This week was the “week of action” organized by the California Teachers’ Association, which included a series of demonstrations, protests and rallies. While in some ways I find this kind of grass-roots action inspiring and invigorating, I found myself feeling frustrated as a San Francisco resident who teaches in an East Bay community that is basically a satellite of the Cal community. It was the definitive “preaching to the choir” conundrum. The people who are willing to hear about the current crisis in education already support education in every way that they can. It is very frustrating.
The situation is pretty simple. As a nation, we have a compulsory education requirement, and as such, we promise to provide a free public education to our people (I am not using the term ‘citizen’ here intentionally, though the D.R.E.A.M. Act is a topic for another discussion altogether.) The idea of public education goes way back. Way, way, WAY back. Thomas Jefferson was the first leader to propose a universal public education system in the late 18th Century. In spite of the fact that the state of Texas has voted to remove Jefferson from their curriculum (would that I had not already expounded so prolifically on irony!) most of America seems to think Ole T.J. is worth considering at least to some degree. If you, like Texas, have found him to be a little too “Out there” for your more modern sensibilities, do consider that a few others who vouched for public education around the same time were Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Robert Coram and George Washington. They can’t all suck.
Once the United States began trying to stand tall on its own feet, it seems that education did become somewhat of a priority and the elitist approach of the traditional European approach was counter to the whole “Democracy” gig they were trying to pull off out here.
Until the 1840s the education system was highly localized and available only to wealthy people. Reformers who wanted all children to gain the benefits of education opposed this. Prominent among them were Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut. Mann started the publication of the Common School Journal, which took the educational issues to the public. The common-school reformers argued for the case on the belief that common schooling could create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. As a result of their efforts, free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children by the end of the 19th century. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.
And then, we were off and running.
Sort of. I mean, it still helped to be fair of face and able to afford the luxury time to get an education, but we were making the effort and (painfully measured) strides. The United States was *the* place to get an education for much of what we could call contemporary history. We had great public schools and our tertiary educational opportunities were, quite literally, second to none. And then… something happened.
I am not sure if it was a philosophical paradigm shift, or if people just decided that the new world order did not require any sort of traditional education and instead would rely entirely on individualistic interpretations of need (notice I did not say greed, because I am all kinds of tolerant towards alternative points of view.) Somewhere along the way it appears that education became a hindrance to “life, liberty and happiness” and seemed like a serious cataract in the river to wealth. My generation had the idea that they could just get out there and earn money and that there was no real connection to education unless you wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. My generation was going to be rock stars, movie stars, stock brokers, computer millionaires, real estate magnates… and no one really seemed to see the need for an education. On the outside chance that a few letters were required after one’s name on a resume, there was on-line university options where you could pay a healthy sum, write a paper, have an MBA and be on your way.
And this worked for what seems like a lot of my peers in real numbers, but in terms of percentages, it worked for virtually no one. Banking on being the next Eminem, Ben Affleck, Bud Fox, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin or even Matt Stone, Trey Parker or Mike Judge turns out to be kinda harder than people thought.
Then the economy tanked because it couldn’t hold itself up – think of those chickens from Food Inc. – and suddenly, everyone wanted to go back to school. Sadly, the perfect storm of a shitty economy, a bursting population, a categorical disinterest in education, no incentive for good people to enter the teaching profession, serious disagreement about who should be allowed to go to school, a privatization of public school by allowing vouchers (essentially rerouting public monies to private schools) and a growing population of people in my peer group who were not having kids and wanted their money to go elsewhere… and we were suddenly, totally (not surprisingly) screwed.
Currently (or pretty currently anyhow as the data is generally two years old by the time we get it) the situation in California, which generally sets the situational tone for the rest of the country, is this:
California ranks 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in spending per pupil ($7,886, against an average of $11,397). It ranks last in the number of students per teacher: California’s legislative analyst estimates that most classes have 28-31 pupils. And it ranks 42nd in the proportion of pupils who graduate (63%, against a national average of 69%).
So here we are. Of course I have more interest in this than the average person (I would guess) because I am a teacher. I also have worked really hard to impart on my students that what they learn in school can and should go far beyond the rote learning that NCLB and standardized tests require, but also be more structured than the theoretical musings of new education that supposes “every answer is a right one.” If could teach them one thing it would be what David Foster Wallace endeavored to impart in the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 (if you have not read this short, profound and utterly important communicae, you must):
Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract thinking instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me.
Instead of paying attention to what’s going on inside of me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head.
What you don’t yet know are the stakes of this struggle.
In the twenty years since my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand these stakes, and to see that the liberal arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” was actually shorthand for a very deep and important truth.
“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.
It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult like, you will be totally hosed.
This is what the responsibility of education is, especially when you live in a country that promises a free, public education to everyone.
I realize that not all educators will embrace this ideology, and that there are teachers out there who do not make the kind of contributions that we expect from them. But to refuse to support education because, as one East Bay resident who was not brave enough to use their actual name when they wrote into the local paper: “I’d love to… attend, if they agree to get rid of the lousy Albany teacher my kid had last year. By the way, will paying teachers more help that teacher find the door? If so, I’m all for spending more money on education!” Or to refuse to vote for tax dollars to be spent on education because you do not have children and will not have children… It defies logic. And I get the economic hardships that people, my peers, are facing. But not supporting a system that can prepare our future doctors, lawyers, innovators, caretakers, leaders, I daresay, teachers… seems pretty myopic Mr. Magoo. I prefer to try to assert a little influence over the course of my future…
I don’t know how I developed my personal attitudes towards education. If they were a naturally occurring development or a product of a certain kind of nurturing. I suppose it is a combination of the two, as most things are. Like so many people, I have teachers who have made a difference in my life academically and on much more personal levels. Even though they did suggest on more than one report card that I did not always “respect the rights and opinions of others” (who, me?) and that I occasionally tended to be a bit bossy (no!) and was not always working to my potential (well…) I still seemed to always have some sort of academic inclination. I can’t explain the rationale or good fortune that may be behind any of these circumstances, but they certainly have directed the course of my intellectual and professional lives.
My educational influence began before I was aware of it, and I suppose that is the greatest gift. I still know my preschool teachers… and my elementary school teachers. And some of my high school teachers and college professors. I am incredibly grateful for this.
That is, grateful for teachers who were willing to help me see beyond the state imposed scope of my [ENTIRELY] public education.
For these people, I will continue to fight the good fight for teaching. And while I know it may be seen as a little self-serving, I think it is totally worth reminding people that America stood for opportunity once, and those opportunities were bolstered by access to education. And we were Number One. [Now Finland, Japan and Korea are Numero Uno - I won't go into the possible connection between their success and their teachers' salaries, per pupil spending and federal contributions to education...] I think that we could be at the top of the heap again, if we decide that it matters.
Does it matter?
It did for Marcia J., Carol C., Susan T., Vivian M., Ellen S., Steven C., Mr. Price, Ms. Wills, Ms. George, Mr. Johnson, Mme. Wadsworth, Mr. Martinez, Dr. Gutierrez, Dr. Bloom, Ms. DePaoli, Dr. Randlett, Dr. Starrs…
And (in the most clichéd ending I could render… sorry Robert Frost) I must say that, for me, their commitment has made all the difference.