Ronald Reagan’s Rhetoric: A Nation at Risk of What?, Part I

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 17, 2021

During the Reagan years, public school curricula became a national political issue for the first time. As with more local controversies in American history, this reflected “the ongoing tension between egalitarianism, individualism, and utilitarianism” inherent to the nation’s approach to education. This series will explore a recurring “pattern” of battles around these three values, which, since the Progressive Era, have reflected the “emotional tension” of American parents “grudgingly but willingly releas[ing] their children to be tutored by bureaucratic institutions.”[1] (Emphasis added).

In the early 1980s, the incoming Reagan administration was set on dismantling the Department of Education. If this strikes you as extreme, the fact that the Department was brand new, having been created in 1979, puts the matter into perspective. Agree or disagree with the choice, even Reagan’s 1985 critics described his Secretary of Education, Michael J. Bennett, as someone who “occupies the lowliest of Cabinet positions - one that even he will readily agree is by no means essential to the survival of the Republic.”[2]

Despite being “ideologically opposed to centralized government,” Reagan backed off that plan and changed focus to reducing Federal student aid. Bennett toured the country arguing that, in the New York Times’s paraphrase, "while the Federal Government has a role in promoting access to higher education, it has no responsibility to help poor or minority students, however talented, gain access to elite private schools.” Bennett was directly quoted as saying “the betterment of oneself in college is still largely a do-it-yourself kind of operation.” Reagan had gone even further shortly after his first inauguration, saying that he wasn’t sure that there was any legitimate federal function to be performed in education.[3]

Again, agree or disagree with a position that now sounds like it comes from another planet, Reagan’s reasoning makes for a fascinating study that reveals a lot about the history of education in America.

Born in 1911, Reagan grew up in Illinois in relatively humble circumstances. In the 1930s, he moved to California and became an actor. From 1947 to 1952, and from 1959-1960, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Raised by Democratic parents, he was a member of that party until 1962, when he registered as a Republican. Associated with the conservative movement since the 1950s, he was elected as governor of California in 1966. After a failed attempt in 1976, Reagan was elected President in 1980. He was about to turn 70 when he took office, making him the oldest first-term president at the time, and was almost 78 years old when he concluded his second term in 1989.[4]

There is a reason that I emphasize these aspects of Reagan’s life, particularly his advanced age. When he was growing up, Civil War veterans still paraded through his hometown on Memorial Day, and people who knew Lincoln were still living in his Illinois hometown! He had clear memories of a time when education preceded without federal involvement and success was barely connected to elite college attendance.

Throughout his young adulthood, Reagan witnessed the process described below:

“The period between World Wars I and II saw reforms to the primary school systems too, where legions of teachers credentialed in the new educational schools rather than granted teaching licenses by county superintendents of schools began to dominate. In the primary school systems, explicit theories of learning resulted in wholesale reform of reading, mathematics, social studies, and other curriculum. Rote memorization of Western classics featured in the moralistic McGuffey's Readers gave way to calibrated reading programs designed for the whole child."

At the most basic level, this meant that classic poetry and assertions about morality gave way to ‘Dick, Jane, and Spot’ readers that emphasized the acquisition of age-appropriate reading skills in a scientific fashion, through the development of specific skills in phonetics and repetition. The program of the past focused on reading The Bible; the moralistic tales of McGuffey's Readers were finally gone and replaced with the pragmatism of the modern school curriculum.

Also under attack were the hundreds of thousands of one-room schools, which were seen as inefficient and delivering a poor-quality product to the labor market. This occurred particularly rapidly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, resulting in an even more rapid expansion of a high school system articulated a particular type of primary education in which graded multi-teacher schools were assumed. It was also a time that the ‘invention of the teenager’ as a period in the life course between childhood and work came to be. Similar processes occurred at the high school, albeit without broad political compromises: Business interests and education schools were dominant from the beginning, with a 12-year-high school diploma rapidly becoming a marker for middle-class status, as well as a gatekeeper for employers. Delays in assuming full responsibilities as an adult resulted in the emergence of this new ‘teen culture’ in association with the high schools. Thus, even as the country slipped into the economic doldrums of the 1930s, a vigorous youth culture, focused by high school and teen culture, appeared in many urban areas, all in the context of an institution designed to track and sort youth into paths that would reproduce the remembered past of their parents and teachers.”[5]

What was this remembered past? The claim echoes one made by the same author about Reagan as president:

“The sunny figure of President Ronald Reagan fed upon a nostalgia for the presumed advantages of the schools of 50 or 60 years previously, during the childhoods of him and his advisors. Their memories, though, were not dominated by the battles between business, World War I-era psychometricians and The Whole Child movement, but by the remembered symbols that had survived, whether it was the Little Red Schoolhouse of the rural areas, the corporal punishment meted out by the ‘Board of Education,’ or recitation drills.”[6]

What stands out from the contemporary coverage is the focus on Reagan’s rhetoric, especially among his critics. Later observers—again, mostly critics—have noted that when it comes to education policy, Reagan affected its form more than its substance, by expanding federal involvement in education. What substantive impact he had was done via rhetoric. Importantly, the changes he set in motion do not appear to have been in line with his actual intentions.

It is interesting to compare the extent of the changes witnessed by Reagan to those witnessed by John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey lived from the beginning of the Civil War to the beginning of the Cold War, and was known by some as the man who had “slew the little red schoolhouse” that Reagan was so nostalgic for, as well as “plac[ing] an added burden of maladjustment on a civilization that had been reasonably happy with the three Rs, the little red hen, and McGuffey's reader.”[7] Though Reagan and Dewey have come to be portrayed as opposing culture war symbols, and they have very different political visions, their visions of education had a surprising amount of overlap. (In Dewey’s view, the little red schoolhouse had been permanently slain by the early 1900s, before he got on the scene.) While neither man got the public school system he hoped for, their rhetoric still drives our education debates.

[1] Dr. Tony Waters, Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy Bureaucratizing the Child (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.)

[2] Fiske, Edward B. “REAGAN’S MAN FOR EDUCATION.” The New York Times, December 22, 1985, sec. Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/22/magazine/reagan-s-man-for-education.html. Fiske, Edward B. “REAGAN’S MAN FOR EDUCATION.” The New York Times, December 22, 1985, sec. Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/22/magazine/reagan-s-man-for-education.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wikipedia contributors, "Ronald Reagan," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ronald_Reagan&oldid=1054609449. “He held this distinction until 2017, when Donald Trump was inaugurated at age 70 years, 220 days, though Reagan was older upon being inaugurated for his second term...At the time [of his second inauguration], the 73-year-old Reagan was the oldest person to take the presidential oath of office; this record was later surpassed by Joe Biden, who was 78 at his inauguration in 2021.” See ibid.

[5] Dr. Tony Waters, Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy Bureaucratizing the Child (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.) Internal citations omitted.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robert C. Clark, “Death of a Great Thinker Recalls Chaos He Wrought,” Spokane Chronicle, June 9, 1952.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.