Thomas Jefferson is widely noted for his emphasis on the necessity of an educated electorate for the experiment of a democratic republic to work.
A combination of confirmed statements by him and quotes attributed to him point to an informed populace as a foundation for a government by and for the people.
Granted that the extremely narrow scope of his “electorate” has been expanded over time to include all citizens, without gender and racial limitations, the principle he envisioned as the core attribute of collective decision-making has not been reasonably challenged, either legally or theoretically.
Yet, in spite of near universal affirmation of the importance of education, we can see how easily it can degenerate into a contest of perspectives embedded in conflicting narratives of a people’s identity and history.
In such a contest, a shared understanding is less likely to grow, and partisan loyalties are more likely to grow rigid.
Witness the rancor that has characterized the processes of school board management of the mission of public education, where educators and various public groups, “en-frenzified” by manipulative leaders who often surely know better, draw battle lines over curriculum and teaching methods.
A generation ago – at the dawn of what has become over a half century of Macarthy-esque politics – the influential psychiatrist Carl Jung described what he called the “plight of the individual in modern society” as a vulnerability to “mass-mindedness.”
What he described was the power of what would later be called “group think” to take priority over a society’s consciousness of reality.
Writing in the 1950’s against the backdrop and presence of totalitarian regimes, he suggested that the human gift of individual thinking was being highjacked by those who learned to manipulate the system of collective influence.
This, he surmised, would lead to an abdication of rational consciousness in favor of loyalty to an engineered narrative that fosters the agenda of those who created and disseminated it.
It would not seem far-fetched to wonder if he saw the beginnings of a shift in education from creative and critical thinking toward the nourishing of a collective narrative that firms up a particular perception of history and of life in general.
This collective narrative would support certain concepts of justice, patriotism, success and worth that become the values by which policies and systems are maintained.
Fast forward from Jung’s observations to the present degeneration of public thinking about education into rhetorical (and sometimes literal) fistfights over the content and methods of education, and we see that the contest over “right” thinking has usurped the practice of examination, discovery and growth.
In the “ideal” educational setting, the subject matter is the focus of the study, whether the subject is a piece of literature, a period of history, a feature of society or a function of the natural world.
The inevitable assumptions about the subject are put on figurative hold in favor of a careful examination, which leads to new knowledge and insights, by which earlier assumptions can be refined.
This process results in greater understanding, as well as a refined perception of its place in life’s larger picture.
We know how this process works at every level of education, and we know how easily the process can be subverted if it encounters entrenched assumptions that are challenged by its discoveries.
If the process degenerates into a contest among unexamined prior assumptions, there is little chance that meaningful growth and refinement will occur.
Perhaps an old teacher (me) might be indulged to suggest a parallel between what we all experience personally in the educational process and what we are experiencing collectively in a more public process.
The highly and classically educated Thomas Jefferson probably did not envision the complexity of the society in which we live and in which an “educated electorate” would be necessary, but his emphasis on its importance seems no less valid.
From Jefferson’s early 19th century claim that a democratic republic could not survive without an educated populace, and Jung’s warning about the persistent threat of “mass-mindedness,” to the educational crisis we face, we might well ask:
“How does a society educate itself – collectively – in the midst of such uncertainty about the purpose of such education, where success is measured by standardized tests on an individual level and poll numbers and election results on the public level?”
Where is the “classroom” for the kind of education that would respond to Jefferson’s concern?
Perhaps part of the answer is the educational opportunity before the populace in the “lab of discovery” being made available by the Jan. 6 congressional committee.
Its thorough investigation and careful presentation may result in a break from the shackles of Jung’s “mass-mindedness,” as well as an exercise of collective integrity and a stewardship of the possibility of healthy growth that is always available for a society that embraces it.
Those who “attend class” may well find a clear alternative for thinking to the “sound bite fight” that dominates our public attention so much of the time. We can hope.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).