The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Teaching History: Keepers of the Flame

Without doubt, education was viewed by Thomas Jefferson as a key element for keeping the new American republic on course.

Even though state-supported education might seem to be inconsistent with a free or libertarian society, the first principle of a republican society is to preserve the republic. It would be foolish, therefore, to allow a procedural principle to result in the destruction of the republic itself. And since our liberties cannot be safe except in the hands of an educated people, education becomes an absolute necessity of the first order if a free society is to be maintained. Although general education was important to all citizens, education for civic responsibility, which would include a comprehension of the essential principles of our government, was the most indispensable part.

"The essential principles of our government... should be... the text of civic instruction." Why? To insure that those principles remain "the creed of our political faith" so that if at any time we "wander from them," we can "retrace our steps" and "regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety." Thus, the teaching of these essential principles to our country's youth is a vital element in preserving a free society. And whose responsibility is it to do this but our teachers of history and social studies, especially those in high school and the lower grades where foundations are laid and where many citizens get the only formal instruction they will ever have?

High School teachers of American History, of Government, of Political Science, then, are truly the Keepers of the Flame of Liberty. If they fail to properly instruct the nation's youth, the failure of our form of government is certain to follow -- and not "almost" certain, but CERTAIN TO FOLLOW -- because there is no other agency that will provide this instruction; and without this understanding in the citizens generally, the whole chain of support for a "government of the people," i.e., for self-government, ceases to exist.

But, someone might ask, What about our mass media, "The Press"? Won't they keep the flame of liberty alive? The Press consists of people essentially like everyone else. Where are they to receive grounding in these vital principles if not from the teachers of history and social studies? How can they convey it to everyone else if they don't first possess it themselves?

Again, someone might reply, It can't be that serious. In a free country, won't the consciousness of the people be perpetual and self-sustaining? Jefferson didn't think so.

History teaches us that there is always a tendency towards a decline in the spirit and consciousness of a people. They become preoccupied with their day-to-day lives, become inattentive to the maintenance of liberty, while government stands ever ready to occupy the vacuum their inattention leaves. As Jefferson noted, from the conclusion of their war for independence, a nation begins going down hill:

Citizens become involved in the world that is immediately in front of their eyes. In such a state, most people are content just to passively absorb the political ideas floating in the culture. Even with government officials, policy is not informed by principle, but by expediency in today's world. The rights and the liberties of the people take a backseat to whatever is viewed as necessary for governmental programs.

But it is through a deliberate effort to oppose this decline and stay on course that a government of the people can maintain its free institutions and the benefits they provide.

How are these principles to be maintained if they are not handed down to our young people both by example and by instruction? If the tendency is toward decline, we cannot rely on any kind of natural force that is not consciously attended to, to do this job and keep the nation on track. It won't happen automatically; it requires a consciously directed effort in our educational institutions.

Given the overriding importance of "civic instruction," we are compelled to ask, Is the job being done? Are students being led to an adequate comprehension of the principles of American government? Are they prepared to fulfil their civic responsibility? Are they in possession of "the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust"?

All indications suggest that it is not happening. Polls suggest that Americans have a sense of having lost their way. As Ronald Reagan said, we have lost the Founders' vision. We are not able to assess the vital issues of our time from the perspective of the principles upon which our government was founded. It is not unusual to hear a high State department official remark on the "greatness" of foreign dictators and despots as though liberty and republican principles meant nothing. Our news media report elections as though they were horse races and treat issues as matters to be determined by controlling interest groups, without reference to the fundamental principles of a republican government in a free society. If this is indeed the case, there is no point in trying to affix blame and identify yet another set of culpable agents in our society. If we have a problem, lets identify it, examine it, and try to do something about it.

The essential point to the study of history is not the memorization of names, facts, and dates, or even the learning of interesting stories which happen to be true, in contrast to the fictional stories learned in literature classes. The essential point is the analysis of historical events for the lessons they contain, the information they provide about how the world of national events functions. This was clearly noted in Jefferson's proposals for basic education.

