Virtue, Education, and the Electorate

An orderly line of voters snaked halfway around the parking lot at the polling place this morning. The crowd courteously made way for seniors with canes, wheelchairs, or walkers, with quiet thanks to those who sported evidence of military service. My favorite arrival of the morning was a beautiful 99-year-old lady, accompanied by her daughter. Just imagine the changes she’s seen in voting rights during her lifetime (it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote)! I would love to know who received her vote this year, and how she arrived at her decision.

Virtue, education, and the electorate on election day 2016

Making an informed voting decision has been a challenge to many voters this election year. More people seemed to be wishing for a “None of the above” choice on the ballot. In an airport bookstore last month, I picked up a small magazine with a cover image that asked: “How did we get here?” I read the article while standing in line this morning, and thought I’d share a few tidbits in case you need a little waiting-in-line reading too. Agree or disagree, I think you’ll find a lot to mull over.

Thoughts on “The Virtue of an Educated Voter” by Alan Taylor

Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.
Thomas Jefferson

Alan Taylor, the author of the original article in The American Scholar is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian at the University of Virginia. In this article, he offers a look at the founding fathers‘ understanding of the purpose of eduction, examines how and why that understanding has been lost, and considers the consequences of the loss. If you have an interest in education or the American republic, it’s a compelling read. I hope these few takeaways will lead you back to the original article.

Purpose of education in the new American republic: “More than a mere boon for individuals, education was a collective, social benefit essential for free government to endure . . . Thomas Jefferson noted, ‘I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.'” Kings and dictators relied on malleability of an uneducated populace to stay in power, but a republic required an electorate that was not only vigilant but virtuous.

Virtue, education, and the electorate: The founding fathers understood that people “needed to cultivate a special character known as ‘virtue’: the precious capacity to transcend their diverse self-interests by favoring the common good” in order to make wise decisions for the new country.” Steeped in the classics, they had doubtless examined virtue with Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the pages of scripture. The cardinal virtues of  justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, informed their thought in every area.

Virtuous or vicious? The opposite of being virtuous (characterized by virtue) is to be vicious (characterized by vice). In this context it’s easier to see the truth in Benjamin Rush‘s comment that “If the common people are ignorant [lacking knowledge] and vicious, a republican nation can never be long free,” rather than being distracted by its seeming rudeness. As you read the quotes from colonial-era public figures, it’s clear that the concept of microagression had not yet been invented, and word definitions were more closely aligned with their etymology.

Thomas Jefferson portrait by Thomas Sully, 1821. Jefferson had a forward-thinking perspective on virtue, education, and the electorate.“Worth and genius vs. wealth and birth: Thomas Jefferson urged that “worth and genius” be “sought out from every condition of life and compleately prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth & birth for public trusts.”

Access to education: Education was less readily available in those days — women and people of color were mostly excluded from higher learning, and fewer than one percent of American men went to college in 1800. But despite the need for an informed citizenry to preserve the republic, the gentry were “loath to pay higher taxes to educate common whites, [they] preferred to hire tutors to prepare their sons for private colleges in another state or in Britain.”

Jefferson’s education proposal: Thomas Jefferson proposed diving the states into manageable districts and requiring that voters build and manage schools. From these schools, the “best boys (but no girls) would advance to county academies, where the rich would pay tuition but the best poor boy from each hundred school would earn a charity scholarship. In turn, the finest charity graduate from each academy would merit a college scholarship.” His goals were not only to ensure that every citizen knew how to “to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing” but also to cultivate future leaders for the republic.

You’ll have to read the whole article to discover why his proposal foundered, and how and why the New England states moved ahead. One clue: “The conviction that freedom required education flourished only where slavery had been disavowed. Northerners paid for the expansion of educational opportunity with their tax dollars because they anticipated economic benefits.”

Me, myself, I, and mine: By redefining the purpose of education as an individual economic good, the “collective, social rewards of education: the ways in which we all, including those who do not attend college, benefit from better writers and thinkers, technological advances, expanded markets, and lower crime rates” are overlooked. When education is seen as benefitting only the person who has it, some inevitably wonder “why taxpayers should pay for the education of others — particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color.”

The consequences (which circles back to the question of “How did we get here?”): By forsaking virtue as the goal for education and the idea of a virtuous electorate as necessary to preserve the republic, Taylor predicts that “free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.”

What can be done? The final section of Taylor’s article offers brief thoughts on a return to a better understanding of the purpose of education and recovery of the founding fathers’ “concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching.” For those of us who wanted to check the “none of the above” box, there are four years before the next election to learn more about the true purpose of education and the concept of virtue as it relates to the election process. Since I’ve got a few years to go before I turn 99, I consider that a challenge worth accepting.

Additional thoughts on virtue

Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion by Peter Kreeft

Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion by Peter Kreeft

How to Teach Virtue” by Andrew Kern

The Paradox of Acquiring Virtue” by Joshua Leland

Can You Test And Grade Whether Your Students Are Gaining Virtue?” by Joshua Gibbs

And if you want to learn to think more clearly:

In a book: Traditional Logic by Martin Cothran

In a class: Memoria Press Academy or Schole Academy


If these tidbits from the TAS article interest you, I hope you’ll read the complete article in the Autumn 2016 issue of The American Scholar. At the very least, it’s a window into one of the ways the purpose and meaning of education has shifted in the past 200+ years. Beyond that, it’s part of the answer to the question of how we got here and why. And that’s something to ponder.

Alan Taylor’s most recent book is American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, and it is available through Amazon and other bookstores.


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