While the nation may have been created with republican purpose — embodied in such rallying cries as “All men are created equal” and “government by consent of the governed” — the higher education of its citizens for participation in that nation appears without purpose.
Nobody agrees today on the purpose of higher education — whether colleges and universities are about learning for learning’s sake or preparation for a job; whether they are instruments of social change or a research-based knowledge producer; whether they are essential to economic well-being or for a meaningful life. Such confusion leads unequivocally to the question of whether colleges and universities are even of value to their citizens and worthy of a nation’s investment.
Higher education in the U.S. was not always without explicit purpose. The founding fathers had indisputable intention. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, settled on education as the vehicle that “converts men into republican machines.” This was a blunt, pragmatic purpose that paralleled the purpose of the nation and is conspicuously absent from contemporary arguments about the purpose of higher education. Just as a new nation required a new form of governing, so too was required a new educational system to yield the people who could conduct this new republican form of government in an informed way.
Rush was not satisfied with merely announcing a purpose for education; he wanted to operationalize it. In a 1787 article appearing in The American Museum magazine, Rush proposed the establishment of a “federal university” that would receive students from a system of colleges distributed throughout the new nation, Dickinson College being one of the first such “pipeline” institutions. The curriculum would deal with the principles of democratic government and its opposite — oppressive tyranny; the laws of commerce; and, civil and municipal law. Rush even proposed that only those who graduated this university could serve.
During the initial decades of the country almost every national leader advocated for a national university, to include George Washington who strikingly sought to advance it even after his death in this last will and testament.
When public confidence in government and elected public officials are at historic lows and where there is much discussion from some quarters of a national leadership that is challenging inherited rules and convictions of democratic governance, perhaps it is time to reintroduce — albeit in modification — an original purpose of a distinctive American higher education and its operationalization.
Imagine then a national effort using community colleges, colleges, universities and libraries to offer certificate programs to all age groups aspiring to run for office, not just after election as is often the case.
The curriculum — adjusted to municipal, state and federal aspiration — would include a history of U.S. government and its laws, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, key Supreme Court and state court cases and the intended role of all three branches of government. The history and perspective of the various political parties would be represented and debated, and instruction would be given in compromise and bi-partisanship as well as treatment of those forms of government inimical to a republic and the means that they historically use to subvert.
And while it is impractical to go so far as the early leaders of the country and require all who serve to graduate a national university, completion of a public service curriculum could result in a certificate that would represent additional consideration by voters as to the qualifications of someone running for office and, perhaps, even more specifically, privilege the certified political candidates with a more prominent placement on a ballot rather than by lots or chance.
The founding fathers knew that governing a republic such as the United States was not a casual affair and needed leaders in all branches of government who possessed knowledge about governing. We as a nation arguably lost that conviction when the call for a national university faded in the early 19th century, corresponding to the passing of those who created our government. It is time to listen to our founders once again. It is time to be serious about an education for governing — a purpose of education we have forgotten.
William G. Durden (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the International University Alliance, a joint appointment professor within Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, and president emeritus of Dickinson College.