Last month I enjoyed the immense privilege to spend some time with my high school alma mater — working with some young entrepreneurs on their business plans, attending the annual athletic assembly, and presenting an award at Honors Day. It was uplifting, it was heartening, it was nostalgic, and it was reflective. I returned from the visit both inspired and in dread.
Why dread? All I could think about the entire time I was on campus was why every student in our nation cannot experience this empowerment. We can afford it, we really can, if we simply make it a national priority. I do not sense in any conversation I have at large that this is a national priority. The economy (deficit/debt, job growth, wage growth) is a national priority, defense and combating terrorism are national priorities, health care, and infrastructure all seem to be national priorities — it would seem this is because our political culture is largely reactive, that’s how winning elections are mostly conducted. Yet can any of these priorities be met without a proactive priority, where a broad and well-educated next generation is ready to tackle these challenges? I don’t see it, which is why when I write to the President or my Senators or Representative on feedback of my concerns, I always tick the education box first, because I believe it is a priori to all other challenges. People don’t just create problems, they solve them, but they can’t solve them if they are not prepared.
This just isn’t fair. A great education should be the right of every young person growing up, that is where we should happily invest our capital. We can talk about unmotivated teachers, absentee parents, bureaucracy, unions, administrative costs, budgets, corruption, inefficiency — we can talk about anything we want in terms of why it can’t happen — but when you see that it can happen, your spirits are lifted for those who are getting the gift, and crushed for those who are not.
When I was on campus, here are some basic, simple practices I observed all around me that would not seem impossible to emulate:
1) A school should be safe — you can’t learn if you are worried about getting beat up, shot, killed, sold drugs, bullied, silenced, or repressed. When you see students who are safe, they teach each other. It seems so natural, but we know how rare it is. Free flowing dialogue is really not possible in any climate of fear.
2) Students should be able to admire and respect their teachers — if a teacher is worthy of respect, she or he will command it. You have to hire right, and the talent has to be fairly compensated, then the teacher has to want to be the subject of admiration and respect, every day.
3) Teachers should be able to admire and respect their students — remembering that they are further along in life and must cut students some slack for their emerging abilities, teachers should feel good about the students they teach, learn from them , listen to them, help them course correct when appropriate, and celebrate with them when there is something to celebrate. Students have to understand that if they don’t show respect for their teachers, they can’t get it for themselves, it is a two-way street.
4) Administrators should be helpful and supportive — administration is necessary and valuable when performed with insight, but it is a background task for the purpose of letting teachers teach and helping students learn. There has to be humility in leadership, and it is has to be self policing to ensure that is lean. If this is accomplished, administrators can then share and celebrate with students and teachers on a level playing field. I have seen it, and it is quite a party.
5) School is about learning how to think, not about how to make money — this holds for academics, athletics, clubs and the like, we must emphasize foundation, not trade, as young people emerge. Everyone already knows we all need to work, and a good education can push us further down the path to achieving better earning potential. But if that is the carrot and the stick, it will not motivate ubiquitously, because self-doubt will overrule hope in too many cases and conditions. Self-esteem is achievable in modest increments step by step, in small wins that come from building self-confidence — through learning to accept ourselves, the views of others, the unraveling mysteries of science, the expressions of art, and the teamwork that replaces self-satisfaction. In an environment that makes learning an end and a means, career potential can blossom on its own fuel, through natural interests and abilities that translate over time into workplace commitments.
I am not envisioning a utopian solution, I’ve been around the block enough to understand all the counterarguments and very real hurdles of reality. I am simply advocating a commitment to focus as a pragmatic approach, among a set of conflicting agendas where it is easily counterintuitive to look at long-term plans for fixes we need now. Yet there are so many good schools that emphasize so many good values, we have models all around us in every community. We just don’t have enough, and what we have in good schools is a minority, which is wrong and not fair — we can’t let education become part of a have and have not culture, that does not help anyone on the horizon. To see the next generation experience the miracle and benefits of great learning is to understand and appreciate human potential and hope. To accept that it is in limited supply is to let ourselves implicitly endorse a set of conditions that is not only wrong, not only unfair, but entirely detrimental to our future and the perpetual reconstruction of our enterprise.
I salute those who are doing this right, and only hope we can make this mission a national priority. So much happiness is possible if we just set this level playing field and try to give people the chance to learn.