    "The reading in the first stage, where [the great mass of the people] will receive their whole education, is proposed... to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782. Q.XIV

Certainly, the student of history deals with facts and dates and names. But what is the purpose of it all? Is it to learn endless detail about lives and battles in the past? Or is it to understand the aspirations and principles that drove nations to actions for the enhancement of their lives and self-interests? Is it just to impart a bunch of information so that the students might on their own, perhaps, somehow use it to reach valid conclusions for today's issues? Or is it to provide analytical guidance so that a foundation is laid for the critical examination and understanding of national events, so that they understand the principles of our government and become capable of determining when those principles are violated? If we fill their heads with masses of historical data that have no particular object in view, can we then hope that the student possessed of all this "stuff" will be adequately equipped to "judge of the future"? Will facts alone "qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men"? Will the acquisition of mere data "enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views"? If these are the proper aims of the study of history, how are they to be achieved? Surely not by memorizing dates and knowing which king was descended from which ancestor, or who led an uprising at a certain place on a certain date and the details of the battle that ensued.

A good history teacher can make all of this data interesting. All the facts about a war, the weapons used, the way a small force overcame a much greater one; the events that led up to a war, and who fired the first shot -- all these things can be woven into an interesting tale that can be even more fascinating than a good work of fiction. But is this what history is all about? Is making the story interesting all a history teacher aims for? Or can history be studied, can politics and government be understood, in a context that is more philosophical: that recognizes the fundamentals of liberty and how these impact on the life and thought of people down through the ages in their struggle to overcome tyranny and oppression? Can the conflict of interests that arise in a constitutional convention, the compromises and strokes of genius along the way to a resolution of issues, be understood in the light of those principles that were considered important enough that "the wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment"? Can history be taught, in other words, not just as an interesting story about the past, but as a means for understanding the principles -- not just the issues, but the REPUBLICAN PRINCIPLES -- that gave those issues and events meaning, that were the raison d'etre behind the movement of history?

If history is to have any real meaning for citizenship, it must focus not on who and what and when and where, but on WHY! It is why these things happened, it is an examination of the competing interests that were at work and the motives upon which people acted, that is the point of it all. It is consideration of this "why" in depth that brings home the meaning of historical events to youthful citizens. And it is also here that the greatest reliance is put on the maturity and intellectual resources of the teacher, who must relate these fundamental aspirations to the life of everyone in a classroom. What is the meaning of liberty? What does it mean to be free? How does government function to secure liberty or to destroy it? What steps must a people take to win and then to keep their freedom? This, and not just history told as an interesting tale of heroes and villains is what brings home the meaning of liberty and republicanism. Not just the struggle, but an in-depth understanding of why they were struggling provides the understanding that leads to good citizenship.

One of the few things I remember from my history lessons in elementary school with reference to the American Revolution was the rallying cry, "No taxation without representation." But to my best recollection, the teacher never brought us any deeper than merely understanding what those words meant, and that this was the main complaint of the colonists. We did not discuss what is wrong with being taxed without being represented in the taxing authority. We did not consider the supposed sources for such a right, or even why anyone would want to deny people that right and the advantages enjoyed by some in denying that right to others. Such questions could have been considered in terms of "fairness," and could thus become the occasion for a basic consideration of moral and ethical issues.

"Ah!" someone might say. "Those are philosophical questions, not historical topics. That's a different subject area. Moreover, no child is going to be able to handle philosophical concepts such as natural rights, republicanism and the Enlightenment. Those are things that even adults have problems with." But this is the point. There can be no adequate study of history without a concurrent consideration of political philosophy, of why things happened. To be meaningful, history must be taught from a philosophical perspective, which for us means a republican perspective. Certainly, a child should not be forced to deal with philosophical terms. If they were, that no doubt would be just another occasion for rote learning the labels of concepts whose substance is not fully comprehended. But it is the teacher's role to understand those concepts and to make them meaningful to even a child, and to do it without the heavy baggage of esoteric terminology. Part of the problem is that the teachers themselves are not confident in this knowledge, and, indeed, they are the ones we are addressing here.

