By Robert Wilson
September 6, 2016
The distinguished historian Alan Taylor doesn’t mention Donald J. Trump even once in his cover story for this issue. That in itself might be reason enough to read it—as respite. But the terrifying if unlikely possibility that the Republican nominee might ascend to the office held by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson lurks beneath the surface of Taylor’s essay. In it, he explores the founders’ fears that a “reckless demagogue” might dupe the people into a return to the tyranny that a revolution had been fought to undo.
Democracy on the scale proposed for our new nation had one potentially fatal weakness: the possibility that the people were not wise enough to govern themselves and might through ignorance or inattention lapse into monarchy or some other form of authoritarian rule. Jefferson and others believed that the safeguard against this possibility was educating the portion of the citizenry permitted to vote. But there was a hitch. The people had to care enough about education to pay for it. As Taylor writes, they had to believe in the concept of virtue, meaning the willingness to put the general good above their own self-interest.
Jefferson failed to persuade his state to fund public education, which was not established in Virginia until long after his death. Politicians of the day calculated that voters would rather pay lower taxes than help to educate the children of others. That we did not revert to tyranny in those years does not make Jefferson wrong. Eventually the nation made a firm commitment to public education as fundamental to the republic. That commitment has been weakening, Taylor shows, as voters again view education as a benefit to the individual and not to society as a whole. In this context, Trump’s professed love for his “uneducated voters” is especially chilling.
But getting public education right remains a passionate goal of many Americans, and Lincoln Caplan reports on the innovative and encouraging collaboration between a progressive New England boarding school and a Chicago public charter school. Phillips Exeter Academy, founded in 1781, has for more than 80 years developed a teaching method called the Harkness system, which makes students, seated at a seminar table, responsible for their own learning, guided by a teacher. The Noble Academy, whose students are overwhelmingly minority and low income, has begun to work with Exeter to institute the same methods, and despite the much larger class sizes in the public school, the system is already improving test scores.
For the past 14 years, John Churchill has served as publisher of the Scholar, representing Phi Beta Kappa’s generous support and safeguarding our editorial independence. We will miss John even as we welcome his replacement, Fred Lawrence, and look forward to his tenure as publisher.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.