Fire and Light: Book by James MacGregor Burns on the Enlightenment and Present-Day School Reform!

Dear Commons Community,

I just finished reading, Fire and Light:  How the Enlightenment Transformed our World, by James MacGregor Burns.  It was a good read for the winter intersession and reacquainted me with this part of the Western canon.  For those of you who do not know him, Burns is a prominent American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award for his work, Roosevelt – The Soldier Of Freedom – 1940-1945. He is 95 years old and still an active writer.

In Fire and Light, he traces the history of the ideas, and their principal proponents, of the Enlightenment, and how these ideas impacted political developments in three countries: France, Britain and the United States.  He starts with Martin Luther in 1512 and basically ends in the mid 1800s.   His descriptions and insights into of the major thinkers and movements of this period were to me impeccable and interesting history.  Burns treatment should appeal to history buffs and others.

However, a complete surprise to me was the closing chapter where he recaps his book and provides commentary on the present.  Three pages from the end of the book, he discusses the importance of American public education for a free and open society and its importance for a nation that claims to be based on Enlightenment principles such as democracy and freedom.  Here is an excerpt:

“[Education] has been one of America’s great successes despite endless obstacles, controversies, and setbacks.  It has been crucial for the world’s most powerful economy, and even more, it has kept lit the beacon that has drawn the world to the United States for its freedoms.  It has been the proof of widespread enlightenment.

But now more than ever, schools and their curricula are under attack on narrow religious and ideological grounds. Textbooks are being rewritten to undermine science or promote a partisan view of American history.  The charter school movement, under the banner of school choice, draws parents discouraged by inferior public schools, but it risks hollowing out public schools financially and educationally, abandoning them to those who have no choice.  Increasingly, the movement is driven by for-profit entrepreneurs who see primary and secondary education as great untapped markets or by anti-government zealots who detest public schools simple because they are public…We can’t afford the decimation of public schools… they are the fruit of many centuries of strife and striving…Only if we build on their remarkable successes, if we improve and expand public education, will we be able together, as one people, to think our way out of the dilemmas and crises we face now and in the future.”

I was surprised by his message but Burns’ warning is on target. We as a people need to support our public education system and develop ways to improve it and make it succeed if we are to continue to be an enlightened society.  In a word, our future depends upon it.


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