Public education, public good
Every political system rests upon a particular moral system. In other words, each particular form of government rests upon a particular set of beliefs about the nature of man.
Our Constitutional Republic rests upon the belief that man is by nature a spiritual, moral and intellectual being capable of pursuing his/her own happiness and of exercising the principle of liberty in a responsible manner if provided the proper circumstances.
This principle is implemented by government through a system of laws and a system of education.
The First Amendment granted us certain political freedoms and the Northwest Ordinance stated the unique purpose of the free public schools. Article 3 of the Ordinance states: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Clearly, from the start the emphasis of government and the free public schools was upon morality because the exercise of liberty in the pursuit of happiness requires acts that accord with the spiritual, moral and intellectual virtues.
Jefferson makes plain in the Declaration of Independence that this moral theory is the foundation of our political theory and that it is derived from “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
This is the standard of our Constitutional Republic. We measure acts of individuals and/or governments as good or bad, right or wrong, ad they conform to or transgress these principles. These are the principles for which we stand “one nation under God.”
Wisdom is a knowledge of these principles. Prudence or practical wisdom is the application of these principles to the unique and particular circumstances of our personal and political life.
These two, wisdom and prudence, are the intellectual virtues. Faith, hope and charity are the spiritual virtues. The moral virtues of action and passions are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, and liberality, to name a few.
A knowledge of these virtues and their application are indispensable to our prosperity and happiness. To this Jefferson alluded in a letter to Charles Yancey Jan. 6, 1816. Said Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be …”
Thus in a Constitutional Republic such as our free public schools are a necessity and the unique purpose is to teach “religion, morality, as well as knowledge” because the spiritual, moral and intellectual virtues are necessary for good citizenship and the exercise of liberty in the pursuit of happiness. Happiness and good citizenship cannot be pursued any other way by any other means.
For this reason, public education is for the public good. Virtue is that good!