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John Adams’ vision for America’s schools

By misusing the supposed “wall of separation”, the Congress, courts, and education hierarchies have removed what for Adams was “the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies”.

By Ken Wackes June 2017

President Trump’s proposed budget for the Department of Education has resulted in dismay across the public school world. How dare he propose to cut $9 billion or 13% from education expenditures?

USDOE Secretary Betsy Devos has responded succinctly: “The very fact that we have a budget indicates that there are limited resources. If not, we wouldn’t need a budget.” The budget, she adds, reflects the priorities the president was elected to pursue:

  1. diminish the role of the federal government in public schools
  2. give to parents the means to exercise school choice
  3. defund programs that are not productive and that overlap other programs and funding.

A friend sent me an article given to him by a seatmate on a recent flight. The gentleman had been having an apoplexy over President Trump’s proposed education budget for 2018. He directed my friend to an article in which two Founding Fathers — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — were reported to favor funding of schools by the federal government. A quote by John Adams was cited by the author, but no primary source was given.

Because this was news to me, I did a quick internet search and found over twenty recent articles, all containing the same Adams quote, and all implying that not only should the current president be hung and quartered but that Adams and Jefferson supported funding public schools with federal funds. Only one article included a primary source.

How ironic, I thought: public school advocates, all guilty of plagiarism!

The Adams Quote

The quote by Adams was from a personal letter he wrote to John Jebb from London in 1785. Jebb was a radical political and religious figure in England whom Adams met while serving as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. “The whole people,” Adams is quoted as saying, “must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the expense of the people themselves. . .”

Here is the context:

“The social science will never be much improved, until the people unanimously know and consider themselves as the fountain of themselves as the fountain of power, and until they shall know how to manage it wisely and honestly. Reformation must begin with the body of the people, which can be done only, to effect, in their educations. The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the expense of the people themselves. . . .

(John Adams, The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. [1856] , “Letter to John Jebb”, London,10 September, 1785. Kindle Edition, Locations 9961–9967.)

His focus was not on federal funding of schools, which would have been fiscally impossible in 1785, but on “the whole people” taking fiscal responsibility for their “district of one mile square,” and not relying on the generosity of “a charitable individual” to do so. The latter comment makes clear that he was speaking about local people taking responsibility for local education, for how could “a charitable individual” fund all schools everywhere?

What none of the plagiarizers included in their articles were two other statements by Adams about schools in America. These carry more import than a comment made in a personal letter. Both of these statements were made by Adams in his official capacity as President of the United States.

Adams’ Inaugural Speech 1797

The first comment is contained in Adams’ “Inaugural Speech to Both Houses of Congress, 4 March 1797”:

. . . if a love of science and letters, and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, profligacy, and corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence . . .

(John Adams, The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. [1856], “Inaugural Speech to Both Houses of Congress, 4 March 1797”, Kindle Edition, Location 2773.)

For Adams, schools were “the only means of preserving our constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, profligacy, and corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence.”

And what should be the core curriculum? Engagement in “propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion” among all classes of the people. Public schools teaching virtue and religion? I wonder if the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation is aware of these comments and actions by America’s second president in their brash assertion of an absolute wall between government and religion.

By misinterpreting and misusing the supposed “wall of separation” (the existence of which Adams was evidently unaware in 1797), the Congress, courts, and education hierarchies have removed what for Adams was, “the only means of preserving our constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, profligacy, and corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence.” Such is being played out every day with great drama in our current condition as a nation.

Adams’ Call for a Day of Fast 1799

The second important statement about schools is found in Adams’ call as president for a National Fast, 6 March, 1799.

“For these reasons I have thought proper to recommend, and I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the twenty-fifth day of April next, be observed, throughout the United States of America, as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; . . . that he [God] would smile on our colleges, academies, schools, and seminaries of learning, and make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion [emphasis mine]; . . .”

(John Adams, The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. [1856], “Proclamation For A National Fast,” 6 March, 1799. Kindle Edition, Location 3877)

Adams’ stated goal for a National Fast, was “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” entreating God’s smile on our schools and colleges and to ask Him to “make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion.” In our public schools and universities we are striving to do the first, teaching “sound science,” but since Darwin is the only interpreter and determiner of “sound science” in the classroom, it is not truly “science.” It is a hypothesis masquerading unopposed as “fact.” Rather than being “nurseries of sound science,” they are nurseries of skepticism and relativism.

As for serving as nurseries of “morals and religion,” that dream was ended officially by two Supreme Court decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). In the first decision the prohibition on state-sponsored prayer in U.S. public schools was established. In the second case the Court went beyond banning prayer by banning also Bible reading and any public school-sponsored religious activities.

I was reminded of how far we have fallen by listening recently to a musical group singing “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do).” At our sixth grade public school graduation in 1951 we sang that song for our parents and friends (see lyrics below), as well as the Elvis Presley favorite, “Somebody Bigger Than You and I.” We were Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and No Faithers singing it aloud because we all — students, teachers, and parents — were aware of the presence of an Almighty.

God has raised you up as administrators, teachers, and board members to do exactly what John Adam envisioned. You do have God’s smile on your faithful ministries. Your schools are “nurseries for sound science, morals, and religion.” Your students and graduates are the hope of the nation as instruments in God’s hands.

The chimes of time ring out the news, another day is through
Someone slipped and fell, was that someone you?
You may have longed for added strength your courage to renew,
Do not be disheartened, I have news for you:

Refrain:

It is no secret what God can do
What he’s done for others he’ll do for you
With arms wide open, he’ll pardon you
It is no secret what God can do.

There is no night for in his light you’ll never walk alone;
You’ll always feel at home, wherever you may roam.
There is no power can conquer you while God is on your side;
Take him at his promise, don’t run away and hide.

(Stuart Hamblen)

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