Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”




13 thoughts on “Words To Ponder

  1. Hugh, I was unaware of how well he wrote his commands, but in hindsight that makes total sense. Without immediate communication, he had to be on point with his communications or the battle would be lost. He also had to allow for variability by delegating the appropriate amount of authority to act if circumstances change – not too much, but not too little.

    This last point reminds me of the book “Blink.” Well-skilled and experienced battle commanders would beat the pants off groups with better tools for decision-making due to the need to adapt in the field. My guess is Grant must have been very adroit at giving this freedom.


  2. Dr. Curtler,

    I was pleased to see you mention President. Grant in your recent post. I, too, have been impressed by this man whom I consider a hero.

    Among the reasons to admire his biography are not only his impressive command of the written word but also his humility, his humanity, and his sense of duty to this country.

    Southern revisionists have long had their day in criticizing Ulysses Grant while idolizing Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. At least two recent books serve as corrective to the commonplace calulmny against Ulysses Grant: Ronald C. White, AMERICAN ULYSSES (Random House, 2016) and Ron Chernow, GRANT (Penguin, 2017).

    Ulysses S. Grant was an extraordinary person and his biography matches his measure.

    Respects and regards to all.

    Jerry Stark

      • The historian Shelby Foote was a an admirer of Grant. Foote said that Grant “had three o’clock in the morning courage”. By this he meant that Grant could be awakened with news of a battlefield crisis in the middle of the night and he would respond quickly with calm, clear and decisive instructions for his commanders.Thus, he not only provided tactical leadership, he was also a personal exemplar of critical battlefield leadership.

        As Grant’s soldiers would say, again according to Foote, “Old Ulysses. He don’t skeer [scare] worth a damn”.

    • Henry Adams was disappointed that Grant didn’t update the Constitution and give the President more power (and take away seem from the Senate). But given today’s world, it’s a good thing he didn’t!!

  3. Well said. But part of the problem of American public schools was there from the beginning, and it’s also reflected in Grant’s words: ” … the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.”

    American education has always had this emphasis on instilling patriotism, which has made teaching history especially tricky, as Loewen explains in Lies My Teacher Told Me. A country that doesn’t learn from its history is doomed to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again…

    One positive development is the rise of the Internet. Most Americans didn’t know about the wonderful Finnish school system or anything else that’s wonderful elsewhere before the Internet, because you were all constantly fed the line that America was the greatest country on Earth, and if that’s true, what could you possibly learn from anyone else, right? But folks can now find out for themselves what’s going on in the rest of the industrialized world, and eyes are being opened.

    Let’s hope it’s not too late.

  4. “… we need to defend ourselves against ignorance.” This says it all. My thoughts are that there is a force, a combination of the Kochs, DeVos’, Trumps and other greedy wealthy ones in the nation, whose intent is to keep education low on the priority list, to “Make America Ignorant (Again?)”, in order that only their own kind will qualify as the leaders in the future. It has begun to work out fairly well for them, hasn’t it? However, if those who live in their ivory towers don’t open their eyes to the effects of their dirty (literally) businesses on the environment, they will find that at the end of the day it didn’t help them survive any better than the rest of us. I actually bought Chernow’s book a few months ago and it resides on one of several stacks of tbr books in my bedroom. I am now inspired to get to it sooner rather than later. Good post!

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