Provincial Liberty & Education

If it is true, as Abraham Lincoln said, that “The philosophy of the classroom today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow,” then it matters who is making decisions about what taught in the classroom.

The Country School

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1800’s he observed what he called provincial liberty: the autonomy of communities making decisions about those things affecting their lives.

If, for instance, a school is to be established, the selectmen call a meeting of the voters on a certain day at an appointed place. They explain the urgency of the case; they make known the means of satisfying it, the probable expense, and the site that seems to be most favorable. The meeting is consulted on these several points; it adopts the principle, marks out the site, votes the tax, and confides the execution of its resolution to the selectmen.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Vol. 1. Chapter V. 63.
…in another place, the laborers of a village quit their plows to deliberate upon the project of a road or a public school.
Vol. 1. Chapter XIV. 249.
In New England every citizen receives the elementary nations of human know- ledge; he is taught, moreover, the doctrines and evidences of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of its Constitution.
Vol. 1. Chapter XVII. 315.
There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.
Vol. 2. First Book. Chapter XIII. 55.

Ironically, about that same time some Americans traveling in Europe became enamored of the Prussian educational system, including Horace Mann, who wrote his Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee in 1843. During this time period Orestes Brownson of Chelsea, Massachusetts, was rebutting their arguments.

A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here . . . because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here, the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the govern- ment looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. This fundamental difference between the two countries [United States and Prussia], we apprehend, has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters.
Orestes Brownson
“In Opposition to Centralization” 1839

These are the last two amendments in the Bill of Rights:

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

I have visited the two nations in which the system of provincial liberty has been most perfectly established, and I have listened to the opinions of different parties in those countries. In America I met with men who secretly aspired to destroy the democratic institutions of the Union; in England I found others who openly attacked the aristocracy; but I found no one who did not regard provincial independence as a great good. In both countries I heard a thousand different causes assigned for the evils of the state, but the local system was never mentioned among them. I heard citizens attribute the power and prosperity of their country to a multitude of reasons, but they all placed the advantages of local institutions in the foremost rank.

Am I to suppose that when men who are naturally so divided on religious opinions and on political theories agree on one point (and that one which they can best judge, as it is one of which they have daily experience) they are all in error? The only nations which deny the utility of provincial liberties are those which have fewest of them; in other words, only those censure the institution who do not know it.
Vol. 1. Chapter V. 96–97.

Alexis de Tocqueville also wrote that mitigation against the tyranny of the majority was to be had because “The townships, municipal bodies, and counties form so many concealed breakwaters, which check or part the tide of popular determination.” Education is the bulwark of those breakwaters.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835, 1840 (Alfred A, Knopf, Inc., New York NY: 1945, 1972).
Orestes Brownson quote from Daniel Taylor, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Observations on American Society.
See also: Williamson Evers, Obama Should Heed Tocqueville on Schools.


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