My family’s heritages are migrant and education. By that I mean that moving someplace else for a better life, and getting the kids into better schools, has been a tradition running back at least 6 generations. My paternal grandfather was a seaman in the British merchant marine. He married a woman in Guyana, then moved the family for a job in the stockyards in Kansas City, a better place to raise kids. His children became nurses, politicians, law enforcement officers, successful trucking magnates; his grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, nurses, business executives, and teachers — one Rhodes Scholar. I am second-generation American on my father’s side.
My maternal grandfather was a farmer of great skill. He moved from Provo, Utah, to the frontier town of Manila, Utah, then to Delta, then to Salt Lake City, in a quest for riches from farming. Deciding that wouldn’t work, he took a job with Utah Oil Co., a company that was eventually merged into Standard of Indiana and now, British Petroleum. His children all graduated from high school, except for the daughter lost in infancy. Several went on to college. They became construction company owners, contractors and engineers, railroad engineers, small company entrepreneurs and retailers. His grandchildren are physicians, lawyers, business executives, successful salesman, investors — and a couple of good old boys who scrape by (every family has some). My grandfather was second-generation from pioneers, people who moved their families west in wagons, or if necessary, on foot and pushcart. They were people who fought Indians sometimes, and died in those fights and in the migrations. They left legacies in the towns named after them, and in their records as educators — both my maternal grandparents were schoolteachers early on, many of their cousins were college professors, one a college president.
Education in our family was always viewed as a ladder to personal success, to a good life, if not always a key to economic well-being. Especially in the case of my maternal grandparents, there was great assistance from the Latter-day Saint emphasis on education.
If I had to typify their version of the American dream, certainly a huge part of that dream involved the kids getting educated well beyond their parents, and getting a better life as a result.
Education was a part of the American dream from pre-Revolution days. Foreign visitors often commented that in America the crudest of men read the newspapers and discussed politics with vigor and earnestness absent in other nations. Education was the cornerstone of freedom, in the view of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and as demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.
Sometime in the 1980s, I think, the tide changed. Certainly the Reagan Revolution had something to do with it. Cuts in Pell Grants, the grants that got thousands of kids into college, were a signal that education was no longer valued as it once was. One by one the federal government stripped away some of the most important building blocks of our modern society, things like the GI Bill, which had provided America with a highly-trained, highly-skilled corps of engineers in the 1950s. Those engineers invented the infrastructure to our nation that now crumbles, and they invented the industrial processes, and sometimes the industries, that we now use daily. Transistors, which make computers possible on the scale we have today, were invented and developed into powerful “cogs” for machines that do what had not even been dreamed of 40 years earlier.
I can’t tell you exactly when the tide turned, but I can tell you when I first realized it had. After staffing the Senate Labor Committee for most of a decade, I escaped to the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, a good place for a budding environmental lawyer to work, I thought at the time. The chairman of the commission was Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (now senator from Tennessee). Lamar had two big projects in Tennessee that he pinned his hopes for the state upon. Both were influenced in no small part by his work trying to recruit auto manufacturers to build production facilities in Tennessee.
Nissan and Toyota had levelled with him: Tennessee looked good, but for two things. First, there were few good ways to get products like automobiles out of the state to markets they needed to be sold in. Second, Tennessee’s education system wasn’t providing the highly-educated workers the car makers needed to run highly-sophisticated machinery in a fast-moving, just-in-time inventory system that produced high quality products at lowest cost.
Alexander responded with one initiative to build good roads out of Tennessee to major markets. He called that initiative “Good Roads.” He responded to the education needs with a program designed to plug money and support into Tennessee schools to improve education, bolstered by the report of the Excellence in Education Committee in 1983. He called that initiative “Good Schools.” In retrospect, those were good places to focus development efforts. Tennessee got at least one Japanese company to locate a plant there, and snagged the much-desired Saturn production plant of General Motors.
The Commission had some hearings in Tennessee. I was along on one of those hearings, and I was with Alexander when he was met by a Tennessee constituent who just wanted to talk to the governor. Alexander, being from Tennessee, hoping to keep his election chances good, and being a good governor, agreed to give the man and his wife a few minutes — I watched. The constituent complained about all the changes coming to Tennessee. He complained about the costs of the roads, and the costs of improving the schools. He worried about taxes, because, he said, he didn’t make a lot of money. Alexander assured him that his taxes would not rise much if any at all, and that especially the education part of the program would benefit all Tennesseans. “Do you have children?” Alexander asked the man.
He responded that he had two kids, both in their early teens. And then he said something that just stunned me: “You know, I’ve gotten by pretty good with my 8th grade education all these years, and I don’t see why my kids need to have any more than that. I’m not sure we need Good Schools.”
To Lamar Alexander’s everlasting credit — or shame, if you’re very cynical — he didn’t strike the man down. Alexander spent a few more minutes explaining the benefits the man’s children would have from better education, and he closed off telling about his meetings with car company executives who made it clear that they wanted to hire only good students who had graduated from good high schools, and maybe who had enough college that they could do the complex mathematics to run big machines. Alexander asked the man for his name and address, said his opinion was very important to him, and promised to get back in touch.
I suspect Alexander did contact the man later. His office tended to work very well on such matters as constituent contacts.
But I’ll wager he didn’t change the man’s opinion about education.
Sometime in the mid-1980s many Americans began to look on education as unnecessary, as expensive, and as “elitist” in a new, derogatory sense. Instead of education being something blue-collar workers hoped their children would earn, it became something blue collar workers felt oppressed by, somehow.
From that commission, I moved to the U.S. Department of Education, in Bill Bennett’s regime. Over the next few months I observed the same anti-education phenomenon playing out in debates about school reform in dozens of states. Then I got out of government and into private business, where education was demanded, and I only occasionally worried about the drama I had seen.
The past few weeks, especially since the nomination of Sarah Palin, have heightened my fears about the loss of the shared dream of better education for our children. It was part of the American psyche, woven into the fabric of our government from the “Old Deluder Satan” law in Massachusetts, which required towns of any size to set up some kind of school, through the Northwest Ordinances, which set aside sections of every township to be used for the benefit of public education, through the settlement of the west where nearly every town with a kid in it built a school — schools were built in Utah before many pioneers had houses to get them through the winter — through the dramatic rise of public education that helped knock out child labor, and that provided us with truly American armies and navies to get us out on top of two world wars.
In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.
But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.
Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.
What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
It’s a sobering piece. Please read it.
We remain a nation of migrants, a nation that migrates. We remain a nation that desires economic success and is willing to move to get it. Have we lost the good sense to remember that education improves our chances at success? Does Brooks explain the entire motivation for the War on Education?
What do you think?