“Promote then as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

-President George Washington, Farewell Address

Yesterday was President’s Day, which unfortunately has become less about celebrating our country’s greatest statesmen and more about selling cars, furniture, and other big-ticket items. However, today is the actual anniversary of George Washington’s birthday (born February 22, 1732), and with some of the commercial buzz dying down from Monday’s mega-sales, perhaps this is the better day to really reflect upon the meaning and significance of the father of our country’s indispensable public career. After all, it was Washington’s Birthday, and not the more general “President’s Day” that Congress intended to commemorate when it passed a statute in 1880 establishing the holiday in the first place.

It was not so long ago, in fact, that a staple of any proper celebration of Washington’s Birthday was a formal reading of his famous Farewell Address, which Washington had published in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser on September 17, 1796. In this most prescient piece of presidential advice that is remarkably appropriate for today’s contentious political climate, Washington warned of the “baneful effects of the party spirit” and to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” He also reminded his countrymen that “morality is the necessary spring of popular government.”

However, it is Washington’s insight above regarding the critical connection between education, opinion, and citizenship that I’d like to spend a moment pondering, especially in light of a new study from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) entitled Enlightened Citizenship: How Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree in Promoting Active Civic Engagement, that discovers fascinating linkages and non-linkages between these phenomena.

In his retirement, Washington became a strong advocate for a national university, convinced as he was of the importance of grooming enlightened and public-spirited leaders who could guide the Republic through its formative years. And Washington backed up this priority in his will, which contained a large bequest of corporate stock to Congress as the initial investment for such an enterprise (Congress, like it so often does, failed to enact the necessary legislation, though it did eventually found the military academies at Annapolis and West Point).

Dr. Richard Brake

Dr. Richard Brake is Co-Chair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies please go to www.americancivicliteracy.org