Skip to Content

Education and the Common Good

John T. Casteen III
December 8, 1998

Excerpts from a speech given to the Delegate Assembly of the
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

History as we teach it–and we teach it in every subject in which we address the young in our schools and our colleges–often involves dissociating concepts or institutions from the persons who made them. Part of the struggle that you and I, whether we are black or white, whether we teach in schools or colleges, whether we care or do not care about Thomas Jefferson–or indeed about Sally Hemings–part of the struggle that our nation has begun to attempt to address, even in the context of the impeachment proceedings in the Congress, is the struggle with what we are as a nation and what that means to us as individual people.

I’m struck by the phenomenon that in almost every era there is a time of accounting for the oversimplification of history as we tell it. Sometimes the accountings are driven…by the sciences. Sometimes they are driven by late revelations of documentary facts. Sometimes, as with Lytton Strachey in the book Eminent Victorians, they are driven by vicious gossip. The oversimplification that argues that innocence is our national mode is ultimately misleading. It…deprives us of [our] understanding [of] ourselves as a people.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, wrote in the New York Times "It’s a sign of the deterioration of our culture that people are so obsessed with the private lives of these people. It’s part of the Starr phenomenon." He wasn't’t writing about Jefferson, he was writing about other people who are in the news these days. But think with me for a moment. We know intellectually that the history of a people is not the history of great men. University of Virginia law students taught my law faculty something important about two years ago when a new gallery was opened in the front of the School of Law and the faculty of the law school decided to hang the former deans’ portraits in the gallery. The Virginia Law Women association hung placards at both ends of the gallery, and the placards had on them "Dead White Men’s Hall."

There is another tradition. I teach a course periodically that addresses the ways in which people–whether nations, or ethnic groups, or indeed genders–describe for themselves and for their descendants where they came from. My students read the five books of Moses; they read Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography; they read De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; and they read Alex Haley’s Roots. In the year in which Haley died, he came to Charlottesville. He sat with my students one evening, and he talked about his method and John Hope Franklin’s method of recapturing a past that has been all but systematically destroyed. He spoke about a past that exists in wonderful vibrancy in documents of history that are both paper and human, and in memory that is recoverable, as Haley himself demonstrated amply in his work.

He argued that the evidence itself–physical evidence, objects brought by slave families for the entertainment of their children, ritual objects found in the floors of houses occupied by slaves, art objects, domestic objects, but also objects that tell stories, objects that contain the memory of the legends that people brought with them–that in those documents of history, challenging though they are to conventional history because we’re not taught to read documents that are matters of clay and of metal or of memory, we find the evidence to assert the unique dignity and force of humankind disenfranchised. And he argues that the franchise that constitutes ownership in this civilization comes in recognizing the unique dignity of the persons whose identities we define day after day, in the gestures that we make to assert what we are as a culture. Think again of my women law students, feeling that they had to articulate a protest, to say simply, "We are here."

Let me talk for a moment about the technology of memory, because when we think about how these issues begin to relate to teaching in schools, we deal with a wealth that has simply not been accessible before. If one is interested in demonstrating these physical artifacts, the documents of memory that Haley talked about, one can go into the Web and punch in… "Monticello" …push the enter key and then hit the first link that appears, because the link today has to do with something that was not relevant to the kind of history that was practiced before Dr. Foster published his thoughtful and modest paper saying, "Here is what the chromosomes say." What you will find is the record of Sally Hemings, an extraordinary woman, a woman who, despite the notion that she is not knowable, is knowable. She is described. People found her remarkable. She has a complex and fascinating history that your students and mine can experience face-to-face because they can read descriptions of her made directly by her children, by Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren. You can begin to understand what it was about her that made her a founder of a kind of dynasty, but a dynasty that history, which fails to read the artifacts that matter to the people, simply overlooks. You can find letters exchanged between her children and Jefferson’s grandchildren and you can begin to get a bit of an understanding, not of what happened or what didn't happen, but of how little we would understand about our own cultural history if we had not learned, as Alex Haley did, that history is written in objects and artifacts and documents that we simply do not read.

