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Education. For some of us it’s a dirty word. It conjures up memories of classrooms full of constraints where our most natural gifts go unused or worse, are condemned. But education can and should occur outside the classroom and by our own impetus.  At least, so think many great minds throughout history. As circumspect and effective citizens and veterans, acquiring knowledge is our own responsibility. If we are to consider ourselves contributing members in the effort to maintain America’s greatness, we must pursue lifelong improvement for both our benefit and society’s. Our founding fathers and great men throughout history found an intelligent and principled populous to be fundamental to the health of free nation.

“Reader!—You have been bred in a land abounding with men, able in arts, learning, and knowledges manifold, this man in one, this in another, few in many, none in all. But there is one art, of which every man should be master, the art of Reflection. If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all? In like manner, there is one knowledge, which it is every man’s interest and duty to acquire, namely, Self-knowledge: or to what end was man alone, of all animals, endued by the Creator with the faculty of self-consciousness.” ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Aids to Reflection



Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Consider this quote from 1997: “It was education which would make the republican structure and the democratic content of the new union of states engines of peaceful progress.” ~Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. And this act of Congress in the 18th century: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” ~Northwest Ordinance of 1787

This is the foundation on which we as a nation were built. So intrinsic to our national psyche was education that Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, upon a trip to the U.S. in 1830s, made these remarks: “Enlightenment, more than anything else, makes [a republic] possible. The Americans are no more virtuous than other people, but they are infinitely more enlightened (I’m speaking of the great mass) than any other people I know. The mass of people who understand public affairs, who are acquainted with laws and precedents, who have a sense of the interests, well understood, of the nation, and the faculty to understand them, is greater here than any other place in the world… The American people, taking them all in all, are not only the most enlightened in the world, but (something I place well above that advantage), they are the people whose practical, political education is the most advanced.”

It’s a popular contention that America’s focus on personal education, along with limited government, were directly causal in our country’s meteoric rise to become the world’s foremost power. Again, from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “One of the happiest consequences of the absence of government (when a people is fortunate enough to be able to do without it, which is rare) is the development of individual strength that inevitably follows from it. Each man learns to think, to act for himself, without counting on the support of an outside force which, however vigilant one supposes it to be, can never answer all social needs. Man, thus accustomed to seek his well-being only through his own efforts, raises himself in his own opinion as he does in the opinion of others; his soul becomes larger and stronger at the same time.”

In effect, education makes a real, healthy, thriving independence possible. The two cannot exist apart. But one cursory look at America today shows our focus on education isn’t what it once was. The are currently seven million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million cannot read well enough to complete most job applications. According to National Institute for Literacy in 2007, an astounding 80% of American households did not purchase or read a single book.

In 2007, an astounding 80% of American households did not purchase or read a single book.

The Princeton review did an interesting analysis, an anecdote for our declining cerebral capacity. An excerpt from Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: “The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates of 2000, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas addressed the crowd using a vocabulary suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the 2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high seventh-grade level (7.6) . 27 This obvious decline was, perhaps, raised slightly by Barack Obama in 2008, but the trends above are clear.”


Reading Level of 600 Presidential Speeches Since 1800. Courtesy: Vocativ

Reading Level of 600 Presidential Speeches Since 1800. Courtesy: Vocativ


So then, what now? An indictment of our current educational system is easy but too simple. The DOE cannot ultimately be held liable for our current predicament of mass under-education. We’ve been outpaced by many Asian and European countries, and the disparity continues to grow. If America is to become great again, as all candidates in the current presidential race claim is possible, it will not be because of any politician. A culture of education and virtue culminating in a zeal for learning and virtue must be established on our own volition, in our homes and team rooms before any public institution will reflect the change.

A culture of education and virtue culminating in a zeal for learning and virtue must be established on our own volition.

Take this as both encouragement and a charge. Lead your family, your team and community in seeking continual education and self-improvement. Study history and politics. Read the great thinkers and campaigners. Watch biographical and historical documentaries. Argue the merits of what you’ve studied with conviction. The onus to seek knowledge, to construct a cogent worldview, to serve our nation discriminately and with distinction, is on us all. Let us not neglect it.



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Nate Carlson served in the Active Duty Air Force as an Air Liaison Officer (ALO) and JTAC and continues to serve in the Air National Guard. OEF vet. Nate earned his BS in Civil Engineering from Clemson University, and is currently working for an international surgical/healthcare company.

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