There is no shame in yielding to a writer more talented than
oneself, especially when he speaks the truth on a topic that is on so
many of our hearts. What follows are excerpts from “Politics, Economics,
and Education in the 21st Century,” by John Fund. I was especially
struck with the human element in Mr. Fund’s essay.
The unspoken bargain
“I am optimistic that we can restore power to individuals. One of the
best places to start is in education. It is here that we may see the
essence of the problem of big government, which is insidiously making a
silent bargain with the next generation — in dumbing down the
curriculum, in teaching “self-esteem” over knowledge, in challenging
established notions of truth and virtue, and in convincing children that
their parents are not to be trusted. It is an insidious bargain that
encourages young people to stop thinking for themselves in exchange for
living in a world in which they will never be held accountable and will
never be expected to care for themselves.
“Of course, no one ever discusses this bargain in such bald terms.
But it exists all the same; public schools are allowing students to
graduate from high school and college without mastering basic skills or
meeting academic requirements that were once the minimum standard for
junior high students. Is this an accident? Of course not. It is the
intention of big government to eliminate educational standards and to
discourage citizens from thinking for themselves.”
A very different Monica
Mr. Fund then relates a 1984 visit to East Germany — before
communism collapsed. There, in the Museum of History in East Berlin he
learned that television was invented in 1956, by an East German. He
described a brief encounter with a group of rural, teenage girls, before
they were collected by their chaperon. Later, in a department store, he
met them again, sans- chaperon:
“We showed them our passports; they showed us their identity papers
and told us a little about what it was like to live in a small town in
East Germany. One of the girls told us, for example, the economy was so
run-down that, when she lost an air valve on a bicycle tire, there was
no way to replace it. People didn’t have much money, but what was worse,
there was nothing on which to spend it.
“Our travel visas expired at midnight, so by dusk we were on our way
back to the glittering lights of West Berlin. The girls came along to
the train station to bid us farewell. They had never seen the Berlin
Wall, but they knew it was close. They gradually slowed their pace and
stopped on a street corner just before we reached the railyard. One
said, “You know, we really shouldn’t go any further. We are not
Berliners. If we are stopped, the guards will ask us why we are so close
to the border zone.
“As we stood in the growing darkness, a feeling of incredible sadness
came over me. here I was, in my mid-twenties, free as a bird. I wasn’t
rich, but I could go anywhere in the world from that street corner. They
could not go another one hundred yards. Their world ended at the Wall.
They could not go any further.
“… I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. One said a
beautician, one said a nurse, and one said a teacher. But the oldest and
wisest, whose name was Monica, looked up at me with the most sorrowful
face I have ever seen and said very slowly, ‘It doesn’t matter what we
become when we grow up. They will always treat us like children.’
“… That sentence really defines Soviet communism in its waning
years. There were very few knocks in the dead of night; people were
rarely taken away to the gulag. There were very few summary executions.
Instead, there was an insufferable and widespread paternalism. It was a
dark cloud hanging over citizens. It weighed down their spirits and
prevented them from maturing. Worse of all, it kept them from becoming
that which was best within them.
“We parted almost tearfully. Monica and I exchanged addresses, and
every year or so a postcard would come from her, and I would send some
little trinket in the mail. She wrote that she had applied to a
university, but she was rejected for her unacceptable views. She managed
to get a job in a veterinarian’s office.”
“Tear Down the Wall, Mr. Gorbachev” — Ronald Reagan.
“Five years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. …
At about 10:00 a.m. the next day, the telephone rang. AT&T, already
trying to introduce the consumer culture to East Germans, had set up a
cellular phone service. As an incentive, they gave prospective customers
the opportunity to make a phone call anywhere in the world for free.
Monica called me. Her first words were, ‘John, this is Monica. I am over
Mr. Fund relates that Monica made it into medical school. During her
internship, she wanted to visit America and talk about her experiences
to a high school civics class.
“I swallowed my doubts and arranged a talk for Monica. It was a
disaster. The students weren’t openly disrespectful, but they whispered
constantly during her remarks and now and then a spitwad would rocket
across the room. Even the quiet students were simply uninterested.
“Finally, Monica opened the session up to questions. A girl asked,
‘Why in the world would someone want to build a wall in the middle of a
city?’ She clearly had no understanding why this had happened or what
historical forces were at work, even after Monica had told her story.
“As we walked out of the classroom, I tried to explain to Monica that
not all young Americans were like this. She looked at me, and once again
I saw that same sad, pensive face I remembered from a street corner in
East Berlin. She said, ‘John, please don’t explain anymore. I’ve been in
America for three weeks now, and I’ve learned that this is a great and
wonderful country. But because you have never lost your freedom, because
you have never been conquered, because you have never had all your
possessions taken from you, you are now willing to surrender your
freedom, independence, and autonomy by inches. You simply don’t notice
it, but, one inch at a time, it slips away.’ She continued, ‘Those
students in there — I feel sorry for them. No matter what they do when
they grow up, many of them will always be acting like children.’”
Copyright 1998 by Imprimis. Excerpted from the May, 1998 issue.
Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the monthly journal of Hillsdale
College, 33 East College Street, Hillsdale, MI 49242. John Fund is a
member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.