We can all have flying cars: Why yearning for the good old days is a waste of time when it comes to education

Small-town Ohio and its “good old days” is the subject of a New York Times article by Robert Putnam, published this week. In it, he describes the Shangri-La of the late 1950s in Northwestern Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. Quite how he makes it from this to his usual conclusion that the collective “we” is a key missing element of today’s society – in terms of economic attainment, educational outcomes and the weave of the entire social fabric – is beyond my powers to understand.

The “American Dream” that Putnam describes leaves out women (unmarried ones for sure and by insinuation any married woman who harbored any ambition outside of homemaking), most black students (except perhaps the two from Port Clinton who “encountered racial prejudice in town” yet still managed to get into graduate school through education and effort) and all of the unmentionables from the era (homosexuals, mixed-race families, Italians, Poles, the disabled and the mentally ill) for whom the 1950s did no favors at all.

Any sense of a collective “we” from that era is largely male, wholly straight, mostly white, and solidly middle- and upper- class although those last two terms have definitely acquired a variety of definitions over time. As someone without any recollections of how great it was in the 1950s (as it would have been for me and my family once the WOP had been bred out of us), and for someone who experienced the "changes of the 70s" as a done deal I think the story of Port Clinton told in this way doesn't shed much light on the problems of today.

What is the dividing line from then to now? Putnam calls it the “social and cultural whirlwind” and notes that it was unseen over the horizon. “The change” engulfed America suddenly and unpredictably as if it were a dome that fell without warning over his city. These changes unraveled the fabric of America, he writes, leading to the breakdown of the collective “we” and consequently the social, educational and economic malaise he sees today. He is talking specifically about the decline of blue-collar jobs and the loosening of social mores.

But to me, a child of the 70s, I cannot see behind the gauzy curtain to that past in my own mind and what I know of it from history books and firsthand accounts from my family and others does not accord with Putnam’s rosy recollections.

And yet, I agree with his conclusion.

There are two problems here I think: These memories are troubling in their unabashed rosiness, as noted above; but even if they were wholly accurate they are completely without use in the realms of current social, cultural and educational reform efforts. We have the society we have. The dome didn’t fall without warning, we know how we got here and we are more aware now than ever about who lives in our society and where they are being failed. Our families are headed by two mommies, or one mommy, or a grandfather, or stepparents, or a teenager, or parents who don’t speak English. The children in our schools are black, brown, white, living with autism or Down Syndrome, unwanted or abused, struggling with dyslexia, trying to fit in while being nearly geniuses, still longing for acceptance while not looking or sounding like everyone around them.

No gauze. No “yes, but” excuses. Nobody left out. The real collective “we”. The real and true community, even in Port Clinton today. They all deserve the best education and the best shot at the American Dream that our society can provide.

I thought people who consider themselves progressive were focused on the future. I am still waiting for the flying cars promised me in the whiz-bang 60s.

The pluses of the 1950s were unevenly distributed, to put it mildly, but the problems of the 1970s were shared much more readily by everyone.

Want to talk about the problems of education in rural Ohio today? How about ACT or AP participation rates or college remediation rates?

So we saw the decline of a standard of living that was geographically limited and very likely unsustainable. It's done and we can’t return to it. Where’s the future? What’s the next big thing?

We live in a time when physical borders are receding, when community can be an entirely electronic phenomenon, when a career is a series of jobs and not thirty five years at the plant, when education is rapidly becoming more than just kids in a building in Port Clinton or Lithopolis or Enon. Where are the innovators, where are the inventors, where’s the next big thing?

The collective “we” is indeed in tatters at the moment – way too much “I got mine” and not enough of “but what about everyone else”. That’s why I’m in this business of education reform.  To me, education has always been the answer to so many of society’s ills. We already know the 1950s benefitted some far more than others, and sometimes even the lucky and the scrappy were not spared from what came next. Let's learn from the past (the REAL past please, because romanticizing it obscures both its reality and its legacy and hampers us from doing what must be done today for the benefit of tomorrow) and move on toward a proper future which really does include everyone this time, and try to make sure it doesn't happen that way again.

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