May 12, 2014 10:24:38 AM
OXFORD -- Once upon a time, America didn't beg people to act in their own best interests. It was considered natural.
Thomas Jefferson made clear government doesn't and can't give us this desire. What he said in the Declaration of Independence born to pursue "happiness," value life, seek liberty.
Government can take these things away (as it did for the liberty of African-Americans). Government can work to protect these interests, which is a clear duty. But government does not instill these traits. People yearn for them.
There is ample evidence of some slippage in this area, at least when it comes to the big picture of education.
Look at the abundance of "stay in school" messages and programs.
America now begs people to acquire knowledge.
We plead with people to "pursue happiness" that comes through learning.
These thoughts follow yet another round of data showing Mississippi and America treading water or slipping downstream in the metrics of education globally.
England's Pearson experts say we're 14th -- right below Russia -- and well below the leaders (Asian nations) and the runners-up (Western Europe).
When troubling reports of this type started showing up in the press decades ago, so did explanations/rationales/excuses:
· We don't pay teachers enough.
· Children need better nutrition.
· Children need a way to get to school and a way to get home.
· Education starts too late. Public programs for pre-K and pre-pre-K are needed.
· Education has too many bureaucrats.
· There are too many single-family households.
· There's too much emphasis on sports.
· There's too much emphasis on standardized tests.
· Schools need better buildings, books, technologies.
· And a smattering of others.
Each of these explanations triggered a countermeasure. Mississippi still doesn't spend as much as other locales in support of public schools, but overall, Pearson says, the proportion of Gross National Product that Americans allocate to education is competitive with other nations.
We have reinvented education. We have re-reinvented education. And we have re-re-invented education.
The result is that the top performers still in school are the absolute best ever. My work keeps me around young people, and I can attest that the best and the brightest are better and brighter than their parents. They are aware, engaged and have levels of depth and sincerity and understanding that eclipses previous generations.
But what about the others?
Succinctly, they're not interested in what the education establishment is selling.
And that leads to the question of whether their lack of interest is evidence of a flaw in their ambition or whether educators are offering the wrong thing.
Perhaps the problem is more deeply rooted. Perhaps it is our one-size-fits-all approach.
To his credit, Gov. Phil Bryant has followed previous governors in ramping up vocational and career education in this state.
But a larger issue looms. It is, essentially, respect for work.
Our society reveres heart surgeons, and they deserve it. But we think anybody can be an auto mechanic. Worse, we mock workers and managers in the fast-food industry.
This is simply not true in other cultures. Not only do Asian and Western Europeans start vocational programs sooner in a child's development, they tend to have a higher degree of respect for all work. Their societal ladder of "success" doesn't depend as much on a six-figure salary, a $500,000 house and a pair of expensive sedans in the driveway. They need good doctors and appreciate them. They need good plumbers and appreciate them, too.
Maybe it's overboard to think "what's wrong with education" is more a matter of "what's wrong with our cultural values."
And there's no reason to fault lawmakers for trying patch after patch, remedy after remedy, program after program for schools -- all gimmicked-up, tiresome and laden with doublespeak as they are.
Again, there's no reason to fret over high-performing, high-aptitude students who will become the engineers, physicians and such. They're doing fine. They have no problem "competing globally," as the saying goes.
But a broader, deeper solution might be needed for those on the margins, those who are opting out.
Maybe the reason they're not interested in education is that we're not interested in them. Until we get to the point where their contributions matter, it's shortsighted for us to think they should have initiative, a sense of worth.
Charlie Mitchell is an assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1 University, MS, or [email protected]
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