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The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 7, August/September 1996

From the Editor

The Generational View

Our daughter, Carter Susanna Hodges Smith, was born Aug. 11, 1996 (about a week after I had an emergency appendectomy ? can you guess why this Education Liberator is a double issue?) As members of the Millennial Generation, Carter and her peers will achieve heroic deeds, gaining fame as a "can do" generation, much as the G.I. Generation is revered today. At least that's the prediction of Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2068, by William Strauss and Neil Howe (1991, William Morrow and Company).

Generations is one of the most fascinating books I have read. Its intriguing thesis is that American history can be understood as a repeating cycle of four generational types: Idealists, Reactives, Civics, and Adaptives.

Strauss and Howe contend that each generational type has its own "peer personality." Thus, today's Boomers are said to have more in common, spiritually, psychologically, and motivationally, with earlier Idealist generations than with generations nearer to them in actual time. Horace Mann, incidentally, belonged to the Idealist generation labeled by Strauss and Howe the "Transcendental," notorious for the swarm of utopians it produced.

Recent American generations, according to this scheme, include the Lost (Reactive type, born 1883-1900); the G.I. (Civic type, born 1901-1924); the Silent (Adaptive type, born 1925-1942); the Boom (Idealist type, born 1943-1960); the Thirteenth (Reactive type, born 1961-1981); and the Millennial (assumed to be Civic type, born 1982-?).

If this approach to history has any predictive value, and Strauss and Howe argue that it does, then what, if anything, does it have to say about the future of education in America? My own reading of the generational tea leaves increases my optimism about the prospect of separating school and state within the next one to two decades.

The authors of Generations looked at how members of earlier generations behaved at different life stages, as well as how the four generational types typically interact with one another. From this come several informed guesses about what to expect in the way of social and political changes as we move toward and into the new century:

First off, affluent members of an elderly Silent Generation will "usher in a golden age of private philanthropy" through their generous gifts and bequests (to start private schools and endow private vouchers?). Idealistic Boomers, holding political reins, "will regard no budget item as 'untouchable'" (including tax-funded schools?) as they radically restructure government and other institutions. Thirteeners ? Generation X, to use the more popular label ? "will turn even more antigovernment than they are today" and "will press to simplify the complex, narrow the bloated, and eliminate the unworkable" (such as government schools?). Finally, the young Millennials will "pass through school [sailing] smoothly behind a debris-cleaning insistence on quality education..." (achievable only through separating school and state?).

To be honest, Strauss and Howe reach a different conclusion than I do about the future of government schools. They believe that a new emphasis on nurturing and protecting the young generation will translate into a strengthening of "public schools" and a greater willingness by taxpayers to fund them. Well, they have their hopes and biases and I have mine.

Separationists know that the government school system cannot be fixed, no matter how pure the intentions or strong the will of those doing the fixing. Sprucing up classrooms or raising test scores or getting rid of drugs and gangs would leave untouched the ugly foundation of coercion on which the system rests.

The school crisis has become serious enough that it should command the attention of all. As the generations come together to solve it, we need to be out front, urgently insisting that the only real and lasting solution lies in abandoning educational coercion once and for all.

Steve Smith

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