The Education of the American Founders

“Dad had enough gall to be divided into three parts,” opens one of America’s beloved tales, Cheaper by the Dozen, published in 1948. To the audience of the day, this colorful description would evoke a commonplace pun from the ubiquitously read Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which opens “All Gaul is divided into three parts” (or Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres as the Latin student would have had to translate).

The chances are, neither you nor your children have read Julius Caesar and his famous Gallic Wars. However, your grandparents very likely did, and nearly every educated (certainly college educated) American for hundreds of years before that. What changed, and why does it matter?

America has been robbed of true education

John Adams, the second president of the United States and one of the original Founding Fathers wrote to his teenage son, John Quincy, who would later become the 6th U.S. president:

“I wish to turn your thoughts early to such studies as will afford you the most solid Instruction and improvement for the part which may be allotted you to act on the stage of life. There is no history, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides, an author of whom I hope you will make yourself perfect master.”

Letter from John Adams to his son John Quincy Adams, Philadelphia, August 11, 1777

Like Julius Caesar, most Americans haven’t read, and perhaps even heard of Thucydides. If that is you, you are not alone! The books and authors that were essential and foundational to the American founders (and generations before and after them) have been stripped from our schools and curriculum over the last 100 years.

This is not a coincidence. These books and ideas, and the art of wrestling with them (once the core of American education) are essential to a free people. As Dr. Scott Postma of Kepler Education says in the mini-documentary We’ve Been Schooled (WATCH: 11 min), “to understand why the modern man has become so dependent on the State, we need look no further than our public education system.”

It would be easy to focus on today’s falling standards, the woke ideology taught in schools, or just glance back a moment at the rich education that was so common to previous generations to know that something needs to be retrieved. But these are past and present comparisons and miss the even bigger picture that is essential to understand if we are to renew true education: what is education?

It’s Time to Reclaim Real, Freeing Education

The education that we have lost has a name: Classical Education, or the Liberal Arts. The word liberal used here has nothing to do with our common use of the word in politics and culture today. Liberal comes from the Latin liber, meaning “free,” and historically described the kind of education expected of a freeman–especially one in a position of leadership, like landowners, lawmakers, innovators. It is the education that equips students with the tools of learning. It teaches how to learn, how to think, how to reason, and how to persuade. This is why nearly every US President was trained in the Liberal Arts, and so many current CEOs and leaders around the world have Liberal Arts degrees. In fact, there is one institution that still has nearly every graduate read Thucydides: West Point Military Academy. Even today, those who are training elite leaders still recognize the essential education that was once commonplace to every American.

The opposite of the Liberal Arts are the Servile Arts, those arts and skills related to “how to do a thing” and not “why to do a thing.” And historically this was the education given to servants, slaves, and the lower classes. If you examine the education students are commonly given today, especially in college, you will recognize these servile arts have taken over our education system. Why? Because those steering our education system value citizens trained to be cogs in a machine, and dependent on the state. Free men and women who know how to think, how to question, and how to write are dangerous to tyrants who want to control a people.1

The ability of the American founders to carefully draft our Constitution was not created in a vacuum. It came from generations steeped in Scripture and the great books. They read the Bible, they read Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Plutarch, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Augustine, Dante, Milton, and so many others. And it deeply informed who they were as Americans. So much so that George Washington was called the “Cincinnatus of the West” (after the 5th century B.C. Roman).

(Photo: Statue of George Washington dressed in a Roman toga resigning his commission, a reference to his imitation of Cincinnatus.)

The American education system has destroyed the Liberal Arts by watering down the curriculum in high school and often replacing great books with woke books. The career preparation we now have in schools (in place of real education) used to be done primarily through apprenticeships. This hijacking of the Liberal Arts has been so successful that we now respond to the “shell” that remains of the Liberal Arts in college with the joke, “Want fries with that?”.

How do we Revive Classical Education?

While much damage has been done, this is not the first time in history that true learning has languished and had to be reclaimed. In fact, it was the church throughout the Middle Ages that preserved many classical texts for future generations. Christians not only founded the first universities in Europe, but made a classical education (a Liberal Arts education) the cornerstone of higher education. In early America we see how Christian this education was in the founding statements of Harvard College.

Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well [that] the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him (Prov. 2:3).

Harvard College, Rules and Precepts, 1646.

I believe that a retrieval of classical education is impossible without the perspective and foundation our American founders and the founders of Harvard University shared. The renewal of Classical Education must be Christian. To try to revive classical education that is not explicitly Christian is like trying to regain a cultural appreciation for fine wine, but ignoring the art of viticulture. Christianity is the soil in which classical education grew. Even the pre-christian pagan works were cherished, preserved, and used by Christians, so much so that the 4th century pagan emperor Julian the Apostate forbade Christians from teaching the classical texts (pre-Christian epics like the Aeneid of Vergil) in their schools. The cancelling of the classics by those opposed to Christendom is nothing new!

