Monday, June 25, 2012

Rutherford B. Hayes and Education

Ari Hoogenboom’s Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President is a nice, fat book, perfect for long plane flights. In fact, I’ve read the bulk of it in just three long travel days over the last six weeks. I became interested in Hayes while listening to a book on tape called The Presidents. (I don’t remember the author; it may have been a History Channel special.) Hayes stood out among nineteenth-century First Executives as a man with a cause who used the presidency and the ex-presidency to pursue his cause, where others tended to see the office as an end in itself. Even more remarkably, his cause was providing education for black children.

I love the book so far, but I’m beginning to question Hayes’s faith in education. Seeing the denial of education to some Americans as unjust is one thing; believing that it would solve all of America’s problems is another altogether. Hayes, elected in 1876, believed that educating southern blacks would put them into independent, stable, skilled jobs, and that educating southern whites would rid them of racial prejudice – in his lifetime. Perhaps Hayes erred partly in taking the content of education for granted. A prejudicial system can deepen the unjust prejudice of a culture. A system of practical, vocational education can only train to a certain number of jobs and can only provide a certain amount of dignity.

But even in a culture that includes higher mathematics, ancient languages, morality, philosophy, and religion in its educational system, students are free to ignore the lessons of their teachers. I read allusions to Dr. Johnson’s dictionary in both the Hayes book and in The Thirteen-Gun Salute. I wish I had learned about Samuel Johnson when I was sixteen. I wouldn’t be writing this blog today (or it would be very, very different) if I had learned about Samuel Johnson in public school. But I also have to admit that in nineteenth-century America and Britain, where students did learn about the great lexicographer, that lofty knowledge didn’t preclude terrible social problems.

In any case, the books I’ve been reading lately have me dreaming of the possibilities. Imagine a navy in which the officers regularly discuss philosophy and play Handel. Imagine a peaceful city where wild animals show no aggression toward humans. Imagine an America in which the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are respected, and have been since their adoption. Imagine a free people who understand that education for a democracy doesn’t mean the same education for everyone, but rather the same opportunities for everyone at first and eventually the highest opportunities for the best students, without regard to any demographic line not mentioned in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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