“I consider knowledge to be the soul of a Republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it[.]” – John Jay to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1785
As we to try to find clarity in today’s maelstrom of twitter wars and budget slashings, these unadulterated words penned in the 18th century sound prescient. All our founders, whatever their political bent, agreed that ignorance was a threat to democracy. They envisioned vast horizons for our country but recognized that with liberty came responsibility. Their new government could not shirk from the duty of funding public education.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Jay and their affluent peers, thanks to family privilege, had been afforded the luxury of private tutors or elite academy training; Alexander Hamilton, despite impoverished beginnings, had received the same perks thanks to wealthy benefactors. They were taught to understand Latin and Greek or made fluent in foreign languages. By contrast, for the common child, access to the fundamentals of reading, writing or simple math was severely restricted. Provincial laws in colonies like Connecticut charged every town of 50 homeowners or more “to appoint one to teach children to read and write” yet little was done in practice to abide by this rule. Instruction was meted out on a voluntary basis at home – parents directed recitation of poems about virtue or memorization of passages from the family Bible. Depending upon the household, greater emphasis was placed on the passing down of trade-specific skills; girls might be further exiled from any true introduction to literacy and relegated to painting and needlework; while enslaved children mastered domestic and field chores with infrequent exceptions.
In Rye, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts seemingly stepped in to fill this void; they recruited school-masters as early as 1707 to teach reading and writing of the scriptures to children of the parish as well as Native Americans and enslaved servants. Historian Charles Washington Baird recorded the existence of one school on the Boston Post Road in the “Border Town” of Rye as early as 1739:
“It stood not far from the spot where, thirty years ago, there was a little building which some of our citizens well remember as the place where they acquired the rudiments of knowledge…”
But whatever the basic course offerings were, by 1774 when John Adams passed through the village, he still criticized the caliber of the curriculum as “elementary:” “They have a school for writing and cyphering but no grammar school.”
Notwithstanding the gamut of regional and cultural differences that impacted opportunities for learning, the founders reasoned that if we as a nation were to adhere to our ideals and promises of liberty for all, independence demanded some measure of federal investment in the country’s youngest citizenry. No one believed this more than George Washington whose own schooling had been less than rigorous and interrupted by the death of his father. With respect to the value of the “education of youth,” he declared, “Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.”
Their vision for the future extended well beyond the “three Rs” to advanced intellectual and cultural pursuits and beyond their own life spans as Adams explained to his wife Abigail in 1780:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
And so a consensus that learning mattered was codified even before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Public education was deemed so essential to the success of unifying the states that as delegates contemplated expansion by homesteaders outside New England and the South, the Continental Congress passed two acts – The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (“knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged”). These instruments stipulated that acreage be set aside upon which towns could build public schools; it also allowed the towns to lease or sell the land to create revenues, but those proceeds were to be spent specifically to support public education within their borders.
Soon after the passage of these acts, a one-room schoolhouse in New York City was filled with roughly 40 students. But unlike its counterparts in other states, its sole occupants were the children of freed and enslaved African American men and women. At the forefront of this initiative were Jay and Hamilton. Jay had been the first president of the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves in 1785 and his anti-slavery advocacy would find fruition in the enactment of the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1799. It was not enough for Jay to set enslaved men and women free. It was imperative in his mind that they receive an education so as to be prepared for society. Together Jay and Hamilton established the first African Free School in 1787. So successful was this institution that it began to expand and take in the orphaned and the needy of all races and cultures, eventually becoming the Public School Society of New York. On top of this effort, Jay paid for the tuition of six needy children each year in his hometown of Rye from 1791 to 1793 under the auspices of the church his family had helped charter. Several of the students were girls.
“Sir, I have the pleasure to inform you, respecting those Children whom you support at the School in this Place, that they make as good an improvement of the benefit they received from you as would ordinarily be expected. They have had the advantage of a very good Instructor… He tells me that four of those Children are equal in their improvements to any four of the same age in the whole School.” – Rev. David Foote to John Jay, March 12, 1793
Today, the founders would be proud to see how public education has expanded far beyond the one-room schoolhouse. Academic frontiers are no longer encumbered by walls, race or gender. In fact, the newest enhancements to a STEAM curriculum can be found in a multitude of outdoor classrooms called parks! Still, hurdles exist and one of the greatest obstacles to the education of youth is funding for, and accessibility to, those life changing, hands-on learning experiences called field trips.
Recently, under the leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo, funding for New York State’s Connect Kids to Parks field trip grant program increased from $500,000 to $1 million to support more educational visits to state parks, historic sites and public lands including the Jay Estate in Rye. In its first year, the program funded nearly 750 field trips, serving nearly 30,000 public school children from Title 1 school districts throughout New York State.
“This program creates opportunities for many young New Yorkers to expand their horizons and explore the unparalleled natural beauty of state parks in every corner of this state,” Governor Cuomo said. “Building upon our past success, we will continue to introduce more New York youth to the world-class parks in their own backyards and help connect the next generation of environmental stewards to the great outdoors.”
The Jay Heritage Center is proud to be one of the beneficiaries of this outstanding grant program. In a one-day visit, these young citizens are exposed to history, environmental science, literature, architecture, and art. Students can even see an original 18th century slate pencil or handwritten letters from some of Rye’s earliest students up close! Jay, Washington, Adams and all the founders would hopefully applaud the feedback our park and other parks across New York State are receiving about “this caliber of sophisticated and meaningful instruction.”
“The ultimate confirmation was on the faces of our students, as they absorbed and were engaged in the many facets and opportunities for learning – the dramatization and playacting, employing imagination and empathy, looking closely and searching for meaning in details, reading original documents, examining the prevailing political and economic interests and ways of life of the time, touching precious artifacts and documents, and participating in the Property's many activities. There was a great deal to think about during the program, and long afterward.
Barry Blitt, Jonah Winter with school group