What Education Teaches

January 31, 2011
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April 2007 - August 2007


An Exhibition of Historical Letters Celebrating the Values of American Education. Young Americans attend all kinds of schools, but no matter what the method of teaching, there is only one curriculum: those universal values basic to the human experience. “What Education Teaches” is an exhibit of the original letters of famous people discussing, explicitly or implicitly, what they’ve learned, why they’ve learned it, and how that knowledge has informed their actions. The exhibit featured the autograph material of Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and others. This virtual exhibit includes some select items that were displayed at the original exhibition.

Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t much like being Vice President. All his life he had wanted to be the best. Power, money, love – he had to have the most, and did, right up until 1961 when he became the Vice-President. After 30 years of accomplishment – a leader in the House, a master of the Senate, the most powerful Majority Leader in American history – he was in a dead end job. So what did he do? Even if it killed him, he’d act the loyal Veep, and if that meant mouthing the Boss’s words, then he’d voice them with the gusto of a brass band. Here Johnson actually quotes (well, misquotes) JFK’s famous credo.

What Johnson recognized was that there was, unhappily, something in the world more important than himself: his duty to the administration. The giant Johnson was big enough to make himself small enough to serve it.

John F. Kennedy, replying here to the question what classes someone interested in a political career should take, says study government, economics and English – but what is absolutely crucial is to participate in politics itself.

Kennedy, a Government major, graduated Harvard cum laude in 1940 and, according to his Yearbook, intended to go to Law School. But World War II intervened and Kennedy served in the Pacific instead. Returning home a hero, he ran for Congress in Boston in 1945, at the age of 28. He met city workers, an aide recalled, he met letter carriers, cabbies, waitresses, dock workers, he met everyone and anyone. He ate spaghetti with the Italians and egg rolls with the Chinese. He went into the firehouses, police stations, post offices, poolrooms and bars. He participated – and he won.

Photo of classroom with students and teachers. U.S. National Archives.
Classroom with students and teachers. U.S. National Archives.

On Friday, June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan, standing in front of the Berlin Wall that divided Germany into free and communist sectors, spoke four words that would forever be identified with his legacy. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he demanded,

“Tear down this wall!”

These are words that Reagan had been saying, in one form or another, ever since he first spoke out against communist tyranny. Both fascism and communism, he felt, were totalitarian evils. Reagan’s persistence in this belief, and his tireless work to effect the end of what he famously dubbed “the Evil Empire”, was the keystone of his career – and the reason for Mr. Gorbachev, ultimately, tearing down that wall.

Ronald Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall, autographed photo

Perhaps the turning point for Theodore Roosevelt came when J.P. Morgan told him, in a meeting at the White House, “If we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.” It was time, the President saw, for government to insure that no single entity in American life – business, labor, or consumers – was favored above any other group, and vowed to make the laws fair to all. Here he issues his famous clarion call:

“All I ask for is a square for every man. Give him a fair chance. Do not let him wrong any one, and do not let him be wronged”

The promise of American life, Roosevelt knew, was to be found in the equality of opportunity. The reforms of his Square Deal would help ensure that every citizen had a fair chance to compete, and succeed.

It’s noble to teach oneself, Mark Twain once remarked, but still nobler to teach others – and less trouble. Here Twain takes it easy on himself and suggests what other people ought to read – and names, in the process, a dozen of his favorite books.

Twain liked to say, truthfully, that his own schooling took place between the ages of 5 and 13, and consisted mostly of “playing hookey & getting licked for it.” He also liked to say, untruthfully, that he wasn’t a bookish man. But the fact was that Twain was and had been, since boyhood, an avid reader. As much as he teased about education he deeply valued learning. Supposing is good, he wrote in his autobiography, but finding out is better.