“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Tom Paine in 1776. Now, seven generations on, our souls and our patience are tried by inept politicians, uncompromising ideologies, costly and complicated healthcare, and much else that Paine wouldn’t appreciate if he were alive today. Since he isn’t, I’ve taken up the challenge of not appreciating these things for him.
I started life as most of us do, a carefree and innocent child, and soon discovered that I could extend the carefree part by becoming a musician. My goal was to play trumpet with the Tonight Show band, and life was on track well enough until a history teacher asked if I really thought the world needed another entertainer. It was The Sixties, you see, and civic spirit was abroad in the land. America was going to become a Great Society and I decided to do my part. After serving in the Air Force (yes, ours), I became a history teacher and, eventually, a principal.
Years passed, then one day the publisher of our local Kansas City, Kansas, paper, The Record, suggested I try writing a bi-weekly column about our local schools and education issues generally. That seemed one of those opportunities whose knock we’re encouraged to answer, and I’ve now been at it, minus one short break, for more than a quarter- century. What began as explanations of school programs and encouragements to parents to be involved in their children’s schooling evolved to broader matters of education policy and public support.
Then I discovered that readers liked dog stories (see “The Queen of Dogdom”). Shamelessly courting popularity, pieces about the family dogs, the railroads that employ a goodly number of local residents, the economy, and other topics became more frequent. After retiring from public education and joining a private university, I hung up my journalist’s cleats. I soon resumed the columns, in part because I felt obligated to the hundreds of former students I had coerced into promising to read them and who were now becoming pillars of the community, proving once again that we should be careful what we ask for.
Freed from the non-partisanship of public employment, I was drawn increasingly to political issues, thanks in no small part to what seemed to me the George W. Bush administration’s disdain for the lessons of history, the findings of science, equal justice under law, and facts generally. Can’t build a Great Society that way. (You can, however, assemble the elements of a Great Recession.)
This book is a collection of selected columns from The Record published between the late 1980s and 2011, revised to eliminate purely local references. Organized roughly by topics, it’s a messy world we live in and so topics often overlap. Most are not in chronological order so that lighter essays can balance the more serious, offering (I hope) a refreshing rhythm and, perhaps, a few surprises. To preserve historical context, all show their original publication month.
You’ll find the political essays here enthusiastically, unapologetically progressive in the tradition, if not with the eloquence, of my Kansas predecessor William Allen White, of Bill Moyers, and of the many others who have stood up for the common citizen and for “one nation, indivisible.” I hope they don’t mind my tagging along.
A Great Society is not all about politics, however. Not even mostly. Mostly, it’s about a nationwide community where the basic elements of a good life are available to all and where every individual is equally valued, fairly rewarded, and free to think and act within the bounds of civilized conduct. Actually, that sounds rather stuffy. A Great Society is about living—about music and love and work and the great outdoors and the family dog and travel and learning new things. And you can read about these here.
Alert readers (meaning you) will notice that several references to the polarized distribution of wealth between “the rich and the rest” in America use differing statistics, a result of using different sources across a span of more than a decade. The overall picture, however, is consistent and all-too-accurate. Two other topics appear more than once in these essays: the vision of good government as a people’s union and my take on the three purposes of schooling in a democracy. You may interpret this repetition as a lack of creativity on my part or as a teacher’s urge to reinforce important concepts. I claim the latter, though the former may be true as well. As with any faults of fact or style, the responsibility is entirely mine.
I’m indebted to Jon Males, publisher of The Record newspaper, for insisting I become a part-time journalist. I hope he feels indebted likewise. Thanks, as well, to the loyal Record readers around Kansas City and elsewhere who’ve made the work of writing worth it. I’m grateful to the many teachers who informed and inspired me and gave good advice, whether I heeded it or not. Some of their words have influence after more than fifty years. Most of all, I thank Kay, known officially as My Wife the English Teacher, for her grammatical expertise, unfailing support, and optimism. It wouldn’t be a Great Society without her in it.