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Washington and Lincoln: Education Champions in History

Amidst ongoing political squabbles surrounding the role and importance of K-12 education, it’s helpful to occasionally step back and look at history.

America’s public education system faces serious challenges. It’s also undergone some remarkably positive changes.  

Where a quality education was once something only wealthy, white, males could aspire to, today a quality education is considered a fundamental right for every child regardless of race, gender, or the economic status of their families.

Yes; the achievement gap is real. Yes; we have a long way to go to ensure every child receives the same quality of education. But, for all its warts, public education continues to play a vital role in leveling the playing field for students and families.

The power of education to transform society isn’t exactly a novel concept.

Our nation’s founding fathers were among some of the most vocal proponents of the connection between education and success.

In 1784, five years before he would become America’s first President, George Washington wrote in the language of the time to friend and education advocate George Chapman:

The best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people, will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must failOf the importance of education our Assemblies, happily, seem fully impressed; they establishing new, & giving further endowments to the old Seminaries of learning, and I persuade myself will leave nothing unessayed to cultivate literature & useful knowledge, for the purpose of qualifying the rising generation for patrons of good government, virtue & happiness.”  

In a time of immense uncertainty for his new country, Washington understood that the fate of the nation was highly dependent on the talent and knowledge of the next generation of leaders.

Eighty years later, President Abraham Lincoln would lead the country through another period of uncertainty, cementing his position as one of America’s great presidents.

But it was in 1832, when a 23 year-old Lincoln announced his first political run for the Illinois General Assembly, where he laid out his beliefs about the vital role that education plays in our democracy:  

“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves. For my part, I desire to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present, and should be gratified to have it in my power to contribute something to the advancement of any measure which might have a tendency to accelerate the happy period.”

This President’s Day, as we honor the leaders who founded, protected, and saved this country, let’s also remember their shared convictions about the critical role that education plays in each of our lives.

What are some of your favorite quotes about the power and promise of education? Tell us in the comments.