land of the free, home of the…educated?

John Adams, Founding Father and education advocate.  Image licensed under Creative Commons.
John Adams, Founding Father and education advocate. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

I’m reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, and one thing that has struck me again and again is how strongly Adams believed that education was essential to the success of the American system.  As a younger man writing about what he thought a government should be, Adams wrote:

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

Later, after the Revolution had ended and he began advocating for the type of government that would be instituted for the United States in its wake, Adams wrote:

Knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation, instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.

Even at the end of the 1700s, Adams understood that the best way to lift people out of poverty was through education.  And Adams also fully believed that educated people not bogged down by poverty made the best citizens, able to be engaged with and participatory in our truly revolutionary system of democracy.

Over the years that followed, we sometimes lost our way.  Sometimes we were eager to say that there was nothing we could do to overcome poverty, because there was nothing we could do about poor people’s intelligence– it was just genetics, you see.  Maybe the best we could hope for was to give them welfare and other government assistance and hope for the best, but we’d always have poor people, and it was just a fact.

Well, now finally, we are coming back around to that which John Adams already knew so many years ago.  Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column today ties in with what I have been reading in John Adams and with what I have been thinking ever since I first heard of Geoffrey Canada about a year ago and read the book about his efforts in the Harlem Children’s Zone, Paul Tough’s Whatever it Takes.  What Canada and Adams and Kristof all know is that intelligence is NOT innate.  In the debate of nature over nurture, when it comes down to it, intelligence seems to be a result of nurture.  I remember reading in Whatever it Takes that the single biggest predictor of a child’s future cognitive abilities is the sheer number of words they hear from age 0-3.  Kristoff mentions this in his column, writing:

The most decisive weapons in the war on poverty aren’t transfer payments but education, education, education. For at-risk households, that starts with social workers making visits to encourage such basic practices as talking to children. One study found that a child of professionals (disproportionately white) has heard about 30 million words spoken by age 3; a black child raised on welfare has heard only 10 million words, leaving that child at a disadvantage in school.

The next step is intensive early childhood programs, followed by improved elementary and high schools, and programs to defray college costs.

I told my husband about the connection between talking to kids and their success in school as they get older, and it’s something that he’s incorporated into his pediatrics practice.  He talks to parents about how they can *make* their kids smart, just by having conversations with them as they go about their day.  It sounds simple and easy, but it’s news to the parents that simply talking to their kids can really and truly make them smart.  The parents leave the conversation empowerd that, regardless of their own level of education or cognitive abilities, they can have a hand in giving their kids a more successful future.

Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone work to help all parents, despite their own poverty and lack of education, become their children’s first teachers, using programs like Baby College to pass on the “talk to your kids” message and help ensure that parents won’t use physical punishment on their children.  And it’s a program that, in combination with early childhood education and a charter school, is truly producing results.

President Obama has mentioned many times his admiration for Geoffrey Canada’s work, and his desire to replicate the HCZ in 20 cities by the end of his first term.  I hope he does it.  In the meantime, I hope that more and more people can become aware of how poverty reduction and education reform go hand in hand.  I don’t know about you, but just knowing how achievable a solution really is gives me immense hope and optimism.  We really CAN do something about poverty in this country, not just lifting one or two high-achievers out of every 100 out of poverty, but entire communities.  Geoffrey Canada is doing it in Harlem, but we should be living up to the legacy of our Founders, like John Adams, and we should be doing it for every child in America.

2 Replies to “land of the free, home of the…educated?”

  1. I’m only about halfway through John Adams, yet I concur 100%. Parents need to be the role models for their children, not pop stars, not athletes, not celebrities . . . real honest-to-goodness people you can look up to. Part of that responsibility lies in being a solid part of your child’s life–communicate at every opportunity.

    My son does very well in school, though I certainly can’t take credit for it. He applies himself and I’m vocal in my respectful praise and steadfast in my guidance when need be. I, too, wish only that he be a solid citizen when he reaches adulthood, and not take for granted all that comes his way.

    As a side note, I have been genuinely touched by the total affection and love John and Abigail shared. Their story alone is inspiring.


    1. Definitely, re: the love story of John and Abigail. It’s probably the main reason I picked up the book after watching the mini-series, because their relationship was so real and so loving.


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