David Lisbonne: New dog, old and vitally important trick

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 2:29pm

In July 1787, the United States, under the governance of the Articles of Confederation, enacted a piece of legislation titled the “Northwest Ordinance.” The Ordinance called for the delegation of land to new states in the Northwest Territory — land bound to the west by the Appalachians, the south by the Ohio River and the northwest by the Great Lakes. Allocated to the U.S. in the Paris Treaty of 1783, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, the territory had not yet been developed into designated states. The legislation contained rules regarding the formation of new states and their governments. However, its lasting effect lies not in its specificity, but rather in its advocacy for the adoption of righteous virtues in society and government. But what does this have to do with the University of Michigan, and how can this be relevant today? Well, every student has likely walked past the Ordinance’s moral pith, literally: It’s inscribed on the western facade of Angell Hall, the University’s largest academic building. 

Article 1 of the ordinance guaranteed that “no person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments.” Similarly, Article 2 ensures the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury and no cruel and unusual punishments. Readers will recognize these as core tenets of the Bill of Rights that would come four years later. Perhaps the Ordinance enacted in 1787 — one year before the Constitution’s drafting — was a trial run of what would become foundational legislation. Additionally, Article 6 declares “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” in the territory, and Article 3 mandates that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” Keep in mind, this was 76 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. To my eye, they got it all right. 

But my fascination with the Ordinance — and what I believe is its paramount lasting effect — lies in the first sentence of Article 3. It reads: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” This is the text forever inscribed in stone above Angell Hall, and is clearly fitting. 

First is religion, which I believe, despite its debatable flaws, is the most successful and most effective means for teaching character that has ever existed. There are myriad lessons and teachings on virtue that are undeniably valuable; the condemnation of murder, theft and Coventry, the praise of integrity and encouragement of charity are all examples. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Ordinance, understood this and rightly sought to preserve religion’s benefits. 

Morality follows next and is unique not only for its ambiguity or contentiousness but because of the means, and mediums, of its teaching. Religion is a longstanding source of morality, expounding lessons and stories that comment on the nature of that which is good and bad. On the other hand, education — especially through subjects like philosophy, history and English, with its analysis of texts — offers alternative means for discussing morality. Both operate synchronously and are each necessary to inculcate virtues vital to effective government and mankind. Again, Jefferson understood — and his pen further cemented in writing — these complementary forces as necessary means to an educated, virtuous and content populace.

Last is knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge has forever been the driver of mankind, from his first discovery of fire to Newton’s articulation of the world around us. And this pursuit is not rooted in vanity or fame, but in discovering new, more effective means to achieve prosperity. Fire enabled man to cook food, light his caves and triumph over the cold. Education is knowledge’s natural complement; it is how new knowledge is distributed. And once distributed, that knowledge is left to the creative and productive devices of the individual. By virtue yet again of mankind’s constant pursuit of knowledge — now embarking with more complex building blocks — fantastic achievements can be had. From Bacon to Babbage to Tesla to Turing, and more along the way, we arrived at the device on which I’m writing this. Not bad. 

Today, more information is accessible than ever in human history. Globally, 3.7 billion people access the internet. Google processes 40,000 searches every second. It has never been easier to access new information, and this is the modern legacy of Angell Hall’s inscription. Yes, “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Schools and universities must continue to educate class after class of scholars to ensure that each generation is well versed in broad fields of study. 

But I disagree with the notion that educational institutions must alone bear that burden. As a species, we learn a great deal from one another. Communities and religious institutions provide excellent resources to grow, and learn morals, virtues and engage in mitzvot. To some degree, it is the onus of the individual to pursue knowledge, in any and every aspect of life. For example, as a civic duty to our country exists the responsibility of individuals to formalize themselves with our government, and the processes by which it operates, to complement that which we are taught in schools. 

This dynamic must hold true across multiple disciplines. History, economics, writing and English are necessary proficiencies, and while it’s sad to observe the subpar performances in these provinces from vital institutions, there exists a complementary responsibility of every individual to seek knowledge. The Ordinance articulated this 233 years ago, but the widespread accessibility of information today brings entirely new meaning to its text. We must adapt, and follow through on our instructions to achieve “good government and the happiness of mankind.”

David Lisbonne can be reached at lisbonne@umich.edu.