But understanding the reason why is the whole point of studying history: to impart to the students a comprehensive political understanding and viewpoint so that they are able to make all those judgments so necessary for the functioning of self-government that Jefferson outlined above. If we neglect this because it does not fit into a preconceived division of labor, we deprive the study of its true significance. Studying history provides students with materials to substantiate a political philosophy. But without that philosophy, without a unified sense of why things happened and the principles and motives that directed their happening, history is just a recital of events that is memorized for the examination but mostly forgotten soon thereafter.

    History as Philosophy

But if history becomes a study of philosophy, whose philosophy shall it be? Doesn't that mean the history teacher has lost his or her objectivity? Doesn't this kind of history become merely indoctrination: turning out, not thinkers, but true believers? Aren't we safer just relating the facts and letting students develop their own philosophy, their own comprehension of what it all means?

Sounds good, but that is all nonsense. For one thing, it is not happening. Given facts without guidance in analytical understanding, students go away with only the facts and never achieve the understanding. If teachers "objectively" avoid philosophical positions, they end up trivializing the historical narrative. Moreover, indoctrination comes not from studying history within a philosophical context, but studying history from ONE philosophical context that excludes all others. Studying history from a certain perspective that also demands an understanding of the multiple philosophical possibilities that are part of the conflict of history can only broaden and strengthen one's understanding. It is not enough to recognize that maybe one-third of the colonists were royalists and opposed a break with Great Britain. What were their beliefs? Why did they oppose the American Revolution? How did their beliefs contrast with those of Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers? We have been made wary by the practice of too many false ideologies, such as Communism, Nazism, and Fascism, which all taught their doctrines exclusively. But it would be a tragedy were we to let such exclusive systems prevent us from teaching history from the point of view of republicanism, especially when the study of the latter is strengthened, not weakened, by considering and comparing it to other political philosophies. The republicanism established in the early years of this nation is a great ideal! It can and should be used as a touchstone or vantage point for examining all subsequent historical events. Why not a little partisanship when teaching it? Do we sincerely believe in it or not?

Lacking this philosophical foundation, the study of history too easily becomes a bland recital of details. "Scholarship" becomes the pouring on of more and more of these details, all carefully documented and verified, until the student is swamped with the amount of detail presented, and the passion of the story (which necessarily includes the feelings, motives and principles upon which people acted) is buried under a mass of facts that have no particular sensible point other than a thorough relating of events. When all this detail crowds out the "why" of human behavior, it prevents the students from knowing "ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views." Indeed, with such an approach, personal ambition becomes a subjective judgment which the objective scholar "rises above." Terms like ambition and greed are considered too judgmental and detract from passionless objectivity. But without an intense study of the motives and incentives that drove people to take action and that drove others to oppose them, the deepest part of the drama and the passion is lost, and when that happens, substantial understanding is lost along with it.

    Historical Revisionism

Studying history from a republican point of view is in constant danger of meeting the revisionist's ax, since it is only one of an almost infinite number of paradigms that historians might select. The simplicity of republican principles is considered inadequate by those scholars intent on devising their own theories about the past. Even worse, the infinite amount of detail that becomes the scholarly paradigm of historiography has several additional effects that defeat the study of history as recommended by Jefferson. In rejecting an understanding based on a republican viewpoint, a vast amount of knowledge becomes the working stock, and it is never able to reach definite conclusions but wanders aimlessly among a series of highly complex, ever-evolving theories that purportedly explain the past. Extracting principles is shunned because it is equated to decontextualizing information, all of which must remain intact precisely as received in order to construct the ultra-complex paradigm. Having rejected the pure simplicity of the republican view, this form of historicism compliments itself on its highly intellectual complexity as it explores increasingly difficult mysteries based on attempts to coordinate infinite detail. The result is a version of history that emphasizes only that which is "intellectually worthy," i.e., that fits this highly complex, intellectually driven paradigm. In this way, simplicity and truth are sacrificed to egregious intellectualism and academic empire-building. This high level of complexity, of course, eliminates all but those minds capable of handling the complexity, thus creating a kind of historical priesthood from which most ordinary mortals are excluded.

