US and Education: Priority Number One
By Lisa Regula Meyer
I’ll admit to a feeling of consternation ever since last week, when the reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union Address started to come out. The speech itself didn’t really strike much of a cord in me. There were plenty of ideas that I agreed with, but the plans didn’t seem very solid, and there was less talk of current situations than I had expected; overall it seemed more like a campaign speech than a State of the Union.
Then the reactions began. Marco Rubio, citing his own benefit from government spending on education while decrying federal spending. And Fox News calling universal preschool education “immoral.” In my own state, education budgets are coming under fire, and local school levies have a track record resembling that of a Model T in a Nascar race. Teachers and researchers are turning to crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter to get classroom materials, and similar sites are cropping up with the sole purpose of funding education and research (Petri Dish for science research, and Donors Choose for classrooms, just as a couple of examples). Fundraising attempts by parent-teacher associations seem unending, and the number of requests to save labels, receipts, and box tops keep increasing.
At the same time, I’ve heard at least three news stories within as many days talking about how critical it is that the defense budget not see any cuts from sequestration measures or other avenues. What is wrong with this picture?!
I’ll admit my own bias as an educator, but I’ll also be the first to say that formal education is not always the best route, especially in this age of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. There are immense benefits to learning in non-traditional ways, through service learning, as self-directed studies, and in ways beyond the conventional lecture, lab, and recitation. I’ll also gladly grant that not everyone needs a college degree; there are apprenticeship programs, certificates, on-the-job-training, and entering the job market after high school graduation, not to mention the fact that more and more students are entering college unprepared to succeed, even with rising SAT and ACT scores and GPAs.
While we’re selling more and more students on the need for an education, we’re not actually funding that education to the extent that we once did, and higher education is less of a “sure bet” to a well-paying job and financial security. These factors added together with the anti-science rhetoric coming from the far-right work together to create a culture that does not teach the value of education. Typically, things that are less valued in a society don’t flourish as well in younger generations without active reinforcement and investment, so forgive me for being skeptical of the outlook for the US staying a driver of innovation and technological advancement that we currently are.
Obviously, some portion of society will always have access to high quality education, but if only a portion of our children is being well educated, then only a portion of the next generation is going to be equipped to become the innovators and leaders of tomorrow. I have strong doubts that this well-educated portion of the society of tomorrow is going to be representative of the diversity that exists in the US.
Therein lies the rub- without a well-educated population, how are we to elect the best representatives to make our democracy work? And if there’s a difference between the lived experiences of our representatives and their constituents, how are they to represent the people that elected them? There’s no telling who might come up with the next major breakthrough in any field, so why not make sure that as many minds are equipped to deal with the problems of tomorrow as possible?
As I look at my son and his classmates, I wonder which of them will be an inventor, or doctor, or teacher, or judge, or composer, and as I look around, I wonder if we adults have the will to make sure that all kids have those opportunities to become the best that they can be.