Tuesday, December 10, 2013

America the Stupid

We were lucky. Our two kids went to public grade school, middle school and high school. They both got a great education. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case with public education. Now both my kids, one in the city and another in the suburbs, are looking at education for their own kids, my grandchildren. But the landscape has changed considerably since they were in school. Despite the rhetoric and hyperbole about the importance of education, no one seems to have an answer to the problem of kids failing in school or dropping out before graduation.

Over the generations, there have been radical changes in my own family tree in terms of education. From a grade school education for my parents, to college for my wife and I, advanced degrees for our two children, and what will probably be even higher standards for our five grandchildren. Education has played a major role in our and their development as citizens of the world. Education has always been the key to success in any area for all of us. Within the confines of my family, it has been an understood and non-negotiable factor in our lives.

For many others, education seems to have lost its priority, vision and standard of excellence. It seems that too often parents are distracted by their own issues and forget that the most unempowered of us all don’t have a real voice in their own future. Adults don’t always fare much better.

Adult Americans have scored 17th  as a nation in simple tasks such as calculating mileage reimbursement, sorting emails and comparing expiration dates on grocery store food tags. 

Finland, a country that is miniscule in size and economic power when compared to the United States, ranked second overall. Education is paramount in that tiny country where there are no sports in school and they use standardized textbooks paired with non-standardized teaching techniques. Nowadays in America, sports and social events seem to take precedence over tough academic challenges.

Subtle yet undermining events have begun to corrode the mettle of public education. 

In Minnesota, businesses (mainly resort owners up north) complain about school starting before the state fair. Somehow it’s more important to be hauling anchor for some millionaire resort owner or schlepping hotdogs at the ‘Great Minnesota Get-Together’ than learning geometry. Commerce tops education once again in Minnesota.

Now in order to save money, some school boards are looking at a school week of only four days and justifying it as a cost-saving measure. They’re eliminating music and the arts as extraneous to the architecture of learning. To meet state-imposed guidelines, some schools now ‘teach to the test’ instead of helping children understand the concepts behind the subject matter. They’re taking away recess and then wonder why the kids are fidgety in class and can’t sit still. One elementary school just banned the game of ‘tag, you’re it.’ Touching, even on the asphalt, is now suspect. 

The challenges to education don’t stop after high school. We have the ritual of Spring Break when twenty-year old children flock to Cancun and Mazatlan looking to get drunk and get laid. What does that have to do with education and academic achievement?

The ritual began back in 1936 by a swimming coach from Colgate University who brought his swim team down to Fort Lauderdale to train at the Casino Pool – the first Olympic-sized swimming pool in Florida.  Two years later, more than 300 swimmers were competing at the event and the ‘entitlement’ of Spring Break had begun. 

Hollywood jumped into the act in 1961 with its less than realistic portrait of true love in Where the Boys Are.  Fueled by the stress of having to endure the horrors of winter and hitting books instead of partying, college students decided en mass that a break was needed from reality. Spring Break provided just such a distraction.

Much like the annual trek of the Wildebeest across the savannas of Africa, college students began herding themselves south in record numbers. The airlines, ever ready to aid the migration, quickly followed with cheap air fares and kids who might have to do a road trip could now pile into silver flights of fancy to begin their week of teenage debauchery.

In Minnesota, there is an annual joke called MEA week where children and their families leave town for a well-deserved break after having to endure a full month of education after only three months of summer vacation. 

Yet no one has yet to ask: When did Spring Break and MEA weekend become entitlements for our children?  

The entertainment factory doesn’t help with its humorous portrayal of Jake Harper, the teen slacker from ‘Two and a Half Men.’ We laugh at his stupidity and lack of ambition because it’s funny, but in a very sad sort of way.

One recent sports wag has even suggested that we should get rid of the fa├žade and pay athletes in college since they’re such a revenue-maker for the university. In other words, let’s perpetuate the diploma mills and focus on the real money-makers, sports.

I’m not suggesting we simply go back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.  We do need school lunch programs. We do need some social programs for those in need. We do need activities outside of the classroom to enhance personal growth and maturity.

I have a good friend who is a college professor who espouses the philosophy of personal responsibility. He expects his students to fulfill their role as learners in his classroom and to seek help if they need it. He is tough but fair - and he is respected for that. His toughest task is dealing with parents (in college yet) who want to shelter their children from the harshness of final exams and heavy loads of homework.

But there is some hope on the horizon. Break Away, an organization that trains and helps colleges across the country promote alternative break programs, has projected that almost 100,000 college students will participate in its programs for the next season.

Summer vacation is now rightfully being seen as a vacuum for many students who will probably forget much of what they learned during the last school year. Summer programs have sprung up to help students remember and continue their education. Many libraries are full of students still eager to learn outside of the classroom.

Many moms get it even if some school officials and politicians often don’t. Those involved women, affectionately known as crunchy granola moms, actually put their own kids' learning ahead of the political gerrymandering and some of the popular misguided notions of education.

They’re able to cut to the quick and focus on what’s best for their children’s nutritional needs as well as knowledge-enrichment exercises. It might not be a far stretch to wonder if many of their parents were probably hippies who weren’t willing to accept modern-day society’s romantic rendering of the little red school house. But I digress…

Internships are gaining in favor over menial summer jobs as more college students realize that serving fries at minimum wage can’t compare to working and learning in the real world of their parents.

There will be more hope on the horizon when enough parents demand that their kids come ahead of various political agendas. When parents make sure there is less ‘facetime’ with electronic distractions and more time face time spent interacting with real people. When their kids are allowed to play outdoors unrestricted by the fear of bumping into one another or falling off a swing or too much sunlight.

Some folks have actually questioned my wife and me for spending a substantial amount of money on our children’s college education. They ask why we would put our children’s academic needs ahead of our own retirement savings, summer vacations, new cars and other material goods.

For those lost souls who truly don’t get it, I can only answer: “My kids…my money…and that is non-negotiable.”

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