I am looking at an image of my fifth great-grandfather’s signature, his “mark.” Because Thomas Gordon was illiterate, his Revolutionary pension warrant was signed as an “X.” The signing was witnessed by a justice of the peace who wrote, just to the left and right of the mark, “Thomas” and then “Gordon.” Above and below the mark, “his” and then “Mark.” The year was 1818.
Thomas Gordon was to be the last person in my family not to know how to read and write. Very nearly from its inception, the United States committed to a public education for its citizens. Although not inscribed in the Constitution, we, as a people, understand civic literacy to be a tacit agreement between the government and its people. A binding handshake, if you will.
Over the past two centuries, that contract has been expanded upon as America has grown to recognize the rights for all its citizens, notably those historically hidden from us in the shadows. That recognition of one’s right to a public education came to fruition through three notable decisions in the previous century.
The first action came in the midst of World War II, the “Service members’ Readjustment Act of 1944” (more commonly, the G.I. Bill of Rights). Within its provisions, Congress declared that every returning veteran would have the right to a government-financed college education, regardless of the veteran’s station in society. Since 1944, millions of our veterans have attained degrees in vocational and higher education. The sons of steelworkers and farmers were admitted to our most prestigious colleges.
Ten years later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools were a violation of the Constitution through the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. No child could be denied the right to attend the public school of her choice based on the color of her skin.
And third, the right of disabled children to attend public school. Can you imagine America without the protections now guaranteed in 1975’s “Education for All Handicapped Children Act”? Our most vulnerable children have the right to learn, and to be accommodated so that they may learn and thrive.
No other country surpasses America’s pledge to quality public education for all its citizens, including those without legal status inside our borders.
So why is it that our educational institutions ? kindergarten through grade 12 and the universities ? are in turmoil?
Just as the United States was further pledging its commitment to public education, there came an assault from forces claiming just the opposite, decrying the entire structure of traditional American education. We have witnessed the steady chopping away at liberal arts education. The loss of history and classical literature courses. The dismantling of cultural and vocational arts in public schools ? music, art, drama, home economics and shop classes, courses that have traditionally been a melting pot for a diverse student body.
Students of all abilities took such courses and worked together in band, shop and dance. Then there’s the lowering of academic standards, lowering the bar for all and thus increasing achievement scores, a perversion of equal opportunity.
Meantime, the above disciplines have been replaced by courses in ethnic studies, along with mandatory workshops in “cultural sensitivity.” Just last year, the state Legislature declared that fourth-grade study of the California missions is now “optional.” Where do those folks imagine the state capitol’s name comes from?
A Los Angeles Times editorial applauded that decision. Locally, Washington School parents are in a hard fight to retain GATE, countering the district’s claim that such programs are elitist.
There can be only one reason for the shift in educational philosophy, especially given our country’s expanding commitment to public education: power ? political power for the sake of wielding it.
Horace Mann proposed extensive public investment in childhood education in order to assimilate the massive waves of European immigrants to America throughout the latter decades of the 19th century. Assimilation. Melting pot. A united people for our United States. That’s why schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning: a reminder that we are one people. Or used to be.
Despotism begins by dividing a country’s people against themselves. And what better place to foster divisiveness than in the American classroom? That is why the Pledge of Allegiance, courses in civics and American history, and the classical works of western culture have now been erased from the curriculum ? because they bind us together.
While we may now all be literate, we can read and write our names, taken from us is our shared cultural literacy. A cross-generational legacy that binds Americans together and always has.