Practical Steps

The first step is probably the hardest for many Americans. I don’t believe it is possible to give your children a truly classical Christian education if they are in government schools. You must opt-out. Whether you choose homeschooling, private education, or online classes like Kepler Education, take the step of faith, and get your children out!

Once you have made that decision, there are so many wonderful options. I am a second generation homeschooler, and homeschool my own children. When my parents homeschooled us overseas, there was very little available in terms of support or curriculum. Today, there is an almost overwhelming amount of choice for how to give your children a Christian and classical education.

Old Western Culture

I have worked with classical educators over the past ten years to develop a curriculum that I believe is a must-have for every family. It is a four-year great books curriculum called Old Western Culture, and while it is primarily a high school curriculum (history and literature), parents (and even teachers) often use it themselves. As a decade of parents who have used the curriculum can testify, this is an excellent way for a teenager or adult to acquire the core of what it means to have a true (classical) education.

But whether or not you use Old Western Culture (presented in more detail below), read the great books! Join the conversation that has been happening for centuries by all educated men and women. Through these books, you will converse with the American founders, Reformers of the 16th century, and early church fathers who all had this education in common, and from that education learned what it means to be free.

Don’t cancel the classics!

We responded to schools and universities stripping away the classics with our own “apology” for the great books.

Watch our “Apology” for the Great Books video, and hear the full letter from John Adams to his homeschooled son.

A Practical Tool for your Family: Old Western Culture

The great books of Western civilization form the core of every effort to revive classical education. Roman Roads Press has developed an award-winning curriculum for high school students and adults that makes the study of the great books enjoyable, easy, and affordable.

Old Western Culture is a lecture-based curriculum that guides students through the great books themselves. Read the books that inspired and equipped American Presidents and Statesmen, authors throughout all history, the Protestant Reformers, the Medieval Christians, and the early Church Fathers.

Daniel Foucachon and his family

About the Author

Daniel Foucachon grew up homeschooled in Lyon, France where his father was a Presbyterian minister. His family moved to Moscow, Idaho in 2005 where he attended New Saint Andrews college, graduating in 2010. He is the founder of Roman Roads Press, a publisher of classical Christian curriculum, and Kepler Education, a platform for independent teachers to offer online classes. He is married to Lydia, and has six children with a 7th on the way. When he is not promoting classical education and the great books, he loves to spend time with his family attempting to small-scale farm.

The motto of my company, Roman Roads Press, is to “Inherit the Humanities.” This motto assumes a few things. First, there is something to inherit. There is a rich heritage to receive (the collection of works and ideas held in common by all those who preceded us in the West). Secondly, it is a verb: Inherit! You have to do something about it. So, inherit the Humanities today, both you, and your household.

Testimonials for Old Western Culture

This has to be the best curriculum we have found for studying the great classics! We’ve been homeschooling for about 15 years and have not found anything like this. 

Stephanie W, Homeschool Mom

It is a program my kids have loved the most this year. And I love that I am able to learn alongside then too. After many years of misunderstanding some of The Great Books, I can safely say I am closer to realizing what they mean now. I am truly amazed by this program!

Amy F, Homeschool mom

As a homeschool mom just venturing into classical education, I can tell you that Old Western Culture: The Greeks is super-easy to use. With schedules carefully laid out for you, you can easily plug and play. I like that all preparation is done for me and I need simply to enjoy listening to my children as they begin to think and talk and discuss ideology together.

Lynn, Homeschool mom

I’ve tried a lot of “great books” materials in the past. All have left me feeling inadequate and incapable. All of them. Old Western Culture though? This one is different.

Debra B, homeschool mom

But what if there was a single program that adequately covered key texts of Western literature; that was well-written, accurate, and Christ-centered; and that didn’t just mimic all the other courses? Well, there is. Old Western Culture: A Christian Approach to the Great Books is everything other Classical-style courses wish they were.

Caleb Cross, Exodus Books

God is in the process of redeeming my education as I educate my sons. Thank you for aiding us in that journey.

Jen R., Old Western Culture homeschooler

We love Old Western Culture and how it has made attaining a classical Christian education in the humanities very achievable and enjoyable! We used several other classical Christian humanities programs before realizing that they weren’t very homeschool friendly and we are so so blessed to have found Old Western Culture. 

Old Western Culture homeschool family
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24 thoughts on “The Education of the American Founders

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