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Jon Meacham on the American promise of public education

Americans of all political persuasions tend to get nostalgic about what they think of as the great causes of the past. World War II is the most obvious example. At home, the civil-rights movement has the same kind of warm glow. The fight against Jim Crow has become a kind of civic fairy tale in which the forces of good triumphed over the forces of evil; the saga has its heroes and villains, its martyrs and shrines.

Here’s the thing, though: a movement is just that, something in motion. And now, in 2011, those who care about civil rights — those who care  about human rights — must dedicate themselves to the cause of public education. It’s the crucial front in the ongoing struggle to realize fully the Jeffersonian promise that all of us are created equal.

This may sound hokey, or conventional. And it is. But so what? The hokey and the conventional can be true, and this point surely is: access to a good public education is the civil-rights issue of our time. End of debate.

Martin Luther King Jr. often invoked Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as the “promissory note” of American life and freedom. Jefferson is relevant here, too.  In a letter to his friend James Madison in 1787, reflecting on the new Constitution, Jefferson wrote: “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Above all things. True then, true now. Let’s get on with it.

Watch more segments from Need to Know’s special education episode.


  • E148

    We do not need daily PE in high school. Why don’t wait until we see long-term trends before reporting the “good news”? Why not have the classes later in the day. They might be more awake.

  • Gjkiel

    Wonderful show! Let’s get on with it! I am so glad to hear people begin to realize that a good public education system is critical to the future of this country.

  • Teacher777

    What a thoughtful, inspiring program! I am a teacher, and I was very interested to see how each school/university had moved forward as an educational institution. As for the comment above that students do not need daily PE in high school, what exactly are we waiting for? The positive results are so evident right now AND the method is backed up by neurological research AND we are fighting an national epidemic of obesity. If we wait for the ‘long term trends’ to become evident, our children will end up working in factories making cheap plastic toys for China.

  • Jkline

    Yah, a good public education system is critical to the future of the country– too bad politicians, teachers and teachers’ unions have mucked it all up.

    If they cared about education, vouchers would be civil right. If they cared about education, Obama’s kids would be in a public school. If they cared about education, our children wouldn’t be the stupidest bunch of ego-centric fatties on planet earth.

    75% of high school students that apply for work with my company are unhireable. They can’t even do basic math.

    This isn’t a money issue. It is a failure at a basic philosophic level, and people with Ed degrees are part of the problem, not the solution.

  • jan

    Sometimes as I read the news and the comments made by those in a position to influence the direction our country is going I wonder why we seem to have such unrealistic expectations for our children. “Less exercise, fewer breaks during the day”, “don’t become obese” as we decree they are expected to sit for longer and longer periods of time in a chair without becoming tired or bored.

    Speaking as a parent, I’m sure we’ve all seen how our kids lose their ability to listen and concentrate if they’re expected to sit quietly in a chair for hours at a time. How many times have you told your own kids to go outside and run off the excess energy because they were getting antsy or too rambunctious? And if we’re going to be honest, we’d have to admit that we adults also need breaks during the workday because even if you’re sitting in a chair staring at a computer screen you still need a few minutes to get up, walk around, and stretch your muscles now just as much as you did when you were a child.

    Another thing that amazes me is some adult’s inability to make the connection between kids who are increasingly obese and the fact that we’re increasingly cutting out what some consider frivolous classes such as P.E., band, music while expecting them to spend longer hours in a chair at school or at home doing their homework.

    Also speaking as a parent, if you teach your kids to love to read half the learning battle is over. It isn’t that hard to do either. Read a book to them every day (I read to them just before I put them down for a nap). Introduce them to the idea that each book has its own world between the first and last pages and that they need to know what the book says while they’re still too young to fight the idea.

    I do have one word of caution though. I’ve been watching people ratcheting up the pressure on kids and I’m starting to get a little worried because I don’t see any recognition that there is such a thing as putting too much pressure on them and that the “too much pressure” varies from individual to individual.

  • jan

    Why not have classes earlier in the day? If the day gets too long they’re going to get tired too quickly, not be able to hold the attention span as easily and learn less.

    In other words, some kids wake up early and some try to sleep as long as they can. Why should the kids who go to bed and a reasonable time and wake up early be handicapped by those who are allowed to stay up till midnight and try to sleep till noon the next day?

