Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America, 1788

Noah WebsterAnother defect in our schools, which, since the revolution, is become inexcuseable, is the want of proper books. The collections which are now used consist of essays that respect foreign and ancient nations. The minds of youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain; boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero, or debates upon some political question in the British Parliment. These are excellent specimens of good sense, polished stile and perfect oratory; but they are not interesting to children. They cannot be very useful, except to young gentlemen who want them as models of reasoning and eloquence, in the pulpit or at the bar.

But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.

A selection of essays, respecting the settlement and geography of America; the history of the late revolution and of the most remarkable characters and events that distinguished it, and a compendium of the principles of the federal and provincial governments, should be the principal school book in the United States. These are interesting objects to every man; they call home the minds of youth and fix them upon the interests of their own country, and they assist in forming attachments to it, as well as in enlarging the understanding.

“It is observed by the great Montesquieu, that the laws of education ought to be relative to the principles of the government.”

In despotic governments, the people should have little or no education, except what tends to inspire them with a servile fear. Information is fatal to despotism.

In monarchies, education should be partial, and adapted to the rank of each class of citizens. But “in a republican government,” says the same writer, “the whole power of education is required.” Here every class of people should know and love the laws. This knowlege should be diffused by means of schools and newspapers; and an attachment to the laws may be formed by early impressions upon the mind.

Two regulations are essential to the continuance of republican goverments: 1. Such a distribution of lands and such principles of descent and alienation, as shall give every citizen a power of acquiring what his industry merits.1 2. Such a system of education as gives every citizen an opportunity of acquiring knowlege and fitting himself for places of trust. These are fundamental articles; the sine qua non of the existence of the American republics.

Noah Webster by SharplesHence the absurdity of our copying the manners and adopting the institutions of Monarchies.

In several States, we find laws passed, establishing provision for colleges and academies, where people of property may educate their sons; but no provision is made for instructing the poorer rank of people, even in reading and writing. Yet in these same States, every citizen who is worth a few shillings annually, is entitled to vote for legislators.2 This appears to me a most glaring solecism in government. The constitutions are republican, and the laws of education are monarchical. The former extend civil rights to every honest industrious man; the latter deprive a large proportion of the citizens of a most valuable privilege.

In our American republics, where [government] is in the hands of the people, knowlege should be universally diffused by means of public schools. Of such consequence is it to society, that the people who make laws, should be well informed, that I conceive no Legislature can be justified in neglecting proper establishments for this purpose.

When I speak of a diffusion of knowlege, I do not mean merely a knowlege of spelling books, and the New Testament. An acquaintance with ethics, and with the general principles of law, commerce, money and government, is necessary for the yeomanry of a republican state. This acquaintance they might obtain by means of books calculated for schools, and read by the children, during the winter months, and by the circulation of public papers.

“In Rome it was the common exercise of boys at school, to learn the laws of the twelve tables by heart, as they did their poets and classic authors.” What an excellent practice this in a free government!

It is said, indeed by many, that our common people are already too well informed. Strange paradox! The truth is, they have too much knowlege and spirit to resign their share in government, and are not sufficiently informed to govern themselves in all cases of difficulty.

There are some acts of the American legislatures which astonish men of information; and blunders in legislation are frequently ascribed to bad intentions. But if we examin the men who compose these legislatures, we shall find that wrong measures generally proceed from ignorance either in the men themselves, or in their constituents. They often mistake their own interest, because they do not foresee the remote consequences of a measure.

It may be true that all men cannot be legislators; but the more generally knowlege is diffused among the substantial yeomanry, the more perfect will be the laws of a republican state.

Noah Webster, The Education of Youth in AmericaEvery small district should be furnished with a school, at least four months in a year; when boys are not otherwise employed. This school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; the moral or social duties; the history and transactions of their own country; the principles of liberty and government. Here the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.

Such a general system of education is neither impracticable nor difficult; and excepting the formation of a federal government that shall be efficient and permanent, it demands the first attention of American patriots. Until such a system shall be adopted and pursued; until the Statesman and Divine shall unite their efforts in forming the human mind, rather than in loping its excressences, after it has been neglected; until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.

  1. The power of entailing real estates is repugnant to the spirit of our American governments. 
  2. I have known instructions from the inhabitants of a county, two thirds of whom could not write their names. How competent must such men be to decide an important point in legislation!

Comments

  1. says

    It’s easier to teach a person how to do something than why they should do it. Having said this, a sound heart and passionate drive, without the tools and/or opportunity to leverage them is of no value to others and a torment to those who possess them.

  2. says

    I am in the positive position of being an adult student in a college setting. I have the pleasure of giving the young students a different perspective on the government than what is typically taught. I am not always a popular student but at least I have always been treated with respect for my counterpoints. And it shows the kids that you can stand up for whatyou believe in without being persecuted.

  3. says

    who you become is far more important than knowledge…..a great mind cannot be held back….but great men can be held back by predjudice, hate, intolerance…education helps but it doesn’t necessarily build strong morals and ethics

  4. Pete Di Donato via Facebook says

    Knowledge and experience will lead you to the fact that virtue is the rudder that sustains freedom……

  5. Jose Rosa via Facebook says

    Really depends on how “virtue” is defined. As long as it mean honest, then I agree. In general all the good intentions in the world amount to a hill of beans if there is no ability to implement them.