History, being taken over by this band of cognoscenti, becomes for the ordinary high school teacher, not an area guided by relatively simple principles that can be understood by pre-college youths and that focus around the reasons why people form governments in the first place. Instead, the true meaning of history becomes an area of such complexity as no ordinary high school teachers would dare venture out on their own. And the result of that is, history teachers becomes mere cogs in an authoritarian intellectual system, they relay some measure only of what they have been told, and the teaching of republican principles as a key to understanding the past and the working out of those principles through the lives of nations is totally eliminated. Those who dare to teach republican philosophy through history would be considered ideologues and indoctrinators, having lost the "objectivity" of the established paradigm which, in fact, has no real, vital meaning behind it at all.

Another factor that defeats the proper illumination of the minds of the people at large is the apparent inability of educators to leave well-enough alone. After the founding of our republic, historians were filled with the republican spirit and clearly enunciated the role that republican principles played in the formation of this nation. But later generations of historians coming on the scene felt compelled to take a new look. Possibly in order to justify their existence, they felt required to reject the views of the past and to look at history from a new and different angle. In this way, the old textbooks are thrown out and replaced by those with a new point of view, which, no doubt, provides livelihood for textbook writers. And in this way, the founding principles of this nation get side-tracked in favor of a new approach -- something different that will justify the re-writing of history and the discarding of the old textbooks. And if a new approach is not readily available, there is always an emphasis on whatever issues that were insignificant in the past but that might be put into the spotlight now in order to serve today's agenda.

Thus, instead of actually explaining the past and drawing lessons from it, historical revisionism ends up merely employing the past for present-day purposes. And in this way, history itself is reformulated to serve the needs of today's problems rather than being a gateway to gaining perspective on those problems. This often results in an emphasis on whatever issues that were insignificant in the past but that might be put into the spotlight now in order to serve today's agenda.

Serving today's political agenda is surely more a matter of indoctrination than any approach that emphasizes republican principles and philosophy. In fact, using history in serving today's political agenda replaces an understanding of the lessons that history teaches. This is evident right now in the emphasis on such issues as the treatment of Indians and blacks in the time of the American Revolution and the Early Republic. For example, students are made aware of how many blacks served in the revolutionary army. The fact that only a tiny percentage of those who participated in the American Revolution were black only illustrates the extent to which insignificant events in the past are used to serve the agenda of today. The main event, the main lesson to be learned, the very point of it all, was not black participation. That is an issue that today's demagogues wish to emphasize in order to promote multiculturalism. The main issue of that time and the issues we must study in order to learn the lessons that history has to teach were the struggle to establish a new form of self-government and the principles upon which that government was to be based. Using the past to serve the political needs of the present is the crassest form of indoctrination: it manipulates history in order to instill a certain viewpoint, rather than studying history for what it has to teach.

    The Denigration of Thomas Jefferson

One of the revisionist approaches that seems to have won some degree of popularity lately is Jefferson-bashing. Conor Cruise O'Brien made the absurd proposal that because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he cannot speak to this age on topics such as liberty, self-government, and the rights of man. This form of ad hominem would ignore the incisive brilliance, the perception in Jefferson's writings, because his personal actions are now viewed as not being "politically correct." It also dismisses the fact that Jefferson, in a culture that condoned slavery, spoke out on many occasions against the institution of slavery and promoted practicable steps that would lead to its elimination. But be that as it may, what Jefferson wrote would speak to us in a fundamental way, even if the author were anonymous.

Another historian, Pauline Maier, informs us that Jefferson should not get much credit for writing the Declaration of Independence, since it was not really "original" and was even described by Jefferson himself as:

    "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825.

But we are compelled to ask, What do these historians expect? the Communist Manifesto? A Declaration of Independence for people living on the moon? Jefferson's brilliant authorship was in expressing so well the sentiments of the time in a timeless form to which all Americans, indeed all freedom-loving people throughout the world, could resonate. Again, that same author belittles the portion of the Declaration that Jefferson wrote, and which was deleted by Congress, regarding George III's responsibility for the slave trade, saying this was an evasion of the real issue -- as if eliminating the slave trade was not the first step to take in eradicating slavery itself. But as Jefferson wrote:

    "The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, and we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, 1790.

