s what we were there for—we were often overwhelmed by it. The pile could stand as high as fifteen feet off the ground and sprawl over much of an average front yard. Since the pile grew in size as more and more refuse was heaped upon it during the course of the day, it seemed as if we were hardly making any headway toward the completion of our assigned task.

Read the rest here:

This Week’s Patheos Column: September 11th, Patriotism, and the Human Spirit

I grew up in northern New Jersey, about thirty miles outside of Manhattan; but on September 11, 2001 I was living in Valparaiso, Indiana. I was a long way from home. I felt helpless. A feeling of homesickness came over me. I wanted to return to the place where I grew up and experience a sense of solidarity with those suffering in what New Yorkers call the tri-state area.

During the course of that day, and the several days that would follow, I realized that I was not the only one seeking communion with the people of Manhattan. Students and faculty at Valparaiso University, the school where I was teaching, would stop me in the hall and on the sidewalk to ask me if I knew anyone who was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. (I did not.) Others told me that listening to my “New York accent” (which is actually a New Jersey accent) allowed them to feel more connected to what was happening at Ground Zero.

Ten years later, as I reflect back on that day, I realize just how strange it really was. Midwestern Lutherans in Valparaiso, Indiana longed for a sense of communion with urban cosmopolitans and ethnic civil service workers in the “big city.” There were no culture wars on September 11th. There was only a sense of our common humanity. And in the immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, such a feeling of common humanity quickly took on a nationalist flavor.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

In 1972, sociologist Dean Kelley wrote a book entitled Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Kelly, an executive with the mainline and ecumenical National Council of Churches, wanted to know why mainline Protestant denominations were declining in membership and conservative evangelical churches were experiencing rapid growth. He concluded, among other things, that churchgoers wanted to belong to congregations that made demands on their lives. Mainline churches, Kelly argued, were so concerned about image, courtesy, cooperation, and being non-dogmatic that they were failing to attract churchgoers who wanted their churches to be more than community centers. Kelly issued a stern warning to his fellow mainline Protestants: their watered-down version of Christianity was a recipe for disaster.

Evangelicals have been touting Kelly’s findings for years. For many of them, Why Conservative Churches are Growing provides sociological evidence for what they knew all along—the Holy Spirit is blessing evangelical churches because they have remained true to the tenets of orthodox Christianity, including the inerrancy of the Bible and the necessity of a born-again-style conversion. During the 1920s the Protestant mainline may have won control of the denominations, but they were unable to win the souls of ordinary Americans.

Read the rest here.  And if you like what you read, feel free to click the “like” button.

This Week’s Patheos Column: The Mis-Education of Evangelicals

Last week, I made my first trip to Arizona. The thermometer read 105 degrees, but the locals told me that the weather was relatively mild. I was invited to the Grand Canyon State to participate in “Hot Summer Nights,” a conversation and discussion series sponsored by a megachurch in the town of Gilbert. A member of the congregation would interview me for one hour and then I would take thirty minutes of questions from the audience.  My recent book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction, would be the topic of conversation.

One of the pastors told me in advance that “Hot Summer Nights” was a very popular event at the church. Last summer the congregation hosted John McCain. Yet, despite the warning, I must admit that I was quite shocked when a few hundred people packed into the church café. These Christians showed up on a July evening—a night in which Phoenix hosted the Major League Baseball All-Star Game—to learn about history! I was impressed.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: Can The Study of History Heal the Culture Wars?

Last week I was struck by the headline of an article in USA Today entitled “Can the Cause of Social Justice Tame Our Culture Wars?” The piece, written by Tom Krattenmaker, called attention to a group of progressive evangelicals who recently gathered together in Portland for a conference devoted to issues facing the next generation of Christian leaders.

Hosted by Gabe Lyons, and called the Q Conference, the meeting focused on the way Christians can be agents of change in the world by working for justice for the poor, abused, enslaved, oppressed, born, unborn, exploited, and mistreated. Krattenmaker suggests that by working together with secularists who are also concerned about social justice, progressive evangelicals can go a long way toward ending the culture wars.

Read the rest here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: An Immigrant’s Tale

Last weekend I drove the two and a half hours from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Parsippany, New Jersey for the purpose of conducting an oral history interview with my 100-year-old grandfather.

As a history professor, I regularly teach a course entitled “Immigrant America.” In this course, students are required to do a taped interview with an immigrant and write an eight-page paper about how the experience of this particular person illustrates some aspect of the American immigrant experience.

I talk a lot about my grandfather in that course. He came to the United States from the tiny village of San Felice, Italy in 1913. He was 3 years old. My grandfather has witnessed much of “The American Century,” a phrase used by historians to describe the rise of American power in the 20th century.

Read the rest here.