The decade of the 1950s in the United States can seem eerily familiar to us now. It was also a period of unparalleled prosperity for most Americans, a time when America seemed the unquestionable master of the world. Americans showed little interest in international affairs or in politics generally, preferring to live comfortably in their suburbs, to upgrade their cars and other possessions regularly, and to enjoy the continual display of sports and entertainment on their television sets.
When it comes to issues of education, what we are hearing today also recalls the Fifties. At the beginning of that decade, there was harsh criticism of the “progressive approach” that had seeped its way into elementary education. The historian Arthur Bestor blasted American schools in his much-cited Educational Wastelands (1953), and Rudolf Flesch seized the attention of millions of concerned citizens with his explanations in Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955). Today we read analogous denunciations—by polemicists such as Lynne Cheney—of “whole language” approaches to teaching reading and “fuzzy” approaches to the teaching of mathematics. In 1957, the quality of American education was thrown into further doubt by the unexpected launching of Sputnik; today, anxiety is raised by the poor test performances of American children when compared to children in Europe and East Asia.
A far more obscure incident in American education occurred in 1955. That year, Milton Friedman, a rising star among American economists, wrote an essay entitled “The Role of Government in Education” (more widely circulated in his 1962 volume Capitalism and Freedom). Reflecting a widespread view among academics about the generally mediocre quality of American public education, Friedman contended that the schools, sluggish and monopolistic, were inherently incapable of reforming themselves. Friedman called for the opening of education to market forces. If energized groups of citizens were given access to public funds, he argued, they would establish schools that were distinctive and that embraced high standards. Competition among the new schools would serve to elevate their overall level and also stimulate the remaining public schools to reform themselves or risk oblivion. The upshot would be a healthier society, and, not coincidentally, profits for the most enterprising. A half-century before its time, Milton Friedman had written a charter for the changing educational landscape that we are witnessing in America today.
Nearly thirty years later, in 1983, a presidential commission on education issued a deservedly influential report called “A Nation at Risk.” Chairman David Gardner, then at the University of Utah, and his fellow commissioners argued that American public schools were mediocre at best, and in too many cases, disgraceful. They indicted curriculums that were unchallenging and covered too many subjects too superficially. They drew sharp and unfavorable comparisons with the sober, hard-working, high-achieving students in other industrialized countries, both in Europe and in East Asia. In an apt if somewhat hyperbolic passage, the panel declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have …