Being a college president and student of history, my thoughts turn to the history of higher education in America whenever we are about to mark an occasion like Constitution Day, which occurs every year on September 17.
The American Revolution inspired a flurry of college-building in the 1780s and 1790s. My own college was formally chartered by the state of Maryland in 1784. This charter was a name-change for an already existing institution: King William's School, a free school founded under British colonial rule in 1696. St. John's College is thus the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the nation.
It is not surprising that the newly independent state of Maryland would want to change the title of an institution named after an English king, but King William's School had in fact already acquired a number of peculiarly American characteristics. It was supported by taxes and accessible to those of lesser means, and it sought to provide students with a firm educational grounding on which to build their future lives: language skills through the study of Latin, Greek, and English, calculating and mechanical skills through the study of mathematics and science, and a grasp of history and culture through the study of the classic texts of the western tradition.
With the coming of the American Revolution, however, the nation’s colleges took on added responsibility: preparing the young for mature citizenship in the new republic. Even before the end of the Revolution, General Rufus Putnam — who went on to found Muskingum Academy, the predecessor of Ohio's Marietta College — told General George Washington that future schools would "raise and educate our children to serve and honor the nation for which their fathers fought." And Washington College in Maryland, the first in the nation to be chartered after the Revolution, was dedicated from the outset to the training of responsible citizens.
But it was Thomas Jefferson who probably set the tone for colleges formed in the last two decades of the 18th century with his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" of 1779, which inspired educators and legislators throughout the former colonies. Recognizing that even a democratically elected government was susceptible to harm from ambitious men, Jefferson set up education as the bulwark against anyone attaining absolute power:
It is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompted to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.
It followed that Americans must be educated in the foundations of the Republic and in the principles of political, religious, and economic freedom. They must develop the personal freedom to judge whether the government they elect is respecting the foundational principles. And most of all, Americans must have the freedom of thought to question the very foundations and principles — and change them if they are ever to be found wanting.
There is here an all-American paradox that today’s colleges ought to embrace: they should help students understand the foundations of free government that enable us to pursue the happiness we choose for ourselves; but they should also help students learn to freely question those foundations in order to improve them if necessary, for the benefit of the people. Seen in the light of these principles, today’s colleges should be the defenders of our democratic republic, the guardians of its liberty, and the transmitters of the revolutionary spirit.
My own college is a good example. In an address to the class of 1796, St. John’s first president, John McDowell, told the graduates that the principle end of education is "to direct the powers of the mind in unfolding themselves, and to assist them in gaining throughout bent and force." But he added that a college had another responsibility: "As we live in a country, where the law ought to govern, and where every citizen is directly or indirectly a legislator, the principles of law and government ought to be well understood." And he closed by admonishing the graduates to continue building upon the foundation laid during their time at the college, an effort "which will render you eminently useful to your country and enable you on all occasions to promote its real interest and happiness."
The celebration of Constitution Day reminds us of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Those of us in higher education should mark this day with special appreciation, for education in the arts of freedom is our happy duty and our public trust.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.