To the Editor:
The Washington Post recently published an article pointing out that trust in institutions—government, media, the law—has plummeted, and is having a measurable effect on Americans, especially young Americans. For many close observers, the Post reported, “a direct line can be drawn from today’s civics crises to a long-standing failure to adequately teach American government, history and civic responsibility.” Maybe—but even though a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers and education leaders subscribe to that premise, I think the problem extends much farther and far deeper.
In an interview in 1908, Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931, a U.S. inventor) stated that “the most necessary task of civilization is to teach people how to think.” To paraphrase Edison, he believed the mind of a child is naturally active and develops through exercise. That then, he declared, should be the primary purpose of our public schools, to encourage original thought, reasoning and observation, and rely less on memory.
For a long, long time the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (through local PTA’s) clearly endeavored to achieve that outcome. The specific aims of the NCPT were to: Promote the welfare of children and youth in home, school, church, and community; To raise the standards of home life; To secure adequate laws for the care and protection of children and youth; To bring into closer relation the home and the school, that parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the training of the child and (lastly); To develop between educators and the general public such united efforts as will secure for every child the highest advantages in physical, mental, social, and spiritual education. That will seem hopelessly passé to some citizens, so 1940’s.
Contemporary thinking insists that, as children skip kindergarten, because of the pandemic, the learning gap widens. Kindergarten didn’t exist when and where I became of school age. We began 1st grade late in our 5th year, or early in our 6th, with basic skills common to the era. We knew the alphabet, could print and write in cursive, we knew the colors and knew how to play (never having heard of a play therapist). We also knew the numbers well enough to make change for a dollar. We had toy cash registers which required you to distinguish between coins in order to use it. Approximately 10 years ago I made a 74 cent purchase in a convenience store during a power outage. Imagine my surprise when, after handing the clerk a dollar bill (a girl I knew to be a high school graduate), she handed me back four quarters, four dimes and several pennies. She had no clue what the value of our coins were after 12 years of school. I could make change for a dollar (all of us could) before starting school. Let that sink in.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I entered 1st grade (1945), graduated high school (1957), retired from the Navy (1980), and finished college (1986). All sorts of political, psychological, social and medical theories have been postulated over the decades to justify what people simply choose to do. The reasons for these classy cop-outs are many: political agendas (oppression as an excuse encourages shifts in political power structures); good business (make something a disease and you can collect insurance for treating it or sell tapes and run workshops about how to recover from it); a need to disavow evil intent (we have no control over evil therefore fear it out of helplessness). Physicians and therapists often use the “disease” classification to charge for treatment—the burden for any personal responsibility therefore—is removed.
The do-gooder, politically correct mentality teaches you never to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, immoral conduct, or mistakes. It means never make anyone feel bad about anything they do no matter how harmful it might be to others. Advocates of this dogma assume all actions are a response to conditions, never a lack of character, courage, conscience, morality, values, lifestyle or (Heaven forbid) choices. They’re wrong.
The truth is, people choose their actions and can alter them at will. Nothing negates one’s responsibility for or requirement to act with integrity. It’s as simple as that. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) observed that “children don’t heed the life experiences of their parents, and nations ignore history. Bad lessons have to be learned anew.”
Throughout recorded history (some 4,000 years of it anyway) the greatest civilizations bequeathed to their posterity concrete faith supported by a tangible belief that the young would carry on the traditions and customs of their ancestors. In ancient Athens, upon reaching the age of 17, young men took an oath known as The Athenian Oath: “We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them of naught. We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only and not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
Once upon a time, America was a prosperous, magnificent federation of states and, like young Athens, had an incomparable sense of character, courage, eloquence and honor. We were a healthy, well-constructed sovereign nation and we were united and strong in a very large part because a lot was expected of our children. I really don’t need to finish that thought for you—do I?
David L. Snell
When the alleged editor was much younger he was sometimes amused at what he perceived as the crotchety opinions of a few of his elders—though, to be fair, it must be said that some of those worthies may have been born during the administration of the magnificently-bewhiskered Chester A. Arthur.
Now that he has accrued the signifiers, at least, of maturity, if not its substance, he finds himself, as he reads your letter, nodding in sage recognition.
Thank you for writing.