When I was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois back in the 50’s our elementary school day started with a discussion of current events: the early stirring of the Civil Rights Movement, Khrushchev, the A-bomb, Sputnik. Yet, despite the Cold War and the “duck and cover” drills, it was not a particularly frightening time, and few of us went to sleep afraid, because the words we heard from grown-ups and the faith we had in them and in our institutions to protect us was enormous. To be fair, the Second Red Scare lingered on in the Hollywood Blacklist and elsewhere, but after mild-mannered Joseph Welch silenced Joseph McCarthy with a plaintive appeal to a “sense of decency” the worst of that madness was over.
This is not the case with the contemporary strain of madness we now endure as our country writhes under the fever of a progressive illness, each bout taking us deeper into unreason and chaos. Few of us would like to consider that the “grownup” voices ringing in the ears of our children at night might be those of the highest officeholders in our government. One must hope that they have a good means of processing that information, or a good way of tuning it out.
The burden on our teachers has gotten immeasurably harder as well, especially if they’re trying to keep kids engaged in contemporary dialogue as mine did. All the anti-bullying programs in the world cannot undo the harm that’s been unleashed by the intimidations and humiliations that spew from this administration. The recently-fired White House Communications Director publicly threatened to kill the entire West Wing staff using language that no teacher I know could possibly dance around. And shortly afterwards, the president himself traveled to Long Island to taunt police officers into using excessive force on suspects. Brown suspects, actually. All our attempts to promote inclusivity and make our schools places where every child is valued and every culture honored -- all violated by offensive words and threats that frighten our children of immigrants, our children of color and our children whose orientation may be other than heterosexual.
There’s a particularly painful irony in all this for those of us who work in and for our public schools. For years we’ve been consumed with our internecine political and pedagogical battles. Some of us still carry the scars of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Some have been wounded in the war between phonics and whole language. Some saw glory in the great food fight between charter zealots and charter foes. And while we were bickering over which of our schools truly had the best test scores, we looked up to suddenly find that someone had lumbered into our sandbox, stolen everyone’s lunch money, and was forcing us to watch as he tortured our language and norms to a slow, merciless death.
In 1983, 25+ years after the Sputnik launch set off the last truly great educational movement in our country—one which inspired thousands in my generation to pursue careers in science, math and engineering—Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report—A Nation at Risk—which warned that our failing educational system would likely, and shortly, lead to US loss of dominance. That report launched the contemporary education reform movement which has yet to move the needle back to where it was in the post-Sputnik 1960’s. There’s a simple reason for that: Sputnik and the threat to US dominance was real; the threat perceived in A Nation at Risk was not. Despite the darkest fears of Reagan’s commission, the US never lost its technological, military, entrepreneurial or commercial dominance. And it still hasn’t.
We are now, however, terrifyingly close to losing things of even greater value:
The present risk to American democracy is real.
The risk to our national character is real.
The risk of disinformation spread through social media is real.
The risk from governmental dysfunction is real.
The risk due to loss of trust in our institutions is real.
The risk of ignoring science and demeaning higher education is real.
We are now, most assuredly, a nation at risk.
For those of us who live and breathe education, this should be a time for serious reflection about our priorities, the goals of our enterprise and where we have failed. If we still believe that schools can be a place where we can prepare our children to solve the problems of the world which we, for all our marvelous toys and unfettered access to information, have left in far worse shape that when we inherited it -- then we have to respond to the Sputnik moment of our day and create those schools.