First Bell: American Education Week; Pinckney Book Fair; Classes out for PreK-5

Next week, the Lawrence school district, and schools throughout the country, will observe American Education Week.

I know it seems like there’s hardly a day, week or month on the calendar that hasn’t been designated as an official time to promote, honor or appreciate something. This one, however, is worth noting because it’s really interesting how it came about and what it says about the way Americans have viewed public education over the years.

According to one article on the National Education Association website, American Education Week dates back to 1919, in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

“Distressed that 25 percent of the country’s World War I draftees were illiterate and 9 percent were physically unfit, representatives of the NEA and the American Legion met in 1919 to seek ways to generate public support for education,” the article states.

It’s interesting to note that through much of the 20th century, at least the first half of it, education was widely viewed as a national security concern.

Some of that perspective is still with us today. The school lunch program, for example, began under President Harry Truman in the aftermath of World War II, when it was noted that many young draftees appeared malnourished and underweight, which shouldn’t have been surprising given that the country was still crippled by the Great Depression when the war began.

But that wasn’t the idea during the early years of our republic. Then, public education was viewed as an instrument of social engineering — a way of building social cohesion in a nation of immigrants, creating a national identity through common learning.

While education is mentioned nowhere in the federal constitution, many of the nation’s founding fathers — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson — worked hard to make sure it was a central function of their respective colonial and, later, state governments.

“The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men in all ages, as the surest foundation of the happiness of both private families and of commonwealths,” Franklin wrote in 1749 about the need for public education in the Pennsylvania colony. “Almost all governments have therefore made it a principal object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified to serve the publick with honour to themselves, and to their country.”

Today, especially here in Kansas, it’s popular to think of education largely as an instrument of economic development. The primary goal of schools today, we now hear, is all about “college- and career-readiness,” giving students the specific knowledge and skills they need to be economically productive.

That view is certainly understandable in this techno-centric 21st century. But it’s worth remembering that public schools are more than just taxpayer-funded job-training programs. They’re also a big part of what holds us together as a culture.

• The Pinckney PTO Scholastic Book Fair continues today from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the school gym. Organizers say a large portion of the proceeds goes toward supplying books for classrooms and the school library.

• And just in case you weren’t aware already, there is no school today for elementary students (PreK-5) in the Lawrence district. Both Thursday and today are set aside for parent-teacher conferences.

• Do you have news about local school events you’d like to share with the community? Call me at 832-7259, or email me at