The Question of Public Service and Public Education or Burn the Federalist

Friday, September 7th, 2012

James Madison’s letter to W. T. Berry (1822) is interesting reading into some of thinking about the significance of public education. I’ve been reading a lot of historical documents recently given subjects of the day to grab some context, especially given the woes of public education in places like Chicago, where money keeps getting in the way of solutions. I’m still waiting for the “bailout” of the states in the same vein as the “bailout of the banks.”

It’s in this context that I fail to see the significance of some journalistic responses to Obama’s convention speech as “not all that great,” the theme of which focused in high points on the relevance of public service. Did the speech have to be fantastic? Barack Obama has already proven that he can give fantastic speeches. The narrative: Let’s wait for Obama’s fantastic speech, and somehow this will fix everything. This was exactly NOT the point of the speech (which was the genius of the speech). For the president to swoop in and solve all the ills of the world was exactly the opposite message. One commenter I heard on TV said that his speech was probably the 4th best. No standard was provided. Some people are supposed to have an opinion on the “waves.” We’re supposed to be smart enough to understand this.

Madison writes

But, besides the consideration when the higher Seminaries belong to a plan of general education, that it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expence for the education of his children, it is certain that every Class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every Country its truest and most durable celebrity.

And further on (anticipating the moieties perhaps created by standardized tests), he writes

But why should it be necessary in this case, to distinguish the Society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of Academies, Colleges, and Universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in Governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry, and from the laws of inheritance, and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendants; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.

If we’re worried about money, then we should be assured by the question of all kinds of potential properties, even if teachers will be willing to forgo that prosperity in the short term for some for of pension in the future. Our country is of a size Madison could not probably have imagined. This does’t mean we shouldn’t weigh potential inflation (code for “state bailouts and give the teachers, the cops, and the fire people the raise they need”) against some sort of greater good in the name of public service.

Or we could say this: you know, we just can’t afford it. Then burn the Federalist and all Madison’s letters.

Lots of people will disagree with this:

Hire all the teachers, cops, firefighters you need and pay them the wage they need
Fund the research
Provide the loans
Change the rules around forming unions
Invest in that transit project
“Foster the useful arts”
Let anyone who wants in in
Leave peoples’ morality alone
Build those space ships (I love space x, but I also like my cordless drill)
Fine, support as much as the military wants, but let’s be reasonable
Get the banks back to banking
Speculation tax
Write your own list
But pay for it, if you know what I mean.


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