The prestige of learning in early America, LB Wright

Tags: American Antiquarian Society, Renaissance, Temperance, Thomas Jefferson, eighteenth century, Fortitude, Christian ethics, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Hoby, John Cotton, James Gibbs, Richard Brathwaite, Massachusetts Bay, historical works, Compleat Gentleman, Henry Peacham, Book of Architecture, Louis B. Wright, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Hakluyt, English works, religious fervor, Jean Jacques Rousseau, persistent influence, value of education, remarkable leadership, ignorance, Richard Lees, Richard Lee, Liberality, The Renaissance, Renaissance education, Prudence, Sir Philip Sidney, free education, history of education in America, American history, educational facilities, Early America, ofthe, student, learning
Content: The Prestige of Learning in Early America LOUIS B. WRIGHT JLHROUGH MOST of American History, belief in education as a panacea for most of our social ills has been an article of faith. Indeed, we have believed in education with religious fervor, and we have often made education almost the equivalent of godliness. Educators have pointed out that an increase in educational facilities would be certain to raise the moral tone ofa community. To express doubt ofthe value of education was to run the risk of being classed with agnostics and atheists. This is not to say that everybody in every community was ready to increase his taxes or to labor in the educational vineyard. A few skeptics could always be found to oppose spending money to provide for schools, and always there were a few Neanderthals who simply did not want to have any traffic with learning. It was one of these who avowed that he was 'agin' education, the railroads, and the guv'mint.' Although there might be suspicion in some minds about the practical utility of learning, in most communities the 'better element' fostered schools and related agencies designed to raise the cultural level. It is not my purpose to present a summary history of education in America, for that has been done many times, but to discuss the variety of agencies of learning that existed, the quality of this learning, and the cultural goals of our ancestors. The notion of free education for everybody is a relatively modern concept, primarily a twentieth-century development. Even in Puritan Boston, which has often been cited as an ex- 15
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counts for the quality of a remarkable leadership. This concept of education, in comparison with ours of today, may raise some questions that we need to face honestly. From Aristotle the Renaissance derived four principles that education must seek to induce in men who would be leaders: Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, and Justice. From Christian ethics, the Renaissance got two other principles: Liberality and Courtesy. These six virtues made up an ideal of conduct desirable for everyone, but particularly for men who would provide guidance for society. And, contrary to general belief, leadership was not the exclusive monopoly ofthe wellborn. Beginning in the grammar schools and continuing through the universities and the rest of life, these principles received constant iteration. Literature and history were studied for the examples they offered of these six virtues: Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Liberality, and Courtesy. The definition of these virtues was not narrow. For example. Prudence meant something far more important than the present connotation of caution. Prudence required wide knowledge so that a man could act with wisdom in any emergency. Young men studied the career of Alexander the Great, for instance, not only to learn how he had achieved his successes, but to discover the faults that led to his disasters. Constantly, teachers pointed out the lessons to be applied to conditions of their own time. Justice required learning in the principles of law as set forth by Solon and Justinian, and a study ofthe manifestations ofjustice and injustice to be found by diligent reading in the histories of all countries. Our own recent neglect of history is reflected in the ignorance manifested in the utterances of some ofour lawmakers. No member of Parliament in 1600 would have been guilty ofthe kind of historical ignorance that has too often echoed in the halls of Congress--an ignorance which has had unfortunate results in governmental policies. Liberality did not mean merely the virtue of being generous
Prestige of Learning in Early America
on occasion. The Renaissance ideal of liberality required the cultivation of a liberal and tolerant spirit through the contemplation of human actions, past and present. Courtesy meant something more than saying 'Thank You' and replying to invitations on the right kind of stationery. Courtesy required a knowledge of human relations in each stratum of society and taught men how to adapt themselves to the demands of any sort of human contact. Fortitude and Temperance were positive as well as negative virtues. To demonstrate courage and to control one's self became the mark of the man capable of leadership. Renaissance education had a single purpose: to induce the qualities that exemplified the six virtues that I have mentioned. The goal was not to produce a race of pious prigs, but to train a body of men ready and eager to serve the state in the most