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Perspective | In an age of upheaval, North Carolina rich enough to educate

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“We are entering upon an era which will test to the utmost the capacity of our democracy to cope with the gravest problem of modern times, and on a scale never yet attempted in all the history of the world. We are entering upon this difficult and dangerous period with what I believe we must call a growing deficit in the quantity and the quality of American education.”

– Walter Lippmann

Let’s return to – and ponder further – the question posed here last week: Is North Carolina, a modern American megastate, making a strong enough effort to support public education?

While I was attempting to frame the issue with some urgency, I noticed an interview with the iconic journalist and public philosopher Walter Lippmann in the recent 60th anniversary issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. That interview, conducted in 1969 by Fred Friendly, nudged me to delve into Lippmann’s views on public education.

In a career spanning half of the 20th Century, Lippmann published more than a dozen books, served as the founding editor of The New Republic, produced innumerable magazine articles, and wrote a widely circulated newspaper column. His views do not fit easily into today’s left-right ideological categories as he shifted from time to time, opposing autocracy while grappling with the complexities of governing a mass public in continent-wide democracy.

Fred Friendly was a president of CBS News known for producing in-depth television exposés on McCarthyism and migrant farm work – and later joined the faculty of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Lippmann died in 1974. Friendly died in 1998.

“It’s one of the great unsolved problems of democracy: how are you going to make popular government—because it’s always going to be popular, in the sense of involving a great many people—how are you going to make that work in the face of the problems which have become infinitely complicated?” Lippmann said to Friendly. “…Young people today are coming into a world for which there was no preparation in custom…That is absolutely the core of our problems.”

(A personal note: As a senior at Loyola University New Orleans, I wrote a capstone history paper on Lippmann. As a graduate student at Columbia University, I sat in Friendly’s class occasionally and joined students who gathered in his office to watch the evening news.)

The Lippmann quote at the top of this column comes from a speech in 1954 to the National Citizens Commission for Public Schools. Of course, he was addressing education nationally, not limited to North Carolina; still, Lippmann’s dramatic remarks are as relevant today as when he delivered them.

Lippmann lived through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the nation’s surge in industrial and military power. His 1954 speech came two months before the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. Lippmann later emerged as a major critic of U.S. military action in Vietnam.

“We are living in an age of disorder and upheaval,” he said. “Though the United States has grown powerful and rich, we know in our hearts that we have become, at the same time, insecure and anxious.”

For today’s Americans, their “age of disorder and upheaval’’ arises out of unanticipated disruptions to schools, businesses, and home life by the COVID-19 pandemic, an assault on the nation’s Capitol fostered by partisans unwilling to accept the peaceful transfer of the presidency, mass shootings of young people in schools, and an online ecosystem of racist and savage disinformation.

Now, as in the mid-20th Century, “the responsibility of the schools for educating the new generation has become very much more comprehensive than it used to be,” as Lippmann said.

“Ever so much more is now demanded of the schools. For they are expected to perform many of the educational functions which used to be performed by the family, the settled community, the church, the family business, the family farm, the family trade.”

From the immediate post-war period through two decades after Lippmann’s speech, the federal government launched important measures to advance education – for example, the GI Bill to send more people to college, Head Start and Title I to lift up poor young people, and a cabinet-level Department of Education to signify a national effort.

In North Carolina, Gov. Terry Sanford won a national reputation for his governance from 1961 to 1965, setting an example for “education governors’’ who followed across the South and nation. Over the last quarter of the 20th Century, North Carolina invested in its university system as a catalyst to modernization.

The state also took steps to bolster preK-12 schools; and yet, as the state entered the 21st Century, courts found that North Carolina continued to fall short of assuring a sound basic education to all its young people.

With its population and economy growing and diversifying well beyond its status in the lifetime of Lippmann, North Carolina no longer fits the image of a poor Southern state lacking the capacity to support modern public education systems, from pre-K through postsecondary.

Yet another Lippmann observation from 1954 seems relevant in 2022:

“We must measure our educational effort as we do our military effort. That is to say, we must measure it not by what it would be easy and convenient to do, but by what it is necessary to do in order that the nation may survive and flourish. We have learned that we are quite rich enough to defend ourselves, whatever the cost. We must now learn that we are quite rich enough to educate ourselves as we need to be educated.”

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.