Guest Column

In Times of Crisis, Why We Need Public Schools


They walked into the churchyard with a slow wariness. They had just quit trying to kill each other. The soldiers remembered too much. Whether wearing dark blue or butternut, they all came home to desolation. Where their houses had stood, blankets of ashes connected chimneys. Fallow fields gave rise to salt cedars while the river insidiously reclaimed the bottomlands, providing new breeding grounds for the yellow disease.

My great grandfather fought for the Union, as did most of his brothers. Cousins, neighbors and in-laws were secessionists. Yet they all came back to this same Tennessee mountain valley. Many returned disfigured in mind or body. Fewer came back than went.

They all came home to a new and bewildering world.

For as long as anybody could remember, they had lived on family farms. But this was no more. Steam and manufacturing crept over the farms like kudzu vines. Trains made a trip to the city as easy as a wagon ride to the county seat. Telegraphers sent messages at the speed of light rather than the speed of a horse. Darwinism shook fundamental religious beliefs and countless denominations multiplied across the land.

Solution Building
At the Briar Creek Church, the veterans sat down to figure out how to rebuild a community where everything around them was destroyed. All that had held them together and given them meaning was gone or twisted in some strange way. They reflected until the shadows grew long. Some said they should abandon the community and go to the cities. They had to be modern now. Others said this was all the more reason to guard the old ways.

Some pointed with rage to the dark-looking Melungeons over on Newman's Ridge. They blamed those accursed people as the cause of the problems. With the fresh sting of defeat and the sorrow of loss, a few demanded to renew the fight. Still others cautioned that this democracy business had just survived a great crisis and we shouldn't give it up just yet. If ignorance, hate and division were our problems, we must teach knowledge, compassion and understanding. Slowly they concluded that family, community and government by the people were too important to abandon. They settled on a solution.

They would build a public school.

Preparing Citizens
They took their misery-whipsaws to the mountains and skidded the logs to Uncle Taylor's mill and loaded the fresh boards on wagons. The family gave the land, a promontory jutting over the Clinch River. The graveyard marked the edge of the playground. A long fly ball could bounce off Aunt Sara's tombstone.

And the Seal-Mathis School was raised—to build a community, to teach the skills needed for a new and uncertain age and to prepare the citizenry to govern themselves wisely.

After the veterans built the school, their offspring, which included my grandfather, taught the next generation. In his turn, my father would teach in that school. My grandfather's 1893 teaching certificate hangs in my office. I share his name.

In countless variations this building of schools was repeated across the land. Carried by our Jeffersonian beliefs that society and democracy can only be advanced by the education of all children, the public school movement swept the nation. Even though we have yet to make the guarantees a reality for all our nation's children, this was a great and noble compact.

A Common Tradition
Like our ancestors we face the uncertainties of a new age.

In terrifying ways our world was wrenched away as we watched the World Trade Centers collapse. In quieter ways our world continues to be fundamentally transformed. Steam mills are now rubble, and computers change our lives in ways we have yet to comprehend. Our population shifts from the farms while strip development and suburbs choke our cities.

The dissolving of extended multigenerational farm families dismayed our ancestors while same-sex couples ignite furor among many today. Instead of Darwin, stem-cell research inflames religious turmoil over the definition of life. The industrial barons of the Gilded Age have been replaced by cyberbarons.

Set apart by more than a century, two cultures saw their worlds turned upside down.

How differently they reacted.

Today's school critics say the solution is in the nihilistic fragmentation of vouchers, privatization, charter schools and home schooling. Where our ancestors chose to hold knowledge and democratic values in common, today's weak image is that education is merely a market choice.

Instead of a vision enriched by a common tradition, critics see education as a mindless television clicker where some pick the History Channel while others choose sit-coms. In this meager view, as long as all get a clicker (some will have more channels and some can afford the upgraded packages), our obligation to equality, to democracy and to education is satisfied. While advanced by libertarian and conservative voices, it is a liberty without a responsibility, a conservatism that does not conserve. This exercise in freedom neither advances the common core of civilization nor does it carry any inherent guarantee that our society will be provided the skills and values for a world indelibly changed on Sept. 11.

How very different from our ancestors.

When the destruction of civil war had to be mended, the citizenry built a public school. When technological change made their jobs obsolete and they had to learn new skills, they went to their common school. When new sciences changed their knowledge of the universe, they taught them in their school. When the values of democracy required learning about the Constitution, laws and humanity, they turned to the schools.

And as the message rolls down the long years and across the generations, it remains remarkably clear and constant. If we are to preserve our democracy and our communities, we must cherish public schools for all of our children.

William Mathis is superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, 49 Court Drive, Brandon, VT 05733. E-mail: