Public Virtue in a Republic: The Starting Point for a Common Core

George Seaver

Editor's note: In this essay, our contributor, physicist George Seaver writes about the core values that ought to be common in educationbut are frequently absent.  Note that in referring to "a common core," Professor Seaver means the broader ideal of generally shared curriculum and is not addressing in particular the program known as The Common Core K-12 State Standards that is the current focus of much controversy.

A republic is never older than one generation; it is not passed on through the genes, but in the classroom. This has been the belief of the founders of republics throughout time.[1] The starting point for any common core in public school teaching has to be public virtue. It is not and has not been for two generations. Most teachers do not even know what it means, and the response of the younger electorate demonstrates this. Without this virtue anything agreed upon in a common core will be corrupted in application. 

For example, 20 years after education reform brought about by the “Nation at Risk” report (1983), the Koret Task Force found that education had not improved, owing to “underestimating the tenacity of the ‘thoughtworld’ of the nation’s colleges of education.” In 2013 Massachusetts, under a liberal governor, reinterpreted their common core (team approaches, multiple approaches to math, deemphasizing literature,) that will weaken education and the previous success that Massachusetts had realized. 

The definition of public virtue through the ages is variously “love of the republic above all,” “the aggregate and permanent interests of the community,” and “The Creed.” Today we have its opposite in the classroom: factional demands, rejection of religion and narcissistic withdrawal. 

Both the necessity and simplicity of public virtue is woven through 2000 years of republics in the lives of its advocates: Cincinnatus, Camillus, Scipio, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Washington, Madison, Adams, Franklin, and Tocqueville. This was described in “Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern” (Seaver, 2010). 

Examples of virtus that display its breadth and depth can be seen with Cincinnatus who in 458 BC protected Rome from invaders and then quietly returned to his farm, as did Washington 2200 years later; Camillus in 386 BC who recovered Rome from the Gauls under this banner and retired in voluntary obscurity; Scipio in 202 BC who defeated Hannibal, then went to the Temple of Jupiter to offer penance, and retired to his farm under political attack. One hundred years later with the loss of virtus among the Senate, Consuls, Tribunes and Magistracy, Caesar had to appear before the Forum with his Legionnaires. Soon after Cicero was assassinated under this dying public virtue. Public virtue’s essential nature to a republic was described by Plato, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hume, the Founders, Tocqueville, Frederick Douglas, Ralph Bunch and Gunnar Myrdal. Yet today’s teachers unconsciously reject it as bigotry, as white male oppression. 

Today we descend into faction, now poisonous faction, slowly becoming violent, of women, blacks, American Indians, homosexuals, Hispanics, with new factions added each year, all with irreconcilable, non-negotiable sloganized demands. As one Founder put it in 1787, “the violence of faction…the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” 

To recover, the declamation “A republic, if you can keep it” must be understood by all, but firstly by public school teachers and through them their students in the classroom.


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