  6. Jane Weaver via Facebook says

    From a cultural standpoint, it makes sense to “indoctrinate” people to the extent that it makes us good citizens. Balkanization clearly doesn’t work. But limiting it to that is what I think was foremost in Jefferson’s mind when he envisioned public education. He thought that everyone should have a “liberal” education (not the extreme leftist meaning of today, but the classical one) and study philosophy and the liberal arts — aka cultures of the world, for both deeper understanding and to give them access to why lies beneath domains of both knowledge and belief.

  7. Doug Dobbs via Facebook says

    I’d say the head and the heart are both necessary to be the fully rounded and mature citizen we need and God made us to be. Not that I’m wiser than Noah Webster but I’d say this is a false dichotomy.

  8. Kenneth Edwards via Facebook says

    Liberty is the ability to self govern your own actions, without virtue someone else must govern your actions through oppressive laws. You cannot have Liberty without virtue.

  9. says

    Thomas Jefferson on public education:

    “The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance”

  10. Huck Northcutt via Facebook says

    I very much agree. Anybody can be taught anything, but what a man does with his actions is based upon what’s in his heart.

  11. says

    I find it interesting that people seem to think that virtues and morals are 1.) Absolute and 2.) Innate when they are in fact neither. You have to learn morals and virtues from somewhere, and proper education helps a person relate to their morals and ideals. Homo Sapiens are by nature violent, selfish and cowardly. We have to learn to be more than our genes. It starts with familial and tribal learning, but a proper adult needs to be exposed to a series of thoughts that aren’t like what they have encountered before for them to figure out what they truly believe.

  12. says

    To all the public education haters: grow up. I went through nothing but public schools and was never indoctrinated into anything. If you are worried about your special snowflake being bullied or forced into conformity, sorry but that’s just prep for adult life. If you work in Corporate America you will be bullied, you will be forced to conform, and you will be surrounded by bad influences. School trains you to deal with this.

  13. Tony Downs via Facebook says

    Morals and virtues are never absolute until something is done to you. Done that test already…When asked if driving off and not paying for gas was wrong I was the only one of 30+ in a college classroom that said yes. Everybody want to make an excuse….Unitl I walked over and starting taking stuff off a guy’s desk and said I couldn’t afford this stuff and he could so I want them so I can finish class. When he was about to fight me with anger and absolute madness, I made my point and sat down. They are absolute…if not why does your wife sleep with me and you have a problem with it? IF they aren’t absolute then the article I read last week where pedophila is being rethought as not a bad thing….I agree.

  14. Tony Downs via Facebook says

    Oh, and as far as our public education…you must of thought of when you went to school….Have a foreign exchange student….or three like we have. You’ll be embarrassed for your county, state and federal government. The three we had was sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo far ahead it was sad, sickening, and downright frightening. So, yeah, I hate it. When a German girl asks why 11th graders couldn’t do research papers when she was doing them in English, since 6th grade (equivalent) the teacher said they were never taught. Why they write papers like they text on their phone…The two from Hong Kong only had problems with English, but AP Math, Chemistry, etc…As because it was all refresher courses. All three students had the same sad experience. Well, other than living with us…

  15. Tony Downs via Facebook says

    Yeah, I agree with Noah here, that a person who will work hard, and is virtuous will work out of what they believe what is right and be more reliable than possibly one that is just smart. I have dealt with that in life, too worked with some people who were tremendously smart, but completely lazy and couldn’t get them to live up to their potential.

  16. Sandi Bradley via Facebook says

    “But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.”

    I must say that as a history teacher I love this quote! It is nice to see it in its fuller context.

    “They often mistake their own interest, because they do not foresee the remote consequences of a measure.”

    The law of unintended consequences?

    So, do I agree that virtue is of more consequence than knowledge? I would say yes. I cannot recall who said it, but to educate a man’s mind and not his morals is to let loose a menace to society. If we want knowledge to be put to use for good, then virtue must first be in place.

    Of course, I figured someone would come on here and question virtue. So for those Benjamin Franklin’s own list of virtues,

    “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

    These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

    1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
    2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
    3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
    4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
    5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
    6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
    7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
    8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
    9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
    10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
    11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
    12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
    13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

    The last of Franklin’s chart of 13 virtues: My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; […] I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list.”

    Tony, I think that is a sad result of the involvement of politicians in education. Who has time for research papers when they are not on the standardized tests? Or cursive writing? We are going to have a generation that excels at Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, but cannot read a grocery list that is not printed. Turn the schools back over to the teachers, parents, and local community.

  17. says

    There is, of course, much to be said for that if post-modern self esteem is left out of the equation. I’m sure Mr. Webster wasn’t foretelling the modern ‘feel, don’t think’ theory. A finely tuned, clearheaded sense of virtue will equip a man (or woman) for intellectual accomplishment. The Greek philosophers argued endlessly about whether virtue could be taught or was it inherent in ones nature. One thing I learned from a life long observation of my brethern is that a man (or woman) who constantly struggles with a desire to do evil while trying to do good will do it poorly at best.

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