Webster’s American Education—§ 14–Democratic Thinker

American Thought

Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.


NEW YORK, 1788.


§ 14.  On a foreign Education.

BEFORE I quit this subject, I beg leave to make some remarks on a practice which appears to be attended with important consequences; I mean that of sending boys to Europe for an education, or sending to Europe for teachers This was right before the revolution; at least To far as national attachments where concerned; but the propriety of it ceased with our political relation to Great Britain.

In the first place, our honor as an independent nation is concerned in the establishment of literary institutions, adequate to all our own purposes; without sending our youth abroad, or depending on other nations for books and instructors. It is very little to the reputation of America to have it said abroad, that after the heroic achievements of the late war, these independent people are obliged to send to Europe for men and books to teach their children A B C.

But in another point of view, a foreign education is directly opposite to our political interests, and ought to be discountenanced, if not prohibited.

Every person of common observation will grant, that most men prefer the manners and the government of that country where they are educated. Let ten American youths be sent, each to a different European kingdom, and live there from the age of twelve to twenty, and each will give the preference to the country where he has resided.

The period from twelve to twenty is the most important in life. The impressions made before that period; are commonly effaced; those that are made during that period always remain for many years, and generally thro life.

Ninety nine persons of a hundred who pass that period in England or France, will prefer the people, their manners, their laws, and their government, to those of their nativ country. Such attachments are injurious, both, to the happiness of the men, and to the political interests of their own country. As to private happiness, it is universally known how much pain a man suffers by a change of habits in living. The customs of Europe are and ought to be different from ours; but when a man has been bred in one country, his attachments to its manners make them, in a great measure, necessary to his happiness. On changing his residence, he must therefore break his former habits, which is always a painful sacrifice; or the discordance between the manners of his own country, and his habits, must give him incessant uneasiness; or he must introduce, into a circle of his friends, the manners in which he was educated. These consequences may follow, and the last, which is inevitable, is a public injury. The refinement of manners in every country should keep pace exactly with the increase of its wealth; and perhaps the greatest evil America now feels is, an improvement of taste and manners which its wealth cannot support.

A foreign education is the very source of this evil; it gives young gentlemen of fortune a relish for manners and amusements which are not suited to this country; which however, when introduced by this class of people, will always become fashionable.

But a corruption of manners is not the sole objection to a foreign education: An attachment to a foreign government, or rather a want of attachment to our own, is the natural effect of a residence abroad, during the period of youth. It is recorded of one of the Greek cities, that in a treaty with their conquerors, it was required that they should give a certain number of male children as hostages for the fulfilment of their engagements. The Greeks absolutely refused, on the principle that these children would imbibe the ideas and embrace the manners of foreigners, or lose their love for their own country: But they offered the same number of old men without hesitation. This anecdote is full of good sense. A man should always form his habits and attachments in the country where he is to reside for life. When these habits are formed, young men may travel without danger of losing their patriotism. A boy who lives in England from twelve to twenty, will be an Englishman in his manners and his feelings; but let him remain at home till he is twenty, and form his attachments, he may then be several years abroad, and still be an American.* There may be exceptions to this observation; but living examples may be mentioned to prove the truth of the general principle here advanced, respecting the influence of habit.

* Cicero was twenty eight years old when he left Italy to travel into Greece and Asia. “He did not stir abroad,” says Dr. Middleton; “ till he had completed his education at home; for nothing can be more pernicious to a nation, than the necessity of a foreign one.”—Life of Cicero, vol. I. p. 48.

Dr. Moore makes a remark precisely in point. Speaking of a foreign education, proposed by a certain Lord, who objected to the public schools in England, he says, “ I have attended to his Lordship’s objections, and after due consideration, and weighing every circumstance, I remain of opinion, that no country but Great Britain is proper for the education of a British subject, who proposes to pass his life in his own country. The most important point, in my mind, to be secured in the education of a young man of rank of our country, is to make him an Englishman; and this can be done no where so effectually as in England.” See his View of Society and Manners, &c. vol. i, page 197, where the reader will find many judicious remarks upon this subject. The following are too pertinent to be omitted.—“It is thought, that by an early foreign education, all ridiculous English prejudices, will be avoided. This may be true; but other prejudices, perhaps as ridiculous, and much more detrimental, will be formed. The first cannot be attended with many inconveniencies; the second may render the young people unhappy in their own country when they return, and disagreeable to their countrymen all the rest of their lives.” These remarks, by a change of names are applicable to America.

It may be said that foreign universities furnish much better opportunities of improvement in the sciences than the American. This may be true, and yet will not justify the practice of sending young lads from their own country. There are some branches of science which may be studied to much greater advantage in Europe than in America, particularly chymistry. When these are to be acquired, young gentlemen ought to spare no pains to attend the best professors. It may, therefore; be useful, in some cases, for students to cross the atlantic to complete a course of studies; but it is not necessary for them to go early in life, nor to continue a long time. Such instances need not be frequent even now; and the necessity for them will diminish in proportion to the future advancement of literature in America.

It is, however, much questioned, whether, in the ordinary course of study, a young man can enjoy greater advantages in Europe than in America. Experience inclines me to raise a doubt, whether the danger to which a youth must be exposed among the sons of dissipation abroad, will not turn the scale in favor of our American colleges. Certain it is, that four fifths of the great literary characters in America never crossed the atlantic.

But if our universities and schools are not so good as the English or Scotch, it is the business of our rulers to improve them, not to endow them merely; for endowments alone will never make a flourishing seminary; but to furnish them with professors of the first abilities and most assiduous application, and with a complete apparatus for establishing theories by experiments. Nature has been profuse to the Americans, in genius, and in the advantages of climate and soil. If this country, therefore, should long be indebted to Europe for opportunities of acquiring any branch of science in perfection, it must be by means of a criminal neglect of its inhabitants.

The difference in the nature of the American and European governments, is another objection to a foreign education. Men form modes of reasoning, or habits of thinking on political subjects, in the country where they are bred; these modes of reasoning may be founded on fact in all countries; but the same principles will not apply in all governments, because of the infinite variety of national opinions and habits. Before a man can be a good Legislator, he must be intimately acquainted with the temper of the people to be governed. No man can be thus acquainted with a people, without residing amongst them and mingling with all companies. For want of this acquaintance, a Turgot and a Price may reason most absurdly upon the Constitutions of the American states; and when any person has been long accustomed to believe in the propriety or impropriety of certain maxims or regulations of government, it is very difficult to change his opinions, or to persuade him to adapt his reasoning to new and different circumstances.

One half the European Protestants will now contend that the Roman Catholic religion is subversive of civil government. Tradition, books, education, have concurred to fix this belief in their minds; and they will not resign their opinions, even in America, where some of the highest civil offices are in the hands of Roman Catholics.

It is therefore of infinite importance that those who direct the councils of a nation, should be educated in that nation. Not that they should restrict their personal acquaintance to their own country, but their first ideas, attachments and habits should be acquired in the country which they are to govern and defend. When a knowlege of their own country is obtained, and an attachment to its laws and interests deeply fixed in their hearts, then young gentlemen may travel with infinite advantage and perfect safety. I wish not therefore to discourage travelling, but, if possible, to render it more useful to individuals and to the community. My meaning is, that men should travel, and not boys.

Used with the permission of Democratic Thinker.