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The Learning of Liberty

The Educational Ideas of the American Founders

Lorraine Smith Pangle and Thomas L. Pangle

220 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-0746-4, $24.95

Book Cover ImageAmerican schools are in a state of crisis.

At the root of our current perplexity, beneath the difficulties with funding, social problems, and low test scores, festers a serious uncertainty as to what the focus and goals of education should be. We are increasingly haunted by the suspicion that our educational theories and institutions have lost sight of the need to perpetuate a core of moral and civic knowledge that is essential for any citizen's education, and indeed for any individual's happiness. Mining the Founders' rich reflections on education, the Pangles suggest, can help us recover a clearer sense of perspective and purpose.

With a commanding knowledge of the history of political philosophy, the authors illustrate how the Founders both drew upon and transformed the ideas of earlier philosophers of education such as Plato, Xenophon, Milton, Bacon, and Locke. They trace the emergence of a new American ideal of public education that puts civic instruction at its core to sustain a high quality of leadership and public discourse while producing resourceful, self-reliant members of a uniquely fluid society.

The Pangles also explore the wisdom and the weaknesses inherent in Jefferson's attempt to create a comprehensive system of schooling that would educate parents and children and offer unprecedented freedom of choice to university students. An original closing section examines the Founders' ideas for bringing all aspects of society to bear on education. It also shows how Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin presented their own lives as models for the education of others and analyzes the subtle, provocative moral philosophy implicit in the self-depiction of each.

The Learning of Liberty is historical and scholarly yet relentlessly practical, seeking from the Founders useful insights into the human soul and the character of good education. Even if the Founders do not provide us with ready-made solutions to many of our problems, the Pangles suggest, a study of their writings can give us a more realistic perspective, by teaching that our bewilderment is in some measure an outgrowth of unresolved tensions embedded in the Founders' own conceptions of republicanism, religion, education, and human nature.

"Essential reading for every student and scholar of American education. I found myself wondering why no one had written this book before." --Diane Ravitch, author of The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Time and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education

"This thoughtful and thought-provoking book demonstrates that the contradictions that informed the educational theories of even the noblest and most generous Founders continue to haunt American education today, notably the challenge of reconciling the claims of a secular democracy with the claims of excellence, honor, and reverence that are necessary to individuals and to the quality of our political life."--Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, author of Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism

"The authors make a powerful case that in a democratic republic, education must focus on civic and moral questions. Their sympathetic and critical account of the ideas and lives of such men as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin is fascinating in itself and a superb way to illuminate the issues. No one seriously interested in the character of education in America should miss this book."--Donald Kagan, author of The Fall of the Athenian Empire and coauthor of The Western Heritage

"This wonderful book reminds us of the importance that the Founders placed on education. Their ideas are full of sustenance and provocation for anyone interested in improving our schools."--Lynne V. Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

"The Pangles direct our attention to what is best in America, the thought of our Founders, and make it available to the debate on education today. This is a work of careful scholarship and political philosophy in high style."--Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., author of America's Constitutional Soul

"A truly admirable work written with genuine grace. To my knowledge, this is the fullest, richest study of the subject."--Lance Banning, author of The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology

THOMAS L. PANGLE holds the Joe R. Long Endowed Chair in Democratic Studies in the Dept. of Government at the University of Texas in Austin.

LORRAINE SMITH PANGLE is Professor of Government and Co-Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas in Austin.

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