From These Grounds
by William G. Durden ’71, President
April 1, 2011
As this issue of Dickinson Magazine focuses on history, I thought it appropriate to share some insights from our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, on the beginnings of education in the United States that have great relevance today. I initially spoke on this topic at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia last fall as the inaugural speaker in the “Revolutionary Ideas” series sponsored by The American Revolution Center.
Let me begin from the arguably provocative premise that the United States is in danger of losing touch with that which defined our promise as a nation as it emerged from the American Revolution and that we, as a nation, have forgotten our knowledge of the history, struggles and ideals of the Revolution.
Without these ideals we are but a “transactional” nation without a robust narrative to guide our path forward coherently. Let us imagine recapturing our promise by recommitting to education—specifically a “republican education”—as envisioned by at least one signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Rush, as the only reliable method to advance liberty, freedom and a fulfilling life in a democracy.
A republican education is a “useful” education that advances participation and leadership in a republic. It is not one that celebrates “learning for learning’s sake,” one that perpetuates a public belief that continues today—that a liberal-arts education is a waste of time and money.
So important to Dr. Rush was the acquisition of knowledge that he called upon it as an instrument of continuing revolution. In anticipation of his 1787 “Address to the American People” he wrote in a letter, “Most of the DISTRESSES of our country … have arisen from a belief that the American Revolution is OVER. This is so far from being the case that we have only finished the first act of the great drama. We have changed our forms of government, but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adapted. … Call upon the rulers of our country to lay the foundations of their empire in KNOWLEDGE. …”
Dr. Rush’s ambitions for republican education were at once idealistic and pragmatic. In a letter to Charles Nisbet Dec. 5, 1783, he expressed his belief that a liberal education diffused throughout the nation would be the “bulwark of liberty.” He believed that a republican education would soften the excesses of the populace and promote peace and tranquility.
He stated, “Whenever learning is confined to one society, or to a few men, the government of that country will always be an ARISTOCRACY, whether the prevailing party be composed of rich or poor!” He believed further that a republican education firmly grounded in the liberal arts “… alone gives influence to wealth and makes it a source of happiness.”
Sadly for American education, we have lost the unequivocal call to republicanism through a useful liberal education.
Education is arguably the only sector of America that did not experience the American Revolution. We never committed fully to the “why” of education that emerged from the Revolution. Nor did we develop that sense of urgency that motivates student and teacher to commit deeply to exploration of what it means to be human, to have aspirations and to form political organizations. Neither did we commit to developing those critical instruments of communication and understanding that permit informed citizenry.
It is time for this country to recommit to a pre-K through college experience in which educating for republicanism—not just educating to gain academic knowledge without larger purpose—is our intention.
I challenge us to reclaim intentionality for education so as to inspire students to learn and be vibrant participants in the global community. In essence, I suggest “a return to the future” by recommitting our nation and its people to the spirit and pragmatic intention of a republican education as conceived by Dr. Rush and his compatriots following the American Revolution.