Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 1)

I have completed a draft of my next book called “Confessions of a School Reformer.” The first part of the Introduction to the book follows.

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[i]

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[ii]

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[iii]

[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[iv]

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 that circled 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….[v]

My mother, Fanny Janofsky, immigrated from Kiev, then Czarist Russia, to America in 1910. My father, Morris Cuban, also from Kiev, arrived in New York in 1912. They met through family connections and married in 1919. They had three sons of whom I am the youngest.

Neither my father nor mother completed school in Russia. My father was a waiter, worked in delicatessens, and he and my mother had a small grocery store before he ended up as a jobber in Pittsburgh selling deli products from a paneled truck. He earned enough to house, feed, and clothe us for decades. Because my brothers were born in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II limited their schooling to getting high school diplomas. They eventually went into business together after 1945.

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 pay tuition and have spending money while living at home. I  graduated and became a teacher. My mother’s message about getting an education was clear 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 sussing out what direction schools should move and getting schools to go 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….” [vi]


[i] Andrew Carnegie, Triumphant Democracy (New York, Scribner’s Sons, 1886), p. 79.

[ii] W.E.B. Dubois, “The Talented Tenth” in Booker T.Washington, (Ed.)The Negro Problem, 1903 at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15041/15041-h/15041-h.htm#The_Talented_Tenth

[iii] Lyndon Johnson, “Remarks in Providence at the 200th Anniversary Convocation of Brown University, September 28, 1964,“ Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon Johnson, 1965, p. 1140.

[iv] Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for Season 1, episode 18, has Presidential speechwriter Seaborn make this statement to an aide. See: https://westwing.fandom.com/wiki/Sam_Seaborn

[v] Gustavo Carreon, et. al., “The Importance of Presence: Immigrant Parents’ School Engagement Experiences,” American Educational Research Journal, 2005, 42(3), pp. 465-493. Quote is on p. 476.

[vi] Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1990 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991); Carl Bankston and Stephen Caldas, Public Education—America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

4 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

4 responses to “Americans’ Secular Faith in Schooling (Part 1)

  1. Arthur Sheekey

    Happy New Year Larry. Art. Still enjoying life in Shepherd Park.

  2. Looking forward for the book.

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