William J. Mathis, Ph.D., has served as a school superintendent and vice-president of the Vermont state school board. He also served as Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center and is the president-elect of the Horace Mann League of America.


In the beginning, Kansas irregulars attacked Missouri. Missouri replied in kind. It was an unneighborly kind of war. Little mercy was asked and little was given. The Osceola raid, it was said,counted but one survivor. But with the rush of hot-blood, truth is often the victim. The partisans vowed righteous vengeance on each other, heated their rhetoric and twisted their courage for the oncoming civil war. It left 215,000 laying on the ground.

We fumble through our historical rolodex for comprehensible parallels to the insurrection ofJanuary 6; looking for something that explains, something that restores, something that fills the emptiness.

Such conflicts are not innocent unexpected surprises by play-pretend soldiers. Aggressive words lead to aggressive actions. People die.

Then, as now, crises were foreshadowed. Jayhawkers and Harper’s Ferry were not accidents. Our Constitution neglected the humanity of 4 million enslaved African Americans. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, concluded that Blacks could not be citizens because they were not. Ranked the worst Supreme Court decision in history, this judicial miscarriage was influenced by President Buchanan who, until our times, was widely criticized as the nation’s worst president.Alienating both North and South, he could have prevented the Civil War – but he didn’t.

We have great accomplishments but we also have great fiascos. Benedict Arnold sold out when his ego was not stroked. Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and launched a “filibuster” or invasion of Mexico. Acerbic Andrew Johnson got impeached and U. S. Grant’s administration is known for corruption. But Grant’sreal sin was the wink and nod he gave to the oppression of native Americans. After teaming up with red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, PresidentRichard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

These shames pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s behavior. What the former president has in common with this rogue’s gallery is a selfish disregard of people and an enormous regard for himself. His minions flatter their Emperor and compliment his new clothes while ignoring his buck nakedness. It took a 26 year-old woman’scourage to say the Emperor was dressed a little light for the weather.

Meanwhile, black-robed justices summoned older spirits, “’tis time! ‘tis time! Double, double toil and trouble.” In one infamous week of opinions they overturned laws on women’s health, religion in the schools, scuttled environmental protections and approved carrying a gun in a society suffering thesickness of repeated mass murders.

Compounding these benighted events, the worst inflation in forty years placed the greatest burdenon people of limited means. The more affluent saw their investment portfolios crash faster than their travel plans. Hit with covid, a cautious population isolated itself while Russia weaponizedoil. The blockade of Ukrainian food threatens the world food supply.

Will the Center hold? – We have survived many crises and in turn, been strengthened by them. But the past is not always the predictor of the future. Rather, the turn of the tale lies in our ability to cohere as a nation and as a society.

We speak of the “United States.” Is it? The East and West coasts are solidly blue while the South and the mid-West are red. The economic and migration patterns increase and sharpen the inflection points. Will we see “Bloody Kansas” again? What is this beast that slaughters people claiming protection of a Constitutional right?

The “greatest generation,” those who came of age in World War II, and gave us the baby boom are coming to the end of their lives. We see the fading of the institutions that for one small flash made the American Dream a reality for some. We promised equality and access to opportunities.Instead, the wealth and educational gaps are increasing while politicians gerrymander voting districts to freeze political power to their advantage. School privatization claims “freedom of choice’ but the least reflection shows the reality is segregation and inequalities. At the same time, the exploding costs of elite higher educationinstitutions, make them inaccessible to children on the wrong side of the wealth gap. People advantaged by this system want to keep it that way.

We have survived the litany of our devils and prospered by the actions of our saints. Yet, the purpose of a democratic society is to build and sustain a fair and just society. It is endangered. We face an election that will likely tell the tale. Our obligation is to select leaders based not on the thin chaff of election season but on the principles and wisdom by which the candidates havegoverned, their commitment to the strengtheningof the commonwealth, and their manifest compassion to embrace all citizens.

Will the center hold?