The Forum | General Education

A Future President’s History Lessons

July 4, 2017

Study the past. These three simple words are etched in stone on a statue outside the National Archives building. On this Fourth of July, as Americans gather to celebrate with fireworks and barbecues, it is important to pause and reflect upon the true meaning of Independence Day. An honest celebration of this holiday requires us to heed the Archives’ admonition and study the past to understand the events and ideas that led the Founding Fathers to declare our nation’s independence.

For an example of how studying the past shaped America’s leaders, today’s college students might look to America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge. After he left the White House, Coolidge extolled the essential role of a liberal education in preparing him for leadership. That experience traces back to his senior year at Amherst College, when a young Calvin Coolidge won first prize in a national essay competition sponsored by the Sons of the American Revolution on “the principles fought for in the American Revolution.”

In his essay, Coolidge articulated his belief that the Revolution was a natural development in the long history of Anglo-American constitutional evolution. Parliament’s encroachments had grown intolerable, and the king’s penchant for dictatorship had to be stayed. Thus was born a new republic with firm foundations rooted in a long and noble intellectual and political history.

Coolidge benefited from an excellent education in great liberal arts subjects: philosophy, U.S. history, Latin, and Greek. His curriculum was infused with the great thinkers of the western world, from Demosthenes to Plato. “We were not only learning about the human mind but learning how to use it, learning how to think,” Coolidge wrote years later in his Autobiography.

Today, Coolidge’s alma mater, Amherst College, receives a flat-out “F” in the annual What Will They Learn? report for failing to require a single course in composition, literature, foreign language, economics, mathematics, science or—stunningly—U.S. history or government. In 2016, Amherst dean Catherine Epstein blithely declared: “You can do whatever you want. If you never want to take a math class, you don’t have to take a math class. If you never want to take a science class, you don’t have to take a science class.” ACTA dissents vehemently.

Today’s universities are still in the business of forming future leaders, but substance and seriousness are too often lacking. The works that nourished Coolidge should continue to undergird the liberal arts curriculum today. 241 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the principles of the Revolution endure. By returning the study of these principles to the foundation of the liberal arts, educators can ensure the torch lit by the Founding Fathers will continue to burn just as brightly.


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