Reading, Writing and the Risks of Failure

The promise and performance of American education, once a point of national pride, is burdened by society’s ills and struggling to heal inequities in the system.

Author: Anthony Walton ’82

Walton Negley 1 Illustrations by Keith Negley

I was born in 1960, roughly 100 years after the emancipation of African Americans, and grew up in Illinois, a state that, for all its obvious racial difficulties, had always been more tolerant of Blacks than were the South and other locales. The 1960s and ’70s of my childhood were tumultuous times of conflict and transformation in American society, but I have considered myself fortunate to have grown up at exactly that time in American (and African American) history. There was hope in the air, and a sense that hundreds of years of aspiration and struggle were being rewarded.

That presentiment may have been premature, as it is becoming increasingly clear to historians and to Americans in general that the legal status of freedom that seemed to be so near was not necessarily developing in reality. One could argue that de facto equality for African Americans has not yet been achieved — and may never be.

But I do not intend to engage in an argument about whether we African Americans have achieved our freedom. That question may be unanswerable. Instead, I want to examine something that may be more important: the mindset and expectation that most Americans shared throughout my childhood that it was possible, through learning and hard work, to change your life — to elevate your station — if that was what you wanted. I am thinking in particular about the ways in which that mindset connected to one of the greatest of all American heroes, the one who issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lately I have come to realize how much Abraham Lincoln meant to my childhood, and it’s not just because I grew up in Illinois. Lincoln’s life story was, along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s insight and achievement, the definitive component in how I would grow to see the world, and in particular how I thought about what might be possible for me in an American life. How people could become, as my father loved to say, more than they were.

It was through Lincoln, the greatest Illinoisan of them all, that I came to believe that education was the key component of advancement. The idea that Lincoln — born in dire frontier poverty — had transcended the limitations of any imaginable destiny, had educated himself, and, through unceasing labor and canny diligence, had risen to become the president of the United States who commanded the Union army and ended the institution of slavery in the U.S., was a source of unending amazement. Lincoln was an astonishing personage to me, a Black boy growing up during the 1960s and ’70s and trying to figure out, even as a child, how to move forward in an American society that was unknown and unmapped for my family and me.

I read biographies, watched movies and documentaries, pondered the speeches and debates. I combined that with the oratory of King in an unconscious belief that MLK was a fated, unavoidable echo and completion of Lincoln’s thinking and actions. I believed that with an intensity that might be described as religious. In fact, it might have been my true religion. And it worked, at least for me. I was able to attend university and graduate school. I achieved many dreams, and I am not done yet. I proved, at least to myself, that Honest Abe was right: If you worked as hard as you could, studied by the firelight and didn’t give up, anything was possible.

As I matured, I would learn that the American notion that “anything is possible” was codified shortly after Lincoln died by the author Horatio Alger, whose novel Ragged Dick was the first of many stories he published to instruct young boys on the margins in how to become respectable. These stories have an arc, strictly patterned and always upward, designed to provide guidance and inspiration. And we can see that pattern of uplift repeated in stories as varied as the classic autobiographies of Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X, down to the wildly successful autobiographies of CEOs like Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch.

This story, this arc, became crucial to my view of the world and how I would push myself (and how my parents pushed me). And it felt true. It seemed that almost anywhere I turned, someone, friend or stranger, was ready and willing to see me as I saw myself: a striver on the way to success in American society. That good fortune was especially true during my educational journey, which was decisively important, because my parents had not had the benefit of a good education. They were born in Great Depression-era Mississippi, under the most brutal conditions of Jim Crow segregation and poverty. While my mother was able to graduate from high school, my father did not finish grammar school, and to both of them the Lincoln-Alger model was the only way of proceeding in life. As Michelle Obama said of her parents, who were equally dedicated and determined, my folks were “evangelists of education.” Their belief in Horace Mann’s definition of education as “the great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance-wheel of the social machinery” was unshakable and irrefutable.

My life might stand as a model of what can be accomplished in the U.S. through the education system, a Mississippian version of the American immigrant story. This idea of education as the process that allows a person to advance may be the American myth, the thing that undergirds our country, animating how and why those of us who have traditionally thought of American life as meritocratic and socially mobile operate. And it’s how we as a nation by the 1950s expected our public education system to operate: a societywide net that would catch each and every child, bring all of them into our schools and provide them with tools they could use to take advantage of the opportunities that American society seemed to generate endlessly. And that we can see, in many parts of our society, are not being generated any more — not just in neighborhoods of poor Blacks and Latinos, but throughout the nation, including for large swaths of middle- and working-class whites.

