After gaining independence from England, the newly formed United States now had to deal with educating its populace. Before, different regions attending to education how they wanted. Now, there was a need for a united effort in providing education for the masses. For many of the founding fathers and influential educational leaders, democracy and education went together. In this post, we will look at the ideas and influence of two early education reformers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush.
Thomas Jefferson stated that an ignorant nation cannot be a free nation. As such, Jefferson supported a plan that brought education to everyone through a system of taxation. His model was focused on the state of Virginia and included schools in every parish of the state. There was to be a tiered system of scholarships so that a handful of the best students would attend college for free.
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s plan was never accepted. Taxation was not a popular idea at the time. It did provide a model of how education could be. In other words, it provided at least a theoretical framework that other educators could consider as they wrestled with the issue of educating people.
Rush supported Benjamin Franklin’s view of a practical education. Since the goal was now to educate the masses and not just the elite, it was necessary to modify the curriculum. Latin and Greek was of no use to the masses and should not be the foundation of a universal education.
Rush proposed to his home state of Pennsylvania a model of education in which every area that had 100 families or more would have a school. Students would receive a free elementary, secondary, and tertiary education if they wanted it. This system of universal education would be supported through taxes.
Rush’s argument was that the taxes people paid now would be returned in having access to educate, productive workers. However, there was little support for taxes after several decades of British rule. As a result, Rush’s proposal suffered the same fate as Jefferson’s.
Both Jefferson and Rush brought what was at the time a radical idea to the table for leaders to consider about education. This idea was one of a universal educational system supported by tax funds. Education had always been available but almost never on the scale that Jefferson and Rush was proposing. The idea of everyone receiving an education was somewhat radical. In addition, the idea of having everyone pay for the education of everyone else was even more radical.
Both of these men were reacting to the need of having an educated populace that could help to maintain the democracy. Citizenship is what Jefferson called this and progress is what Rush called it. However, the idea of sending tax money into education and thus increase the size and the power of the government was something that people were not ready for.
The ideas of Jefferson and Rush serve as seed for many to come after them. Consider the work of Horace Mann and the “Common School” movement or John Dewey and his ideas of progressivism and democracy in the classroom or even the ideas of Pablo Friere and the call for developing people who can think critically and you can still see the footprint of Jefferson and Rush/