That’s easy: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, a.k.a. the G.I. Bill. I’m not saying the G.I. Bill wasn’t successful. But the current understanding of the most revered piece of educational legislation in American history is wrong. The G.I. Bill does not represent this country’s having decided to democratize itself by offering everybody a free college education and thereby the chance to rise in the world. We still haven’t decided to do that. Congress passed the GI Bill as a standard postwar veterans’ henefits package. Education was only one item on a long list of goodies it provided and was not considered the most important. One reason it was in the bill was that some military experts thought we needed to warehouse veterans somewhere because they were too shellshocked to return immediately to civilian life. Within the education establishment, attitudes toward the G.I. Bill ran a gamut from lukewarm acceptance to staunch opposition. The massive good use to which veterans put their education vouchers came as a big surprise to everybody. The G.I. Bill is overrated as a social experiment because it wasn’t a social experiment.
In the cosmic sense the most underrated is probably public education itself, which we take so much for granted that we’ve forgotten it wasn’t part of the founding compact of the United States; for example, Thomas Jefferson spent his whole life being rankled by the failure of his efforts to establish public education in Virginia. The principle of free schooling for every child had to be lengthily fought for during the nineteenth century.
But I’ll be more specific and cite the introduction of the Iowa Every-Pupil Testing Program by E. F. Lindquist in 1930. The United States has by far the most decentrali/.ed public education system in the advanced world. The question of how to ensure that we genuinely deliver on the promise of public education across more than ten thousand autonomous school districts is one we still haven’t answered. But the now ubiquitous Iowa Tests—which measure skills, not IQ, and are used for guidance, not selection— represent the first important step toward our finding out whether America’s children are learning anything in public school, as opposed to just sitting there.