on education’s value
Indulge, if you will, this writer’s urge, compelled by years of professional familiarity, to deliver a first-week-of-class lecture even if the venue is an editorial page, not a classroom or lecture hall.
The start of school is a world-changing event in more ways than one.
For students, it’s no more streaming videos well into single-digit hours and sleeping well into double-digit ones.
For stay-at-home parents, it’s a few hours, at long last, of peace and quiet five days a week — followed by frantic additional hours as unpaid chauffeurs.
For school employees, it’s back to the grindstone — though, for many, summer may have been equally grinding, albeit with less structure.
For day-care centers, it’s less revenue. For working parents, it’s a different name on mounds of bill — fancy clothes and fancy supplies instead of fancy child care.
But for the rest of us, what’s it mean other than different traffic patterns, different clerks waiting on us in stores, and different opportunities to watch different sports?
Just as most of the cost of county roads is paid by taxpayers who never drive them, most of the cost of education is paid by taxpayers without kids in schools.
We care about roads because our economy, even if dominated by bureaucratic agencies, still is dependent on agriculture, and agriculture depends on roads.
But why should the rest of us care whether kids learn what dangling participles are, how to find the area of isosceles triangles, or even how to spike a volleyball without fouling into the net?
Simply put, education is our future. When old-timers look around and suggest lack of community involvement or leadership, especially among younger residents, part of the reason may be that younger people are too busy. But another part may be that education somehow failed them.
Local businesses that shut down after a few months tend to do so not because their products are bad or their service is poor. They do so because being in business today requires a lot more detailed knowledge and experience than just turning over an “open” sign in the front window.
Somewhere in the passing of generations we also seem to have lost a key element of the fabled small-town, Midwestern work ethic that anyone and everyone can achieve the highest levels of the American dream if he or she will merely devote the effort necessary.
Too often, these days, people seek just to get by, thinking not of the future but of the present in everything from how they handle their careers and finances to whether they live overly consumer-focused, self-indulgent lifestyles.
It would be unfair — and wrong — to blame this on education. But it would be fitting — and right — to say that education can help combat this and create for us new generations of leaders, perhaps even worthy of someday becoming a second incarnation of what’s now regarded as World War II’s “greatest generation.”
The problem is, schools can’t do this alone. They can’t suddenly stop giving into pressure from Lake Wobegon parents to declare every student above-average and to elevate extracurricular activities to center stage merely because they are the main form of entertainment for kid’s kin.
Now that the challenges of a global pandemic have become more manageable, it’s time to get back to education. And by that we don’t mean forcing kids to memorize facts but teaching them how to find and evaluate information that will let them lead better lives.
Too often, we hope our schools will indoctrinate kids into certain beliefs. In truth, what kids end up believing belongs to them, not to their parents. What we can and should do is give them the tools to make their own decisions. Otherwise, what we create is a society of false political correctness, in which people publicly are forced to exhibit one behavior but privately continue to act out of uncaring ignorance.
In a cutthroat global economy where ideas, not brawn, spell success and competition can come from anywhere, we need to create systems that reward truly outstanding school work instead of lulling ourselves into complacency by the number of students who seem to exceed some relatively low bar of academic achievement.
Competition at its highest level, rather than at some low level that seems to ensure artificial success, is a lesson we must be teaching. And teaching involves more than just schools. If parents, students, and others in the community aren’t equally challenging, the challenge never will be met.
A lesson usually saved for lectures before semester breaks still is valid at the start of a school year.
Students: Whatever you plan to do in your free time or your studies, make sure it’s something you’d like to do for the rest of your life because, chances are, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing.
Oh, you may eventually do it at a higher level. And you never should shy away from trying to reach just a bit further than you comfortably can grasp. But the type of thing you’re studying, working at part-time, or enjoying as an avocation or amusement will likely shape how attainable the American dream will be in your later life.
In each case, both careers are highly worthwhile, but why not seek to become a physician instead of a nurse, a lawyer instead of a paralegal, an accountant instead of a bookkeeper, an elite toolmaker instead of a shelf-stocker, a computerized mechanic instead of an oil-changer?
You may not make it — that’s fine and you’ll still have an important career — but your life undoubtedly will be richer for trying, just as it will be richer for exposing yourself to a new environment like a large and unfamiliar university where it will be a lot harder to retreat into familiar roles like being a member of multiple sports teams.
Demand that parents not complain about your homework but encourage you to do it. Demand that they not question your grades but question whether you could do even better.
School is a world-changing event, but only if everyone involved — including those of us who just pay our taxes — become fully committed to creating for the future a generation of constantly thinking, constantly learning, constantly motivated young people to inherit a mantle of leadership for our community and nation.
Encouraging students to embrace education as the essential ticket to their future is homework everyone in our community can complete. And the start of another school year is the perfect time to do so.
— ERIC MEYER