One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.