Education: The Meeting House of our Society

By Jim Peters

The title is taken from Paul Tsongas’ campaign booklet, “A Call to Economic Arms,” which was written in 1991 for the 1992 election for the Presidency of the United States.  In the book, Paul did something that no one has done as well since, he wrote out what he felt the major problems were in the United States and spelled out how he would work to fix them, if he was elected President.  Paul was the candidate who saw the death of Social Security if it continued to be borrowed from, despite the fact that it was a fund into which each of us contributed.  He had other ideas, and sometime I will take the time to write down his specific ideas, hopefully in a biography.

Paul Tsongas was a prolific writer, and he had many ideas about education.  “Education…(he said), everyone is for it.  It is the motherhood and apple pie issue…Well, at least the rhetoric would suggest so.  The reality is quite different.” (Page 32)

President Bush said in his defeat of Michael Dukakis, that he wanted to be the “Education President.”  Paul wrote, “Money for serious funding of schools?  That’s really a local and state issue…that is how we think in America.” (ibid.)  Democrats, he wrote, love to talk about it but ask them to fund it, and you just might get a reactions that is “purposely false.”    Improvements to education, “…to many Democrats means alot more money.”  It does not mean, he stated, serious structural reform.  Merit pay and teacher competence standards are offensive to some teacher unions.  He goes on to cite things like Boston’s takeover of the Chelsea Schools, and uniforms for students, ideas that are dated today.  “This is to argue that new and radical concepts need to be tested.”

He wanted executives in many fields to talk about the last time they went to the urban schools and visited them.  He bet that the answer would be few and far between.  What was necessary was “…initiatives that would reduce taxes and devastate public education.(Page 33)  When a person had a good idea about education, he warned, “Political realities intruded.” (ibid.)  Students who cannot or do not vote, “have no counter-attack capability.”  Further, he stated, “Let’s criticize bold ideas after they have found to be flawed, not before they are tested.”  In short, he was daring America to make education a stable part of the American economy.

We must all get to know what the inside of a classroom looks like, he thought.  Political leaders must make this strata part of the “Meeting house of our society.”

The focus of our efforts should be, he said, in the pre-Kindergarten stage.  The second would be in the area of skills training.  Not everyone wants to go to college, and there must be some form of across-the-board skills training which rewards students who want to be in manufacturing and related areas.  Benjamin Franklin was known for his efforts in this vocational training.  Thomas Jefferson was an academic.

Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote a History book entitled “Growth of the American Republic,” in which he stated that “The most tangible social gain during this period of ferment was in popular education.” ( Oxford University Press 1962; New York, NY)

Everyone has a little Abraham Lincoln in them.  People may not write their lessons on wooden shovels anymore, or teach themselves to read, or become a great orator, a great lawyer, a great debater, and President of the United States, but they can teach themselves bits and pieces of all of these things.  Education was and is very important in our home and in my parent’s and my wife’s parent’s homes.  I was once given a box of books by an older lady who dropped them off for my family.  I read everyone of them.  I learned history, and English, and I became a voracious reader.  I understood Abraham Lincoln’s love of the written word and why, after borrowing a book from a friend who lived nine miles away, he finished the book and brought it back in a snowstorm.  I realized at a later age that his “You cannot live in a house divided” speech came from the New Testament in the Bible.  He applied it to his 2nd. Inaugural speech, which is widely accepted as his second great speech, right behind “The Gettysburg Address.”  In my opinion, we need to tie ourselves to books, any reading, within reason, is a good use of time.

Samuel Eliot Morrison said that, in order to appeal to the masses, Preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote three books while he was teaching the Native Americans, “The Nature of True Virtue,” “Original Sin,” and “Freedom of the Will.”  Each was Calvinistic in character, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.  His teachings gave churches of the time a “new lease on life.” (ibid.)  “… Certain passages in his works express the “Supreme importance of (man’s) relationship with God.”  Edwards was known for his desire to see the Pilgrims and their descendants taught to read.  The Pilgrims wanted their children to learn to read so they could pass on the stories in the Bible.  So education in the New World was taught by each Pilgrim to his child or children.  They were the people who taught us how important it was to read and write, and do Arithmetic.

We need to get serious about education.  In Lowell, MA. we are contemplating a new addition to the high  school or even a new high school.  The Superintendent is new but aggressive and is trying to get parents working with the local schools to set standards and get information.  He has established a local group of people who are interested in the schools to help him, and they seem to be ready to do so.  He is looking at mandated testing, busing, and curriculum.  He has appointed two of his employees to work with the parents and they seem very aggressive.  It is a good thing.

Lowell has a high school that, in its first graduating class, saw 12 or 13 people graduate.  Governor-to-be Benjamin Butler cited the fact that there was a highly competent surgeon in the ranks, many businessmen, and one Governor of New Hampshire.  People used to pay to get into Lowell High School.  It would be nice if that was still the suburban thing to do.  Lowell High School also was the school that started to recognize the right of a girl to an education, a fight that still goes on throughout the world.  They awarded separate awards to the “scholars” who worked hardest and got the best grades when they started the Carney Medals in 1857.  Three women and three men received the awards upon graduation.

Tom Brokaw, the television anchorman who wrote “The Greatest Generation,” recognized the right of a serviceman and some servicewomen, to take advantage of the “G.I. Bill of Rights,” and many people in that generation went to college for no charge.  Senator Elizabeth Warren of the U.S. Senate cites the need to help students out with the high cost of college but I have never read or heard of her citing the precedence in that bill.  My father went to school under the GI Bill and got his doctorate.  As far as I know, he never paid tuition, he was given the chance based on his WWII experiences in the U.S. Navy.  He cites the activities of a man who became a Protestant minister at the age of seventy-nine using the GI Bill as his ticket.  He also cites Art Buchwald, the humorist, who went to college without finishing high school at USC.  Another man walked thirty blocks in NYC to get to college.  He too, used the GI Bill.

Senator Mark Hatfield overcame his misconceptions about the people by serving with them in the US Navy.  He voted against the War in Vietnam, Grenada, and the Persian Gulf.  He was a highly principled man.  Brokaw cites him because of his overlooking the more strident Republican voices and joining in across-the-aisle politics.  He also became educated through the GI Bill.


So where am I going with this?  I just want to point out that we are not always breaking new ground in the Congress.  The GI Bill was widely supported and so should Senator Warren’s efforts to pay off some of our debt to colleges.  I personally owe tens of thousands of dollars, not for my education, which I paid for at the time of my attendance, but for my children and their mother, five persons in all, who have tried to get better educated to conform to the requirements of their efforts to gain a good college education that makes them more employable.   You have to go to college now to even start a normal job.  My wife and my children try to give of themselves by working for the people in government, teaching, and being a paramedic first responder.   We have paid over seventy thousand dollars to the United States government, and it is not getting cheaper to go, it is getting more expensive.  We still have tens of thousands to go.  Education in Abraham Lincoln’s time could make you a lawyer without going to law school.  Try that now.  You would be escorted out of the Admissions Office.  Lincoln was not the only President to be from a log cabin but he is the best known.  He taught himself, learned a lot, and never, in his own words, went to a serious school.    If we are going to revere Lincoln, and we are, then we need to recognize the tremendous differences between the type of education that he received and the one we pay for on our own.