intelligent fashion. The state itself, unlike the Nazi state, was conceived in Grecian terms. It was a state that had for its dream the highest cultivation of the individual. But the individualism ofthe Renaissance was not a detached individualism of anarchy; on the contrary, it made possible the cultivation of man's full powers under the restraints of law. Whether the colonial gentleman was a Puritan merchant of Boston, an Anglican tobacco planter on the James River, or a planter-trader of Charleston, South Carolina, he retained the old faith in classical learning as a way to wisdom, and he subscribed to the virtues of Aristotle, modified by Christian ethics, as a code of conduct. To what extent Renaissance gentlemen--or colonial gentlemen--actually lived up to the code is a question hard to answer. But in any age the acceptance and persistence of a high ideal is significant, even if few or none approach perfection in its practice. And we do know that both in sixteenth-century England and in colonial America there were many examples of men noted for their adherence to this ideal of behavior. Sir Philip Sidney of Elizabethan England would have found
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Richard Lee of Virginia an understanding and compatible friend. Both were learned men, with their education out ofthe same books; both were zealous in their service to the state and placed their duty to the commonwealth ahead of personal gain or glory; both were bookish men but were also men of action. More than a century in time and an ocean in space separated these two men, but they were ofthe same outlook. If it be objected that there were few Philip Sidneys or Richard Lees, we must answer that there were many only a little less distinguished for the practice ofthe same virtues. Richard Lee's life illustrates two significant characteristics ofthe colonial gentleman: he felt an obligation to be learned and an equal obligation to serve the state. When he died, his tombstone recorded in impeccable Latin that 'while he exercised the office of magistrate he was a zealous promoter of the public good. He was very skilful in the Greek and Latin languages and other parts of polite learning. He quietly resigned his soul to God, whom he always devoutly worshiped, on the 12th day of March, in the year 1714, in the 68th year of his age.' Here was a man, living in the wilderness of Westmoreland County, Virginia, who was careful to keep up his learning, to set an example in religion, and to fulfill his civic duties. Governor Spotswood testified that Lee was 'a gentleman of as fair character as any in the country for his exact justice, honesty, and unexceptionable loyalty in all the stations wherein he has served in this government.' And a grandson observed somewhat regretfully that his ancestor had been learned but had not made the most of his opportunities to improve his patrimony: 'Richard spent almost his whole life in study, and usually wrote his notes in Greek, Hebrew, or Latin . . . so that he neither diminished nor improved his paternal estate. . . . He was ofthe Council in Virginia and also other offices of honor and profit, though they yielded little to him.' He might also have added that this scholar was no cloistered soul but instead was colonel of the militia, among
Prestige of Learning in Early America
many other offices, and was a diligent overseer of his plantation and business affairs. This combination of the active and contemplative life would have pleased Vittorino da Feltre, or any other Renaissance educator. Robert 'King' Carter of Corotoman, whose prolific heirs have multiplied until they are legion, was less unselfish in his devotion to the commonwealth, but he shared many of Lee's attitudes. For example, he regarded the Renaissance tradition of education as essential to the proper education of youth. He was so conservative that he regretted that his sons' schoolmaster no longer taught from Lily's Latin grammar--the textbook that Shakespeare studied--and he prescribed that his son Landon should 'be made a perfect master' of John Comenius' Linguarum Trilinguis in Latin, English, and Greek. Even so worldly and so ambitious a social climber as William Byrd II of Westover exemplified in many respects the Renaissance tradition. He set himself a hard goal of learning. His diary records for long periods in his life the systematic and daily study of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and various modern languages. It reveals his zeal to serve the state, and to maintain the decorum in religion expected ofa gentleman. If it also discloses that the weaknesses of the flesh too often betrayed him, it makes perfectly clear his own remorse and regret over a failure to live up to a great ideal. Specific illustrations from Virginia and from other colonies might be multiplied indefinitely. The aspirations ofa colonial aristocracy to duplicate the culture of an earlier time and place were responsible for a race of leaders in America who were particularly influential in the eighteenth century. They earnestly believed that privilege carried with it responsibility to society, a concept frequently forgotten in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These ideals, traceable to the Renaissance and to classical sources, help to explain the qualities of the more intellectual and more unselfish leaders in the American Revolution and the generation thereafter.
