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Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson


Coolidge thought the nation could not survive without Americans being a religious people, and people of character and industry. You write that he told the Boy Scouts: “Our government rests on religion, the source from which we derive our reverence for truth and justice.” Would he be an optimist or pessimist if he were living today?

Were Coolidge alive today, I think he would be dismayed at the lack of religiosity. He advised immigrants to keep up their religion and thought that atheists could not be great because they didn’t understand an authority higher than themselves.

I think he would agree that the modern experiment we’ve had of trying to be spiritual without being religious or moral without divine guidance hasn’t worked out so well.

He also thought education about America’s founding principles and the liberal arts (as classically defined) was necessary to preserve liberty. He seemed to place faith in colleges and universities. Would he feel the same way about universities in 2013?

Coolidge understood that he who controls the schoolhouse door ultimately controls who walks through the door of the White House, an insight that we political conservatives ought to take more seriously

If you look at those higher education speeches in their totality, Coolidge was warning these institutions that by succumbing to progressivism they would lose something of their character, some sort of missionary spirit. Particularly at his speech at Holy Cross College, Coolidge was arguing that the new ideas of the progressives aren’t necessarily better and that those who are well-educated must also be, in a certain sense, traditionalist.

When it came to K-12, Coolidge believed that by paying teachers better, or rather by paying better teachers better, we might be able to prevent their attraction to anti-American ideas.

Coolidge would, I think, have been aghast at the degree to which we’ve allowed the government to take over education at all levels and at the extent to which we’ve allowed a government union — the teachers unions — to dominate so thoroughly our whole educational system. Let’s not forget that Coolidge, despite being well-educated at Amherst, was something of an autodidact. He read widely and thought through problems. To read his speeches is to understand how classically educated he was, and that education, of course, was reflected in his presidency. Coolidge, as usual, put it best, this time in his autobiography: “[My teachers] gave me a vision of the world when it was young and it is almost impossible for those who have traveled that road to reach a very clear conception of what the world now means.”