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Valuable Things

I look back at public school and see myself

Illinois Times

March 5, 1987

Yet another column in which I tried to look at public education in my era in the U.S. from a more elevated perspective—from high on my horse. The piece is actually a reminiscence in the guise of a critical essay.  I see now that the Springfield public schools were not bad schools, by public education standards, even if they were bad for me.


I wish I could say that public education has improved since this was written, but reports from nieces and nephews and friends who are now parents of school-age children suggests that it is, if anything, worse. The ends of schooling had always been narrow, but since my day the means have narrowed too, thanks to the testing mania.


Nearing forty when I wrote this, I was old enough to grasp that my best teachers, here described, probably recognized in me a kid pretty much like they had been, before they were obliged to come to terms with the quotidian realities. More than thirty years on, my gratitude toward them has only deepened.


The issue of schooling is exercising my fellow baby-boomers as they settle somewhat tardily into the task of perpetuating the race—the rat race, that is. And during most discussions of the topic someone will sing out, in counterpoint to the general tone of complaint, "The public schools were good enough for me."


So they would be, for any parent whose ambitions for her children is to replicate themselves. There are other questions attached to the remark, however, including this one: To what extent is what we are, and aspire to, the result of how we were schooled? To us boomers, for whom the classroom was our cotton field, our sweat shop, our barracks, the question is crucial. Whether we embraced it or spurned it, school was the central social and intellectual experience in the lives of a great many of us.


It didn't use to be so important, although it often was just as insidious. Our careers were separated by more than half a century, but I recognized my own schools (and me) in Lewis Mumford's autobiographical descriptions from his boyhood. "If the business of education was to turn out people without imagination, without desire, without capacity for choice, without initiative or will," Mumford wrote, "this educational environment was well conceived."


I left twelve years in District 186 able to read and write and do simple calculations without embarrassment. Beyond that I learned little of what I needed to know, including some idea of how much I didn't know. At the turn of this century it was said by advanced thinkers that what mattered about education was not that people knew things but that they could do things. This they called power. (Hazlitt warned his son that the man who knows Latin and Greek may know more names of things, but his simpler cousins often are able to do more things.) By the 1960s the world had changed, and school boards realized that the power to do things required that students know things. It was knowledge prejudiced by utility, however; always the aim was to do, not to understand.


The power we were taught was intended to be put at the service of others. We weren't taught how to do so much as how to do as we were told. The priority was not pedagogical but explicitly political. The fact that this commonplace truth—the schools are run by the state after all—so often comes as a surprise is one proof of their success. Real power requires an independence of mind and spirit which was antithetical to the cowardly conformities of the fifties. The schools' job was to protect us from our own possibilities; we were there to be taught, not to learn.


We were not beaten or indoctrinated using the crude methods of the past. The process of adjustment was benevolent, but the life to which we were being adjusted was not a good one. The virtues the public schools instilled were not those of the free citizen but (as Mumford's complaint suggests) those of the dutiful and stupid employee—punctuality, obedience, a taste for group endeavor, ability to follow instructions.


A friend once explained his decision to send his own children to parochial rather than public or nonsectarian private schools by noting that, having gone through the same parochial system himself, he was able to anticipate and thus counter the propaganda his kids would receive there. Like most parents of their generation, my parents offered no such corrective at home. The cult of the professional educator had established itself by the early 1960s. In the post-Sputnik era the job of the schools was to teach children the things their parents didn't know. Schools in their day had taught the past; schools in my day were teaching the future.


The power to really do, of course, requires the power to think. An experienced teacher I know makes the point that a kid "deficient in math operational concepts" can always use a calculator to add or divide for him, with little harm done. If that kid must resort to using something (more likely someone) else to do his thinking and criticizing for him, there is very grave harm done indeed. Not just to him—toads can live very long and cozy lives, I hear—but to the rest of us.


Looking back, I see that the best education is one which equips a child to resist schooling. Reconsidered in those terms, my twelve years under the tutelage of District 186 were not entirely wasted. The profoundest lessons any teacher teaches, I suspect, are inadvertent. I received one such lesson at the hands of a physics teacher who docked me two letter grades for turning in a lab report—which he generously praised as work a college physics major might be proud of—because it was written in pencil rather than ink. (It was finished at 3 in the morning and I lacked the energy to copy it.) The priority was thus made clear: Obedience first, physics second. My work the rest of that term was tidy and uninspired; I did well.


I was judged to be a well-adjusted boy, at least until a tardy and muddled rebellion late in high school. A teacher I liked accused me at the time of being a cynic, a word I didn't then really understand. (A conformist could be described as one who believes in order to belong; a cynic might be described as a conformist who cannot believe.) I was familiar with the attitude, though. Cynicism was a vice rampant among my schoolmates. H. L. Mencken once observed that schools turned kids into actors who "know how to lie—perhaps the most valuable thing, to a citizen of Christendom, that they learn in school."


It wasn't until I had left school that I realized that some of my teachers shared many of my complaints. I had been given a lousy education by some very good teachers in twelve years. I was thought to be a clever boy and was always assigned to the fast track, taught by, if not always by the best teachers, at least by teachers who thus had a chance for once to teach the best they knew how.


An act, I hurry to add, which includes knowing when not to try to teach at all. A handful of my teachers were eccentric in their manner or method. Other students often disliked them for the same reasons machine pols can't get along with reform mayors. Being a stupid kid, I appreciated them mainly for their entertainment value, and was not fully alert to the broader lessons in their example. Mr. L. indulged my reading of Schopenhauer instead of his assigned fare. (My pretension, then even more than now, outraced my ability.) Mrs. R. exposed me to Shakespeare—she was being paid to do that—but she also exposed me to the possibilities of reading lesser poets for pleasure. Mrs. K. did not throw me out of class when I ignored her assigned topic for a sociology final end submitted instead a rambling essay whose details I forget but which probably brooded on the injustices of the world.


Each of these teachers gave me credit for competence I did not have for the sake of a future I did not possess, and did both in spite of the inconvenience my self-indulgence must have caused them both inside and outside the classroom. Their patience with me was to some extent a sign of their own disdain for the schools to which we had both been consigned. It is no accident that the most spirited teachers are usually pariahs among their colleagues—mine were—who are constantly either hassling or being hassled by the educational bureaucracy. Mine never preached rebellion openly. (What recourse did either of us have anyway, except to quit being students or teachers?) They taught it anyway, perhaps without quite meaning to. I prefer to think they knew exactly what they were doing, that they were trying to do what a good education always has done, and do it in spite of the times—give a kid an itch of dissatisfaction with what it knows and is, along with the means to scratch it someday. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

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A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

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The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

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The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

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Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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