This slow-motion failure has been going on for some time. It has various root causes. In Chicago, in 1991 for instance, a child at age 13 was just as likely not to finish high school as to finish. Such a failure could be attributed, among other things, to the ongoing tragedy of race in the U.S., as much of the city’s public school system was populated by uneducated Blacks whose parents or grandparents had migrated from the Deep South. That migration was followed by the deindustrialization and globalization of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. But it goes further than that. Even those children who managed to graduate in 1991 had terrible competency scores in reading and math.

Yes, we need to think about education through the economic and aspirational frame, and to be alarmed by our failures in that realm; but more, much more, we need to think about it through the civic frame of what makes our democratic society possible: the creation of citizens.

Project that forward into the present. Think about those tens of thousands of children being unequipped to succeed or even function in an economy changing violently, moving from industrial manufacturing to symbol-derived information employment during the intervening 30 years. Then think about everything you’ve heard about “Chicago,” the endless gang wars and gun crime. Might all of those circumstances be connected? Just when the best working-person’s jobs were shifting to companies like UPS and Federal Express, where an employee had to be able to read and work with numbers, the Chicago school system was sending thousands of functional illiterates into adult life year after year.

The Chicago Public Schools appear to be doing better lately, having raised test scores much closer to the national average. In 2019, 61 percent of CPS students met or exceeded the national average in reading, 57 percent in math. That’s better, if not much to be truly proud of: six out of 10 students meeting national standards. But such modest “progress” also suggests why many Americans have given up hope in education as the mechanism of self-betterment.

The same hopelessness is also manifest in the opioid epidemic that has spread like wildfire in the last two decades. While the cause is multifaceted, including patients becoming addicted while being treated for legitimate pain, many users pursue the high afforded by the narcotic to “escape,” to alter consciousness in the face of prospects they perceive as difficult or impossible. The most devastating groupings of opioid users (one may add methamphetamines to this discussion) map onto areas of deindustrializing and rural America with failing economies and subpar education systems.

I am aware of the danger of oversimplification here. Many contingencies and caveats determine how educational opportunity will operate for any given American. Are your parents educated? Do you live in a locale that provides opportunity in general, or is geographically, economically and demographically connected to larger opportunities? Do you have special needs, neurological or economic, and are those needs recognized and met by your family and your school system? Are you a five-star athlete? Do you have the ability to pay for resources that aren’t publicly provided where you live? And so forth. All those contingencies can determine whether American education will work for you, if it will “balance,” as Horace Mann had it, the social machinery.

But I am also concerned about something even deeper than our society’s interest in providing the sort of educational opportunities that enable every American to compete and progress, or merely exist with pride and dignity, if that is what they choose. Yes, we need to think about education through the economic and aspirational frame, and to be alarmed by our failures in that realm; but more, much more, we need to think about it through the civic frame of what makes our democratic society possible: the creation of citizens.

When I think of my journey through our society, and what it was to become educated, it meant more than just becoming a solid marketplace participant. It meant becoming a citizen.

Let me step back here and ask an obvious question: What does it mean to be “educated”? And what might that mean in the U.S. in 2022? We are, of course, familiar with the most general definitions and connotations of “education”: to provide intellectual instruction, or training in particular fields for those who need it; and, interestingly, to pay for these activities. But to begin, I would like to contemplate the notion that the purpose of education is to provide intellectual, moral and social instruction to individuals, and by extension to society as a whole.

Education by that definition brings us to that great motto of the United States:    e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” The notion works on many levels. The 50 states with their various climates, histories and cultures form one nation; countless institutions (government, religions, economic entities, fraternal clubs, universities and so on) cohere into a unified and usually functioning whole that serves the nation’s varied groups and alliances; hundreds of millions of individuals (most of the time) work together, in the service of themselves and of the whole. On the face of it, what the “many” of the U.S. have been able to accomplish as one over the last 250 years, with all of our varied faults, is nearly miraculous.

