A Return to the Founders’ Education

A Return to the Founders’ Education
James Madison’s education prepared him for his roles as the “Father of the Constitution” and the fourth president of the United States. Portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1805–1807. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
The National Center for Education Statistics released its 2022 report, titled The Nation’s Report Card, indicating that eighth-grade student proficiency (12th isn’t yet available) in U.S. history and civics (among other subjects) continues to decline. Some defenders may excuse the decline because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ongoing decline began in 2014.

In fact, students are back at 1994 levels; but then again, they didn’t have very far to fall.

The public school system continues to promote itself despite its failing methods, demand more administrative help despite administrative positions far outpacing the growth of students and teachers, and demand more money despite its extravagant expenditures per student.
Joe Wolverton, author, educator, and founder of Amargi Group, which specializes in online history course curriculum, suggests that one of the issues with the current education system, specifically concerning history and civics, is that educators aren’t looking back far enough. Wolverton, who earned his juris doctorate in 2001 and has practiced constitutional law, believes that the source of knowledge Americans should be pulling from can be found with the Founding Fathers, James Madison in particular.

Madison’s Early Education

Wolverton has written extensively on Madison, including a biography for the National Center for Constitutional Studies and a work entitled What Degree of Madness? that dissects the statesman’s Federalist Paper 46. He pinpointed Madison’s early education as a pivotal moment in his political career. It was an educational format that Wolverton has long performed: tutoring.

Madison’s childhood teacher was a man by the name of Donald Robertson. He had come to Virginia from Scotland, where he had received an excellent education. Noting the lack of opportunity for a classical liberal education in Virginia, Robertson opened his own school.

The Robertson School continued for 15 years, and during this time, he taught numerous future founders, including George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero; John Taylor of Caroline, a future U.S. Senator; James Innes, war hero and future attorney general of Virginia; Robert Brooke, future governor of Virginia; John Tyler, the future president; and, of course, Madison.

“We’re talking about this ‘coincidental’ collection of some of the greatest heroes that America would ever create. I teach people that’s not a coincidence,” Wolverton said during a conversation on The Sons of History podcast.

A Robertson-esque Education

Students of Robertson were given a classical liberal education, which included learning law, philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, Latin, and Greek. Wolverton suggests that there’s no reason why students today can’t receive the same education. He noted that receiving it is actually easier today than it was in the late 18th century.

“We can read the stuff that Donald Robertson taught these kids, and we can get a little closer to being like those kids ourselves,” he said.

Wolverton noted that Madison made the conscious effort to “read the best books.” These books, which Wolverton said have been practically removed from public view, if not public memory, gave Madison the intellectual capacity to impact the creation of the American republic. He said these “best books” aren’t elusive. Places such as the Liberty Fund and other organizations create book lists based on what the founders read. Wolverton has created his own and provides it to his Amargi Group students. He also wrote extensively on this list in his book “The Founders Recipe.”

“We shouldn’t be celebrating our Founding Fathers only; we should be emulating our Founding Fathers,” he said. “That includes putting the stuff in our heads that they put in their heads.”

(Courtesy of Joe Wolverton)
(Courtesy of Joe Wolverton)

Drink From the Source

Wolverton warns about what he calls “drinking downstream.” He recommends reading straight from the source rather than reading distilled versions of history. One of the worst culprits of distilled history is the history textbooks in schools, he said.

“I read some of these American history textbooks, and I’m like, ‘Whoa. There’s been some horses doing some stuff in that water,’” he said. “We are blessed enough to live in a time where you can get on Google and you can read from the source. Read the source material. You can read it for free ... in English. It’s not like you have to do what Madison did when he wanted to read a history of the world that happened to be written in Italian. He had to learn Italian.”

Regarding those textbooks, Wolverton decries the distorted and polluted versions of American and world history taught in schools. More than this, however, is his opinion of how citizens, conservatives specifically, are advocates for the free market, except in education.

“People complain that history teachers aren’t that good, and it’s true, but that’s because they don’t have to be. There’s no competition,” he said. “Whereas me, if I don’t teach in a way that people find useful and beneficial to their children, I don’t get hired. In everything else, conservatives believe that the free market makes for a better product. When it comes to education, we don’t get behind that. They think, ‘Hey, it’s okay to have a socialist education system.’

“I think if we applied our capitalist principles to education the way we apply it to technology and other things, we would see a real quick crescendo of understanding about history and other things.”

Historiographical Coroner

Wolverton alluded to Madison as a type of historiographical coroner, using source material to examine “the lifeless bodies of the former self-governing republics” and identify “what disease killed them so that he could inoculate the American republic from dying of those same diseases.”
Among Madison’s coroner reports were “Vices of the Political System of the United States” and “Notes on the Ancient and Modern Confederacies.” Wolverton is concerned that this method of study and application has been lost, especially in the school systems.

“Why can’t we teach that in school? Here’s what they did wrong. Here’s what ultimately killed them,” he said. “Instead of reading some rubbish textbook that was written by somebody who was taught to be a teacher rather than a historian, why don’t we just have a packet of these readings? That’s what I do with my students.”

Wolverton, through his personal tutoring and now online classes, has been striving to replicate a Robertson-esque educational format so that today’s students―youth and adult―can experience what he terms “a Founders’ education.”

“I don’t do homework. The founders didn’t do homework. I don’t do tests. The test is going to be, did we restore our liberty?” he said. “I’ll give you a test after you turn about 80, and we’ll see if we restored our liberty. If we did, you all get As. If not, you all get Fs.”

Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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