Back in the day, when America was presumably at the peak of greatness, public school was a life lesson in sink or swim. If a boy or girl didn’t measure up by the time they were 16, they were unceremoniously pushed out into the world. Earlier generations often didn’t get into high school. My grandfather Alfred, around 1912, left school after the 8th grade to work on the family farm.
Yet he got a good education for an era when knowing how to handle horses and wagons, planting and harvesting were essential skills. His country schoolhouse teachers instilled a sturdy foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic—and a life-long sense of curiosity and civic duty. An early Boy Scout leader, he worked as a machinist and as a building custodian at Cornell University and was elected president of the local school board.
Before the 19th century American experiment in providing primary schools for farmers and workers’ children, there was the British version of schooling, which educated only the sons of the elite. Back in the time of Shakespeare and such, education was a rough and tumble sport.
“The cane cuts as precisely as the Latin declensions. I do not, will not, cry out,” wrote John Aubrey, a polished product of the 17th century British system, as recounted in a recently published book about his life and times. “Hic, haec, hoc: more brutal blows, less precisely aimed, but still the same rhythm. It is the grammar and rhetoric of violence.”
The American version in the 20th century was administered in military boot camp or military prep schools—where teenage boys who were too rambunctious were herded by judges, school administrators and families. It was a system, designed to quickly train and field an army in World War I, widely acclaimed to make boys into men.
I’m a product of that system, volunteering for Army duty at 19, when college proved too boring. In basic training, I encountered a fascinating assortment of high-spirited young men from every part of America, who were uniformly bulled by drill instructors to master the details of close order drill, field marching, rifle shooting, grenade throwing, gas mask fumbling in a closed chamber full of tear gas, and, most of all, unquestioning obedience to orders, in a six-week endurance course to become soldiers.
Bowing to complaints from politicians and parents that far too many American children don’t measure up to the demands of modern times, many school districts have been lured by the military model, turning over the education of American citizenship to ROTC programs run by the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy.
Meanwhile, legions of young men and women who served in the US military during America’s high priority “war on terror,” over the past 15 years, have had a hard time finding decently paid civilian jobs, despite all their military training and war time experience.
Less seldom discussed in the current climate of disparaging the public school system is a model that actually works, without Common Core hype, testing hysteria or coercion.
In a recent cover story titled “Ordinary Families. Extraordinary Kids,” Time Magazine profiled nine families who raised children who’ve excelled in a number of fields, from the arts to public service. The thing that worked: these kids were encouraged by parents and teachers to engage in and learn from the world around them.
“Tan and Maya Lin grew up on a university campus” where they were allowed by their parents “to do practically anything they wanted,” Time reported of the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and her sister, an author of 12 books.
The Lin sisters spent a lot of time playing outdoors, writing poetry and making clay art works in the university ceramics studio; they attended “a high school with an open-module system, which meant that sometimes they went to class only two days a week,” Time noted.
Another common theme in the families profiled by Time: political activism. Many of these parents “were outspoken in their demands for reform in cities, schools and housing complexes…When they weren’t pushing for reform, they were mediating heated political debates at home.”
“If we did not go with her to a particular protest, that protest was brought home,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of his mother, Marsha. “Just eating dinner was a test of current events.” Another son, Zeke, is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped draft the Affordable Care Act. Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, said of his father, Daniel, a New York City school-attendance supervisor and civil rights activist: “He respected what you learned in the culture in the street.”