In a lengthy essay, Alan Taylor looks at the place of education in United States history. He points out that, by and large, the founders believed strongly that an educated citizenry was essential to the survival of the new nation and pushed, sometimes with more success, sometimes with less, to make learning more available. Ultimately, this resulted in a strong system of public education.
He fears this trend has reversed, as school budgets are cut back, college students are laden with debt, class-sizes increase, and public systems of higher educations are being starved for funds. Here’s bit from the essay; follow the link for the whole thing (emphasis added).
As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.
Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.