Welcome to the Great Conversation
Jamie Vollmer


Just when was
the Golden Age of
American Education?

It wasn’t in the ’90s.

  • In 1996, educator E.D. Hirsch wrote The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, in which he called for a return to a traditional approach to education.
  • In 1994, IBM CEO, Louis V. Gerstner, proclaimed in The New York Times that “Our Schools Are Broken.”

It wasn’t in the ’80s.

  • In 1988, former secretary of education, Terrel Bell in his book The Thirteenth Man, wrote, “If we are frank with ourselves, we must acknowledge that for most Americans, neither diligence in learning nor rigorous standards of performance prevail. How do we once again become a nation of learners, in which attitudes towards intellectual pursuit and quality of work have excellence at their core?”
  • In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its seminal report, “A Nation at Risk,” in which it warned of a rising tide of mediocrity.

It wasn’t in the ’70s.

  • In 1976, the Educational Testing Service presented college freshmen with 41 multiple-choice questions on basic American history and found that they could correctly answer only half.
  • In 1970, in his book Crisis in the Classroom, Charles Silberman stated, characterized schools as t grim, joyless places governed by oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and aesthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they consciously display for children as children.”

It wasn’t in the ’60s.

  • In 1969 Harvey B. Scribner, Chancellor of New York City’s school concluded that for every youngster who gained intellectually and psychologically, there was another who was, “pushed out, turned off, or scarred as a result of his school experience.”
  • In 1963, Admiral Hyman Rickover published, American Education, a National Failure. It became a national best seller. He stumped the country proclaiming that we were not producing the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians we needed to beat the Russians.

It sure wasn’t in the ’50s.

  • In 1958, with the launch of Sputnik, failing schools were identified as the reason the Russians beat us into space, prompting LIFE magazine to run an eight part series entitled, “Crisis in Education,” in which the editors wrote, “the standards of education are shockingly low.”
  • In 1958, Sloan Wilson, author wrote, “The facts of the school crisis are all out and in plain sight and pretty dreadful to look at. A surprisingly small percentage of high school students is studying what used to be considered basic subjects. It is hard to deny that America’s schools, which were supposed to reflect one of history’s noblest dreams and to cultivate the nation’s youthful minds, have degenerated into a system for coddling and entertaining the mediocre.”
  • In 1956, U.S. News & World Report published an article with the title, “We Are Less Educated than 50 Years Ago.”
  • In 1955, best-selling author Rudolf Flesch wrote, Why Johnny Can’t Read.
  • In 1953, historian Arthur Bestor wrote, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools. “Fifty years ago, half of all students in public schools were studying Latin; today less than a quarter are enrolled in courses in all foreign languages put together.” (It is worth noting that in 1903, only 50 percent of all students attended high school, which means that the actual number of students studying foreign languages in 1953 was actually far more.)
  • In 1951, Readers Digest reported that, “[U]niversity professors and angry business people complained that public school students could not write a clear English sentence, do simple mathematics, or find common geographical locations such as Boston or New York City.”

It wasn’t before World War II.

  • In 1943, the New York Times, in an article entitled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen,” reported that only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 colonies. One in four did not know who was president during the Civil War. St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Atlantic Ocean, Ohio River, St. Lawrence River, and almost every place else.
  • In 1940, the Navy tested its new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math. Sixty percent of high school graduates failed.
  • In 1939, professor Mortimer J. Adler of Columbia University conducted studies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and concluded that grade schools were devoid of discipline, high school students failed to master the basics, and college graduates could not read, write, or speak English well.
  • In 1933, the United States Office of Education found that teachers commonly promoted students they thought were failures.
  • In 1932, the Progressive Education Association noted that secondary education “did not have a clear purpose; it did not prepare students adequately for the responsibilities of community life; and seldom challenged the student of first-rate ability.”

It wasn’t before World War I.

  • In 1916, the first large-scale test of knowledge of United States history was administered. The results were abysmal.
    In 1912, an eight part series in The Ladies Home Journal concluded that schools failed to educate students. “Can you imagine a more grossly stupid, a more genuinely asinine system [of public education]…that is not only ineffective in its results, but also actually harmful in that it throws every year ninety three out of every one hundred children into the world of action absolutely unfitted for even the simplest tasks in life.”
  • In 1912, The Taxpayers Association of California argued that, despite all the calls for change, educational leaders had achieved no results or else had to be satisfied with so many compromises that it is “generally admitted that the highest efficiency is not being obtained even with the large amount of money now being spent.”
  • In 1909, The Atlantic Monthly in an article entitled, “Plain Facts about Public Schools,” wrote, “The whole system, from the happy kindergarten to the … high school, is permeated with the haze of indefiniteness. There is present only the mirage of learning, not the substantial reality. The old-fashioned drilling has vanished. The result is, the pupil is not trained in exactness and thoroughness.”
  • In 1907, Woodrow Wilson said “with all our teaching we train nobody...with all our instructing we educate nobody.”

