Van Ens: A Founding Father’s educational toolkit builds a civil republic |

Van Ens: A Founding Father’s educational toolkit builds a civil republic

Some parents find themselves at wit’s end when schooling their children cooped up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomas Jefferson is their educational ally because of his uneven record at homeschooling his daughters.

This Founding Father rightly prided himself on an outstanding achievement of enriching public education. When writing an epitaph for his gravestone, Jefferson did not mention his presidency spanning two terms. Instead, he sung praises that he was “Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson believed our republic thrives with an expanded educated middle class who wisely cast their ballots.

He intensified this educational quest when he served as U.S. minister to France from 1784-1789 by introducing his elder daughter Martha, namesake of her deceased mother, to rigorous study that included, reports historian Alan Taylor, “… geography, literature, languages, drawing and music “ in order to engage in genteel conversation with guests. Under her father’s tutelage in Paris and at home in Monticello, Martha “… was probably the best-educated person in Virginia” after Jefferson.

After Jefferson traveled to Paris, his 2-year old daughter Elisabeth, who stayed with relatives in the U.S., died from whooping cough. He received this tragic news seven months after her funeral.

In response, Jefferson demanded 8-year-old Maria, another state-side residing daughter, join him in Paris. She preferred staying in familiar Virginia with her dear aunt. “I am very sorry you sent for me,” she wrote to her father who felt like a stranger to her. “I don’t want to go to France.” Jefferson, however, was adamant that she join him and her older sister Martha. He personally wanted to educate his daughters.

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Like most parents who tutor their children in our COVID-19 stay-at-home times, Jefferson’s these educational endeavors produced mixed results. Although his educational heart showed admirable intentions, Jefferson’s teaching skills revealed shortcomings.

Sometimes he sounded like a stern, almost shrill educational taskmaster. “Take care you never spell a word wrong,” Jefferson scolded Maria, when he forced her to groom words as carefully as she curled her hair.

This father teaching his daughters reveals that parents are not perfect teachers because shortcomings mar their best intentions.

Eric Sevareid, a renowned World War II war correspondent who later joined Walter Cronkite on CBS News and shared meaty 90-second commentaries interpreting political controversies, wrote in his autobiography how the human condition is a mixed bag. The secret of the good life and the good society “… is a matter of balance,” he observed. “Man [humankind] is a precarious balance between love and hate, generosity and selfishness, peaceableness and aggressiveness. He is not perfectible, but he is improvable …”

Today, as we educate ourselves about opening businesses and reducing systemic racism, some split our society into arguing camps: good/bad; excellent/evil; right/wrong. We act as if these mixed tendencies no longer are part of us. Unlike Jefferson, whose tutoring of his daughters revealed a mixed bag of skills and shortcomings, many today sound as if they are on the correct side of political debates.

Lewis Smedes, my college ethics professor who later taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, described in his book “A Pretty Good Person,” how we chop society into competing camps. “We condense reality to suit our fancy the way small magazines condense big books to suit their readers,” notes Smedes. “And by what we leave out, we distort the parts we left in.”

The result? Partisan Americans rage against each other, using self-serving cropped versions of arguments to justify biases. 

Wall Street Journal commentator Gerald Seib tells why our society is severely split. “A 2019 survey sponsored by the Brookings Institution, for example, found that 82% of Republicans think the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists. On the other hand, 80% of Democrats think the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. … many political leaders are modeling for the nation a no-compromises style that says the person on the other side of the debate shouldn’t be given the benefit of any doubt. This certainty is true of the way President Trump frames political debates, but it’s also true of many of his detractors.”

“All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” teaches the Bible (Romans 3:23). That is, only God has perfect, memory, perfect insight, perfect knowledge. Ours is partial. We deny this fact of life when we brand those who differ with us as evil and completely wrong.

“One asks not only for the courage of his convictions but for the courage of his doubts in a world of dangerously passionate certainties,” rightly observes Eric Sevareid.

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