My historian colleague Ed Ayers, to go to a third example, began working about 10 years ago on the notion that documents not typically used by historians might tell a different story about the history of the American Southeast in the years of Reconstruction and following. Ayers’ first major book, a book called The Promise of The New South, is a statistical analysis of how everyday people, how you and I, lived a hundred years ago, where we bought merchandise, how we financed our houses, what we were paid, how our houses were laid out, what clothes we wore, what we thought about. He goes into documents that no one has thought about as sources of historical information–the records of crossroads stores, who bought what, the records of farm cycles, which farm families prospered, which did not, and why–and he began to articulate a vision of a different kind of history.

Now Ed Ayers, like you and like me, is not an enemy of the great leaders we celebrate in our schools. He is something else. He became, because of his work on that book, a friend of the people, and he defined something that is called "public history," the history of the life of the public during times of intense change and intense stress. He has a web site, which you can get to through the University of Virginia’s home page if you would like to see it. It supports a project called "The Valley of the Shadow." It is an electronic database that allows us to … study the daily life of women and men who really lived during the period of the American Civil War in two towns, one in Pennsylvania, one in Virginia…. He demonstrates the documentary accessibility of the lives of black families, of white families, of immigrant families, of wealthy families, of poor families, and he begins to demonstrate some of the effects that a time of catastrophic warfare had on family life, on individual lives, on the choices people could make, on what they could understand, what they could possess, what they could keep in this period of the Civil War.

What we begin to look at is the possibility of another kind of history entirely. Not a history that belongs to people who have power, but a history that belongs to us as the American people, and a history that begins to push us, perhaps to compel us, if we are fortunate, toward a different grasp of where we came from, of what we mean, and ultimately–because we are the Southern Association [of Colleges and Schools]–of what it means to empower children, young people, young adults, adults, by virtue of the acts of teaching and learning that take place in schools and colleges.

I think it is obvious that one of our obligations as teachers is to address honestly and completely, and with documentary certainty, what is known of the nature of the people whom we define as the great figures of our civilization, while insisting always that there are other kinds of documents, the documents of Alex Haley, …the documents about Sally Hemings, that demonstrate that as a people we are something other than an assemblage of icons, that our history is a human history of women and men who struggled, who contested a system in many instances, who suffered indignities that are all but unimaginable from the perspective of 1998, and yet who persevered, …who endured, who established their families, who established these dynasties that we’re beginning to understand because of Haley’s work, because of Dr. Eugene Foster’s work.

Second, it seems to me…that even the best documented of lives deserves to be examined in the context of the institutions that have influenced it, as well as in the context of biographical information. Thomas Jefferson is called by some of our most thoughtful historians "the American sphinx." The reason is that the more one knows of him, the less one knows of him. I have spent a good bit of my adult life involved in documentary analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s leavings. My interest, very frankly, has not been his personal life. My interest has been the documents by which he defined the values of our schools, our colleges, our nation, and increasingly, in recent times–especially since a conference that we sponsored four years ago about the legacies of Thomas Jefferson, where scholars examined very carefully the underpinnings of the kind of scientific work that Dr. Foster has done–about the evident disparity between the oversimplified version of this icon and the emerging reality that comes from, again, a Haleyesque examination of the evidence that lies behind the simplified icon.

My colleague Julian Bond was the moderator of the conference that I described…. A reporter challenged him on the question of how could he–as an historian, as a figure of prominence in our own civil rights struggle, as one who shapes the minds of young people by teaching–…take an interest in a man whose real identity behind the icon was under such assault? Julian’s answer was this. He said, "Look." He said, "I think." And he said, "I can’t think about human freedom without quoting him."