It wasn’t before the
Spanish-American War.

  • In 1893, the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies proclaimed, “As things are now, the high school teacher finds in the pupils fresh from the grammar schools no foundation of elementary mathematical conceptions outside of arithmetic. When college professors endeavor to teach to persons of eighteen or twenty years of age, they discover that in most instances new habits of observing, reflecting, and recording have to be painfully acquired—habits which they should have acquired in early childhood. The college teacher of history finds in like manner that his subject has never taken any serious hold . . .”  
  • In 1892, Professor Joseph Mayer Rice visited 36 cities where he found rote learning, mindless teaching, administrative ineptitude, political chicanery, and public apathy.
  • In 1889, only the top three percent of America’s students college, and yet 380 of 450 colleges reported remedial courses were needed.
  • In 1880, an essay by journalist Richard Grant White, “The Public School Failure,” proclaimed that no institution had as much public confidence and pride and none was so unworthy.
  • In 1879, Harvard Professor A.S. Hill proclaimed that high-school teachers were to blame for doing so little to teach young people to write that professors were forced to do the job.

It wasn’t before the Civil War.

  • In 1832, Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University asked his Dean of Admissions why so many applicants were failing the entrance exam. The professor replied that they didn’t know enough. Cornell then asked why the university could not teach the students what they didn’t know. The Dean replied that the faculty was not prepared to teach the alphabet.


  • The golden age of America’s schools is a myth. For over two hundred years, America’s public schools have risen to meet every challenge posed by a rapidly-evolving society—an experiment in free-market, representative democracy that is unique in world history. The truth is that, each succeeding generation of young Americans has been better educated than its predecessors.
  • While there is no doubt that our schools need to change to meet the demands of the knowledge age, any nostesiac who proclaims, “If we could just have the schools we used to have,” is either deluded, or terribly misinformed, and an obstacle to increasing student success.


Millions of Americans argue, often vehemently, that today’s schools are dreadful compared to the temples of learning that existed in our golden past. In their view, we all would be better off if schools could just be the way they used to be.

These people are suffering from a debilitating mental condition that I have named nostesia: a hallucinogenic mixture of 50% nostalgia and 50% amnesia that distorts rational thinking. 

I have created the following equation to quantify the severity of an individual’s delusion:

A x O = NQ

A represents a person’s age. O is number of years he or she has been out of school. Multiply these together and you get NQ - the Nostesia Quotient. The higher a person’s NQ, the more advanced the disease and the less likely the person will respond to reasoned argument.

Mitigating factors exist that can reduce a person’s NQ. Aggravating conditions exist that can increase it. If, for example a person works in a school, or actively volunteers, we can divide his or her total NQ by 2. On the other hand, if the person is running for political office, multiply by 5.

One of my earliest exposures to nostesia came during a talk I gave in western Nebraska. I had just reviewed public education’s history of achievements, and listed the challenges that lay ahead, when a big fellow stood up and said, “You know, I listened to all your talk, and as far as I’m concerned if schools could just be the way they used to be around here, everything would be all right” 

“Yes sir,” I said. “What year would that be?”

“1953. Those were the really good schools.”

“The dropout rate in Nebraska in the early fifties was fifty percent,” I said. “In fact, in those days dropout counseling consisted of principals encouraging certain kids to drop out.”

“No,” said an elderly woman in the front row, “you have to go back to 1939 for the really good schools.” 

“Ma’am,” I said, “the dropout rate in the 1930s was 80%. Today, your schools have that number down to single or low double digits.”

Immediately, the big man proclaimed, “Oh, that’s not true. Everybody I graduated with graduated!”


Of course, the nostesia pandemic is not new. Each succeeding generation of young people is regarded by their elders as academically challenged. Written expressions of doubt and disapproval regarding “these kids today” and “these schools today” go back as far as Plato. My brothers and sisters in the magnificent boomer generation are no different. The same people who once said, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” now insist that today’s young people don’t know as much or work as hard as we did when we were young.

