Public education is in crisis. Teachers are on strike. Fatal violence is becoming almost a weekly phenomena in our schools. Betsy DeVos is on a mission to cut spending for public schools. The N.E.A. has been vilified by fiscal hawks like Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Where will it end? Will educators be subjected to “Right to Work” laws like so much of the rest of our workforce? The primary question I would like to pose in the face of all of the above is… How can we maintain an informed society if students are more interested in their Facebook accounts; and their safety, quite frankly, than learning about governmental checks and balances?
I could spin some fine conspiracy theories about ‘dumbing down’ our society through undercutting funding for education, but I am not into such A.M. radio banter, nor do I believe that people-in-general are ‘dumb’. However, we are only as informed as we choose to be. If we have preconceived notions about our world that we are fed by the media, and our Chief Executive, for that matter, just where are we heading as a society? And if our preconceived ideas have no real basis in reality, are we simply subject to manipulation by the powers that be? You bet we are! If we simply believe what we are told by the media and our politicians we are charting a dangerous course. We need to be able to filter the information we are fed; check its authenticity; and then, come to our own conclusions. These are skills we learn where? In school. If we don’t know the difference between China and China Grove we are in trouble.
The mind that follows the ‘party line’ without any thought to the contrary is not prepared to adjust its course. This is what compromise is all about, and this is what is not happening in America today. We are polarized, but do we really know why? We may think we do according to what we have heard someone else say, but do we? Without a sound, unbiased, and yes, secular education we seem doomed to continue with this trench warfare. If I am entrenched in my beliefs, I do not leave myself open to change as I learn more. And, for me, this is not a one-sided issue. “Political Correctness” has become responsible for much of the mess we find ourselves in. It has driven a wedge between us that is deeper than fiscal restraint ever will. Remember Charlottesville?
Debate begins in classrooms. It should not end with violence on the streets. For better or worse, our public schools have been responsible for providing access to a free education. As such, the development of our free society depends on education. It is the ‘engine’ that provides opportunity to countless millions of our citizens for almost two centuries. The precedent was set by our Founding Fathers shortly after the establishment of our country. Here is a quote attributed to our Second President, John Adams: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams. “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Of course, this was a revolutionary idea. Education was considered a privilege not a right in most of the world over the course of history. Granted, our system of public education has not been perfect. We can talk about the exclusion of women; the demands placed on rural children to contribute to the production of the family farm; and the evils of segregation. It has been a long, arduous journey to provide free access to all members of our society. Indeed, I am a product of a public school education. As a child, I remember anticipating First Grade because my parents did not have the means to enroll me in a pay-as-you-go Kindergarden program. Would we deny our children the same opportunity today? It seems we are heading in that direction. Teachers are not paid their due. Many are forced to get a second job, and work summers to supplement their income. Their hours and benefits have been cut due to fiscal restraints. And, on top of all this, many spend some of their paychecks to provide students with the supplies they need to be successful in their classrooms.
Education should be a priority, not a burden. The Free Market will only carry a limited amount of this ‘burden’. School vouchers and Charter Schools will not solve it. Communities with the resources will benefit most from these schemes. A school voucher will never address the inequities found in our public school systems. If we are to live up to our ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all,” we must find ways to open doors, not close them. Then again, there may be those who say education has nothing to do with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I beg to differ. Shall we debate the issue; or continue shouting at each other?