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Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as NEA Unseals 40-Year-Old Prophecies On Nation's Schools

NEA Unseals 40-Year-Old Prophecies On Nation's Schools

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So here's the state of American education at the dawn of the new millennium: Today's students are well-prepared for careers in space, television plays a critical role in instruction, and all schools teach the universal language adopted by the new world federation of countries.

Or that's how it's supposed to be, as foretold by some of the 46 governors whose predictions were locked away in a time capsule at the National Education Association's headquarters 40 years ago.

The NEA sealed the microwave-oven-sized copper container in a cornerstone at the dedication of its new $7 million building in Washington on Feb. 10, 1959. Inside were the governors' responses to this question: "In what ways do you believe education in your state will change and develop in the next 40 years?"

With little fanfare, the NEA last week reopened the capsule, slated to be unearthed just before 2000. Union officials are still deciding what to do with its contents, which also include NEA paraphernalia from a 1930s time capsule that moved with the organization to its present location four blocks north of the White House.

In the meantime, the governors' words themselves offer an unusual glimpse into the thinking of those who shaped education policy when the launch of Sputnik I, the new era of school integration, and the influx of students from the baby boom were all immediate concerns.

"It's totally unedited," NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said of the capsule's contents. "It's like a little C-SPAN in a box—no commercials, no interruptions, no filters. It's just what's there, and you take it at face value and can evaluate it yourself."

Optimism Amid Menace

When a handful of curious NEA employees met in the building's basement to witness the opening of the capsule with a blowtorch this month, the scene bore little resemblance to the pomp that surrounded its sealing.

Back then, the building-dedication ceremony included speeches by an impressive list of dignitaries, among them, U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming.

The honor of placing the items in the capsule went to 17-year-old Sarah Pasma, the president of the Juneau, Alaska, chapter of the Future Teachers of America. The NEA had given Ms. Pasma—described in the group's publication as "a tawny- blonde high school girl"—a first-class ticket from Alaska, the newly admitted 49th state.

Perhaps the first reminder of the hazards of forecasting came three years later, when Ms. Pasma switched majors at college, never becoming a teacher. Now Sarah Kaufman, she has retired to Washington state after working in real estate. The closest she's come to the front of the classroom, she said last week, has been her current occupation as a quilting instructor.

As for the predictions nestled inside the time capsule all those years, some are little more than a few lines sent via Western Union cable, while a few go on for two- plus pages.

They range from the far-fetched to the remarkably accurate, their subjects spanning school finance and governance, technology and teaching methods. A handful of governors took a stab at guessing their states' enrollments in 2000. Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown predicted California would be serving 7.25 million students. (He overshot by 1.5 million.)

Overall, the letters are overwhelmingly optimistic, predicting a larger and more efficient education system made accessible to more students and for longer periods of their lives.

"The unnecessary waste of human talent will surely be ended," wrote Massachusetts Gov. Foster Furcolo, "and the necessary support for educational programs will be produced by public understanding of the ultimate significance of educational opportunity in a free society."

Many of the broad themes still ring true: international competition, unprecedented enrollment growth, and the quest for enough qualified teachers. But others are particular to their era, the Cold War figuring prominently.

Citing the "struggle with militant communism," then-Gov. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina urged that the nation do "the utmost" in preparing students for their "roles in the preservation of our free way of life." (A Democrat, Mr. Hollings went on to the U.S. Senate, where he has served since 1967.)

Pennsylvania Gov. David L. Lawrence predicted major improvements resulting from the National Defense Education Act, which Congress passed a year after Sputnik to jumpstart science, mathematics, and foreign-language instruction. "Long before this time capsule is opened," he wrote, "perhaps more than one-third of the citizens of the State will be bi-lingual."

Machines of Promise

Most agreed that teachers were the one element of education that would not diminish in importance. But they also predicted major improvements in teaching methods based on advances in technology. None, however, forecasted how ubiquitous computers would be. Instead, they pinned their hopes on another miraculous device: television.

Predicting that "television will undoubtedly play a major role," Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes added, "just what that role will be, we are not sure as yet, but we are experimenting now on an extensive scale in this field in Maryland."

But some pined for more old-fashioned approaches. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who had gained national notoriety in 1957 with his fight against school desegregation in Little Rock, argued "there is no substitute for work," and lamented "the elimination of memory exercises, and of drill and practice." In a sentiment still voiced today in fights over social promotion, he wondered whether the trend "to make it too easy for the student to obtain a diploma" would persist in 1999.

Few went as far out on a limb as Nebraska Gov. Ralph G. Brooks, who wrote that by today, students would regularly travel to other planets by "anti-gravity machine, or similar device." He also forecast that English courses would give way to the study of "a universal language developed by and for a world federation of countries."

Where Next?

Few put as much thought into their letters as West Virginia Gov. Cecil H. Underwood, the Republican who coincidentally is the state's chief executive again today after a long hiatus. ("West Virginia Education in the 21st Century—A Prediction," in This Week's News.)

In a 21/2-page, single-spaced letter, Mr. Underwood predicted the erosion of "rigid schedules, formal classes, and arbitrary norms and standards of pupil achievement." He painted a picture of a world of seemingly unlimited human knowledge, which students would be helped to explore rather than digest, the goal being "the pursuit of truth—not its capture."

The West Virginian also appears to have foretold today's school accountability mechanisms, predicting systems in which "the equalization theory of today is supplemented by a reward type of incentive for excellence in educational programming on the community level."

And although he couldn't have had the Internet in mind, Mr. Underwood wrote that the "barriers to communication—which, in a direct way, affect the educational opportunity of many of our people," would by 1999 be reduced to "insignificance" by technology.

Despite all the labor he put into his letter, the 77-year-old says he forgot about it until a copy was faxed back to him this month. "I am surprised at how well I did," he said last week.

The only current state executive to have placed his thoughts in the time capsule, Mr. Underwood began his career as a high school biology and history teacher, and has served on the National Education Goals Panel.

Though American education doesn't look exactly as he predicted, the governor said last week that schools have come a long way. Computers, in particular, have brought education closer to the point where, as he predicted, "the student of tomorrow will be his own teacher."

"I go into classrooms, and I see these youngsters just wrapped up in their computers, discovering and creating on their own, and it's very impressive," he said.

And what of the coming decades? Education Week put the question to two current governors who had yet to begin their careers in 1959.

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. predicts further advances in the use of computers and the elevation of the teaching profession to a new level. Most of all, he hopes that by 2039 schools have eliminated the disparity of opportunities given the haves and the have-nots.

"Forty years ago, people were not thinking about this as much because we had intact two-parent families," the Democrat said. "But this has become a huge challenge."

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson agrees that computers will have a major impact, allowing students to take foreign language classes taught by instructors overseas. Teachers also will take year-long sabbaticals to add to their knowledge and skills, and local property taxes will have been virtually eliminated as a source of school funding. "I don't think we've come as far as we should have," the Republican said. "But I would say we've made more progress in the past 10 years than in the previous 30, and it's going to keep accelerating."

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 6-7

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Correction: 
A prediction by West Virginia Gov. Cecil H. Underwood incorrectly appeared as a direct quotation in a Dec. 15 story about the National Education Association's 1959 time capsule. The statement that "the student of tomorrow will be his own teacher" paraphrased what the governor had written.

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