Freedom, Education, and the Constitution
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” ~Thomas Jefferson
No educational blog would be complete without a discussion on the topic of freedom, and we are going to talk about freedom a lot on this blog. By way of introduction to the articles on freedom and the Constitution that will follow, in this article, we explore the link between education and freedom as well as establish the fundamental assumptions by which we will evaluate Constitutional principles in future articles.
Freedom and Education - Two Sides of the Same Coin
Thomas Jefferson once said that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be” (Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey on 6 Jan. 1816). Where education abounds and the study of history is prized and encouraged, freedom tends to blossom. The classical Greek and Roman philosophers who wrote on and taught the principles of freedom that fueled the collective creativity of the Founding Fathers did so within free and democratic societies. In the more modern American experiment, it is no accident that the unprecedented freedoms provided for in the US Constitution preceded an explosion of knowledge, education, and technological advancement the likes of which the world has never before seen. As other nations have followed the example of the United States and raised the flag of liberty, the educational, technological, and economic benefits thereof have rippled across the globe.
On the timeline of history, our modern era of prosperity stands in stark contrast to the multitude of dictators who, since the beginning of time, have used ignorance as a tool to keep their subjects at heel, for an ignorant people incapable of seeing further than the meager circle of their own experience seldom have reason to believe that things could be anything other than what they are. During the Middle Ages, for example, very few were educated, and illiteracy was the norm. Even religious knowledge was tightly controlled. The clergy alone had access to scripture, and religious services were held in what had become an antiquated language not understood by the worshipers. All that began to change, however, with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Books became more plentiful giving common people access to events, people, and ideas beyond what they could possibly experience on their own. Many 16th and 17th century Reformers dedicated their lives to illuminating a dark age with the light of truth, with knowledge “of things both in heaven and in earth” (D&C 88:79). Those Reformers saw their work as so vitally important that many of them willingly paid the ultimate price for their efforts.
It should come as no surprise that, as people began exploring the scriptures and the ideas of great thinkers and philosophers from throughout history, the oppressive practices of their society began to chafe against the principles and truths that were illuminating their minds and lifting their spirits. Without such chafing, would the pilgrims have ever left their homeland to seek something better for their families? Even supposing they had, how could our Constitution have ever been conceived without the knowledge of ancient peoples and the principles of freedom they discovered to build upon? Without that knowledge, how could men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison have been inspired that something better was even possible, and how could they have known that the actions of King George III (the figurehead for what was, at the time, a very progressive form of government) were in violation of fundamental human rights and principles of righteous government? It was true for the Founders, and it is true for us, that education illuminates the mind and opens windows to the past that allow us to build on the triumphs of those who came before and to learn from their mistakes. Without it, progress is impossible as we are doomed to merely repeat, rather than make, history.
The War For Freedom
The American Revolution was one episode in a war for freedom that is as old as time itself. We learn in the book of Revelation that before the foundation of the world “there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not;...and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:7-9). Through modern revelation we learn that the war in heaven was fought over the principle of freedom. Satan and his followers were “cast out [of heaven] into the earth” because “Satan rebelled against [God], and sought to destroy the agency of man, which… the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3). Since that time, Satan has continued to wage war against God-given freedom wherever and whenever it was found. The majority of our world’s history is a repeating scene of tyranny, bloodshed, oppression, and technological and societal stagnation marked with rare and fleeting bursts of light and freedom.
A Huge Leap Forward
It was the writings of those champions of freedom who flourished during these rare bursts of light that inspired the Founding Fathers to take the cause of freedom to the next level. They studied extensively the democratic principles of the Greeks, Romans, and Anglo Saxons as well as the system of elected judges used by the Israelites. It was the study of these ancient civilizations that gave them a belief and hope that government by and for the people was actually possible. The principles of sound government that these ancient civilizations discovered gave the Founders the foundation they needed to build a novel and robust system of republican government that was both elegant in its simplicity and extraordinarily beautiful in how harmoniously it blended all those ancient principles into a complete whole.
To accomplish such a feat, God raised up “wise men… unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). Of the Founders, President Wilford Woodruff declared that “those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits . . . [and] were inspired of the Lord” (CR, April 1898, p. 89). It is nothing short of miraculous that such a group ended up at the same place at the same time, each willing to set aside regional squabbles and look further into the future than their own political ambitions to create “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man” [William Ewart Gladstone: Life and Public Services, ed. Thomas W. Handford (Chicago: The Dominion Co., 1899), p. 323].
