Who was the greatest American? A generation ago, a typical shortlist might have included Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, both Roosevelts, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Addams. Five white guys, one black guy and one woman.
In today’s fractured and fragmented country, such shortlists have disappeared. By many, the Founding Fathers are less revered than reviled, seen as rich, hypocritical white male slave owners. Identity politics has helped divide the nation into multiple warring camps. Woke progressives despise Trumpian nativists, and vice versa, each believing that the other is not just mistaken, but illegitimate. State and local governments are besieged by ideologically motivated change agents who see politics and governance as paths to suppressing and delegitimizing those who disagree with them.
This new authoritarianism isn’t just a phenomenon of the right, although President Trump’s media dominance tends to obscure progressive foibles. As George Packer reported in The Atlantic this week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s public schools diversity initiative institutionalizes the intrusive self-righteousness of woke politics.
“As part of the initiative,” Packer wrote, “de Blasio’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has mandated anti-bias training for every employee of the school system, at a cost of $23 million. One training slide was titled ‘White Supremacy Culture.’ It included ‘Perfectionism,’ ‘Individualism,’ ‘Objectivity’ and ‘Worship of the Written Word’ among the white-supremacist values that need to be disrupted. In the name of exposing racial bias, the training created its own kind.”
Angry, identity-based politics isn’t new in Colorado.
“After the general election of 1924,” Ed Quillen wrote in the Colorado Springs Independent in 2003, “the governor, Clarence Morley, was a Klansman. Benjamin Stapleton, the mayor of Denver, consulted the Klan when making appointments. U.S. Senator Rice Means was elected with open Klan support. The state House of Representatives had a Klan majority. Klansmen marched and burned crosses in small towns throughout the state, from Great Plains through the mountains to the Western Slope. As Denver, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Cañon City and scores of other towns and cities succumbed to the Klan, only one major city escaped: Colorado Springs.”
Ours is a fortunate city. We’ve had momentary infatuations with the farther shores of the political right, but we’ve largely remained true to the vision of American educator Horace Mann, my choice for greatest American.
Born in 1796, Mann (after whom Horace Mann Middle School is named) is considered the founding father of universal public education. As Elwood Cubberley wrote one hundred years ago, “He [convinced Americans] that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.”
Did our city’s extraordinary network of fine public schools help us avoid the destructive politics of both left and right? I think so.
Colorado Springs founder William J. Palmer donated land for schools in 1871. Funding the first schoolhouse was up to the voters, who in the first recorded vote in city history approved an 1872 $20,000 bond issue. The tally: 98 for, 1 against.
In 1893, 22 years after the city was founded, George Rex Buckman published “Colorado Springs and Its Famous Scenic Environs.” Included were photos of four of the city’s nine magnificent public elementary/junior high schools and the grandly styled four-story high school. Impressive for a city of 13,000, but that was just the beginning.
“Noble schoolhouses are being built every year to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing population,” wrote Mayor John Robinson in 1902.
I went to elementary school in one of those noble schoolhouses, Steele School, continued at West Junior and, after a stint at Fountain Valley, graduated from Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer). My sons went to Air Academy, my daughter to Palmer.
Since graduating, I’ve believed that well-run public schools are the finest expression of our nation. When citizens, businesses, politicians, teachers and school administrators work together, we create a decent future for every kid that passes through the system.
As Horace Mann said in his commencement address at Antioch College 160 years ago, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
Guess I’d better stick around for a few more years…