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YU News

The Dual American Educational Tradition

Apple on a pile of books with A-B-C blocks on the desk next to itOn Sunday, March 3, 2021, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted an intellectually stimulating and informative lecture by Dr. Rita Koganzon, associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, for the Straus Scholars. The lecture, which was part of the Jack Miller Center speaker series, analyzed the American education system and tried to uncover the American “tradition” of disliking school. In order to understand the problems of our current education system, explained Dr. Koganzon, we must examine its origins.

Throughout American history, there existed two opposing traditions in how to conceptualize the education system. The first tradition, what Dr. Koganzon refers to as the Republican tradition of education, believes that it is the schools, and specifically the public schools, that are the institutional bedrock of society. It is in the school setting that Americans cultivate friendships across all types of racial, social, and economic statuses and through which American unity is formed. In essence, schools create a democratization of power which is essential to maintaining collective freedom from tyranny.

However, in the writings of Locke, Rousseau, and Smith, and later in the works of Mark Twain, we find an opposing conception of the school system in that it promotes uniformity and thus stunts individual freedom. Accordingly, they proposed what Dr. Koganzon labeled a “liberal” tradition, in which instead of promoting a formalized school system, children must earn their education through homeschooling and other informal means.

Ultimately, the American school system can be seen as a compromise between these two traditions. In order to maintain both collective unity and individual liberty, we have followed in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, who championed entrepreneurship and serious self-study as the main means of learning. At the same time, he begrudgingly supported schools for those who require more external discipline. This reluctant reliance on formal schooling became a canonical part of the education system today and has helped mitigate some of the ills that any one of the traditions would incur. It is no surprise, then, that many Americans dislike school so much. After all, it is part of our long tradition of protecting our individual freedom.

In the question and answer period, Dr. Koganzon and students discussed where religious schools—and particularly Jewish ones—fell within the divide in American history she articulated. They also considered how the chavruta [study partner] system of yeshiva learning could exemplify Benjamin Franklin’s account of cultivated intellectual independence within formal institutions.

Learn more about the Straus Scholars Program or contact Sarah Wapner at