Recently, I was put to the task of finding four men who graduated from the high school where I work. They were killed in action in Vietnam in the 1960s. My search began with the collection of yearbooks we have in the library. Digging through the old, black and white photos, I came across a letter published in the front of a 1962 edition. It was to the students from the principal, Mr. Wm McCoy Burt. The letter was entitled The American School:
From all angles the schools are being destructively criticized–yet name one nation that has developed as rapidly as the United States has in the years as a nation (175 years since the signing of the Constitution). The American schools played and are a big part in this development.
The public schools must take all children from age 7-16, regardless of their ability and try to educated them to become useful members in a democratic society. I believe not that all people are created of equal capacity but that all are entitled to the opportunity to develop fully such capacities as they have. They should be a sharper delineation between rearing and educating a child. Rearing refers to the fostering of offspring. Rearing should be chiefly the responsibility of the parents, of churches, and the individual themselves. Schools are involved, of course, but the task of rearing should not be schools–not chiefly, at any rate. The schools should educate; and, if the schools educate well, they will contribute to rearing. But the effectiveness of a school is lessened when they have to assume too many functions of the family, the church, and the policeman.
The heritage that America has so well guarded–this heritage is threatened, our democratic society is in danger. The danger becomes real when the teaching profession is under pressure to by-pass its obligation to the individual child and teach enmasse by automation. It is not the might of the military, the productivity of industry or the bigness of business that the greatness of America lies, it is the individual. It is the individual teacher working with the individual learner who will continue to find a solution to the problem and keep America great.
Allow that marinate for a second. Give it another reading or two, if you must. Remember that Mr. Burt wrote this in 1962, and let that stew for a second also. The second to last sentence struck hardest with me. How far have we gone to ensure that the problem in society lies elsewhere?
In 1543, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was published by Nicolaus Copernicus. This scientist was actually claiming that we, the people of Earth, were not the center of the universe. Heretic! What a fool! Any idiot can stand outside and watch the sun as it moves around the earth, right? After all, this is set in stone with the Ptolemaic Model to concretely solidify any thought against wayward thinking. Some parts, if not all, of the Catholic church were opposed to the very idea of the Copernicus theory. One of the main front runners was a priest by the name of Francesco Ingoli, based on the doctrine that hell is located at the center of Earth and is most distant from heaven; and the explicit assertion that Earth is motionless in a hymn sung on Tuesdays as part of the Liturgy of the Hours of the Divine Office prayers regularly recited by priests. Also, the fact that in Genesis 1:14 where God places “lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night.” Ingoli did not think the central location of the sun in the Copernican Theory was compatible with it being described as one of the lights placed in the firmament.
It’s easy for us to claim how correct Copernicus was, in light of the science available to us today. We scoff at the remarks of his critics, and say to ourselves how ridiculous their opinions were. So who made the same hand-behind-mouth snickers when Mr. Burt’s letter was read 54 years ago? It was 1962, for the love of Pete! What’s wrong with America? Obviously Mr. Burt was reading unique signs, like our good Polish scientist was in the 16th Century. What did you think now that you’ve read his letter and theory about the devolvement of America in connection with the current education system? No one is laughing now. Education has spiraled into avoidance of the main problem to which Mr. Burt spoke. Money is thrown at the “problem” of insufficient testing data. Oh, no changes the next year? More money!
Copernicus’s idea launched a revolution, named after him, and many great scientists continued to climb on the ladder he built. Who among us will recognize the problem and start the revolution of education against the mainstream of ideas that have always “worked”?
Burt, Wm McCoy. Chavala Wildcat. 5 Mar. 1962. Seale, Alabama.
Finocchiaro, Maurice A. (1989). The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.