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Address to Hill School
May 22, 1983

Lewis E. Lehrman

Let me challenge you with an ancient allegory not about the Hill, but about government school education in America today. Suppose that it is the year 1795. This was a year, you remember, in an age of faith. And suppose further that you are the 'advocatus diabole,' the devil's disciple.

Then, as now, there is much evil to be done in the world so that one disciple is far from enough to keep on top of it. As with the head of any large organization, therefore, Lucifer has created a bureaucratic structure to divide up the work. You have been named the Assistant Devil for American Education.

You are a very nervous Assistant Devil because, sad to say, things have been going very well for God's children in the United States. Why, at the last Cabinet meeting of Senior Devils, Satan himself awarded the Legion of Destruction to the Assistant Devil for European Affairs for getting the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution off the ground. When it came time for the Senior Devil's presentation, he could only mumble about Indian scalpings on the frontier, evoking the hope of starting a war with France. Lucifer was not impressed. You sensed a lot of pressure to get some results.

Knowing Dante's Inferno well, and determined not to get sent back to the lake of fire for another million years, you know you must come up with a satanic plan - a 200-year plan for the systematic depreciation of the high standards governing American education.

You do come up with your plan, and you deliver it to the cabinet of all the Satans. You tell them, 'The Americans have a real fetish about education. They believe in it because it defeats ignorance. Judeo-Christian values overcome fear and poverty. Education allows Americans to develop and practice useful skills. It allows them to understand and transmit the best of their heritage and tradition. It gives them self confidence. It has given them a free and independent republic.' You see this and you say it.

You note also that in America there is an abundance of fine voluntary educational institutions, much of it private. But in Pennsylvania, for instance, William Penn has seen to it that the state pays the tuition of any child too poor to attend a private school of his parents choice, a tuition tax credit, if you will, to enable all Pennsylvanians to exercise free choice in schools.

So you announce a plan, simple and effective, to paralyze American education within 200 years. For, devil may care, that is your purpose. America will be in big trouble, and as the devil's disciple you will have done your duty.

Your plan is as follows.

'I propose,' you say, 'to put the government directly in charge of education. I don't mean that the government shall pay for the education of the poor in the school of their choice - as they do in Pennsylvania in this year 1795. I mean to give the government a monopoly over education.

'I plan to begin by creating an ideological presumption that government schools, subsidized by property taxpayers, are preferable to private or Free Common schools. Once government public schools are created, it will be simple to get the government to stop paying tuition for schools of the parent's choice because, of course, there won't be enough tax dollars to go around, and the government's own schools will naturally have first claim. Then most parents will not be able to pay private tuition on top of their property school tax bill.

'Then we'll require their children to go only to approved and certified schools. And to be certified, of course, schools will have to meet devilish requirements.

'For one thing, they shall have only accredited teachers. Now, there is a lot of bureaucratic mischief in that term accredited. Just because a distinguished research chemist has twenty years experience doesn't mean he or she will be pedagogically approved or free to teach chemistry to American children - not at all. The chemist must be certified to teach. That means he or she must have the proper number of education courses approved by the central government bureaucracy. And to get those courses it will be necessary to attend teacher's colleges. And who will run those teacher's colleges? Why, to the extent possible, the government. That way only those who have been suitably indoctrinated in the latest teaching fads of technical formalism will be approved at teachers of America's children.

'As soon as possible, we'll get rid of the idea of teaching as a sacred calling, like medicine and law, and replace it with the idea of teaching as a civil service occupation. We'll get those teachers into public sector unions, where some leaders can persuade them to teach less, for more pay, with ever more administrative positions, all the while throwing their weight around in Washington and State capitals to make sure the trend continues. With a little luck, we might even be able to get a Cabinet level, Department of Education, in the U.S. government.'

"Above all, we shall promote the idea that traditional family values, human experience, and moral and religious values shall be ignored in the government schools. Instead, we'll insinuate social engineers to peddle the idea that children can and should be made over, socialized if you will by the public schools - into a new creature, egalitarian in all things, enthusiastic about a governmental-directed country. Above all, we shall teach that education must be 'relevant'. That's a term I made up to mean that American children will no longer learn the value-oriented Western intellectual tradition. Nor, under my program will there be basic standards of cultural literacy. The students will just 'relate', sort of, you know, to things and people and like, you know, stuff.

'We'll teach the kids to sneer at anybody who goes around seeking and defending excellence and high achievement. We'll put down anyone who says that kids shouldn't be promoted or graduated until they have met the standards by which this great new nation achieved preeminence.'

Your fellows devils are stunned at the audacity of your plan. 'Fantastic', murmurs one. 'Sheer genius' says another. 'Most devilish scheme I've heard since we got the Spaniards to spread diseases among the Aztecs,' says another devil.

Well, this is, I fervently hope and pray, a fanciful allegory. But I ask you this question. If Satan had a plan like this to destroy American education - could he have done anything differently?

Last month, the President's National Commission on Educational Excellence made its report, on where, after 200 years, we stand as a nation dedicated to universal education. What did it find? It found, 'the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.' And in a passage strangely reminiscent of my fable, the Commission observed 'if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.' Or, I might add, an act of the Devil, for education today is in, if you'll indulge the metaphor, one hell of a mess.

