Education was not a mere adjunct to the economy and an instrument on the way to more-or-less docile employment, but a good in itself, a priceless something which would make its pupils better people - more knowledgeable, more self-reliant and less self-referential, more cultivated and imaginative as well. Education would be their parents' memorial in the lives of their happier, more fulfilled offspring.
The best government reports of an era - Newsom, Dainton, Donnison, Plowden, Bullock - spoke enough of this idiom to command respect, and the best Secretaries of State - Anthony Crosland, Edward Boyle - joined bipartisan hands to do their considerable bit on behalf of the school as a miniature republic.
The school or the college would serve as a little state whose structures of self-government conducted to an honouring of individuals and a fashioning of a common culture, in which teachers and pupils alike could see reflected not only their reasonable hopes for a proper job and a nice house, but for an intelligible politics conducted in clean, well-lit cities, with fair chances for all in a good enough society.
I do not believe that picture of education has been lost. It is kept alive in innumerable ways in the everyday life of comprehensive education.
The Chief Inspector is always telling us that there never was a golden age. But there are strong continuities from then to now and, the Daily Mail notwithstanding, the story of British comprehensive education whether primary, secondary or further is surely one not of riot and recalcitrance but of stirring success.
Schools are still places where learning is cherished, rights respected, virtue revered, where one can still find democracy, say, of art, not just intoned but lived.
The damnable thing is that during the tyrannical years from 1983 to 1992 or so a political crisis was relocated as an educational one. Impossibly too much weight was put upon schools, colleges and universities. Teaching was itself repeatedly reviled by those whose publicly enjoined duty it was to treat teachers with the honour due to their calling.
I still angrily remember the open sneer with which the noble Lord Baker, then Secretary of State, said on television "I suppose teachers are doing their best in difficult circumstances - isn't that the phrase?" So the national curriculum was hastily contrived by people without the experience or the representativeness to do the job, and a rigid framework for what came so fatuously to be called "delivering" the thing was legislated into a deathly sort of life.
There is nothing wrong with a common curriculum, but it must constitute the common expression of the best culture those who will teach it can aspire to. It must not be so set about with tests and targets that the artistry of teaching itself is destroyed.
The methods and admonitions of the Teacher Training Agency, inscribed in a moment of moral and political panic, are guaranteed to make teachers boring, exhausted, and hate the job.
So too the mad rout of inspections. Pass over the fact that once upon a time HMIs were trained for a year - after which registered inspectors were trained for a week.
Finally, the decent and domestic vision of the good society - to be derived by the everyday story of schools - has been monstrously distorted by the inanities of managerialism. Long after the moment when serious corporations in the business of profitable business gave up on target-setting, performance indicators and accountability, unbusinesslike secretaries of state set up headteachers to be little budgeteers with books to balance and subaltern chief executives with staff to sack.
There is some sign that our present secretary of state has not completely forgotten the day when Sheffield was the metropole of egalitarian civic-mindedness. There are still plenty of teachers around, in infant classes or doctoral seminars, who believe they should teach "principles to live by and ideals to live for".
Certain subjects - English is a fine example - continue to work from a strong sense of moral purpose. Certain classroom practices - the display of science, drama or music - still speak up for cultural continuity.
Our best values urgently need rallying and support. They cannot long endure present privations. Much is said about the need for leadership in education at the present, but there isn't a lot of it about.
Perhaps the Secretary of State could disregard what someone called the Prime Minister's "excitable conservatism" with regard to education, and speak up in his own, old voice for education as a picture of the good society?
Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield