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Published: July 13, 2011

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974)

American author, journalist, editor, presidentialadvisor and one of the most important political and social critics of his era. Although his social criticism shook the American education establishment in the 1920s, it had little lasting effect. New York–born and Harvard-educated, Lippmann published his first book in 1913, only three years after graduation, and a year later he went on to cofound the New Republic, a liberal weekly journal. An associate editor, Lippmann produced a torrent of articles that so influenced President Woodrow Wilson that he appointed Lippmann a policy advisor at the drafting of the World War I peace treaty at Versailles, France. In 1921, Lippmann joined the New York World as a columnist and eight years later became its editor. During his 10 years there, he wrote more than 2,000 columns and three influential books. The latter were destined to have as much of an impact on education as his previous works had on national and international politics.

In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann set down his distinction between “news” and “truth.” The former, he said, was the product of “a selective process” in which truth is filtered through the minds and senses of various interest groups, censors, reporters and editors. Truth, on the other hand, is the product of organized intelligence by disinterested experts. To educate the public well enough for it to govern itself intelligently, he concluded, teachers must instruct the young to recognize the differences between news and truth. Teachers, he said, must “make the pupil acutely aware of how the mind works on unfamiliar facts” by teaching them how propaganda works, how to examine sources of information, how to be aware of their own subjectivity and how to be consistently rational and objective in coming to their own conclusions about the world.

In The Phantom Public: A Sequel to “Public Opinion” (1925), Lippmann enraged many politicians and school board members who controlled education by drawing distinctions between “insiders,” those engaged in the actual business of government or education, and “outsiders,” who make occasional judgments about the work of insiders. “Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land.” Calling for an end to control of education by elected school board members with no professional qualifications and, at times, even less schooling, he bemoaned the unwise restrictions imposed on schools by ill-informed, popularly elected school boards. In American Inquisitors: A Commentary on Dayton and Chicago (1928), he described the SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL as a classic confrontation between ignorant majorities and informed experts.

Ironically, Lippmann’s call for reform of education had little or no impact, except to produce eloquent praise by leading educators, including Lippmann’s friend JOHN DEWEY. Lippmann left the World in 1931 and began a 40-year career as a columnist, producing a twice-weekly column entitled “Today and Tomorrow” for The New York Herald-Tribune, which syndicated it in 200 influential newspapers around the world. Although he influenced the thinking of world leaders, Lippmann had little immediate impact on the general public. His 1955 book Essays in the Public Philosophy, for example, castigated so-called educational modernists who had replaced traditional studies in the school curriculum with so-called LIFE ADJUSTMENT EDUCATION, but it would be more than 20 years before educators and the American people came to the same conclusion.