Every nostesiac has his or her rationale. Some are convinced that schools in the past were better because everybody got a job. They forget that most of those jobs - now gone - required little more than a strong back and a willingness to work. Some people are alarmed because “these kids today” don’t know the same things that they know, especially historical facts that they consider essential to being a good American. These adults forget that most of what they know they learned after they got out of school. They also fail to see that it’s not possible for today’s students to learn everything their parents and grandparents learned plus everything that has happened since—especially in a school year that has not added a minute in decades. Some nostesiacs parrot the dreary assessment of public schools offered by media pundits; they don’t want to admit that they have been duped by people on the radio they trust. Some adults cling to the fantasy because they refuse to believe they’ve been surpassed by new generations of kids. This is especially pronounced among the college educated. Finally, there are those who are CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything. No amount of reasoned discourse will eradicate their disease. It’s genetic.

Nostesia can be cured, but it must be aggressively treated. The most effective treatment includes direct exposure to students and teachers in schools—the more interactive the better—coupled with regular, powerful doses of good news about our schools

I have found that the best way to break the spell is to provide a little context.

Today, one of the hot button issues of the “back-to-the-past” contingent is the seemingly large number of college freshmen who require remediation. This subject receives a lot of press, and is offered as positive proof of failing schools. In this context, I offer the following quote. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times attributed to Professor Theodore M. Greene of Princeton University.

I know of no college or university in the country that doesn’t have to offer most or all of its freshmen courses in remedial English, beginning mathematics, beginning science and beginning foreign languages. Consequently, we give two or three years of college [courses] and the rest is high school work.

Most people agree that this is a perfect example of the declining quality of our schools. The problem with the argument, however, is that Professor Greene uttered this statement about the poor quality of high school graduates in March 1946. And when he spoke, he became part of a long line of complainants. Thirty-eight years prior, a 1908 Carnegie report discovered that large percentages of America’s high school graduates were being admitted to elite colleges with “conditions,” i.e., in need of remediation. Further back, in 1900, when only the top 2 percent of high school graduates went on to college (compared to 62 percent today), 378 of America’s 450 colleges reported that incoming freshman needed remedial work. Eighty-four percent!

There never was a time when remediation of a significant percentage of new students was not required.

A curious thing about the people afflicted with nostesia is that when they are cornered on one issue they quickly skate to the next. For example, high on their list of complaints is the rank ignorance that “these kids today” display regarding the most basic points of American history and geography. This really rattles people. Listen to the audience nervously laugh and groan as Jay Leno wanders the streets of L.A asking pedestrians seemingly simple questions concerning past and current events. It is a funny bit, but it is not new.

In 1943, The New York Times and Columbia University did their own version of “Jay-walking.” The results were just as pathetic. A large percentage of the people questioned could not identify the names of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt. Only 6 percent could identify the thirteen original colonies. Abraham Lincoln was identified as our first president, and he was said to have “emaciated the slaves.” When asked to identify the great American poet, Walt Whitman, hundreds said he was a bandleader, apparently confusing him with the jazz musician, Paul Whiteman. Their understanding of geography was equally thin. Most had no idea what America or the world looked like and could not correctly place our major cities on a map.

On its surface, this 1943 exercise does much to refute the notion that previous generations of Americans were more knowledgeable, especially about the “important stuff.” Look below the surface, however, and it gets worse. The interviewees were not a random sample of Americans. They were all college freshmen, America’s finest high school graduates. The Times and Columbia had not just exposed cultural illiterates, but elite cultural illiterates.

Nostesiacs howl in protest when I tell them this. They refuse to accept it, and one word makes it easy to see why. Television. We are daily exposed to a frightening array of fatuous, vain, half-naked specimens of America’s youth. How easy it is to unfavorably compare this horde with the clean-cut, well-mannered TV kids of yesteryear. But the comparison is false. Until quite recently, only a certain kind of young people were allowed to talk on TV: the ones who were taught how. Adults carefully scripted every line spoken by the kids in the old sitcoms. The only young people speaking extemporaneously on TV were the teens on Bandstand (“I like the words but not the lyrics.”), or those who wore jackets, ties, and dresses on the General Electric College Bowl. (Oh, those thirty point bonus questions!) Absent were the muddled freshmen quizzed by the Times and ordinary kids from the neighborhood. Now, their modern counterparts display their “brilliance” on reality shows and Jerry Springer’s stage fifteen times a day. This might be a statement on the sorry state of television, but it says nothing about the relative strength of our schools.

Every issue nostesiacs are likely to raise can be placed in historical context. Whether social promotion, lack of discipline, basic literacy, or dropout rates, there is ample evidence that it was no better in the past. No matter how far back I look, I can find no evidence of the golden era when we were “a nation of learners.” Nor can I find a time when parents were better educated than their children.

There is no doubt that America’s schools need to change to better serve the needs of the time, but not by going backwards. The vast majority of public schools are doing a better job now of educating America’s youth than they have ever done before. By employing the techniques prescribed in The Great Conversation we can provide the facts and turn nostesiacs into allies as we work to increase student success.

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