What Does President’s Day Have To Do With Education?

The other night my daughter and I were walking through Washington DC, after dinner on our way to the Warner Theater to see Tedeschi Trucks Band – her first time. They put on a great show and she was hooked from the jump, that’s a post for another time. Part of our stroll took us past Ford’s Theater and we talked for a bit about the counterfactual of what might have happened had that night had gone differently? It’s amazing to me, and a worrying sign, that idiots want to take Lincoln’s name off schools. He’s arguably the best we’ve had, certainly in the small top tier.

Source LOC

This President’s Day let’s pause on two parts of Lincoln’s seminal Second Inaugural Address, from March 1864, for their still relevance to education questions including pensions. Yes, there is always a pension angle.

President Lincoln notes,

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves not distributed generally over the union but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

Later, after the war, John Mosby, the Confederate guerrilla who was a persistent problem for Union forces in Virginia and whose tactics are still studied and taught today, said much the same thing. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery” he wrote a colleague in the late 19th Century.

Mosby, who later served in the Grant, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft Administrations and even influenced a young George Patton, took issue with Lost Cause revisionism and attempts to change the narrative of the war. Yet if you visit Mosby’s grave today, on a hill in Warrenton, Virginia, you will usually find Confederate battle flags and iconography.

One reason? For years schools in many parts of the country have taught about the many causes of the civil war – economics, states’ rights, and slavery. Of course, third of these, slavery, was the through line. It was about the economics of slavery, the right of states to maintain or expand slavery or leave the union altogether over it.

Here, for instance, are the current history standards in Virginia about causes of the Civil War:

a)   describing the cultural, economic, and constitutional issues that divided the nation;

b)   explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions;

Here are the new standards now under review:

b) examining how the institution of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and secondary factors that contributed to the succession of the southern states.

You will search in vain for an acknowledgment of this important change, or the addition of coverage of a range of issues from Jim Crow and racial terror to civil rights to the expansion of rights for LGBT Americans. Instead it’s mostly rhetoric, including from people who when pushed admit they haven’t actually read the standards.

I’m not arguing the proposed standards are perfect, that they could not be improved, or that reasonable people can’t disagree over aspects of them. Rather, I’m arguing they have turned into a reactionary exercise and even the media coverage is now tied up in the narrative. Most of the generalizations and sweeping statements are just wrong. It’s a disservice. “Stopping” Glenn Youngkin is now more important than getting anything done. We can do better.

A second educationally relevant passage is what follows the famous “bind up the nation’s wounds” line,

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It’s an incredible piece of political speech. But, also, and here it comes….a signal and prelude to an evolution of pension and retirement security policy that continues to this day. Theda Skocpol traces some of this history in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. Pensions emerged for veterans, widows, and orphans before the broader expansion of social insurance through Social Security and other government programs. In his lively book on Grover Cleveland Troy Senik traces some of the problems with these early policies that landed on Cleveland’s desk.

For teachers, these pensions still don’t work that well. The narrative – from right and left – is that they’re generous or “gold plated” but this is belied by the reality – as many teachers will tell you and the data. Chad Aldeman and I looked at that in Democracy a few years ago. The debate is framed as less or more for teachers, when in fact the real action is about “different.”

My broader point is one I make around here a lot. Don’t trust the narratives and don’t outsource your thinking. At at time there is evidence elites are bending their education views to fit their broader political views while parents are now more willing to break out of traditional partisan alliances over education this seems especially important. Our divides are real, but nothing like what we’ve endured in the past. Keeping it that way is everyone’s responsibility.

Happy President’s Day.