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Editor's Note, July/August 2001

An American Education

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

If education is the central experience of American life, the evaluation of that experience has varied substantially over the last two centuries.

Educator Horace Mann, who traveled by horseback studying Massachusetts schools in the late nineteenth century, saw it as a lofty calling: "Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery."
By the mid twentieth century, the University of Chicago's Robert M. Hutchins saw a deterioration: "It has been said that we have not had the three R's in America; we had the six R's; remedial readin', remedial 'ritin' and remedial 'rithmetic."

This sometimes-turbulent history is the subject of an NEH-supported film, School: The Story of American Public Education, which airs this fall. "Even among proponents of public schools, there is this uneasy sense that we have lost our way," says the film's co-producer, Sarah Mondale. She contends that in trying to regain the path, there is a need to remember "what unites us as well as divides us; what part broad civic goals have played within a pluralistic society; what traditions are worth preserving; and how education has or has not adapted to the remarkable pluralism of America."

This issue of Humanities follows education along some of its byways-a school in Houston where students are using oral histories to re-create a piece of World War II, and an experimental college in North Carolina, where for a time artists such as Robert Motherwell and Josef Albers and architect Buckminster Fuller created a new educational experience at a place called Black Mountain. It was, says one writer, "an occasional loony bin, a rest camp, a pressure cooker, a refuge, and a welfare agency -- but nonetheless a learning environment."

Black Mountain fell upon harder times in the years after World War II, even as some of its artists thrived. At the same time, aesthetics were shifting to a postwar sensibility that touched art, architecture, and design. A new exhibition, "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960," brings together 250 objects, from Eames chairs to Noguchi artwork, that reflect some of the conflicting impulses of that period.

Finally, we move to the digital age. We find ourselves once more in Texas, examining the influences of the Internet on learning, not just with the Houston schoolchildren but with citizens outside the classroom. Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris talks with Douglas E. Barnett, the longtime editor of the New Handbook of Texas. The New Handbook, an encyclopedia of state history, has gone online and Barnett is enthusiastic about its possibilities. One group has already mined the material for a book of its own, and Barnett foresees similar projects to come.