By Donella Meadows
–March 6, 1997–
Maybe it’s just that I was a kid, but I remember my public school in a middle-class Midwest town as the center of community life. Everyone seemed to show up for band concerts and basketball games and PTA meetings. Teachers were decently paid and honored in the community. Taxpayers, much poorer than the average today, took pride in the local school and paid for it, as I recall, without a lot of grumping.
I learned to multiply and divide in that school, to play the saxophone, to love books and learning. Surely the way to express my gratitude is to support great schools for the next generation.
But for some reason we’re not doing that any more.
According to John Taylor Gatto, once a New York Teacher of the Year, military applicants in the 1930s tested 98 percent literate. During World War II our soldiers’ literacy rate was 96 percent. In 1950 only 81 percent of Korean war enlistees passed literacy tests, and by the 1970s, during the Vietnam war, the percent was down to 73.
Maybe that drop can be explained by an army recruited increasingly from the unprivileged. But Gatto points out that in 1940 the general white population tested four percent illiterate and blacks 20 percent. Now the numbers are 17 and 44 percent. Black illiteracy has doubled, white has quadrupled.
Gatto believes that the moneyed classes not only resent paying taxes for anything, but especially resent mass education. They want to produce unquestioning, unthinking citizens, just skilled enough to work within the industrial machine.
Then there are those who say the schools have been invaded by immigrants, people with no respect for, and perhaps no genetic ability for schooling. (To counter this racist argument, Gatto points out that the black nation of Jamaica has a 98.5 percent literacy rate, far higher than the rate for U.S. whites.)
Some say it’s the lazy, greedy unionized teachers who have ruined the schools.
It’s the layers of administration and regulation.
It’s way too little money.
Or way too little discipline.
It’s the absence of prayer; the presence of television; the government botching this job as it botches all others.
Whatever our theories, we all know that the decline of education is real and important. A nation that does not develop the minds of its young people is in a downward spiral. Each generation is less educated, less willing to support education, less capable of doing so.
At this point the columnist is supposed to sweep in with The Solution to the problem, but I haven’t got a Solution, and I’m not impressed with the ones I hear promoted by others.
I don’t see how it would help to federalize the schools, nor to localize them totally, nor to privatize them. Spending piles of money is no guarantee of educational excellence, though learning is surely stifled when buildings leak, textbooks have missing pages, and talented teachers leave for better jobs. Computers in every classroom could be tools for learning or for mindless Web-cruising. Charter schools and vouchers look to me like just another way to favor rich kids, and Bill Clinton’s standardized tests look like another way to label kids in inadequate schools as losers. We once had, and in places still have, perfectly good schools without any of these tricks.
The trouble with these and other bright ideas, I think, is that somehow they’re at the wrong level. They are details, specifics, content. They might help, if the overarching context were right, but that context is wrong. It’s like pouring hot jello into a leaky mold. No matter what good things we put into the mix, we’re not going to end up with a salad.
In my childhood community the context — the truth that everyone knew so well that no one ever had to say it — was that schools were a common responsibility and a top priority. The commitment was not to “my kids” but to “our children.” I grew up knowing that my education was of concern to everyone. I had to take it seriously because my parents, teachers, and neighbors did. Education was a sacred contract. I knew my community would give up almost anything else before it would give up its good schools, and that in return we kids had to do our very best.
That’s how the Asians think now.
But we, richer than we were when I was a child, with fewer kids and fewer immigrants, have listened too long to loud voices insisting upon individuality at the expense of community. To parents who think their kids can somehow succeed in a nation where other kids fail. To people who think money is more real than minds. To folks so full of fear that they would rather pay for prisons than for schools. These folks are a minority, but they gravitate toward power and money and microphones.
The only way I know to restore a broken context is to affirm it loudly and often, and to live it. To pay willingly for schools and to pay enough attention to be sure the money is spent wisely. To stick up as fiercely for other kids as we do for our own. To support teachers instead of scapegoating them. To care at least as much about our schools as we do about our weapons.
If we need a soundbite (and we do, because microphones only permit soundbites), I like the one on the bumper sticker: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997