Traditionally, Americans have seen education as the loom that enables the many to weave into one through a process we term “democracy.” Implicitly and explicitly, we expect Americans to be informed about the frameworks that enable e pluribus unum and help us as individuals learn to participate in it. But lately I sense the ideal is no longer operative. Consider the ever-growing political polarization of the past 50 years, and the intense acceleration, and symbolic and literal violence, of that intensifying polarization. Has our system, rightly celebrated for its ability to create economic success and countless stories of individual growth and achievement — including that of my own family — somehow failed to respond to the needs and demands of the 21st-century world? If so, do we care enough to do something about that? Are we wise enough to recognize that if we don’t, the entire American enterprise is threatened?

Walton Negley 2

One way of thinking about why education no longer works in the U.S. is relatively straightforward. As I mentioned earlier, far too many citizens encounter a school and university system designed for an industrial mass economy that no longer provides what people need to succeed in a postindustrial information economy. The skills they need, the jobs available, what those jobs can realistically provide are too often mismatched. (Think of the false promises of the “gig economy.”) The health care professions are burgeoning, but again you need skilled literacy to gain employment and thrive within them.

Geography adds to the disparity, as does social class. Coastal cities and “blue” states are generally doing well economically; rural states less so. Meanwhile, the sort of jobs the working class needs to earn a living wage are harder to come by wherever one lives. I think of my father and his friends, who were able to make very comfortable middle- and even upper-middle-tier wages in manufacturing jobs, which provided them with pride, honor and a sense of belonging — and few of which exist anymore.

Tragically, these economic shortcomings create social tensions that are exacerbated by the failure of the education system to deliver not just the sort of opportunity available in the 30 years after World War II, but also a proper understanding of the history and reality of the nation. Note that the definition of “education” I offered above includes “social” and “moral” as part of the task. Looked at through this lens, we can see that not only has American education failed to prepare its citizens for the new economy, it has also failed in what should be the more easily accomplished task of helping them understand change. This second failure helps account for the dissatisfaction and the acceleration of violence we witness in our political realm.

The landscape of broken families, housing problems and lack of nutritious food and sufficient health care in our troubled urban and rural areas is another complication we expect our schools to remedy somehow. We ask schools to provide whatever we cannot provide at home. Can we really expect them to serve as both social-service agencies and purveyors of skills and knowledge — including social and moral knowledge? Such failures are often the detritus of history, geography and other cosmic accidents, but we ignore that detritus at our peril.

From my perspective, we have no more urgent business as a nation than fixing our education systems. If we don’t solve this problem, then we may — and I think will — end up with a bigger problem: a nation ungovernable and unable to function, just when we need it to function better than ever before. We are beginning to recognize, on the nearing horizon, the implications of this crisis. Whatever wavelength of the political spectrum you occupy, our public life is becoming frightening. There was January 6, of course, but also the unending, relentless absurdities of QAnon that helped drive it, and our concomitant inability to understand and agree about what is and is not American history.

I think of a recent statement the eminent scholar and journalist George F. Will made in an interview with Politico: He volunteered that he was not familiar with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. On the one hand, I shudder to think what else someone as well educated as George Will, a person I admire, who holds a doctorate in political science from Princeton University, might not know about African Americans or other minority groups. On the other, I must say, without flippancy, that I am not surprised. Will, to his credit, admits he should have known about Tulsa. But that mea culpa is not shared by many of those protesting (and threatening) school boards and administrators over what society has long considered straightforward history lessons, and which are now being deliberately mislabeled as “critical race theory.” Nor, apparently, do these citizens wish to be informed of anything that might interfere with their ability to see themselves as unsullied, innocent “patriots” in a perfect nation.

But back to Tulsa. African Americans have known and talked about what happened there for generations: as many as 300 deaths of Black Tulsans, 800 left injured, 1,200 homes destroyed and 35 blocks of the city, then known nationally as “Black Wall Street” razed in one night and day of white-on-Black violence. The massacre is a fact of Black history and lore (and economic dislocation), an essential element of African American consciousness, whereas it is not part of most whites’ historical knowledge. We have to contemplate the real-world implications of these conflicting memories. Some white Americans who do not know about the Tulsa Massacre are startled to learn about the emotions, preoccupations and even resentments many Blacks carry into the present day, and consequently they do not have the context to interpret or comprehend what is now happening around them, including Black disaffection.

