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Chapter 7:
The Best Schools

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I’ll make sure they go to the best schools, first grade to college—Mary Johnston

EVERYONE IS IN FAVOR of education.  But what do they mean?  When Mary Johnston talks about education she thinks in terms of “the best schools, first grade to college” for the education of her children.  Yet any student of the history of education quickly learns that the big issue in education is not the education of one’s own children, but the education of other peoples’ children.  Folks are mightily concerned about other peoples’ children: that they might be neglected, or they might turn out all wrong.  They might, for example, turn to crime or fuel a revolution.  To reduce these threats they propose to award the government a substantial responsibility in the rearing and education of other peoples’ children.  All in all, what people want out of education is resources for the education of their own children and rules for the education of other peoples’ children.  It was in the nineteenth century that these notions were most recently fought out in politics.  We are still living with the results of those battles.

Modern American opinion about education assumes a Year Zero some time in the mid-nineteenth century, the glorious day when the activists for modern universal education began their agitation for tax-paid free-at-the-point-of-service government-run schools.  The time before Year Zero is treated as prehistoric, in England a time of Ragged Schools, one-room schoolhouses, Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers, and opportunity denied to the poor; in the United States this time is reported as a time of disorganization, of “old field” schools in the rural areas and of segregation between fee-paying academies for the middle class and charity schools for the poor.  Naturally, the activists for centralized elite-controlled education were anxious to point to the inadequacy spontaneous bottom-up education.  Conditions in the prehistoric time before Year Zero were deplorable and something had to be done.  But what was education really like before the modern era of centralized government-run education?   What kind of education did ordinary people seek out for themselves before the elite took over?  And why has the modern elite taken such an interest in the education of children?

Perhaps it is best to start by listening to an uneducated voice.  The National Geographic recently did this in an article on life in China’s Gobi desert at the end of the twentieth century.  After traveling for three days with 15 camels and five horses, and treating the reader to disquisitions about desertification and the age of sand dunes, the author arrived at the home of an old woman living in the sand sea of the Gobi.  She didn’t understand the outside world, she said:

I only know eating, drinking, and tending animals.  This is what my parents did.  Their parents.  The young people today, once they leave the [Gobi], they never return.  I don’t blame them.  The life of herding is coming to an end.  Work in cities is the future. (Webster 2002)

The reason the young people of the Gobi don’t return is that they all go to boarding school from first to ninth grade, only returning home in the summer.  The best students go on to high school, or even college.  To live the life of a Mongol sheepherder in the manner of their parents and their parents’ parents does not need nine years of boarding school.  It requires them instead to grow up in the yurt, learning and doing with their parents.  But nine years of boarding school and a certificate of literacy and numeracy disqualifies them for herding and certifies them instead for basic competence in the city.  So they leave the homes of their fathers and join the global migration to the city.  Once a child has received a primary education, she is no longer a peasant or sheepherder, she belongs to the city.

For the herders of the future there is no sense in going to school.  For the cotton-pickers of the future there is no sense in going to school.  There probably is no sense in going to school for anyone planning to follow in their parents’ trade.  Schools exist to teach people things that their parents can’t teach them.  For the peasant, school gives his children a chance to make it in the city.  For the illiterate costermonger in Victorian London, it gave his sons the chance to move off the street and sell something that needed a bit of book-learning and bookkeeping.  For Mary Johnston of Rock Hill, it gives her children the chance to join the confident classes in Charlotte for whom life is not a grim struggle but a creative adventure, not meat-and-potatoes but nouvelle cuisine.  Education, then, is all about embourgeoisment, the making of a citizen, one who lives and works in the city.  If you seek education, you should look in the city.

It the cities of the ancient world, the educational offerings varied.  It is not surprising to find education in the city states of ancient Greece.  In ancient Athens, parents taught their children at home until they were old enough to go off to school, generally at six or seven.  Years of schooling varied, according to the income and interests of the parents, but anyone could open a school, and parents were able to select a school for their children that met their needs and their pocketbook.  Fees were paid by the month, and poor people generally kept their children home during the month in which national holidays kept the schools closed for two weeks.  The schools taught gymnastics, music, and literacy.  Of course, poor and middle class parents could not afford as much schooling as the rich, and by the time their children reached their early teens they apprenticed them to a tradesman.  But education might continue, with the tradesman paid to teach his prentices subjects stipulated in the apprenticeship agreement. (Coulson 1999 p40) Overall literacy in Athens was estimated at about fifty percent.  The state played little role in schooling, except in mandatory military training. 