What’s the value of this for us as educators? Julian’s argument is ultimately this: that in the words that seek to guarantee the common good, the public good–whatever the admixture of human motives behind them, whatever the complexity of subsequent or previous life experience–in those words we find the values by which we test our own accomplishments, our own experiences, our own contributions as human beings. Listen to some of those words: In 1816, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." And contrast those words to Thurgood Marshall’s words about the complexity of Jefferson’s inability to break the influence of slavery within the community over which he presided as the owner of Monticello.

For Jefferson, the common good–the good of the people, the good of that public that Ed Ayers studies with those documentary databases, the public that Alex Haley studies with his extraordinary documentary databases–the public good, the common good, is the first good. And that good is grounded–theoretically perhaps, but for us it must be grounded in real practice–in something fundamental about human freedom. Education in this society, as in all societies, is the one and only guarantor of the existence of human freedom. The reason is fairly simple. Human beings are free in their own minds first and foremost. If they are not free in what they believe about themselves, they are not free.

Another statement [of Thomas Jefferson’s]: "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness. Preach a crusade against ignorance. Establish and improve the law for educating the common people." And again, in a letter to James Madison during the Constitutional debates: "Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced on their good senses we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."

These are remarkable principles. Education is the foundation of the common good. Education is personal freedom. When asked about the importance of knowledge to the young, he made, in one context, a statement that we must understand in another, and that is that "knowledge is truth, knowledge is power, knowledge is happiness."

Now where are we as educators? We have–each and every one of us has–reason in our lives to discover the worth of every young person with whom we have dealings. We have cause to learn to respect. If we have not, we have missed the daily lessons of confronting the young our classrooms. We have had reasons to become conscious in our own inner selves… of the fundamental rights that belong to every young person, and of the link between learning and the capacity to achieve those rights.

We inherit an imperfect world when we move to adulthood. We inherit obligations along with our freedom. The obligation that we have embraced as professionals is an obligation to every child who comes into every classroom. It does have to do with the quality of learning. It does have to do with our large expectations about the quality of life. But at its most fundamental level, it has something to do with compensation for the inequities of history, with a dedicated commitment to the right of every child to be personally free, with an understanding that in the documentary history, in the memory–whether it’s genetic or paper or a memory made of shards of pottery–that in that memory lies the source of dignity for every young person whom we confront, and of what we can hope to do as teachers to open up those memories.

If you have not read Alex Haley in recent times, do it, because what you find there is an extraordinary moral sense of where the documents might be and a devastating demonstration of the inadequacy of history that we have been taught in schools in most of our times. But then, go further and start using the modern technologies. Listen to the words of Sally Hemings’ children. Listen to the words by which we think in large, abstract terms about rights, and realize how fundamental to individual enslaved people those words become as they imagined in 1860 or 1870 a different kind of future for their children.

I had at my home, on the morning when the New York Times carried the report of Dr. Foster’s story in Nature, a physician, Gus White, who is African-American and is the chief of orthopedic surgery at Harvard. Gus and I were sitting at breakfast, reading the Times. I pushed the paper across the table and said, "There’s the story." I told him the previous night that I knew it was coming because I’d seen an early edition of the Nature story. He read it very quietly. He thought for a few minutes. He said, "That may be the best argument I know for finally discovering what it is to be a people united." He said, "There’s the obligation for the future. Acknowledge, understand, celebrate the dignity of the people, build on that foundation."

My argument today is this: Embrace our history in all of its breadth and complexity. Recognize that in the hard lessons of history we find the challenges that make us human, that allow us to begin to understand why it is that our neighbors have perspectives different from ours, but at the same time to begin to search together for common remedies. Understand that freedom is not easy, that freedom is not ours to take away from someone else, that the business of educating young people is empowering them, is giving them the knowledge to be free, to be happy, to know truth, and having done that, holding out for them the kinds of aspirations that can build a nation that lives the words that Julian Bond finds essential to thinking about human freedom. Schools make people free. If they do not, nothing else does. That is the job that you and I share.