Further, due to the lack of effective, comprehensive education in our society, we can’t discuss problems that ought to be neutral, including our biggest looming crisis, the one that makes all others moot: the climate. In the same way that the pandemic should not be politicized, the climate crisis should be recognized by all Americans as a matter of science subject to observation, experiment and measurement. We have lost the ability to engage with each other on difficult problems, which prevents us from acting as we have during many previous crises, such as the polio epidemic, because we are unequipped to debate in an educated way. Instead we argue and search for domination through emotion, rather than for consensus through discussion and contemplation.

We have no more urgent business as a nation than fixing our education systems. If we don’t solve this problem, then we may — and I think will — end up with a bigger problem: a nation ungovernable and unable to function, just when we need it to function better than ever before.

I don’t, however, blame the education system as it is for all our failures. I have come to think of these failings as symptomatic of larger crises of race, class, geography, history, science and truth. If we do not face these crises, we will not be able to fix our education system, and if we can’t fix education we may doom it — and it will doom us — to failure. As hard as that might be to imagine, the most cursory perusal of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire reminds us that even the mightiest can fail. 

To return to Lincoln: Whenever I see the mugshot of a hardened criminal, Black, white or other, I think about that person as a 5-year-old, eager to learn and participate, just like the young Abe, who wanted to be more. I think of a story I reported in Milwaukee in the 1990s, and the young Black boys who seemed to know in elementary school that they did not have a chance. And no, I don’t think every criminal is created by society. But I do think some of them are, and I think of people I knew as children, who were doomed by “the system” and became criminals, or else gave up. Looking around our nation today, from rural New Hampshire to South Central Los Angeles, I see Americans who are not equipped, through no fault of their own, to participate and thrive in society.

I have mentioned American icons such as Abraham Lincoln, Horatio Alger and Horace Mann; I will quote another: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” That’s Thomas Jefferson, and I can think of no better argument, or caution, for the role of education in our society, for why we must concern ourselves with rectifying the failures in our politics, on the news, on social media, and in our streets, rural and urban. Once you internalize Jefferson’s truth, there’s not a lot else to be said, but I will add this: As crucial as I think education is to everything we are, have been and will be as a nation, I don’t know if it is the solution to everything.

I don’t think that, for example, hardcore white supremacists or QAnon adherents will be educated out of their animus toward whomever or whatever they are angry about, and I think it will be difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to move that type of partisan, right or left, toward respectful facility with facts and history. Such grievances are more akin to unregulated emotions, undisciplined by rationality. They have little to do with formal education and more to do with the functions of the human amygdala and the willingness of various actors to exploit that vulnerability in human neurology. Such manipulation supersedes the failures of either this preschool technique or that one, or of the skills left unmastered at community colleges or in the Ivy League.

One ongoing pastime of our political system is the argument among elites about which party is spending too much, wasting money on this or that. It doesn’t matter which side is in charge, the other side will accuse it of mismanaging the national purse. I think the way forward is to spend money equitably on education, first by allotting the same amount for the instruction of each child (Scarsdale, New York, for example, spends $35,000 per child, while Chicago spends $16,000). We can afford it: a Marshall Plan for our nation. Consider how many trillions of dollars we’ve spent in Afghanistan (accepting that there was a serious need for severe police action there after September 11, 2001) and in Iraq over the last 20 years.

We have little to show for that investment. One might imagine what could have been accomplished had that money been spent here instead, educating our citizenry, preparing the millennials and Generation Z intellectually, morally and socially for the vocational challenges to come and, more crucially, for the challenges of good citizenship in rapidly changing times.

We have to learn how to talk to and live with each other despite our moral, social and intellectual differences, large and small. Given the evidence of unceasing conflict put before us every day, whatever we are doing now to educate ourselves as citizens is not working. And those of us of privilege cannot continue to turn away from, or exploit, these failures. We must reinvent education in order to rebuild our body politic. Historical evidence — from the American Revolution and Emancipation to World War II and the Civil Rights Movement — affirms we can do this if we want to.

That is another lesson from the life of Abraham Lincoln, and it may be education’s greatest gift: the acquisition of perspective, a means of looking through the present moment to our past and our future. When applied properly, perspective has a way of turning into hope.

Anthony Walton teaches at Bowdoin College.