Sparta, of course, developed a state-run education system.  At seven, all male children were separated from their families and sent to boarding school where education consisted of sports, endurance training, and fighting.  Exposure to letters was minimal, and the teaching of rhetoric, the pride of Athens, was a punishable offense.  Boys were deliberately fed inadequate meals, and encouraged to steal in order to obtain enough to eat.(Coulson 1999 p46)  Literacy in Sparta was considered by contemporaries to be the lowest in the Greek world.

Education in ancient Rome was curiously warped.  In the days of the Republic, classes were mainly taught in private schools by Greek slaves where discipline was harsh, and teaching styles unimaginative. The syllabus included reading, writing, and simple counting, and for those who could afford secondary education, there was rhetoric and the Greek classics.  Under the empire, schooling began to come under political influence.  Augustus suppressed teachers critical of the regime and by the fourth century, Julian Augustus required that teachers be certified.  Teachers earned special benefits in return for faithful service to the emperor, and gradually earned more and more privileges in exchange for appropriate praise of the emperor. (Coulson 1999 p55)

 In Persia, immediately before the birth of Islam, children attended elementary schools similar to those in ancient Athens.  The schools taught grammar and arithmetic, poetry, horsemanship, and swimming.  After the introduction of Islam, a new system of schools grew up that focused on teaching of the Koran.  The secular schools charged tuition while the religious schools were maintained by charitable grants.  By the eighth century, at the height of Islamic power, “circle” schools offered instruction in a wealth of subjects, depending on the teacher.  Mathematics, science, medicine, philosophy, literature, jurisprudence, and other topics were taught widely.  The Islamic state originally played little role in the schools, and education reached even the poorest children as it was considered beneficial for every child to have a knowledge of holy scripture.  By the middle of the eleventh century under Sultan Malik Shah, however, a state-run system of education was established to inculcate Sunni orthodoxy and partisan political aims.

So much for education in the ancient world.  It was limited, of course, by the extraordinary expense of hand copied books.  In Germany, in the fifteenth century, a revolution occurred that changed all that.  By 1500, in German towns, people had become very interested in education.  “[A] public notice proclaimed: ‘Everybody now wants to read and write.’” (Coulson 1999 p65)  The post-Gutenberg supply-side revolution in printed books had created a demand for literacy.  Things would never be the same again.

Prior to the Reformation education in Germany was obtained mostly from church schools, but with the printing of books in German, people wanted to learn to read and write in German.  As church schools were not inclined to provide this vernacular instruction private schools jumped in to meet the demand, teaching reading, writing, and a little arithmetic to both adults and children.  Self-help books were published to assist people in acquiring literacy.  But many parents still wanted a Latin education for their children, so they started to agitate to obtain greater control of the church schools—in opposition to the church officials, who felt that the Church had the right to control education.

This reform of the schools was derailed by the Reformation.  Although many of the priests and nuns that staffed the church schools left the monastery life and others were forced out when the local nobles closed their monasteries, independent elementary schools eventually appeared to meet the demand, even greater after the Reformation than before.  Unfortunately, Martin Luther put a stop to this.  He felt that people could not be trusted to look after their own education and wanted to be sure that children were educated according to his own ideas of an orthodox education.  He called for the creation of a government-run education system.  In the subsequent competition between private and public education, attempts were made to close down the private schools, and a long political conflict ensued between state authorities and local governments and ordinary citizens.  The state authorities promoted a classical education, but local governments and their citizens wanted a vernacular education in German.  The top-down emphasis on Latin and the classics created a rift between the learned elite and the uneducated masses.

In France, the Reformation also posed a challenge to the status quo.  There was a real chance that, if the Reformation spread into France from Germany, the entire Catholic Church in the west would fall.  A strong French clergy was needed to defend the Church and to deal with the Church’s critics so Ignatius of Loyola founded in 1540 the Society of Jesus.  It would educate the young and serve the papacy.  The Jesuits undertook a massive reform of educational methods, introducing a grade system to keep children of similar ability and knowledge together and eliminating routine beatings of students.  But the rigid system developed by the Jesuits was not designed to prepare children for life and work, but to defend the Catholic church from its enemies, and its Ratio Studiorum, developed in 1600 to define a Jesuit education in detail, was still in force a century and a half later during the Enlightenment.  Meanwhile, a similar effort at control was implemented by the king, requiring any school to pass extensive royal review before approval.  Regional officials also wanted to control schools, mandating attendance at Catholic schools and catechism thereafter, with severe penalties for failure to conform that included transfer of children to foster families.

