When did it change?

It’s difficult to think of the baby boomers as young anymore, but they were once. And they may have been the best educated in history—more so than today’s students.

We argue this point because today’s students tend to be on an assembly line, plowing their way through school with a goal but little notion of education for its own sake.

The boomers were lucky. There were two acts of Congress that made them lucky.

One was called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. It was better known as the GI Bill. When servicepeople came home from World War One, they were promised a bonus that would be paid in 1945. But when World War Two servicepeople came home, they were given the GI Bill, which was payable much sooner.

For those who had already been to school, it provided mortgage and loan aid, but for the rest, it provided tuition and living expenses for high school, college or technical schools. Hundreds of thousands of veterans went back to school. It wasn’t wildly generous—many vets talk of how they ate a lot of spaghetti and hot dogs—but students were grateful for it. The sense of education as a silver bullet was very strong among soldiers and sailors who had matured during the war years. And it was a view they communicated to their children—the baby boomers.

The second piece of legislation was the National Defense Education Act. It was enacted during the boom, in 1958, and every boomer over about fifth grade knew of the NDEA. In 1957, the Soviet Union had sent up a satellite that orbited Earth. During a time of intense cold war competition, it was a shock and a wake-up call for U.S. officials. The NDEA poured money into science, mathematics and foreign languages, into student loans and fellowships and overseas studies. No baby boomer doubted that the United States valued education.

We’re not so sure that’s true, anymore. The lassitude about schooling of students we encounter is striking.

Maybe it started when parents stopped taking the side of teachers when a child came home and reported a dispute, sending a parent defensively steaming into school demanding to know why “my kid” is being abused instead of first hearing the other side.

Maybe it started when Republicans learned they could score points attacking teachers unions, forgetting that those unions are full of fine educators who are decent people, mostly parents and breadwinners like the rest of us, who do their jobs well, notwithstanding the occasional exceptions.

Maybe it started when state universities forgot their special role and started trying to compete with Notre Dame and Stanford, or when those same state universities started sending graduates into the world with lifelong debt.

Maybe it started when we stopped trusting government—and government stopped being trustworthy.

Maybe it started when business began treating learning and knowledge as manipulable tools (a bestselling book today is subtitled The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters).

We don’t know. We just know that, for a precious time, a short decade or two, ours was a country filled with two generations who thought teachers hung the moon, who believed that with education everything was possible.