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Some don’t recall it, while others don’t wish to acknowledge how at one time public education was a model for American values and progress. Most parents, if it was within their reach, wanted better for their children. Before “public” education was available, the likely ways to do this were by signing a child (sometimes for a fee) to indentured service (free labor) so he (in general only males were educated) could learn skills, to a guild (much the same as indenture), or a favored few (in part due to limited capacity) were allowed entry to a church school where a boy learned to copy, sing, and do menial work. The poor and their children had little opportunity to move above their station in life. Many children learned skills strictly from work with their parents or in their community, the majority of whose members were illiterate. The Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on individuals reading the Bible in their own tongue caused many parishes to provide limited education, primarily in reading, often excluding females.
This system or pattern was the norm through the time of the American Revolution. The New World was more than fresh geography and unmapped territory. The New World was new opportunity and new order in the sense that people of common origin could rise and prosper in ways rarely possible (and often strongly resisted) in class societies with a nobility based on family or tribal origins. (Henry VIII was much criticized by old noble families for creating “new men,” meaning elevating people to the nobility, the only class of man thought to be acceptable or legitimate.) For example, wealth generated in the fur trade allowed individuals of common origin to adopt the trappings of rank and station they’d never have been allowed in the Old World. The New World was a different order of opportunity and possibility.
Of course, the United States began on the model of the Old, where life was sharply divided along social lines. On one side there were Gentlemen and Ladies, and on the other side there were men and women. These groups stood out by dress. A gentleman in wig and breeches would not be found behind a plow. The children of success wore nice clothes and buckled shoes while poor kids were raggy and barefoot. As the lure of opportunity attracted more and more immigrants, there was seemingly more and more room for a society of expanded bounds. But whereas the Protestant Reformation accelerated the need for reading among the public, requirements of the Industrial Age saw the value of workers able to read, write, do numbers, and understand some of the complexity of manufacturing on a scale beyond anything known earlier. A huge factor that sped and solidified social change in the New World was the Civil War. A modern production company such as Colt Arms or Bethlehem Steel needed skilled and educated workers. Industry was very much in favor of education for the young, as were parents, and in turn this more educated citizenry and work force fostered yet more opportunity and possibility.
Public education was seen as a social good by developing skills in the general population and by providing a common basis of understanding of our New World history and our form of self-government. Do you think for one minute the U.S. would have been anywhere near capable of contributing as it did in WWII if it lacked skilled workers to produce the means of victory and people educated enough to use them? You simply could not put illiterate farm kids into fighter cockpits and expect anything other than disaster, except in the most exceptional of cases. An educated populace was essential then. That same well-schooled populace went on to thrive in the post-war era.
So what happened, do you think, that by the Reagan Era the tune changed to “our schools have failed” and “we must provide choice (also known as privatization) in education to counter these failures”? Was the most prosperous and successful nation on the planet suddenly the “victim” of failed public education? Or, were such ideas put forward with the political goal of turning public education into a for-profit adventure along the lines of the old guilds or indentures, where it was pay-as-you-go, and those unable to pay simply don’t go very far? Privatizing education, along with a good many other things that have been inflicted on it since Reagan’s time, seem to me Old World ideas that are bound to set us back as a society of free and equal people.
Those of you who shake your heads at my weekly doses of North Shore nonsense will likely be wondering why I titled this “Lyceum.” I did so in memory of the Lyceum programs the state used to promote and helped provide to public schools. These were “extras” where noted performers or specialists brought an interesting program to an entire student body. This was done because we believed every school and every student deserved the best we could give them. How then did we get snookered into the idea that choice, which by its nature separates students (and with them society) into special interest groups, is in some way superior to the American model of bringing society together to foster a common understanding and shared prosperity?
There’s one thing, though, that could stand as a proof of the failure of education, which is that an awful lot of people were so uncritical in their thinking that they accepted “failure of education” as proven. They believed what they were told, and went along with cures to fix a problem that did not exist or was less severe than claimed. And if there was a problem, would you go about fixing it as proposed by taking funding away from “failing” schools? That’s like saying, “This mechanic isn’t too good, so we’ll make him work without lights.” If there’s a failure in education, it is that people did not fall over laughing when those things were proposed, and that they did not rise angrily in New World ire when ignorance was applied as a supposed cure.