The educational issues in Reformation Europe resonate with our own time  Then as now, experts of all stripes were eager to use the educational system to stamp out children indoctrinated with their pet ideologies.  Then and now, parents seemed to be more interested than the experts in preferring a practical education for their children that focused on preparation for life and work.

The French Revolution marks the beginning of the modern era in education.  In France, the revolution ended the system of royal and church control over education.  The National Assembly determined to end the power of the church over the children of the republic and passed a law “making attendance at state-run schools mandatory.”  Teachers were mostly forbidden to teach Catholicism, and instead were taught to worship “Reason and the Supreme Being.”  Since nuns and priests were mostly forbidden from teaching, the supply of teachers was sharply reduced.  Parents did not appreciate the new state control and often kept their children at home.  Independent religious schools began to appear again.  In 1815 a group of philanthropists opened a monitorial school in Paris.  Using ideas imported from Britain, this school used older children to teach the younger ones.  It had the benefit of lowering teacher-student ratios, thus dealing with the teacher shortage, and lived by the old saying that to really learn something, it is necessary to teach it.  By 1819 there were 600 such schools in France, and by 1821, 1,500. (Coulson 1999 p100)  But with the return of the monarchy to power, a fierce attack was launched upon the monitorial schools, and indoctrination in Catholicism was mandated in all of France’s schools.  For the rest of the century, education would be highly politicized, and education was used as a weapon with which to bludgeon political opponents. (Coulson 1999 p104)  Under the republic, the schools were used to bludgeon the church, and under the monarchy and the Empire, they were used to bludgeon the republicans.

Whereas France entered the modern era with a top-down centralized education, in the United States a more decentralized system had developed.  Mass education had been accepted from the earliest days of the colonies and literacy had always been high.  In 1787, free male adult literacy was estimated at about 65 percent, and in the census of 1850 literacy was reported as 90 percent.  In the colonial times education was supported with a mixture of private and public funding.  In the rural areas government schools predominated: 

[T]he characteristic school was the district school, organized and controlled by a small locality and financed by some combination of property taxes, fuel contributions, tuition payments, and state aid. (Kaestle 1983 p13)

Then as now, many parents were interested as much in baby-sitting as education.  Children as young as two were sent to school “to relieve the mothers of their care at home.”  Some poorer children got to attend for free, but most parents paid fees for their children to attend.  Parents typically enjoyed a degree of control over the schools, particularly as the teachers often boarded with parents of the children on a rotation basis. (Coulson 1999 p74)  In more populous areas, a variety of schools, of varying degrees of sophistication, competed for the custom of parents.  Some schools stuck to the basics; others were focused upon college preparation, and others appealed to the widest market by advertising a large range of classes.  In the early republic independent private schools served the majority of children, but free charity schools sponsored by philanthropy and religious groups catered to the poor.  The charitable efforts increased in step with urbanization. 

In the environment of the early nineteenth century, the idea of centralized, government-run education for children did not appeal to the average American.  Would-be education reformers like James G. Carter and Samuel Smith proposed that it was the duty of the state to compel the ignorant to learn and the superintend the education of children. (Coulson 1999 p78)  But the idea of compulsion did not achieve much traction until the election of the populist Andrew Jackson to the White House and the first waves of immigration started in mid-century, prompting the high-toned Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the Whig Party to erect a defense against the tide of Democracy and immigration. 

In Boston, the Harvard Unitarians wanted to use government power to dish the Puritans, and the Protestants of every stripe wanted to use government power to dish the Catholics.  So they nominated Horace Mann, speaker of the Massachusetts state house, to became secretary of the Massachusetts board of education and implement a solution: a centralized, government-run system of universal education.  “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged,” wrote Mann. (Coulson 1999 p80)

Horace Mann may have been thinking of using the common schools for fighting crime, but the lower orders were thinking more about getting a better education for their children than they could get at the charity schools.  “Give us our rights, and we shall not need your charity,” wrote  the Mechanics’ Free Press.  The Albany Mechanics’ Society argued against subsidies going to “the aristocratical nurseries of the wealthy few” and argued for the benefits of government funds generally “applied to the really useful instruction of all.” (Kaestle 1983 p138)  The working people wanted their children to rise in the world, and they wanted government subsidy to help them do it.

