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Education Presidents

February 1, 2001

It always makes me uneasy when politicians talk about education. And they talk about it a lot.

Our new president, a product of privilege and the Ivy League, is an enthusiast for improving education. Yet he has trouble speaking in complete and coherent sentences. This isn’t a matter of being shy and tongue-tied; he really is uneasy with the English language. He lacks two of the basic accomplishments of a public leader: the ability to think and to communicate thought. How, then, can he be expected to direct a national educational revival?

The intellectual shortcomings of George W. Bush have already inspired mockery, and I don’t wish to pile on. But really, he ought to have the modesty to leave education alone. If the Constitution means anything, it’s not a proper concern of the federal government anyway, and it really ought not to be a concern of government at any level.

[Breaker quote: As 
opposed to educated presidents]What is true of Bush is true of politicians in general. His recent meeting with the congressional Black Caucus was a riot of garbled syntax, notwithstanding that all these men and women were presumably college graduates. I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between this meeting and the conversations of President Abraham Lincoln and the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, neither of whom had had much schooling, yet both of whom were admirably literate and well-spoken men, unmatched in American public life today.

Americans in general were far more literate in the days before “education” became a national mantra. The level of public discussion in the nineteenth century, as you can see from speeches, letters, inaugural addresses, and other surviving records of politicians of the time, assumed a populace that knew how to read, write, listen, and think. Politicians spoke to the voters about first principles, knowing that the voters cared about such things. Grappling with principles was among the chief concerns of education.

Today colleges offer “remedial English” when it’s already too late. In those days, high schools taught Greek, Latin, Euclid, and the King James Bible; students memorized passages from Shakespeare, Edmund Burke, Daniel Webster, and other masters of rhetoric. People understood how the ear and the memory can form and enrich the mind. Education meant something more than job training.

Self-taught men like Lincoln and Douglass knew all this too. They cared little for the prestige of having gone to the “best” schools, socially speaking; reading them today, one is struck by the absence of snobbery in their makeup. They were intent on great truths, and they cultivated their own minds for the sake of apprehending and imparting such truths.

Nowadays, except at small private and usually religious colleges, few speak of education in terms of “truths.” Education is conceived in terms of economic utility; and any educational policy directed by the federal government is bound to be limited by this narrow conception. It will produce many Bushes, but no Lincolns.

Most of us now talk about schools as if they were factories. We are dissatisfied with them in terms of measurable production — test scores and the like. We aren’t disturbed that even their most “successful” products, as we judge success, have little capacity for philosophical reflection. Philosophy itself has become one more narrow specialty, with little to say to those outside the discipline. Socrates, get lost.

If we no longer have Lincolns and Douglasses, neither do we miss them much. We don’t expect public figures (or, for that matter, ordinary citizens) to be concerned with great truths — if there are such things. Politics is about material production. “It’s the economy, stupid”: that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

No wonder our leaders, on occasions that call for grand utterance, always seem so banal. Every presidential inaugural address falls flat, leaving our craving for eloquence and meaning disappointed. Our politicans never say memorable things because they can’t even remember memorable things. Their education has left them strangers to their own heritage.

Lincoln, our most Shakespearean president, was shot in a theater by a Shakespearean actor, who shouted a Latin phrase as he did the deed. Not only have our presidents declined in literacy; even our assassins aren’t what they used to be.

Joseph Sobran

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