Consider these facts:

There are 23 million adult Americans who are for most practical purposes illiterate. That doesn't mean that they are unable to write English sonnets. It means that they can't handle the minimal demands of daily work and living.

The President's commission discovered that average scores on standardized achievement tests were higher 25 years ago, when Sputnik stimulated a great wave of interest in education, than they are today. Between 1963 and 1980 the SAT verbal scores dropped 50 points on the average. The math scores dropped 40. The textbook trade has coined the term 'dumbing down' to describe the simplification of texts - shorter words, more pictures, less serious content.

But what is to be done? Are we to slide into second- and third-rate status along with other great nations of the past. Or are we Americans going to go for the gold again? I say America alone can set the standards for the free world. And we must.

If we are to reverse this disastrous trend, if we intend to displace the cult of mediocrity with the pursuit of excellence at all levels, our work as true patriots has just begun. I have a few suggestions about how we must go forward.

First, we need to be clear about what education must mean. It means the ability to understand a bus schedule and balance a checkbook, to be sure. But while mastery of basic skills is an indispensable foundation for all education, we must reinstate a higher goal for public education. We have many dedicated public school teachers left. And it can be done. We must rebuild education to produce literate, law-abiding, informed citizens who understand the everlasting values and traditions of our country, its faith, and of Western civilization. We must educate citizens who understand the unique responsibility of self-government, the need to cherish the eternal things from our special past, even as we move forward boldly into the future.

As Americans, conscious of our manifest destiny, we must once again rededicate ourselves to the idea of high standards of excellence. No longer can we passively accept the steady 'social promotion' of our young people who long for leadership and opportunity. We must insist now upon renewed standards of academic excellence, and careful assessment of how well each child, and each school performs in measuring up to those standards.

Students are not equal in all their abilities or intelligence - that is a fact of life. But each can excel by developing his talents. Some will achieve more, some less. We cannot accept a government educational system, however, that holds back the swift to patronize the less swift, in the name of improved social adjustment. Our model must be that of the 'Good Shepherd.' The Good Shepherd leaves none behind. But neither does he hold anyone back. It is precisely the lowest common denominator theory of relevant non-education that has wrought such untold mischief to this country. Every child deserves our help to be all he or she can be - but a society that blindly heeds the leveling impulse will end up just that way in history - leveled - and ultimately is the ash can of history.

All of our schools, public and private, owe students and parents alike a full accounting for the results obtained. Some bureaucratic educators have, for more than a decade, fought strenuously against the idea of accountability. Indeed, they have some success in translating their views into the idea of 'minimal competence,' a euphemism which, in one state, means pupils must be able to count from one to a hundred; in order, no less. This is a travesty of justice, unworthy of a great nation, destined by history to lead the free world.

We need to restore to a place of honor those teachers who view their profession as the highest calling. And good teachers must be paid more in our society, but, as the President's Commission pointed out, their remuneration should be 'market sensitive and performance based.' And we need to create new opportunities for skilled, sensitive value-oriented teachers to impart their skills and wisdom to younger generations, independent of formal state-decreed 'credentials' which have become, alas, in too many cases, a certification of mediocrity.

But above all, it seems to me, we must open the door to more informed parental choice in education. We must neutralize the long-held presumption in favor of government-dominated schools, a presumption in favor of government monopoly which brands free private common schools as sectarian, or discriminatory, or elitist, or somehow un-American. The truth is that private schools are more American, historically, than government schools. They originated with the Republic. They have performed for people from all walks of life better over longer periods of time.

Creating more opportunities for informed choice in education will be seen by many as threatening the government school monopoly. That's only true if parents and taxpayers decide that the government school system in our free society is a poor alternative. If large numbers of them do, and transfer their children to private schools, then that should be a signal to the public schools that all is not well with their enterprise. And we can, if we will, make our public schools citadels of high American educational standards.

I am convinced that in education as in all human affairs, competition improves the lot of the consumer, the student. Let competition flourish, and our education will improve - perhaps dramatically. Provide vouchers or credits to help the parents of the poor to make an effective free choice. I'm convinced that the great majority of them will, in time, choose a value-oriented education, public or private, best for their children. And out of it all will come not only a stronger and more varied school sector, but stronger and more effective public schools.

To those of you graduating today from this school upon a Hill, let me say a few final words. Your parents could have sent you to a public school. Many of them are outstanding you would have done well there. Your parents' property taxes already paid your way there. But instead your parents freely chose to send you to the Hill, an open, common school for students from all over this great land. Here at the Hill you were taught by teachers who love to teach. Here you were taught the values of work, duty and sacrifice. Here you were taught you must work hard to learn. Here you were provided with the skills to learn at college and to excel I society. You are very fortunate. While taking advantage of what the Hill and your parents have provided, you should never lose sight of how lucky you are that you are graduating from one of the foremost schools in America. And above all, that you are an American, destined to give the shining example of faith, freedom, and opportunity to the whole world.

Honor your fathers and your mothers for sacrificing so that you may come here. Honor the dedicated teachers here, and the men and women who gave of their spirit and substance to provide an endowment to build this school. Honor the leaders here who have come to be your friends, bridging the gap of generations. Forget their eccentricities and their shortcomings, but remember well their wisdom and virtue. And when the time comes, perhaps twenty years in the future, when your own children seek knowledge and right belief, do not forget the priceless gift the Hill gave to you.

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