The 2016 presidential race may prove to be the first in more than half a century in which education emerges as a key national issue, but not because the candidates demonstrate any particular concern over or passion for the quality of America’s schools. Rather, it will happen because the campaign itself calls into question that quality. In 1985, the social critic and educator Neil Postman divined a day “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act.” This is the election that fully vindicates that ominous prophecy—the day when, for all the world to see, we are, in Postman’s phrase, “amusing ourselves to death.”
In 1960, when Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon squared off against Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first-ever televised presidential debate, education was a hotly—and openly—contested issue. In lengthy and well-informed exchanges, the candidates bore into the state of America’s schools and sparred over their respective proposals. Kennedy argued for a new federal role, insisting, “There is no greater return to an economy or to a society than an educational system second to none.” Nixon, while essentially agreeing with Kennedy’s analysis, expressed deep concern over “giving the federal government power over education, ... the greatest power a government can have.”
Nixon may have won the philosophical argument, but Kennedy won the presidency—and over the next thousand days went on to join George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the short list of our national leaders who might legitimately be remembered as “education presidents.” From the selection of Robert Frost to read an original poem at his inauguration to his visionary leadership of the space program, Kennedy gave unprecedented support to both the arts and the sciences. More than a third of all his policy initiatives included a strong educational component. From his vigorous advocacy for the desegregation of our schools to his imaginative creation of the Peace Corps, our 35th chief executive demonstrated his practical belief in “the importance of education as the basis for the maintenance of an effective, free society.”
Don't expect to hear much on education during this [year's presidential] campaign."
In both politics and education, America has traveled a long road from Camelot—and not the right road. In Kennedy’s time, our schools were measurably the world’s best. After decades of decline, which began in the mid-1960s, we are no longer even among the world’s best. The latest report issued by the Program for International Student Assessment ranks U.S. 15-year-olds 14th in the world in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math. Still more troubling is the fact that a longitudinal study of PISA results indicates that America’s high school students are actually falling further and further behind. Just before leaving his post as secretary of education, Arne Duncan dutifully reported the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results—commonly called “the nation’s report card.” Ever the optimist, he characterized the grim grades as an “implementation dip” on the path to higher academic standards.
I never met President Kennedy. I did, however, get on my bike and pedal through a chill Michigan morning to hear him give a speech as he whistle-stopped his way to the White House. Though too young to vote, I never forgot the speech. Years later, I came to know the remarkable man who wrote it. Theodore Sorensen once told me that “Jack Kennedy really believed that education was the solution to just about every problem.”
Don’t expect to hear much on education during this campaign. Republicans will rail against the Common Core State Standards, socialists will promise free college for everyone, and Democrats will say whatever the all-powerful teachers’ unions tell them to say. Pay no heed. All their cleverly crafted zingers will be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But make no mistake. This election will be as much about the state of American education as about anything. After 50 years of social experimentation, literary deconstruction, and pedagogical quackery, a system of public education that was once the envy of the world has been transformed into a vast wasteland of mediocracy that equips few for university and fewer still for informed citizenship. Neither the Jerry Springer quality of our national discourse nor the money-hued jousting of the media to provide a megaphone for the madness is the real problem. They are but surreal symptoms of a society reduced to a semiliterate state, addicted to titillation and estranged from the higher uses of the mind.