Final thoughts spurred by Frances Wright, friend of Mary Shelley, who toured America and wrote about it (1820s); among her subjects--public education.
What’s more interesting to me, nearly two centuries later, is not the shining morning faces of the students she saw in Connecticut but the enduring relevance of some of her comments about public education—and its profound importance.
In her letter of March 1820 (from New York) she writes about how communities are willingly taxing themselves to provide free public schools, which, she says, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to the whole population. In larger towns these schools teach geography and the rudiments of Latin. She goes on to talk a bit about higher education (slowly taking root in America) before returning to more comment about the importance of all this.
The child of every citizen, she writes, male or female, white or black, is entitled by right to a plain education, and funds sufficient to defray the expense of his instruction are raised wither from public lands appropriated to the purpose, or by taxes sometimes imposed by the legislature and sometimes by the different townships.
And we need to remember here what she had said much earlier (in a letter from July 1819, from Albany): Knowledge, which is the bugbear of tyranny, is, to liberty, the sustaining staff of life. To enlighten the mind of the American citizen is, therefore, a matter of national importance.
Wright’s comments strike me especially hard. As readers know, I spent my forty-five year career in classrooms, most of them in a public middle school, where I taught seventh and eighth graders. As that portion of my career wound down (I retired from public education in January 1997), the passion for (or disease of?) standardized testing was beginning to pervade the state of Ohio—and the rest of the nation.
Now—it’s October 2016 as I write these words—it is a full-blown madness (not to mention a ga-jillion-dollar industry). My grandsons, 7 and 11, have already taken more standardized tests than I did, K–Ph.D. Teachers take risks if they deviate from the test-driven curriculum, for they are evaluated, at least in part, by the scores their youngsters receive on those mindless measures. Education has gone with the wind, and test-preparation has swirled in to replace it.
I’m horrified by it—and I believe that Frances Wright would also have been. She believed in schools that taught people fundamentals, yes, but also taught them how to think and evaluate and debate, schools that gave youngsters worthy books to read, and on and on.
She would be shocked at the anti-education, anti-intellectual attitudes that are so pervasive now in our country. We’ve reached the point at which public figures are almost ashamed to reveal the extent of their education, as if earning advanced degrees were a mark of madness—or, at the least, elitism.
I think of that horrible scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part Two, when populist Jack Cade and his minions are trying to stir up a revolution against those whom they consider elites (and, to be fair, those who consider themselves elite—but that’s another story). Anyway, in 4.1—right after that famous line The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers—we get this exchange about a man a minion has nabbed. Let’s see what his crime is—and how he’s punished:
Enter some, bringing forward the Clerk of Chatham
I am sorry for't: the man is a proper man, of mine honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die. Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?
Let me alone. Dost thou use to write thy name? or hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
Exit one with the Clerk
And as I hear some of the bellowing this political season (Trump v. Clinton), I hear the echoes from the distant voice of Jack Cade. So popular. So dangerous and destructive and deadly.