This fragment was the beginning of an address I was writing for the incoming freshman class at Yale. I then decided to address the freshman instead on "The Earthly Uses of a Liberal Education" and to offer this for another audience:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 1987: I am delighted to see you all here. After all the critiques and debates about the American high school this summer, I did not know if anyone could or would show up this fall. You are a very strong group, as strong a freshman class as we have ever had. Your presence here argues for the health of American secondary education.
While there are problems aplenty in the ways America educates its young people, they are problems stemming essentially from inattention by the leaders of the adult society to the means of education. The problems stem from inattention to teachers' material needs and professional circumstances; inattention to standards of excellence; inattention to the proposition that the socially disadvantaged have the deepest stake in the American educational dream and therefore deserve the most encouragement to pursue the education each must acquire for a full and free life; inattention to the physical safety in, and the physical facilities of, our schools; inattention to curricula that must meet ethical as well as technical challenges; inattention to the demands that a diverse population --one of the country's strengths--necessarily places on the means of education.
It is inattention of long standing that cannot be papered over by a national habit of indulging in long-term planning for short-term gains, as if a consultant or a commission could, by recommending a result, enact a sensible solution for all time.
When a people's leadership does not pay attention constantly to one of the people's primary means of paying attention to its future, there is always panic. The panic manifests itself, as it has about education in the last six months, when the public instruments for public discourse, the political-journalistic complex, suddenly discover that the people are dissatisfied.
Suddenly national politicians and pundits discover, as if it were hitherto unheard of, that without the means of education, there is no clear path to improving the means of production or innovation; no hope for providing fruitful employment for millions, no basis for a renewed sense of national purpose. Where has that leadership been? Had the political-journalistic complex been Paul Revere, we would still be living under British rule.
In fact, the conditions of the schools, public and private, have been well known to American parents, teachers and children for some considerable time. In fact, the conditions in the teaching profession and of the schools vary enormously and are responding to efforts by school administrations, teachers' groups, school districts, parents and students across the country.
The gaudy halftime show put on in the last six months by the strutting incumbents and aspirants for office, followed as always by the massed trombones and xylophones of the press, will probably do no real harm, although the racket will be tremendous for awhile. It is too bad that the elected and self- anointed defenders of our liberties and national well-being do so little sustained homework, have such short attention spans, never seem to know where to go until a poll commissioned by one part of the political-journalistic complex is read by the other part and the whole herd acquires the courage to rush off together to observe themselves in action.
The people of the country, young and old, parents and teachers and students, business communities, cultural and civil rights leaders, officials at the state and local level, are taking the variegated, complex, often contradictory set of impulses and imperatives that go into creating schooling for the young, and they are pressing at home for change, for revisions of expectations and curricula and scales of pay. They are taking a hand in the daily life of schooling.
It is about time. National opinion leaders and federal officials are paralyzed, baffled by the proper demands for partnership, lost in the joys of preemptive ideological strikes and in distrust of what their polls tell them is deeply important. As the country, fragmented, without serious moral authority from any quarter of our public leadership, struggles to pay attention again to the means for elementary and secondary education, mistakes will be made; some ideas will be trumpeted by a results-hungry media as the panacea for all time, world without end.
Such, for instance, is happening now with the computer. The computer has been invested with magical power; if you were to believe our aroused press, the computer is the intellectual equivalent of the anabolic steroid, destined to turn 6-year-olds into Olympians of competency testing. The only predictable results of this silliness will be, in a few years, strong reaction against the exaggerated claims for computing and word-processing. First it will be noted that networking only disconnects human beings; then there will be Luddite calls to remove the monsters from the school; finally someone will eventually discover that the Devil lives in a floppy disc.
So it will go until the media marching band passes on to the next issue: "Why Can't Joanie and Johnnie Read?" "Where Have All the English Teachers Gone?" "Educators Decry Shortage of Philosophy and History Profs." "Nation Imperiled by Lack of Foreign Language Specialists, Says Candidate." Then American education in thousands of school districts will grapple with domesticating the computer as an instrument in education, as another means to ends that can only be formed by human beings thinking.
You are here because of your ability to think and because of your desire to continue to train yourselves in how to think analytically and creatively. You have come here not despite but because of school systems and teachers who have taken a battering recently, a battering all out of proportion to their responsibility. . . .