  From its beginnings in Massachusetts the common school movement quickly spread.  By the Civil War the North had been converted to the common school, and the South followed soon after.  From this beginning the government-run school system slowly expanded upwards and outwards.  High schools became the big idea at the end of the nineteenth century and the number of years of compulsory education were slowly increased.  Educators became better and better and manipulating the political system for their benefit and education slowly moved away from local and parental control.

The common school movement immediately provoked a clash over whose ideas and religious beliefs would rule in the classroom.  Mann had promised that “all particularities of dogma” over which Protestants disagreed would be removed from school instruction.  However, the Protestant Bible, rather than the Catholic Bible was used, and arguments over which Bible to use resulted in the Philadelphia Bible riots of 1844.  In face of the bigotry of anti-Catholic public education, the Catholic immigrants felt forced to develop, through the Catholic Church, a duplicate system of schools in which their children could be taught Catholic culture.  Fortunately, they had in Archbishop John Hughes of New York a leader with the vision and the tenacity to see such a radical notion through to completion.  The Jews, arriving in the United States 50 years later, solved the problem for themselves by slowly squeezing all religious instruction out of the public schools.

In England widespread literacy was not as widespread as early as in the United States.  However, according to E.G. West, literacy increased steadily from the beginning of the nineteenth century right up until 1870, when government sponsored state education was legislated.  Up until 1833 the government, in the interests of social stability, actively discouraged the lower orders from acquiring literacy.  Still, by the 1840s, researcher R. K. Webb estimated the literacy among the working classes as “between two-thirds and three-quarters.” (West 1994 p164)  A survey of miners in the north of England in 1840 showed that over 50 percent could read and write.  Only 21 percent could neither read nor write.  The Royal Navy in 1865 reported that 89 percent of seamen could read, 80 percent of marines, and 94 percent of petty officers.  Examination of marriage records showed that the literacy rate of men getting married rose from 67 percent in 1841 to 94 percent in 1891. (West 1994 p168)  All this occurred before state education had really had a chance to make a difference.  It resulted from spontaneous, self-motivated actions by parents acquiring education for their children even when discouraged by the government.

From what kind of school were the working classes getting this basic literacy?  Chiefly, they got it from fee-paying schools.  In 1813 James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill) wrote of “the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the lower orders in England.”  He noted that

There is hardly a village that has not something of a school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more or less, reading and writing.  We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.

Henry Brougham conducted surveys of schools in 1820 and 1828, and found that the numbers in schools had doubled in one decade.  A government study found that the numbers had almost tripled, from 478,000 in 1818 to 1,294.000 in 1834.  By 1851, the total had increased to 2.1 million, at a time when the total population of adults and children was 18 million.  In 1861, the Newcastle Commission found that essentially every child in England and Wales was receiving some kind of education.

In England, the nineteenth century was a century of education.  But it was a movement that occurred spontaneously, from the bottom up.  In 1818, the government needed to appoint a parliamentary commission to find out what was going on.  Later in the century, more government studies were needed to understand the breadth and depth of this social phenomenon.  What they found was that the English people were almost universally sending their children to school.  Some of the schools were paid for by charitable organizations; many provided assistance to those in need.  But overwhelmingly, the schools were funded by fees paid by the parents.  Many parents made enormous sacrifices so that their children could attend school.  But they sent them.

Against the slow moves to centralization in Britain and the United States, the history of education in Germany is salutary.  Year Zero for the Germans was the humiliating Prussian defeat in the battle of Jena in 1806, experienced as a national disaster.  In the dark days following defeat the Prussian monarchy reached out to all sectors of society to rebuild and restore the nation to strength and self-respect, emancipating the peasants, rebuilding and reforming the army, extending power to the middle class, and reforming education.  It was a crash program of national renewal.  Wilhelm von Humboldt, Germany’s most revered scholar and friend of Schiller and Goethe, was called back to Berlin to head the education ministry and undertake the building of a German national education.  He developed a three stage philosophy of education: elementary, scholastic, and university, encouraging development of the Pestalozzi methods in the elementary schools.  The whole structure was intended to deliver an allgemeine Bildung or all-around education that would create citizens capable of thinking for themselves.  His crowning achievement was the founding of the University of Berlin, devoted to Wissenschaft in research and education, that became the model for the western university.  This was the system that Horace Mann got to experience when he visited the Prussian education system in 1843 and determined to implement from the top down as Humboldt had done 30 years before.  The Humboldt reform turned out to be a stunning success.  By 1900, Germany had the best scientists and the best army in the world.  By 1945 this top-down experiment boasted the most ruined cities in the world.

