- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

Unintended irony can be sweet or sour. Consider our national commitment to spreading democracy — right on the money, hard to do, necessary, noble and inspired. Now place that beside our flagging intergenerational commitment to public education at home. The irony, of course, is that democracy depends, fundamentally, on well-educated people.

Not surprisingly, the author of our Declaration of Independence and America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, believed both in spreading democracy and in education — which he considered the lifeblood of democracy.

On spreading democracy, he wrote to a friend the year after the Constitution was ratified: “It is indeed an animating thought, that while we are securing the rights of ourselves and our posterity, we are pointing out the way to struggling nations, who wish like us to emerge from their tyrannies also.” He added, “Heaven help their struggles, and lead them, as it has done us, triumphantly through.” He knew the future, in his time and in ours, would be about freedom.

But this founder of the University of Virginia, reader of many languages, Holder of The Lamp, was also clear on the second point: Democracy cannot survive without an unswerving commitment to education. In Jefferson’s view, every generation owes a duty to the next. Part of that duty is passing facts and values, history and science — not fluff, entertainment, opinion or ignorance — on to our young. We are charged to empower them, so they will empower their own young, and they theirs.

To fail in this fundamental obligation would be to break the chain, betray the trust, void the bond for which the Founding generation fought. Jefferson’s faith in America — as a place, nation, system and people — was strong. With confidence, he wrote: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

He was not alone. George Washington’s commitment to education, as the principal guardian of democracy, was equally strong. Well before Jefferson designed a university, our first president considered placing an appeal to education in his short Farewell Address. Alexander Hamilton, more interested in coins and banks, advised against it. The paragraph was stricken. But history has not forgotten. Or has it?

Today, despite gains from President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, a recent study of our educational system shows deepening cracks. The fissures are swallowing children of new immigrants in disproportionate numbers. Too often, young people are landing in the forbidding darkness defined by illiteracy, drug abuse, gang crime, unemployment, misery. Jefferson would not be pleased. Washington would have something to say to Hamilton. For us, we should be rather unsettled. It is our turn; the intergenerational torch has been thrust into our hands. Our proud democracy is weaker for the loss of these young Americans.

According to this month’s report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, we are well behind the curve. The number of students who speak English only “with difficulty” increased by 124 percent in one generation, hitting 2.4 million in 2001. Roughly one-fifth of Hispanic and Asian children speak English “with difficulty,” and many are now being shoe-horned into bloated, high-cost “special education” programs. Even Hamilton would take note of such costs.

At the same time, enrollments, in contrast to a relatively stable stock of both classrooms and teachers, continue skyrocketing, tripling to 49 million in the past 30 years. Enrollment is expected to nearly double again in the next 10 years. As believers in the American dream — whether Republican, Democrat, Conservative or Liberal — these facts should, frankly, sting. No one wins when millions of kids lose.

The answer is not to have the federal government underwrite local schools, but to reorient our thinking. Education does matter, as much as spreading democracy. We need a stronger combined federal, state and local commitment to measurable, worthwhile and democracy-enhancing education. Science, math, history, grammar, spelling, writing and reading — never mind learning how to speak English without difficulty — are essential to this nation’s future.

To be sure, we need more teachers. We also need more teachers — and parents — inspired by our Founding principles. We need wider teacher training, better schools, higher pay, more technology, less interference by lawyers and more attention to outcomes. Perhaps rising state revenues and real estate values will help. We need to address the immigration issue as a nation, and reclaim lost order. But we need more.

Even as we rally others to the cause of democracy, we must not lose sight of democracy’s cornerstone — public education. To do so would be ironic. Real learning is the only basis upon which a real democracy preserves real principles — and its own future. These are precisely the principles on which Jefferson, Washington and even Hamilton spoke, and not “with difficulty.”

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, 2003-2005, is currently president of the Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.

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