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.”