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One can make a good case for the assertion that Thomas Jefferson was the culmination of the Renaissance tradition in America. We know from his well-documented life what a tremendous part classical learning played in the development of his own social and political ideas. The earliest extant piece of writing from Jefferson's hand, a letter to John Harvie dated January 14, 1760, announced his intention of going to the College of William and Mary 'to get a more universal acquaintance' and to 'Pursue my studies in the Greek and Latin.' At Williamsburg he came under the influence of George Wythe, the greatest lawyer of the day and equally renowned for his learning in the classics. There Jefferson received a grounding in law, supported by classical reading, which he utilized for the rest of his life. A reading of the correspondence between JefTerson and John Adams is a revelation of the enormous impact that Greek and Latin authors had upon both these men. Most of our education comes, not from formal instruction in school, but from many diverse influences. One of the most significant sources of learning, of course, is found in the books we read. We might pause for a moment to wonder about the effect on the minds of this generation of the out-pouring of the printing press today: 'What We Always Wanted to Know' about this and that 'and Were Afraid to Ask,' etc. Books in early America supplied much of the learning that our ancestors acquired, and books as a vehicle of education were highly prized and esteemed. Some of the books that were widely read influenced our mores profoundly. For example, the sermons and devotional works of the Reverend William Perkins, an English divine with Puritan leanings, who died in 1602, enjoyed an immense popularity on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a century. They were read by Puritans in New England and Anglicans in the South. Perkins was concerned with Christian ethics and the practical application of Christian doctrine rather than with theology. For instance, his influential Treatise of Vocations
Prestige of Learning in Early America
discussed the nature of man's calling, both spiritual and temporal. In it one finds the basic doctrines of American middleclass society, the insistence upon having a calling and laboring in it, and the virtues of thrift, diligence, and sobriety. Cotton Mather read Perkins and adapted many of his ideas in his own writings. Benjamin Franklin read Mather and utilized Perkins at second hand in his own essays. Franklin's epitomized wisdom in Poor Richard's Almanac, and especially in 'Father Abraham's Speech' in the Almanac for 1758, later published in innumerable editions as The Way to Wealth, has influenced American Social Philosophy more than any other single work. Perkins of course was not the only pious author who taught early Americans the principles of bourgeois ethics. Almost as popular and influential was Richard Baxter, whose Saints' Everlasting Rest (l650). The Right Methodfor a Settled Peace of Conscience (1653), and A Christian Directory (1673) gave instructions for living in a competitive world where men sought prosperity on earth and peace hereafter. Pious reading was not confined to New England but was general throughout the colonies. Colonial households too poor to own many books usually had a Bible and Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety (3rd and earliest extant edition, 1613). The so-called 'cavaliers' of Virginia were almost as avid readers of 'good books' as their Puritan counterparts in the North, for religious works had a prestige which we find hard to comprehend. Robert 'King' Carter of Corotoman in Virginia, not generally remembered for his religious concerns, wrote angrily to his London factor, William Dawkins, in 1721 admonishing him about some failure to carry out instructions: 'I shall recommend to your perusal the fifth part of Dr. Scott's Christian Life where he is treating ofthe excellency ofthe soul,' Carter advised him. When our brokers today forget to carry through an order, nobody would think of quoting Billy Graham in reprimand. William Byrd of Westover, remembered for many things
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but not for piety, relished sermons almost as much as John Cotton of Massachusetts Bay, who boasted that he sweetened his mouth with a little Calvin before going to bed. Byrd makes frequent entries in his diary about his reading of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew--and strangely of his addiction to sermons. For example, on December 25, 1709, he improved Christmas evening by the perusal of a sermon. He noted in his Diary: 'In the evening I read a sermon in Mr. Norris but a quarrel which I had with my wife hindered my taking much notice of it. . . . I neglected to say my prayers but . . . I had good health, good thoughts, and indifferent good humor, thank God Almighty.' Related to religious reading was an interest in secular books on conduct, beginning with the famous Renaissance work, Castiglione's // Cortegiano, available in Thomas Hoby's translation as The Courtier (l56l). This book provided a rationale of upper-class behavior which had a persistent influence on ideals of conduct, as did native English works like Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman (l622) and Richard Brathwaite's Ј?Z^/«Д Gentleman (l630). From such works colonials got the basic outlines of a philosophy of life. Next to godly reading came history as the most popular form of intellectual instruction and entertainment. Innumerable historical works, from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) to the latest import from England supplied our ancestors with useful information. When Jefferson sat down to confute the British assertion that the colonies had been settled at government expense, he went back to Richard Hakluyt's Voyages and worked forward through contemporary accounts of colonization. Much practical instruction came from books, for colonial libraries were chiefly utilitarian. Books were expensive, and few could afford works for either ostentation or mere entertainment. So household collections contained instructive works on medicine, law, agriculture, and architecture. During the eighteenth century carpenters' and builders' manuals were
Prestige of Learning in Early America
common and invaluable. James Gibbs' A Book of Architecture (1728) and Batty Langley's City and Country Builder's and IVorkman's Treasury of Designs (l740) were among the most popular. From such books we can date the vogue of classical design. A comprehensive discussion ofthe instruction that colonial Americans received from their reading would strain your patience, but I have suggested the impact of books upon all classes.2 One cannot leave the subject, however, without stressing the influence ofthe King James Version ofthe Bible. No other single book was so important in the education of Americans. In many households this was the only book; in actuality it was a library in itself. Children learned to read from it and many adults had their vocabularies and their diction shaped by its rhythms. It is a commonplace to cite the instance in a later period of young Abraham Lincoln reading the Bible by the light ofa pine-knot fire. Perhaps the 'Gettysburg Address' would not have had its simplicity, clarity, and eloquence without this reading. Learning of all kinds, whether obtained from tutors, in Elementary Schools, in colleges, or from the individual's reading of books, was held in high esteem in the colonial period. Learning was costly in both money and effort, and consequently was prized. In the colonial period, in both North and South, learning was expected to help a man improve his social status, to be a gentleman, for in this period men still believed that it was a Christian duty to rise in the social scale if possible. The hippie who denies all the values of conservative society had not yet become fashionable, though the late eighteenth century witnessed the popularity of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the original alienated youth, drop-out, and ne'er-do-well. His trumpeted
2 For further treatment ofthe subject, see Louis B. Wright, 'The Purposeful Reading ofOur Co\on\a\ Ancestors,' ELH, A Journal of English Literary History,IV (1937),85111.