The reason this “most wonderful work” came into existence at all was that it was not dependent on the “brain and purpose of man” alone. Before signing the Declaration of Independence, and speaking of the infant struggle for freedom, John Adams said, “There’s a Divinity which shapes our ends” [quoted in The Works of Daniel Webster, vol. 1 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), p. 133]. The God of heaven shapes the destiny of his children, and there are few times in history where his finger is more plainly visible than in the events that culminated in the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Joseph Smith said, “The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner” (HC 3:304). He also gave voice to the hopes and dreams of those who sacrificed so much to bring us this heavenly banner when he said, “May those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution... be established forever” (D&C 109:54).
The War Continues
The great enemy of freedom, however, does not wish for the Constitution to be established forever. As they scoured history for principles of righteous government, our Founders also learned how fragile and fleeting free governments can be, how quickly democracy devolves into despotism, and how susceptible freedom is to weathering. The Roman Empire, for example, began as a city-state governed by its citizens, but its democratic principles were eventually abandoned as citizen participation in government at Rome became ever more impractical as the empire expanded geographically. Over time, the governing elites in Rome became ever more tyrannical and out of touch with the citizens whose freedoms they were supposed to protect. An example from the Book of Mormon, though not something the Founders would have had access to, tells a similar story. The Nephite nation strayed from its founding principles of righteous, virtuous leadership and election by the people (Mosiah 29) when corruption and bribery became the deciding factor in elections. This quickly led to the complete collapse of the government and the establishment of many small, tribal dictatorships (3 Ne. 6-7).
The Constitution’s brilliant system of checks and balances does a remarkable job of insulating and slowing the weathering of freedoms that plagued earlier democracies and republics, but it is not invincible. No sooner had the ink dried on the ratifying signature of the Constitution than Satan began enlisting his servants to batter against and undermine the foundational principles of freedom on which our country and its Constitution are founded. Speaking of this, Ezra Taft Benson said, “For the past two centuries, those who do not prize freedom have chipped away at every major clause of our Constitution until today we face a crisis of great dimensions” (The Constitution—A Heavenly Banner, 16 Sep. 1986, BYU Devotional).
The great enemy of freedom is predictable. Education, or the lack thereof, was an effective tool of oppression before, and it continues to be so today, but there’s a new twist this time. Rather than restrict knowledge altogether, he has succeeded in restricting only certain types of knowledge. Yes, we live in the information age, but the shear volume of information at our fingertips leaves us with the false impression of being informed. Quantity blinds us to the absence of quality and to the fact that we are being shielded from fundamental truths and principles. It is no accident that American History, the reading of classical literature, and the study of Constitutional principles have slowly been edged out of our schools’ curriculum. As a result, we find ourselves in the precarious position of drifting from our morals, principles, and values like those lost civilizations of old. Without understanding fundamental principles of freedom, we are blinded to the oppression and government overreach of our day. We have lost freedoms, and many of us do not even realize it. Some of us may have even applauded it when it happened.
What we need is a Constitutional revival. We need desperately to understand the Constitution and the principles of government that it embodies, and our children need to understand it because they are the future leaders of our nation. We and they need to be empowered to analyze current issues and determine whether they promote or undermine freedom, not based on what is popular but based on the application of timeless principles of government. Education is how we get there and how we bring about this much-needed revival. Abraham Lincoln eloquently expressed this when he said, “Let [the Constitution] be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling-books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation” [Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, vol. 1 (New York: Francis D. Tandy Co., 1905), p.43].
I want to do my part to bring about this revival and spread Constitutional truths throughout our communities, our schools, and the country. We teach our students these principles at Liberty Youth Academy, and many private schools and home schools around the nation do the same, but we also want to help spread this message and these concepts to those who are no longer in school. To that end, in future blog posts we will explore Constitutional principles based on the following key assumptions:
The Constitution is inspired of God and
It’s Founders were imperfect men of faith that God raised up and inspired to bring it about.
Please read these articles and share them. As you learn these principles, apply them to contemporary issues. Decide for yourselves if what the government is doing today is strengthening or eroding the freedoms purchased as such a steep cost. Then go and do something about it.