Most Americans have always been passionately devoted to education. The current national panic over our plummeting learning scores is only the latest sign of this devotion and is remarkably similar to the panics over purported education crises that have occurred throughout U.S. history. Unfortunately, almost all of the politicians and so-called expert educationalists rushing forward to solve this latest education crisis seem to have forgotten the simplest facts about the early history of American education, which enabled this country to produce far more than its share of the world’s most creative thinkers. This ignorant panic is inspiring a headlong rush into the central planning and bureaucratization of education that have been increasingly destroying the effectiveness of U.S. education for over 40 years.
The founders of the new American colonies were completely convinced that individual learning was the way to self-improvement of all forms. That faith in individual learning was most intense among the Puritans of New England and was a direct result of their passionate religious faith. The Puritans knew from their experience that control of education was the foundation of the church bureaucracy’s tyranny over individual hearts and minds. They believed that each individual must be able to read the Bible in his native language so that the bureaucratic experts of the church could not assert themselves as the powerful intermediaries between Christians and their omnipotent God as revealed in ancient tongues read only by the bureaucrats. They knew that real learning—individual knowledge and thought free of the church’s control—was the first prerequisite of freedom from the tyranny of bureaucracy.
As soon as they had overcome their immediate anxieties about starvation and disease, those devotees of individual education founded what is now Harvard College (in 1636) to ensure a steady supply of educated young men for their growing colony. By the time of the Revolution, that devotion to education had supplied the American people with a remarkable community of scholars and scientists who led them in creating “The First New Nation.” The Founding Fathers of our constitutional democracy were probably the most brilliant, creative, and knowledgeable group of leaders in human history. They certainly vastly surpassed the politicians who now press upon us a miasma of bureaucratic solutions to our education crisis.