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Grand Experiment

Broadcaster Paul Harvey told a version of the following story on the radio many years ago.

There was an old man who was a great admirer of democracy and public education. So close to his heart did he hold both institutions that he tried to bring them together into one grand experiment, a public college where students would practice self-governance. There would be no regulations; the goodwill and judgment of the students would suffice. After years of planning, the school was finally opened. The old man was overjoyed.

But as the months went by, students proved time and time again that they were not the models of discipline and discernment the old man envisioned. They skipped classes, drank to excess, and wasted hours in frivolous pursuits. One night, 14 students, disguised by masks and “animated with wine,” went on a rampage that ended in a brawl. One struck a professor with a brick, and another used a cane on his victim.

In response, the college’s trustees convened a special meeting. The old man, now 82 years old and very frail, was asked to address the student body. In his remarks, he recalled the lofty principles upon which the college had been founded. He said he had expected more—much more—from the students. He even confessed that this was the most painful event of his life. Suddenly, he stopped speaking. Tears welled up in his failing eyes. He was so overcome with grief that he sat down, unable to go on.

His audience was so touched that at the conclusion of the meeting the 14 offenders stepped forward to admit their guilt. But they could not undo the damage already done. A strict code of conduct and numerous onerous regulations were instituted at the college. The old man’s experiment had failed. Why? Because he took for granted the one essential ingredient necessary for success: virtue. Only a virtuous people can secure and maintain their freedom.

A short time later, on the Fourth of July, the old man passed away. Engraved on his tombstone were the simple words that reflected the success and failure of his most important experiments: “Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and father of the University of Virginia.” Now, as Mr. Harvey says, you know the rest of the story.

Imprimis, April 1997, Volume 26, Number 4, Hillsdale College, MI, pp. 1-2