I believe that the genius of America is the belief that all of us are created equal and that the way to achieve the greatest possible life is with liberty, justice and education for all. The generation of Americans known as “the greatest generation” emerged from the Depression and World War II to give us the extraordinary gifts of educational opportunity, despite the debts and hardships associated with their own early lives. The United States became wealthy as a result of that generation’s investment in education. Subsequent generations have been richly rewarded with educations that were much better than the schooling received by our forbearers. So, why are we so stingy today with the education for the next generation?
Looking into the past provides context and perspective. In the dark first year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln began the Land Grant Colleges and dreamed of greater educational opportunities for future generations. In the difficult days of the second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt did not say we couldn’t afford education because we were at war. Instead, he called for a GI Bill of Rights, and that doubled the number of students attending college. In the immediate aftermath of the second World War, President Harry Truman was stunned to find that record numbers of 19-year-old draftees were rejected because of malnourishment during their formative years, which happened to be during the Great Depression. The legislation that he proposed to fix this problem was the National School Lunch Act. The bill says the school-lunch program is a matter of “national security.”
During the Cold War, American resources were stretched by a massive defense budget and a huge race to reach the new frontier: space. But Republican President Eisenhower did not say that we could not afford to improve education. Instead, he called for an ambitious program to encourage more students to attend college and to become scientists, engineers and teachers. He called it the National Defense Education Act.
I believe that when people in Congress and in our state legislatures cut education, they betray our ancestors. Great American patriots of all political parties believed, in the immortal words of John Adams, that “laws for the liberal education of youth are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose should be thought extravagant.”
I believe that investing in education, at all levels from preschool to graduate school, should be as obvious as saving Yosemite, digging the Panama Canal, building the Golden Gate Bridge, supporting the Manhattan Project or going to the moon.
Neil Postman was right when he said, “Children are a message we send to a time we will never see.” Sadly, I believe that up to this minute, our generation has been a disappointment when it comes to education and being honest with our children. Every dollar we borrow for tax cuts is a debt they carry for decades. Every failure to invest in education is a formula for America’s decline. I believe real patriots must stand up—now— for America’s children.
Delaine Eastin is the former California superintendent for public instruction and a former California Assembly member. She joined the Mills College faculty in the fall of 2004 as a distinguished visiting professor of educational leadership.