Education and our Founding Fathers

Recently, I encountered a 2015 article/blog entitled “7 Things our Founders Believed about Education”.   The author, David Akadjian, builds his list using various quotes – primarily (though not entirely) from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.

A brief diversion.  Invoking the opinions of even some of ‘the founding fathers’ should probably be an exercise in caution.  It’s being done so much these days, and in such a haphazard fashion, that it’s hard to know what’s ‘spin’ and what’s productive insight.

On the one hand, hearing and reading actual quotes of some of our founders can be instructive. Voices separated from us by almost 250 years can provide perspective and insight into bigger picture intentions.  On the other hand, times DO change, and it’s wise to ask how original intentions fit into our society over two centuries later.  (One only need witness the ongoing debate on the 2nd amendment to see this in action.)

With those perspective reminders, we return to the article.  Using several direct quotes taken from correspondence, speeches, and writings,* the author makes a case for 7 core beliefs about education shared by our founding fathers in our early days as a country:   1) Education is critical for democracy and 2) for avoiding an “aristocracy of wealth.” 3) It (education) should be available to all, 4) should be free from religion and ideology, 5) should be equal for all citizens, and 6) should be public.  Finally, they believed 7) that the investment is worth the cost.

I guess I would say that I still basically believe the spirit of all seven of those points to be important cornerstones, or at least good starting points for reminder and discussion.  But my own belief is not so much the point.

The point is ‘what do we still believe?’, both individually, and as a society.  Have times changed some of our beliefs?  Has it changed some of our actions?  Amid the current political upheaval and apparent attacks on some of these principles from positions of authority (including, perhaps ironically, the Secretary of Education), what do we still think is important?  What do ‘we the people’ believe in enough to be moved to discussion and/or action?

Do we still believe, for example, that a good public education is worth the investment (Item 7) and are we willing to match that believe with action?  Do we still believe in avoiding an “aristocracy of wealth” (Item 2) and if so, are we succeeding?  Do our beliefs match the current political realities, and if not, what are we willing to do about it?

All seven points raise interesting questions. All seven could, maybe even should, produce disagreements of various sizes.  All seven might require an agreement on terms to reach productive consensus.  (Item #4 alone – free from religion and ideology – could be a powder keg, if not handled delicately and maturely!)

But, perhaps the point is that ALL SEVEN principles – or similar ones – should be constantly and calmly discussed. Amid all our constant and conscientious planning for the immediate future, we should know what we feel about these overriding principles and let our broad beliefs guide us into the future.  We owe it to our future citizens and we owe it to our founding fathers.

*Link to the article [with its quotes] provided upon request.

Here’s To The Teachers!

Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques.  The teacher is the heart of the educational system.  Sidney Hook

This is true, isn’t it?  Aside from our memories of school events, friends, social fiascos, and such, our returning thoughts to our younger classroom days are dominated by memories of teachers themselves and not so much the pedagogy they used, right? 

Discussions about teaching these days seem too often centered on issues like ‘accountability’ and ‘getting rid of bad teachers’.  This is not said to minimize those issues. Not at all.   It is instead to underscore the point that the concern subtly reflects that we recognize how important individual teachers are!

So, let’s start there:  As a society we do seem to recognize (if too often subconsciously) the importance of the teacher in the educational system.  This recognition makes the way we collectively allow ourselves to treat them, however unintentionally, even more puzzling and alarming.  We recognize, as the quote goes, that “teaching is the one profession that creates all the other professions”.  The teacher is that important to society.  And yet . . .  

  • Our teachers are (sometimes terribly) underpaid in relation to the rest of society. We pay our plumbers more!
  • Teachers usually have the least power over making general changes that matter for student learning in the classroom, even though they are the ones who are IN the classroom.
  • Teachers are often scapegoats for all the wrong reasons, and often for things and policies over which they have no control.
  • Teachers often must purchase [even after a minimum allowance] many, if not most, of the supplies they want and need for their classrooms.
  • Teachers are constantly burdened with excessively large classrooms. This is highly counterproductive in two dangerous ways:  1) It robs the extra time a teacher could give to a student who needs it, or notice individual student problems when they are small.  2) Teachers do not have time to think, reflect, adjust, or even rest during a day, and sometimes a whole school year.
  • Teachers are given too little time to visit with colleagues, test fresh ideas, discuss strategies, or share observations. And worse, they are often burdened with so many other ‘duties’ besides teaching!
  • Teachers are rarely given time (let alone funding!) to attend professional conferences to help them gain new insights into their teaching and their subjects.

Almost certainly, none of these conditions are intentionally or maliciously designed to have this collective effect.  Most are results of funding issues, and have developed slowly over time.  As such they are not quickly correctable, even when we recognize them.

It is sad, but true:  Being a consistently good teacher – day in and day out, year in and year out – may be one of the most difficult jobs in our society.  And we continue to make it more difficult. 

We desire and demand excellent teachers, and yet our collective actions over time undermine our ability to attract them. Have we been penny-wise and dollar-foolish?   Is it any wonder that fewer good candidates are choosing teaching, and those that do are burning out more often and more quickly than ever before?

Surely we can help somehow.  Can you simply thank a local teacher?  Can you donate money to a school or a classroom, or start a GoFundMe campaign?  Can you buy some supplies for a teacher?  Can you volunteer your time to help in a classroom?  Can you petition your school board to help?  Can you start somewhere?  If we don’t start now, when will we start?

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