I have been writing posts for this blog over a decade. One of the purposes for it is to take drafts of a forthcoming book that I am working on and use them as posts to try out new ideas (or renovated old ones) and see how readers respond. I am now working on a book about the three major reform movements over the past century that have swept over schools and what I experienced in each of those movements beginning in 1939 as a student, then a teacher between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, an administrator in the 1970s and early 1980s and since then as a researcher. The next few posts will become the Introduction to the book. Comments welcomed.
Just see wherever we peer into the first tiny springs of the national life, how this true panacea for all of the ills of the body politic bubbles forth—education, education, education.
Andrew Carnegie, 1886
School houses do not teach themselves – piles of brick and mortar and machinery do not send out men. It is the trained, living human soul, cultivated and strengthened by long study and thought, that breathes the real breath of life into boys and girls and makes them human, whether they be black or white, Greek, Russian or American.
W.E.B. Dubois, 1903
At the desk where I sit in Washington, I have learned one great truth: The answer for all our national problems comes down to one single word: education
President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
[E]ducation is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
Sam Seaborn, West Wing, 2000, season 1, episode 18
According to industrialist Andrew Carnegie, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, President Lyndon Johnson, and a character in the award-winning television drama, West Wing, education ends poverty, leads to wealth, makes a person a full human being, and should be cherished.
They were not the only ones to urge fellow citizens to grab the brass ring of education on the American carousel. Mexican immigrant Celia who lives in a central Texas city tells an interviewer what she does for Daniel her 10 year-old son:
Up to now, that Daniel is in fourth grade, I’ll say all his teachers have been excellent teachers and I get along with them very well, I communicate. The first day of classes, and even before sometimes, I introduce myself, I ask them for their home phone number in case of an emergency, or in case the boy wants to lie and I have [to] doubt him, I ask them, I tell them, but it is not that I am bothering them. And teachers like to communicate, they ask for parents to go. For me, up to now, I don’t know if I will have a problem later, but up to now not, they ask for parents to go. When I can I am there for an hour, and I am there to read in Spanish. Or if they have something to do I help them, but . . . I like to work with them, but if I see that they are not good I tell them….
My mother, Fanny Cuban, immigrated in 1910 to New York City from Kiev, then Czarist Russia. My father, Morris Cuban, also from Kiev, arrived in New York in 1912. They met through family connections and got married in 1919. They had three sons of whom I was the youngest.
Neither my father nor mother completed elementary school in Russia. My father was a waiter, worked in delicatessens, and he and my mother had a grocery store before he ended up as a jobber in Pittsburgh selling deli products from a truck. He earned enough to house, feed, and clothe the family for decades. Because my brothers were born in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II limited their schooling to getting a high school diploma. They eventually went into business after World War II ended.
I was born in 1934 and since being a toddler, my mother drummed into me that since my brothers did not go beyond high school, I had to go to college to be a doctor or lawyer. I became neither. I did go to college working at different part-time jobs to save money for tuition and getting through school. I graduated and became a teacher. My mother’s message about getting an education was clear, consistent, and constant.
As important as getting an education is to Presidents, corporate leaders, scholars, Celia, and my mother, the screen writer who put these words into Sam Seaborn’s mouth: “I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet” captured the complexity of figuring out what direction schools should move and getting schools to move in that path.
Generation after generation of American reformers over the past century believed in the power of tax-supported schools to enrich individuals and remedy national problems. Some writers have characterized this faith in education as a secular religion that Americans worship. Because of this devotion to schooling as all-purpose solvent for parents, communities, and the nation, reformers again and again have tried to figure out, in Seaborn’s words: “how to do it….” It would be an intellectual error, however, to think that American reformers only had schools on their agenda of social change.
Time and again, social, political, and economic reformers in America fought slavery, restrained industrial corporations from setting prices and gouging consumers, and expanded rights of minorities and women. These reform movements went beyond schools.
Moreover, reforming individual Americans to be better persons has been in the American blood stream since the Mayflower arrived. Ditto for reforming community institutions to be better places within which to live and work. Perfecting individuals and community institutions while solving problems of urban slums, corrupt city governments, rural poverty, racial segregation, and anemic economic growth has been steady work for reformers.
As predictable as climbing up a ladder to clean leaves from roof gutters every season, reforms have regularly swept across the nation. Since the early 1900s, three overlapping social and political movements have churned across the U.S. and left marks on government, business, and community institutions, including public schools: The Progressive movement (1900s-1950s), the Civil Rights Struggle (1950s-1970s), and Binding Schools to the Economy (1980s-present).
Subsequent posts take up these reform movements.
*I have citations for the epigraphs and other points I make. Anyone wanting the cites, contact me.