Whole societies once used slaves as their energy source. As recently as 1858, South Carolina Sen. James Henry Hammond championed the need for “a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Afraid of educated slaves, 19th century white Southerners made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write; and until the 1960s, southern Blacks and whites had to attend separate and unequal schools.
Yet the founders had explicitly organized the USA on Enlightenment principles; that, by applying knowledge and reasoning to the natural world, people could figure out the best way to order society. Obviously, people excluded from access to education cannot participate in such a national project. They are doomed to be controlled by (mis)leaders who marshal propaganda and religion to bolster their dominance.
For Abraham Lincoln, workers were no mere drudges but the heart of the economy. “The prudent, penniless beginner labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” Lincoln tied the framers’ political vision to this economic vision. In order to prosper, he argued, people needed to learn, and he called for universal education. Only an educated community, he said, “will be independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.”
In the 1860s, Lincoln’s Republicans passed the Land Grant College Act, funding public universities so that those without wealthy fathers might have access to higher education. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they also tried to federally fund public schools for poor Black and white Americans, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed that bill on grounds that Black education was a state responsibility. For the next century, they were denied equal access to schools, excluding them from full participation in society and condemning them to menial labor.
Not until 1954, after decades of public pressure, did the Supreme Court — under Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former Republican governor of California — unanimously rule that racially separate schools were inherently unequal, and thus unconstitutional.
The strength of a democracy is directly proportional to the median educational level of its citizens. The less educated the electorate, the greater the opportunities for oppressors and would-be dictators to manipulate them. Early 20th century “numerus clausus” laws in Nazi-led countries rationed the number of Jews admissible to higher education. By the 1940s Hitler simply sent the Jews to his gas chambers.
Mark Twain once quipped, “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” In 2022 the Taliban still prevent young women from attending school. Sadly, “Republican” today means something quite different from the party of Lincoln. Last year 35 “R”-dominated state legislatures fielded 137 bills to keep students from learning about issues of race, LBGTQ+, politics, and American history. Florida’s Legislature even passed a Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act, tightly controlling how schools and employee trainings can discuss race or gender discrimination.
Similarly dominated legislatures and school districts are purging books from school libraries — mostly books by or about Black people, people of color, or LGBTQ+ individuals. These practices starve democracy of intellectual energy. They may cause teachers to self-censor or leave the profession, afraid of inadvertently running afoul of some law. This could be a disastrous outcome when some school districts already face teacher shortages, double up classes, shorten the school week, and permit veterans without educational training to teach, all of which will only hurt students.
There is also pressure to divert public money to private schools. Florida’s Legislature has dramatically expanded the use of vouchers, arguing that tying money to students rather than schools favors parental choice. The defunded public schools will, of course, become less and less attractive. In Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court ruled that Maine must allow vouchers to benefit religious schools, in effect directing tax dollars to support religious education.
How could a free, democratic society survive in the 21st century’s highly knowledge-dependent world, relying on medieval or even 19th century beliefs? In most other developed countries, high school graduates have access to higher education regardless of their financial means. If we want to maintain our democratic republic, we had better stop arguing about qualifying for student loans and how to pay them back. Instead, let’s make higher education accessible to all who seek it, financed through a graduated income tax that takes more from the wealthy than from the middle class and the poor.
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which promotes environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)