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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.