It’s just two weeks until the 2012 election. Not only is the job of President of the United States up for grabs, but there are a myriad of other contests – candidates and proposals on ballots. Some – many – will have implications for education in our country. And this is the focus of our discussion for the week. Energion Publisher Henry Neufeld has put this question to our Political Round Table, and I shall attempt to proffer an answer.
I’ve been asking questions that I thought would concern others. This week I’m asking a question that’s on my mind, and which I don’t think the candidates at any level have addressed enough. How can we go about improving the quality of education in this country?
Henry is right – not much attention has been given to education in this election cycle – beyond perhaps shots being taken at teachers unions. It is conventional wisdom that there is an educational crisis in our nation. I suppose there is, but we need to ask why this is true. If you look at graduation rates and test scores in predominantly white, affluent communities, things are going pretty well. In lower income, areas, especially in urban areas and rural areas, there are problems galore. There are in many cases funding inequities, questions of safety, tenure of teachers. I could go into all of these, but I’m going to focus on a different issue – the valuation of education in America today. I think we get the quality of education we expect as a nation.
In my book, Faith in the Public Square, you will find a chapter entitled “Redeeming the Nerd.” I originally wrote that piece several years ago for the Lompoc Record to highlight the way in which we as a nation view education. In the 2008 election cycle, President Obama was criticized for being too cerebral. He wasn’t the kind of guy Joe the Plumber would have a beer with. He’s accused of being too professorial, as if being professorial is a bad thing.
At a time when America seems to be losing its edge in scientific research, depending more and more on immigrant communities (a brain drain from India and China) to fuel our scientific enterprises, we have one political party embracing an anti-science agenda. Not only is evolution being dismissed as “just a theory,” and an anti-God one at that, we have the bulk of scientific evidence for climate change and global warming being dismissed as well. Why go into the sciences, if it leads you toward embracing ideas that are anti-God?
I could add here that while President Obama has highlighted the importance of math and science education, I wish someone would affirm the importance of studying history. For too long we’ve left the teaching of history in our schools to people with little education in history. If you need to hire a coach, make her or him a history teacher. Now, some of my history teachers in high school were quite good (and they were coaches), but I’ve always wondered which was more highly valued – their ability to coach or to teach history?
In my book I write:
“Ultimately change will come when we realize that education is more than learning to add numbers and read words. It is more than simply a tool to make a living. Education is about exploring the universe in all its complexity. It involves learning to read, write, add and subtract, but it also involves exploration of music, philosophy, literature, science, and yes, religion. The old “liberal arts” education was designed to form a well rounded citizen. That’s still a good idea. (Faith in the Public Square, p. 123).
We have an education crisis. It will take money, good teachers, parents who care about the future of their children, and young people who have a desire to learn and grow. But, I’m not sure that any of the candidates at most levels understand that a good education is more than what can be discerned from a standardized test. I have a Ph.D., but I’ve always done poorly on those standardized tests. What tests don’t do is gauge the level of interest that people have in learning and growing and exploring their world.
Since, I write here as a person of faith, and because religion has been a bane to quality education in many places – the anti-evolution efforts, the David Barton-like rewriting of history along ideological lines, etc., -- I will leave us with a word about the importance of wisdom. Consider the book of Proverbs, which honors the one who seeks wisdom, “for learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple knowledge and prudence to the young . . . “ (Proverbs 1:2-5).
Reforms won’t take hold until we as a people stop dismissing the pursuit of knowledge and embrace learning at all levels. Education is about more than degrees, which may be important credentials, but don’t measure the love of learning. And that’s what we need to instill in every person in society – the love of learning, so that we can be wise, discerning, and effective citizens. It should no longer be said that being educated, to love to read, is somehow "uncool," or "unhip." Although I love Big Bang Theory, which has highlighted "nerdiness," one needn't be Sheldon Cooper to be smart!