Spirit Of St. Louis

A parable about education

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 5
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

James Mecklenburger is the director of The National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education (1680 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314). The following parable was inspired by the particular challenges that new electronic technologies are making to traditional forms of education, but I suspect you will easily be able to generalize its message to a broader array of challenges as well.

– Robert Gilman

In February, 1927, the leaders of American transportation, the railroad magnates, accompanied by their engineers and their planners, gathered in St. Louis at the Brown Hotel, the city’s best – located next to the Central Railroad Station – for a 3-day conference on "Technology and the Future of Transportation".

On the agenda were demonstrations and speeches by visionaries and by government officials. In nearby ballrooms, hundreds of companies large and small exhibited products which they hoped the railroaders would buy: everything from lightweight track to plastic cups that could be used instead of breakable china.

In those 3 days, the leaders of American transportation spoke of the glories of American transportation and celebrated the contributions of transportation to a continental America. They took pride in the contribution of transportation to business, and to maintaining America’s role as a world power.

They spoke of technology: new materials for lighter railroad cars; more powerful engines for better payloads, more economical operation, less maintenance and greater reliability; refrigeration for better food service; new fuels that would end transportation’s reliance on coal.

They spoke of the turmoil of change: the intense training that would be required to assure that engineers and supervisors and repair shops and cabin stewards could cope with the newer, sexier, lighter, faster transportation system they would fashion in the next 20 years.

And they heard visionaries who argued about cutting-edge technologies – such as radio. One said that radio would lead to a system of information to trains and stations that would assure that by 1940 every train in America would run on time. Another said radio would become an extra-special service in Pullman cars so that passengers one day might wear headphones and be entertained as they traveled, adding to the glamour of transportation.

"Gentlemen," said the speaker at the final session, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, "this has been an exhilarating meeting!

"We in the transportation business have seen the future of our industry. And we’ve seen the future of an ever-more-mobile, ever-more-prosperous America in which our citizens will travel further, travel safer and travel more often from city to city and state to state than ever before.

"As we travel back home, on the trains of today, let us remember the enthusiasm of this meeting and let the spirit of St. Louis inspire us all – as we build the transportation system of tomorrow!"

In that remark the moral of the story is found, for "The Spirit of St. Louis" did, in fact, influence railroads, and change American transportation forever.

For a century, "transportation" and "railroads" had been all but synonymous. Railroads were the emblem of industrial progress. Youngsters grew up wanting to travel on trains and to become engineers.

It was understandable, even appropriate (but oh, so short-sighted!), in 1900 or 1915 or even 1927 for the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad to speak to his peers and say and believe that they were the transportation industry.

But we can see, with the 20/20 wisdom of hindsight, that they were in the railroad business.

And so, "The Spirit of St. Louis", Lindbergh’s airplane – something of a technological marvel, to be sure, with its light weight, strong engine and fuel economy – bounded across an ocean in that same year of 1927.

And, as if in a twinkling, railroads changed forever.

Now, in the public’s mind, there was AVIATION. Airplanes, and later rockets, would be the emblem of progress. Youngsters would grow up desiring to travel by air and to be pilots (and, later, astronauts).

The diminished stature of railroads also contributed, soon after, to the growth of trucking and to a nation- wide highway system.

In 1988, public school educators are like the fabled railroad magnates. In this era, it is clear, we who call ourselves "educators" are just in the "school" business. The nation, indeed the world, is awash in educational activities and technologies.

They ran trains, so new technologies were important only if they fit into trains. We run "schools", so we look at new technologies and methods as important only to the degree we can shoehorn them into schools.

Historians will decide which event was our "Spirit of St. Louis". Perhaps it was when RCA gave the nation color television; or when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak gave the nation microcomputers; or when Motorola and SONY gave the world videotape recorders. We certainly have our "aviation". Video, computing, robotics, graphics, optical recording, satellites, fiber optics, microwaves, databases and artificial intelligence.

To truly be in "education", not just in "schools", educators must be wiser than the "transportation" leaders of an earlier era. There is more to education in America than just staying on the track, adding gadgets to our trains. It is time for education to fly.