NOTE: This essay is the first in a series focused on education reform. Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.
The curse of every generation is a loss of memory. The committee reports, task force results and plans of the past are too often overtaken by events and gradually drift from our collective consciousness. We look at the circumstances of today without any appreciation for the origins of what surrounds us. Were our predecessors unaware of the results of their actions? Were their deliberations and decisions reached in a vacuum? What were they thinking?
It’s an easy trap. Today we look at our schools and colleges through the lens of “now” without any appreciation for the lens of “then.” And so it is with education reform. The rhetoric of the day is frightening. If we accept the claims of policy makers in the present, then we are witnessing mass societal failure in educating our students. We are a Nation at Risk that is Academically Adrift as we Decline by Degrees. As a result, we are told we need dramatic change so No Child is Left Behind as we Race to the Top.
Recently, I have been interested in exploring the origins of our approach to education as a nation. Rediscovering the roots of our system has been enlightening for me. I set out to find the error of our ways – to see where we got off track. The revelation for me is that as a nation we have misunderstood the problem. As we focused our attention on the means, we lost sight of our intended end: a strong and stable democracy. That was the real aspiration. We have taken our ideals about the purposes of education and exchanged them for something much less profound.
I found these origins of our purpose in The Truman Report. This is where the system of education as we know it today was imagined. They were intentions quite different than today’s aspirations. In my view, there is an enormous disconnect between what we as a nation set out to do more 65 years ago and our apparent dissatisfaction with the results.
Go back with me to 1946. President Harry S. Truman was leading our country at a time when the wounds of war and the pain of economic collapse were still raw. The GI Bill was adopted in 1944 to accommodate returning veterans and the United Nations was in its infancy. Fears of totalitarianism were pronounced, and global cooperation was high on the agenda. Yet this was a decade before the Russian satellite, Sputnik, circled the globe exacerbating “Cold War” tensions, and several years before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision began reshaping our expectations regarding equality. It was a time of immense societal change complicated significantly by a changing global landscape.
Into this swirling context, President Truman appointed the first presidential commission to focus on education. He was clearly motivated by the needs of veterans returning from World War II, but his charge also included a much broader agenda for the nation. In his letter of appointment to the commissioners, the President noted,
“It seems particularly important, therefore, that we should now reexamine our system of higher education in terms of its objectives, methods, and facilities; and in the light of the social role it has to play.
“These matters are of such far-reaching national importance that I have decided to appoint a Presidential Commission on Higher Education. This Commission will be composed of outstanding civic and educational leaders and will be charged with an examination of the functions of higher education in our democracy and of the means by which they can best be performed…
“Among the more specific questions with which I hope the Commission will concern itself are: ways and means of expanding educational opportunities for all able young people; the adequacy of curricula, particularly in the fields of international affairs and social understanding; the desirability of establishing a series of intermediate technical institutes; the financial structure of higher education with particular reference to the requirements for the rapid expansion of physical facilities…”
This was a seminal moment not only for higher education, but also for our entire education system. The report of this Commission, chaired by George F. Zook, was entitled Higher Education for American Democracy (1947). The full report in six volumes outlines an agenda for education that is the origin of the system we have today. These are the minutes of the first meeting regarding education in the modern era. Sometimes it reads like prophecy.
The opening words of the report call our attention to the fundamental reasons for education. We would do well to ponder these words for they will reshape our thinking about what we are trying to achieve.
“American society is a democracy: that is, its folkways and institutions, its arts and sciences and religions are based on the principle of equal freedom and equal rights for all its members, regardless of race, faith, sex, occupation, or economic status. The law of the land, providing equal justice for the poor as well as the rich, for the weak as well as the strong, is one instrument by which a democratic society establishes, maintains, and protects this equality among different persons and groups. The other instrument is education, which, as all the leaders in the making of democracy have pointed out again and again, is necessary to give effect to the equality prescribed by law.” (p. 5)
Would we place education at a level on par with the rule of law? Is education a public good or a private good? We will explore these topics in subsequent discussions.