This brief history of schooling shows that field of education has never been tranquil.  The lower classes have struggled to acquire the basics of literacy, and tried to get the political system to subsidize their expenses.  The elite classes have attempted to use the education system to form the minds of the young to their idea of the good.  As governments have instituted almost complete government control over schooling, education has become intensely political.  In the Anglo-Saxon countries of the early-to-mid nineteenth century when schools were overwhelmingly fee supported, parents were able to obtain an education for their children that approached their own desires.  If they did not like the school their children attended, they could change it by simply going down the street.  But in the age of the government school, this was usually no longer possible.  The centralization and uniformity preferred by education reformers demanded a one-size-fits-all approach to education.   Parents found themselves in conflict with teachers, with administrators, with nativists, with religious sects, and with religious groups in a fight to control their children’s education.  In the United States, public schools have been used to Americanize immigrants and celebrate diversity, to teach literacy and to let children find their own way to reading, to teach tolerance and to teach political correctness, to get back to basics and to encourage creativity, to teach morality and to allow children to clarify their own values.  But instead of letting parents use their own judgment in educating their children and find schools that fit their own choice in the battle of warring polarities, the system confines them to limited choices dictated by political power at all levels of government: national, state, and local.  In consequence, whereas education used to be flexible and responsive to its clients, under government control it has become rigid, unresponsive, and mediocre.

The problem is that different children need different education.  The child of an illiterate herder in the Gobi desert needs one kind of education.  The child of an American college professor needs another.  What kind of education did the child of an illiterate costermonger in London in 1850 need?  What does the child of a Appalachian redneck need?  What does a child of the Christian Right need?  What does the child of a single mother in the inner city need?  In the case of Nancy Johnston in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the need is “the best education, grade school through college,” an education that will allow her children to complete the journey from Chester to Charlotte, and enjoy the rich life, the career open to talents enjoyed by families like the Bushes.

Of course, the goal of public education has never been to assist parents in obtaining education for their own children.  It has always been about establishing a framework for the education of other peoples’ children to make sure that it conforms to grand national purposes.  In the case of the Prussians, the model beloved of Whig Party common school activists like Horace Mann, the purpose was to educate children for the army so that Prussia would never again be humiliated by the French.  In the case of Horace Mann and the Boston Transcendentalists, the purpose was to preserve their high-toned Protestant Americanism from the uncouth Jacksonian Democrats and the barbaric Catholic Irish. 

You can never be too careful about other people and their children.  That is the philosophy that has driven the great centralizing movement in education that began with the German revanchist movement after the Napoleonic Wars and spread to the United States and to Britain in turn.  Educational activists just could not countenance the idea that parents ought to be responsible for the education of their children, despite the evidence that they took their responsibility very seriously.  They knew, or thought they knew, that parents would not raise children to become the kind of adults that the activists wanted for the future.  The Germans wanted cannon fodder; the Americans wanted to block the Jacksonians and the Catholics; the British wanted to close the “gaps.”  They found that the best method of advancing their goals was to traduce the parents, to propose that parents were too ignorant or too feckless to educate their children without supervision.  The best policy was the “precautionary” principle beloved of modern environmentalists: to place the burden of proof on the parents to prove their competence to raise their own children.  However experts and politicians reserve the right to try out their own ideas on other peoples’ children without limit. 

The problem is that the centralized education principle runs against the most basic idea of the United States, that the American people are, or ought to be, capable of self-government.  That means that they must be presumed to be competent to run their lives unless they demonstrate otherwise.  Surely there is no more central right of self-government than for parents to educate their children according to their lights in their own way.

Living in the striver suburb of Rock Hill, Hanna Rosin’s Christian Right voter Mary Johnston stands half way between Chester, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, half way between the redneck fecklessness of Chester and the shining city of Charlotte where the professional classes go for education and careers.  She lives half way between the redneck world she has left behind and the educated future she is building for her children.  She lives with the shame of her humble roots down the road in Chester, South Carolina, and the hope vested in her children’s education.  She is determined that her children will get the best education, first grade through college.  She understands that education gives her children the keys to the city, and she feels a flush of shame at her own educational inadequacy.  But the question is: will Mary Johnston be allowed to obtain “the best education” for her children according to her lights?  Or will she just have to put up with the education that has been selected by the nation’s elite as suitable for the education of “other peoples’ children?”

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The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity

Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

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