Fifty years ago the federal government created the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio and gave them the mission of educating children and informing adults over the public airwaves. PBS went on to become the most trusted institution in America, one offering resources rivaling those of great museums. It delivers its acclaimed programs coast to coast at no cost to viewers and small cost to taxpayers. Here’s how two government-supported organizations educated and informed millions at the flick of a switch.
In the 20th century a remarkable partnership between the federal government and the states and localities transformed American farming by teaching farmers about new crops, methods, and technologies. Imagine what something like cooperative extension could do in the 21st century for people living in cities and suburbs. Here’s why this government program worked so well in the past, and why it might be a model for our times.
Every state has some form of vocational education, which is often called career and technical education. But this vital public service suffers from too many providers and not enough supply. This is a casebook example of how government could do a better job, if a leader would step forward. And it may be that only the federal government could play that leading role, as it did in the late 1800s in shaping American colleges and universities.
The principles behind public libraries—that they are open to any resident’s use, lend books for free, and be supported by taxes—were considered outlandish to most Americans in the mid-1800s. But an incredible act of philanthropy in 1883 changed how people thought about libraries, and local governments seized the opportunity to build and support these institutions. Today going to the library is twice as popular as attending sporting events. For these places of learning, you can thank both philanthropy and government. But mostly government.
Public education was based on three tenets: that every child should be in school until adolescence, that schools should be free to attend, and that government should pay for them through taxes. And behind the tenets was the belief that our political and economic systems depended on citizens who could read and write. The results have been historic, as literacy has spread today to nearly every adult. For this monumental achievement, you can thank government.