Tag Archives: Harper’s Magazine

Define education as a consumer good, and the customer is always right.

The writer here is  Lewis Lapham, not me.  Although in most of what he says he speaks for me. And what I don’t have in large supply is that which he is well supplied with, confidence and arrogance.

See: NOTEBOOK Study hall By Lewis H. Lapham, from Harper’s Magazine, 2001



“A woful putrefaction threatens the Rising Generation; Barbarous Ignorance,  and the unavoidable consequence of it,  Outrageous Wickedness wi! make the  Rising Generation Loathsome, if it  have not Schools to preserve it.”
Cotton Mather,  An address, Ad Fratres in Eremo,  1699 

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the  mediocre educational performance that  exists today, we might well have viewed  it as an act of war …. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
A Nation (:It Risk, The National  Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983


Two hundred and eighty-four  years between the two storm warnings, and the American idea of education remains as it was in the beginning, —better understood as a  profession of faith than as a course of  instruction.

The Reverend Mather  addressed his remarks to a Puritan  congregation in the  Massachusetts  Bay Colony, further observing that  Satan, a.k.a. “the old deluder,”  could strike no “greater Blow to the  Reformation among us than by causing schools to Languish under Discouragements.”

Let the schools rot,  said the preacher, and “thou hast destroyed thyself, 0 New England.”  The authors of A Nation at Risk were  worried about the Russians. In 1957  the old deluder had shown the Russians how to launch a spacecraft into  the heavens, and twenty-six years  later it was still being seen from  Washington as a baleful portent fore-telling an end to America’s “once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation.”

Neil Armstrong  had been to the moon and back, but  the Siberian steppe in the meantime  had been seeded with a forest of in-  tercontinental ballistic missiles, and  President Reagan assembled the  Commission to assess the strength of  the Blow of which the evil Soviet  empire was then thought capable. 

After foraging for eighteen months  in the wilderness of academic study  groups, the committee returned with  bad news. Our schools were drowning in “a rising tide of mediocrity,”  and unless we strengthened the sand-bags of the curricula and raised the  height of the test scores, we could say  goodbye to our “prosperity, security,  and civility.”

Fearful of the same result, Mather had suggested that “particular Towns Employ their Wits” or  suffer the “Rebuke of God”; President Reagan’s Commission recommended massive  infusions of cash.

Being American and therefore by  definition a self-improving people always on the road to the milk-white  cities of perfection, we assign to education the powers that other societies  award to religion, the word itself invested with so many meanings that it  can be confused with Aladdin’s lamp,  made to serve as synonym for the  way out and the ticket home, offered  as an answer to every mother’s  prayer.

The high hopes and great expectations follow the flag. Ralph  Waldo Emerson in the l840s beheld  the golden door of “intellectual en-  largement” through which “a man  stupid becomes a man inspired,” passing out of “the torpid into the perceiving state,” shrugging off “the din  of trifles” to take his “manworthy”  place as “a new Adam in the garden,  [who] is to name all the beasts in the  field, all the gods in the sky.” John  Dewey in 1897 put it more plainly-  “the teacher always is the prophet of  the true God and the usherer in of  the true kingdom of God.”

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