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A Marker of Our Descent

February 26th, 2021

My wife, a retired school teacher, recently handed me a book from her treasury.  She wanted me to see a poem she spotted in the book.  The poem is actually an expansion of the Lord’s Prayer.  It was found by a Union soldier, hanging upon a wall during the battle of Corinth.

It is, indeed, a powerful poem and expression of faith.

But what really caught my attention was the book itself:  “Studies in Reading – Seventh Grade”.  Published in 1915, it still carries the penciled names of the students who were given charge of this treasure over the years.  Christie Edwards.  Charles Garvin, Jan. 1, 1918.  Archie Gilbert.  Wilma Markson, 1930.  It was used and re-read in the Pilchuck, Washington Public Schools for over twenty five years to train the minds and characters of America’s emerging generation.  The first students to use this textbook would have been in their mid-thirties when America faced the great threat of World War II.  But the latter students – Archie Gilbert – would have been of prime age to face a bonsai charge on Iwo Jima.

Thus we can see the books and curriculum used to prepare the Greatest Generation for the direst challenge in American history up to that point.

The book is about 400 pages long, and includes a wide variety of reading assignments.  There are great poems like “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and “The Raven”.  We find that Lord’s Prayer, as well as “Antony’s Oration” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  There is Daniel Webster’s essay “Supposed Speech of John Adams”, and Alexander’s “The Burial of Moses”.  Dozens of short stories, essays, speeches and poems which introduce a fresh mind to the great traditions and values of Western Civilization.

Such a work would not, of course, be tolerated in the modern Washington state public school system.  For one thing, it offers several positive stories about George Washington.  For another, it boldly presents Christianity through poems like Phillips Brooks’ “Constant Christmas”.  And then there is the simple fact that professional educators would regard its wide range of reading material “too advanced” for today’s seventh grade student.

Perusing this old textbook, looking at the signatures of the once-tender students who were formed by it, I can’t help wondering where we might be headed as a society when we have given up so much.  This text helped prepare a generation for greatness – leading not just to victory over Nazism, but to the “American Century”. 

What will happen for a generation given nothing more inspiring than Wikipedia?