By Jamil Zainaldin
We have grown accustomed to seeing front-page news concerning K-12 public education in Georgia and its progress (or lack of progress), but some of us may wonder what is prompting all the attention. Is the public school system “broken?” Are we falling farther behind the rest of the nation, and the world, in our educational “race to the top?”
Education has always been on our national mind. One of the very first legislative acts produced by our young national government was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It carved out the territory, covering 260,000 square miles, that today we know as the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois — at the time, an area rivaling the entire South in size.
The ordinance’s most astonishing provision involved education. Free public schools, which previously existed only in New England, were mandated in every township of the new territory. According to the ordinance, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Equally significant, the same law that enshrined free public schools also prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory. Contained in this very intentional pairing (liberty and education) is a great historical truth: one must learn to be free. Liberty and education can survive only together.
A generation or two behind the rest of the nation, the old slaveholding states in the South were the last to commit to free public schools. Part of the delay was due to heritage — an atmosphere that saw literacy as a threat to the social order (teaching a slave to read was a crime, and some felt not much differently about poor whites) hobbled the free school movement in the South, and even its serious discussion. Not until the twentieth century did compulsory education come to most southern states (1916 in Georgia).
This is not to excuse so much as to recognize Georgia’s cumulative burdens — human, economic, governmental, educational — that grew from slavery’s legacy and the utter, total devastation of the Civil War. Only after World War II did Georgia truly turn that economic corner, accelerating with the monumental successes of the civil rights movement. We were becoming the air-conditioned “Sunny South.”
In the wake of these positive social and legal changes came a brand-new dedication to free and equal public schools for all. Yet the state’s long history of neglect exacts a toll.
For all the work we have left to do in our state, I am reminded also of how the vision of education itself has changed, too, not only in Georgia but everywhere. In 1780, in a letter to his son, the future president John Adams wrote, “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”
In 1940 one of the nation’s great education experts, Isaac Leon Kandel, of Columbia University, described education’s mission this way:
“Education, true education, should liberate: it should cultivate the genuinely free man, the man of moral judgment, of intellectual integrity; it should give us the power to see the other side; it should impart nobility of purpose and spiritual being and that the struggle for the mastery of the forces of nature is not merely for the satisfaction of human needs but is also inspired by the spiritual end of reaching out beyond our immediate lives to something eternal.”
Today such language seems quaint. Yet if we want to know what inspired the “Greatest Generation” in its war against fascism and the likes of Hitler, the clues can be found in what the children of that generation were taught. Indeed, in the American popular culture of the time (and perhaps still so), the dedicated teacher and battlefield hero were interchangeable: their actions were 1) purposeful, 2) rooted in duty, and 3) for the benefit of others.
(The Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan perfectly captures this old chestnut when it makes the prewar occupation of the protagonist — and battlefield hero — a subplot of the main story. “I’m a schoolteacher,” Captain Miller finally discloses to the curious members of his platoon, who have a bet going. “I teach English composition in this little town called Addley, Pennsylvania.” Says Sergeant Horvath, “I’ll be doggone.”)
Much has changed in Georgia and in the nation’s schools during this modern era. Equal opportunities for women, minorities, the disadvantaged, and the less fortunate have been transforming society, and our schools are the front lines of positive societal change.
But there is a price, too, in the oppressive demands of teaching for tests and the focus on specialized knowledge without providing a meaningful context in which to digest and apply that knowledge. The teaching of civic values and the virtue of service should not be neglected, because while apparently not easily translatable into tangible products or money, which is so heavily emphasized in today’s climate, they do provide a meaningful backdrop for thoughtfully evaluating how new knowledge, data, and technology can best serve our country.
The founders of our nation would be perplexed by some of today’s curricular priorities. This is not just a matter of changing times. No less today than in 1787, self-government depends on an enlightened citizenry, independent thinking, and an ethic of service — an education for all seasons.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.