  • jan

    I wanted to thank you for spending an entire hour to go into the education issue with depth.

  • Jane

    Great show. Thanks so much for highlighting eduction. I was especially impressed by the segment on the need for phy ed.


  • Independents should rule


    Ok. Back it up. If you can identfly who to blame, then surely you can list the solutions. Please be specific. Broad brush strokes will only expose your ignorance.

    It is ok to express frustration. Shallow allegation alone only makes you sound like Fox.

  • bring our troops home

    Parental involvement still ranks as the prime indicator of student success or failure. Just as adults no longer have the time or energy, as they did in the 50′s and early 60′s, to coach little league or volunteer at church, they don’t have it left at the end of the day to do schoolwork with their kids. The vaunted productivity increases of the past 40 years have fattened corporate profits at the expense of our children.

  • willij

    Education is knowledge and wisdom from the experience and the measurement of results and has nothing to to with a grade and has everything to do with ability and performance.

    People only attempt to measure this with a grade but this is conditioning and not education at all.

    We refuse to teach the basic elements of life and who we are and what we need to use to survive in a world filled with differences and performances.

    A few to list, Communications, Understanding, Decision making (whats good and what is bad), our ability to bring about ideas, self determinism and that it is our actions that define us. These are a few there is much more we need.
    A full study of our Declaration of Independence for understanding and its application. A full study of our constitution in the direction of a Republic for its understanding an applications. All of these are essential basics in order for us to operate as a society.

    Government is not an answer, competition in education practices is, compete in performing accomplishments of education. To lead by example is the permeation, to be stellar.

  • Xman

    It is well documented that the sleep cylce of a kid is tied to the solar cycle, and most children are awake at a later time in the day than 7 AM. My schools started at 9:30AM and that definely was very helpful. American schools need to consider this.

  • Dianne

    The right to a good public education is a civil rights issue. In Nevada, there is no available funding for education. The casinos pay a fraction of taxes paid in other states. The mining companies deplete our natural resources with a 1% tax rate. 48 other states have broad based business taxes to support education and social services, but Nevada does not. We have the lowest per-pupil spending and the highest drop-out rate. It is truly a civil rights issue – victimizing our children and no one is protecting them.

  • Annk212

    I liked the segment about Brockton HS. Where can I find out more about teaching students how to read, comprehend and good writing skills?

  • Patricia

    No Child Left Behind went a long way in hurting our kids and teachers. It is hard to teach when you are being micromanaged and tested for funding. It is hard to learn when there is no time for anything but practice tests. If unregulated competition were the answer as in [vouchers] and merit pay, we would currently be in great financial shape in this country. Unfortunately, greed and corruption run rampant in an unregulated market. I doubt free market competition would do any better in our public schools. Obama doesn’t have to send his kids to public school. What does that have to do with the problem?

  • jan

    The solar cycle has been manipulated via daylight savings time. Your kids may lay around in bed past 7 AM. Mine never did.

  • Our Future

    I have been a teacher for 25 years in public and private schools in Knoxville TN. There are many problems in education/schools, listing them here probably won’t do much good as education is like all human institutions with the same problems, but magnified by educations very public stage. Perhaps that is why in other spheres when there is a problem we throw money at it. Terrorist attack: pump up the defense budget, create new bureaucracies and put the country in debt to safe guard our future. Bank crises: throw money at the super wealthy, they are to big to fail and what would happen to our future if they did fail? put the country further in debt. Crime and drug use: build more prisons, hire more police, put the country further in debt. Contrast these with a Crises in education: slash the budget, break the teacher unions, close failing schools….will this balance the budget? No. If throwing money at failing banks, failing security and crime is supposed to help then why won’t it help education? It makes no sense to think otherwise. Unless there is another, unstated, agenda.

    I would like Need To Know to ask this question of pundits and government types such as the secretary of education. Specifically: If the government sees fit to put us in debt to bail out the banks, put more people in jail, keep starting wars, etc., that is throw money at these problems, why does the government not see fit to slash finding to education? if balancing the budget is the major concern there are much larger expenditures to be slashed.

  • NYCTeacher

    Meacham’s simple-minded, cliche ridden commentary is a powerful argument for improving education in America.