Looking back, enjoying present
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, September 23, 1997
LAFAYETTE, Ind.– Last weekend, nearly 300 members of the Class of ’57 at Jefferson High School assembled in this central Indiana community, home of Purdue University, for their 40th class reunion. This was a great time to renew old friendships and recall lives together during youthful years that “oldies” DJs now call the “Nifty Fifties.”
These were good years but they were also years when scent of change was everywhere. In the popular culture, rock ‘n’ roll was on the rise. Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel hit No. 1 on the charts — and was soon followed byDon’t Be Cruel and Blue Suede Shoes. At the same time, Evangelist Billy Graham opened his New York crusade to record crowds.
Political fault lines were shifting. Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist crusader, died in 1957, ending a national obsession with internal security. That year saw dramatic progress in civil rights, as the first African-American family moved into the quintessential white suburb of Leavittown, N.Y., and President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock,Ark., to escort nine black students, including one we now know as PBS reporter Charlene Hunter Gault, to an all-white school.
The nation’s political center of gravity was shifting. Both Vice President Richard Nixon and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren hailed from California, two firsts for the Golden State. But the best evidence of the nation’s Westward tilt came in 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the New York Giants moved to San Francisco.
In one of the 20th century’s most stunning developments, the Soviet Union chose 1957 to launch Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. That changed everything, forever, driving innovation in telecommunications, computers and software.
Sputnik also led to massive education “reform” such as the “new math” and the “new social studies.” Fortunately, my final year of public education came at a time when public education still worked. It was a time when teachers were teachers — not “coaches” or “facilitators”. Our teachers believed in knowledge-based education, in ideas as well as “mere facts”. They practiced teacher-directed instruction, drill, individual study, more drill, memorization, still more drill and examination.
I thought about Jack Hopkins, my English teacher who forced us to write every day and required two long essays each week, most of which were returned the next day all marked up — and his wife, Mrs. Hopkins, my economics teacher, who introduced me to the idea of free markets and to books like Friedrich A. von Hyek’s The Road to Serfdom, which, like James Madison in The Federalist Papers, spells out the dangers of empowering government. Then there was Miss Griffin, my Latin teacher, who helped me understand the structure of language and sparked my interest in the origin of words. It was a good time for public education.
What was most striking about the 40th reunion, however, was how our sense of what was important seemed to have changed. At the fifth, everyone was trying to figure out who married whom and who went to what school. Conversation at the 10th, 20th and 30th focused on careers, introducing second spouses and blended families, pictures of kids and then grandchildren, and who had made vice president or partner and who had escaped the world of workaholism to develop other dimensions of their lives — everything from fishing to community service.
But the 40th was different from all the rest. No one talked much about careers and all the stuff of the world. For the first time in 40 years it was just old friends hanging out, enjoying each other. It was pretty basic. It was very good. It was like things used to be.