Long before today’s education-reform movement was born, indeed long before A Nation at Risk, there was the Council for Basic Education (CBE), founded in 1956 by such notables as Jacques Barzun, Hyman Rickover, and Mortimer Smith. They believed, as do we, that “there is an intimate relationship between a healthy democracy and the ideal of excellence in education.”
For nearly half a century, CBE fought the good fight for excellence in American K–12 education, for rigorous standards, excellent teaching, and curriculum built upon serious content. For decades, it was very nearly the only voice to caution about the excesses of progressivism, relativism, and equity-at-the-expense-of-quality.
And for more than twenty years, from the dawn of special education to the enactment of Goals 2000, this invaluable organization was captained by A. Graham Down, who passed away on Saturday, a day after celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday at his beloved Cosmos Club.
Equipped with a plummy Oxbridge accent, as befits a superbly educated gentleman—history, music, education, and more—who moved to the U.S. from England at age twenty-five, Graham was as close to a Renaissance man as we have known in person. A dedicated and accomplished musician, widely read in many fields, a devotee of the humanities and the English language, a passionate education reformer, a raconteur and bon vivant, a tireless leader, fine writer, and owner of a grand sense of humor, his long career included stints as head of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, book reviewer for Education Next, service on innumerable boards (including BASIS DC), and much more.
The CBE fell on hard times after Graham’s two decades at its helm concluded in 1994, but he came back to try to resuscitate it, which regrettably proved unfeasible. This much-missed organization closed its doors in 2004. Graham soldiered on with intellect, humor, and passion intact. He was a frequent attendee at Fordham events and others around Washington, a marvelous lunch host (cocktails included!), a shrewd advisor, and an all-around wonderful man. We rue his passing.
-Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.