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beliefs concerning the nobility of the savage and permissiveness in behavior and in education gained currency in Europe, but they did not afflict us until a later time. Recently, however, thanks to the recrudescence of decadent Rousseauism grafted upon ill-understood Freudianism, we have come to believe that wisdom resides in the innocence of youth. Indeed, to observe some academic administrators scrambling to placate student rebels and to prove that they are 'with it,' one would believe that the best equipment for life is a tabula rasa, and the blanker the better. No longer are the elders of the tribe respected, nor is their experience "prized. Instead, we have enthroned youth, put them on boards of trustees, and let them tell us what is 'relevant' in learning, even if what is 'relevant' at noon becomes obsolete by three p.m. Along with the deification of juvenility has come a disparagement of tradition and the values formerly believed to be implicit in a knowledge of history. Sociologists have invented a language to glorify the 'innovative' (a word they love) and to preach a new religion of'fresh concepts and perceptions' (again, words out of their armory ofjargon). This revolution has demolished the concept of the gentleman and the cultural heritage that made him what he was. Although few people in a technological society such as ours would contend that the classical education that sufficed in the eighteenth century would be adequate today, earlier educational theories still have something to teach us. Thomas Jefferson himself believed that education should include both a knowledge of modern science and an acquaintance with the wisdom of the ancients. He and other thinkers in his period, like their predecessors in the Renaissance, regarded classical learning as a utilitarian guide to intelligent living. Jefferson maintained that a democratic state such as he envisioned required an aristoi, but an aristocracy of intelligence, to be developed by the program of learning that he advocated. As every student of the period knows, Jefferson was deeply
Prestige of Learning in Early America
concerned with education and planned a system that would insure training in accordance with the ability of the student. The most competent would be selected for the best education that the state could provide. We have never been willing to adopt Jefferson's program. To many, the ideas of the father of democracy seem 'undemocratic' Hence we penalize the competent for the benefit of the incompetent--who frequently show their contempt for what is offered them. Although we talk much about education and spend more upon it than ever before in our history, the prestige of learning has declined. Only in our time has the nation witnessed the growth of a widespread cult of anti-intellectualism. Tradition and history are useless if not wicked, we have been told. The choice of literature taught in the schools is based, not on quality but on what a student can be induced to read. Although we have thousands of new books published each year, and millions of paperback volumes are available for a modest price, no proof exists that books have the same value in the educative process that they had in an earlier age. A few good books well read had a greater impact upon the intellectual development of our ancestors than the superficial skimming of scores of bare-bosom paperbacks has upon this generation. It is too much to expect that we shall ever return to the disciplined study of the literature of Greece and Rome, but perhaps a swing of the pendulum will induce a renewed respect for history and literature of excellence. Already there are signs of disenchantment with the notion that we can find in youth a fountain of sagacity. The zeal to return to primitivism, to exalt the noble and not so noble savage, to abandon polite society and resort to communes of barefoot worshipers of the ecology is beginning to decline. We can hope that some day we again will seek the wisdom of the ancients, at the least the ancients of our own culture. We would do well to remember Thomas Jefferson's ideals of learning and his dream of a leadership based on an aristocracy of'talents and virtue.'

LB Wright