Suzanne Fields

Everybody talks about education -- the politicians loudest of all, until they get bored with the subject -- but the education, and the miseducation, of our children continues as the concern dearest to the hearts of parents.

Everyone, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, male and female, agree that "somebody has to do something." The argument, angry and contentious, is about the who and the what.

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City who has solutions to problems we don't yet have, arrived fresh from his first election three terms ago with the announcement that he wanted to be "the education mayor." He has since decided that he wants to be the "the gun-control mayor," or the "soda-pop mayor," meddling with his millions in congressional races in places like Arkansas and Missouri, more than a thousand miles from Gotham.

Yet, by one estimate, nearly 80 percent of New York City's high-school graduates need help learning to read well enough to master other subjects when they apply to one of the community colleges in the City University system.

The state of New York spends $18,126 on every child in its schools. A dollar is not what it used to be, but that's still a lot of taxpayer money, even in New York. The City Department of Education says it's raised high school graduation standards by 40 percent since 2006, but the number of students who need remedial work has declined by only half of a percentage point.

It's easier to blame global warming than doing something real and effective about failing schools. Comparisons are odious, particularly of time and place. Take the eighth-grade graduation exam used in Bullitt County, Ky., in 1912. While more than a century ago, it's enough to make a parent long for the old days he or she never knew.

Bullitt County eighth-graders were required to calculate the cost of painting a room, if the paint cost 12.5 cents per square yard, the room was 20 feet by 16 feet by 9 feet, and deducting one door measuring 8 foot by 4 feet, 6 inches and two windows 5 feet by 3 feet, 6 inches.

They were required to locate the Erie Canal, explain why it was important and identify the waters a ship would pass through on a voyage from London to Manila via the Suez Canal. And this one: Tell where the liver is located, and compare it to other organs of the body, and identify the secretions of all. Define the cerebrum and the cerebellum.

The 13-year-olds were required to explain the Electoral College and give the number of electoral votes accorded to each state, to identify five county officers and explain the duties of each, and to cite three rights given in the Constitution to Congress and two rights denied to Congress. While they were at it, they were required to say who discovered Florida, the Pacific Ocean, the Mississippi River and the St. Lawrence River.

Since reading was important, they were required to name the properties of a noun, define a personal noun, give the properties of verbs and degrees of comparison of adjectives, and diagram the sentence, "The Lord loveth a cheerful giver."

Many educationists scoff at such exercises as relics of a primitive time in America, but other teachers say those "primitives" could teach us a thing or two. (How many Harvard graduates would pass such a test?) Such an eighth-grade education was all that George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin ever got.

Education in early America "began in the home at the mother's knee and often ended in the cornfield or barn by the father's side," writes Robert A. Peterson, headmaster of the Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, N.J., in the online newsletter Freeman. Teaching reading was a mother's portion, and without pencil or paper she often traced the letters of the alphabet in the ashes on the hearth.

The Bible was by far the most important cultural influence in the lives of the early Americans; letters home from Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, were written well, rich with metaphor, allusion and vivid imagery. John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the New England Primer and Isaac Watts' "Divine Songs" were familiar at many hearths.

Few of us would give up the resources of the present day -- the books, magazines, television, tablets, and the wealth of electronic wizardry that makes learning a snap, if only we knew how to harness the power of the wizardry. We shouldn't dismiss the lessons those early Americans could teach us. Maybe they knew something we have yet to learn.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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