William Bennett was U. S. Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. During his tenure, he released three documents that outlined his views on what children should know at each level of schooling: First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America, James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students, and James Madison High School. They are all out of print today.

But we thought we’d share an excerpt from First Lessons, written in 1986, that we thought was a great short statement of what education should be and what it is for.

What should a child know?

In an address at the National Press Club, shortly after becoming Secretary of Education, thinking mainly about high schools, I tried to answer that question as follows:

We should want every student to know how mountains are made, and that for most actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. They should know who said ‘I am the state’ and who said ‘I have a dream.’ They should know about subjects and predicates, about isosceles triangles and ellipses. They should know where the Amazon flows and what the First Amendment means. They should know about the Donner Party and slavery, and Shylock, Hercules, and Abigail Adams, where Ethiopia is, and why there is a Berlin Wall.

… While we do not expect sixth-graders to understand the geopolitical implications of the Berlin Wall, we hope that they can locate the divided city on a map. While elementary graduates cannot be expected to give a sophisticated analysis of the slavery issue, we can reasonably believe that they will have heard about Dred Scott, and will know that slavery was a major cause of the Civil War.

In other words, we may plausibly expect that elementary school will give our children the basic facts and understandings of our civilization, and that it will equip them with the skills to apprehend more complex knowledge, thus awakening the appetite for further learning.

Categories: Exordium


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