Reformation comes in steps, not all of a sudden. Such a simple principle of government might be ignored in order to fit historical events into yet another theory that not only avoids understanding republicanism, but in fact undermines it and serves the interests of today's political agenda. But this much seems certain: There may be nothing to be gained by worshiping Thomas Jefferson as some kind of personal hero, but there is much to be lost by demeaning his role in the creation of the American republic, especially when it also becomes the occasion for throwing that baby out with the alleged Jeffersonian bathwater. One could almost believe that it is all a part of a conspiracy to destroy republican government. Certainly, if there were such a conspiracy, it could hardly choose more effective means.

    Restoring the Text of Civic Instruction

Whether we all agree on every aspect of the above analysis or not, there should be little disagreement over the observation that Americans in general do not understand the fundamental principles of their own government, and that they are not sufficiently well-equipped to exercise the popular sovereignty that is the legacy of our Founding Fathers. It is also not unreasonable to conclude that the failure to impart this to them occurs basically where it should be imparted, and that is in high schools, and that the classrooms where it should be happening is in the history and social studies classes. Given these more-or-less indisputable dimensions of the problem, the question naturally arises, What is to be done about it? How can the teaching of American History more effectively serve the needs of a free society?

A first step would be for teachers on the front line to give their teaching of history this republican spin: to teach from a republican perspective and to relate historical events to the working out of this political philosophy. Whether it is a part of the textbook or not, this viewpoint can always be a part of the teacher's presentation -- a way of focusing the narrative of events and putting those events in perspective. Republican principles become the glue that holds the story together. Dates, for example, become important because they can reveal the successive origination and development of republican ideas. The colonists did not begin with the idea of separation from Britain; the Boston Port Act was a major step towards 1776. Such a presentation need not be limited by syllabi and outlines handed down from above. ("If this be treason, make the most of it.") This is an initiative that teachers as professional educators should assume unto themselves. It is part of their independent, personal, intellectual responsibility.

Another step might be guiding students into making this kind of analysis in their approach to the papers they write, perhaps even in analyzing textbooks and other readings: How does the writer treat republican principles and their effects on the lives and thought of the people and leaders of that time? Are these issues ignored and suppressed? How do actions appear under this light? It is this kind of questioning that focuses on the real significance of the times. Republican principles provide a criteria for forming judgments on all these things, not as rigid dogma, but as a new paradigm for questioning, sifting opinions, making judgments, and getting broader understandings. By participating in real analytical thinking at such a level, by weighing the opinions of experts against one another, students have an opportunity to become genuinely engaged, to really use their own minds, which is always fascinating and sometimes even fun. But instead of this, many history teachers turn to such materials as slave narratives, the culture and civilization of the Indians, the role of women -- all of which is designed to meet today's political interests and had no significance in that time. The main event, the source of real lessons from the past and of the understandings that will provide meaningful civic instruction come not from these side issues that have importance to factions today, but from a consideration of those fundamental issues which engaged "the wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes." Once these fundamentals are grasped, they can then be applied to the issues of today. But history is what the past had to teach us, not what we can extract from it for today's agenda.

In this way, passion and spirit can be restored to the study of history, derived not from the entertainment of real-life stories, but from the struggle of real-life people. That kind of history puts republican theory in context and gives meaning to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It provides the solid basis on which these future voters can assess "the services of those we trust," and it enables them to know the direction in which to set out if they, as citizens, determine that we must "hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety."

Teachers of American History are indeed the Keepers of the Flame of Liberty. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and if American society is to remain free, then only our history teachers can provide future citizens with the intellectual equipment needed for this nation to practice such vigilance. If not history teachers, then who? Other nations may look for an individual leader who will be a savior and bring about just government. But in a government of the people, that kind of salvation can only come from an enlightened people themselves. There simply is no other alternative for them.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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