Commentary

The Education of George Washington

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The security of a free Constitution, George Washington told Congress in his first annual address, depended upon an educated citizenry. And it was this belief--that only the educated would be able to protect their newly defined freedoms--that transformed Washington, who was born 251 years ago this week, into an ardent advocate of general education. "Knowledge," he said, "is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."

"Happiness" was a central concept to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, for example, gave it a prominent place in the the Declaration of Independence. And before that, George Mason included it in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

But the Founders were not seeking merriment or joy as a public goal. To them, and to many people living in the 18th century, it meant prosperity--neither opulence nor poverty, but some level of material security in between. In Washington's view, the nation would achieve little happiness if learning were left to haphazard means.

Washington's own formal education was limited to elementary instruction in arithmetic, geometry, reading, and writing, offered by a succession of undistinguished tutors, servants, and schoolmasters. And he had no children of his own. But he nonetheless took a number of steps that helped shape the nation's belief in the importance of the formal education of its young people.

As a private citizen, for example, Washington supported education through philanthropy. With 15 annual gifts of 50 pounds each and a final bequest of $4,000, he enabled the Alexandria Academy in Alexandria, Va., to provide education for "orphan children who have no other resources, or the children of such indigent parents as are unable to give it," Washington wrote in a letter to the academy's trustees.

Washington, in keeping with the tenor of the time, permitted the Alexandria Academy to enroll no more than one girl for every four boys it admitted. The academy later became a public school.

Such philanthropy was significant, because in the years following the American Revolution, chaotic economic conditions and the withdrawal of British educational assistance meant those who were not well-to-do had few opportunities for schooling. (In fact, the premature death of Washington's father--when George was 11--prevented Washington from attending school in England, as his father and older half-brother had done.)

The passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1785--four years before Washington's inauguration as President--established a national role in the support of formal education by granting one square mile of land in each township to be used to raise money for local schools.

Once in office, Washington persistently urged Congress to broaden this support by promoting "institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge."

He proposed, for example, that the federal government maintain a national university in the District of Columbia, and he made provision in his will "to set this establishment afloat." (Congress, however, never accepted the proposal and the university was not built.)

He also tried to establish a permanent national military academy. During the Revolutionary War, Washington was favorably impressed by the knowledge of engineering and artillery that European allies brought to the war effort. And he was distressed by American deficiencies in those areas. After the war, he warned that the nation's security depended upon continual military training, especially in engineering and artillery. For 20 years he pleaded this cause. In 1802, two years after his death, Congress established the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Washington also committed the federal government to instruct American Indians in animal husbandry and agriculture.

Washington, who was born in a modest house near the confluence of Pope's Creek and the Potomac River in Northern Virginia, believed that children need to master reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as geography, literature, and the arts. But he emphasized two subjects--French and mathematics.

The French language, Washington reasoned, was becoming "so universal, and so necessary with foreigners, or in a foreign country" as to be essential for a "gentleman" to learn. He, however, was not fluent in French.

He promoted the study of mathematics for two reasons. First, he believed that any landed person needed to know the mathematics of surveying. (Washington's only post-elementary schooling was a course in surveying at the College of William and Mary.)

Second, he adhered to the 18th-century belief that the study of mathematics strengthens one's reasoning ability.

On the subject of teaching, Washington said a good teacher was "a man of letters, most of composition [writing skills], and a good accomptant [accountant]." "To teach French grammatically is essential," he added, "as it is now becoming a part of the education of youth in this Country." "The more universal his knowledge is," he also said of a good teacher, "the better."

Vol. 02, Issue 22, Page 18

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