In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter characterized writing on education in the United States as a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint…. The educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons.
Anyone longing for the “good old days,” he noted, would have difficulty finding a time when critics were not lamenting the quality of the public schools. From the 1820s to our own time, reformers have complained about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards.
Most recently, in 1983, an august presidential commission somberly warned that we were (in the title of its statement) “A Nation at Risk” because of the low standards of our public schools. The Reagan-era report said: Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” This mediocre educational performance was nothing less than “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
Imagine the peril, the threat of national disaster: “our very future as a Nation and a people” hung in the balance unless we moved swiftly to improve our public schools. What were we to do? The commission proposed a list of changes, starting with raising graduation requirements for all students and making sure they studied a full curriculum of English, math, science, history, computer science, as well as foreign languages (for the college-bound), the arts, and vocational education.