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“Let’s Give Real Meaning to Education”

“Education.” That is probably the most over-used and least understood word in the lexicon of the English language. It is the great promise and the big lie for the political establishment. When there are promises to be made that belie specifics, “education” is the fallback position of choice. Those who are vested with breathing life into that term are probably the most maligned professionals in our society for efforts that are largely the scorn of the many and the gratitude of the few.

Education, at any given point in history, is a reflection of the social and cultural mores of the time. However, sad to say, what was once a noble and respected professional calling, supported by the society of which it was a part, has morphed into an endeavor that must operate in a milieu that is void of controversy. They must be all things to all people, with significant contradictions in the perception of what education should be. School Administrators want to avoid offending the School Board, the PTA and parents, most of whom are convinced that the uniting of their individual sperm and ovum was ordained by the Divine hand itself, and inspired with the belief that their progeny are above the need for structure and discipline. The parents who believe it are pathetic and the children who are the product of those belief systems are insufferable.

If any reasonably inquisitive mind wants to understand contemporary educational systems, one need only embark on a rudimentary venture into an examination of the society around them. Today’s society is the culmination of more than a half-century of progressively greater permissiveness that has, in my humble opinion, brought us to the brink of total anarchy. Life and life’s values are whatever the traffic will bear. We are no longer shocked by anything. In fact, we have become too understanding and too tolerant. Mature and responsible adults become what they are by the limits that are placed and enforced on their behavior in the process of “growing up.” I don’t see much of that happening anymore.

Crime is at an all-time high. The types and numbers of crimes have increased in geometrical proportion. Drugs? Eh, what’s the big deal? Burglaries? Commonplace. Oh well, s–t happens. Juveniles murdering their classmates, their teachers, their parents? Ho hum. Violent sex offenders now reside among us in our neighborhoods. What’s the problem? We can’t restrict their civil rights! I could go on, but I have made my point, and it sure as hell isn‘t very pretty.

If one wants to piece together a collage of the values upon which a society rests, all he/she has to do is watch what we regard as entertainment such as movies, television programs, music, videos, advertising, etc. It is all about vanity, sexual prowess, eternal youth and the body beautiful. The preponderance of men are cast as completely obsessed with erectile dysfunction. Given the volume of exposure to what is regarded as fashionable by women, one could easily conclude that there is just a bit of the slut in the makeup of a large part of the female population. Whatever is considered fashionable is a must. Frankly, I am weary of the never-ending display of cleavage and pendulous breasts. Titillating though it all may be, few are outstanding examples of divine art. As a matter of fact, it is exhibitionism bordering on outright vulgarity. However, you can bet your bippy that, should any male make an off-color remark about the fashion statement of a female co-worker, he would be slapped with a sexual harassment suit so fast his head would reel! I shudder at the thought of what the male response would be if men’s fashions became as daring as those of the female of the species. God help us! Common decency requires that some aspects of our humanly conduct be within the realm of what is considered to be “private.” We need to refocus on common standards of decency rather than on what is “in.” But, that requires individual standards of conviction and the attendant courage that must of necessity go with them. There doesn’t seem to be much of that around anymore.

For a civilized society to exist, it must rest on a foundation of moral values. By “moral,” I am not limiting my definition to sexual mores (although that is usually the first thought that comes to mind nowadays). It refers to the character of the people who comprise that society. Character is a learned set of values, not genetic or inherited. Parents can teach character, but only the society of which they are a part can enforce the prevailing standards of morality that make a civil society possible.

I vividly recall, a few years ago, when I was invited to meet with a couple of classes at a local high school for the purpose of recounting and discussing my experiences from working and living in an Islamic country. As I walked into each of the classrooms, I was stunned to see the complete antithesis of what I had expected. There were no desk. Rather, there were circular tables around which was seated the biggest bunch of poorly groomed and disinterested young humanoids imaginable. There was no discipline and, obviously, no standards of conduct. Some were reclining in their chairs, others were slouched over with their heads resting on the tables. Others were distracted by electronic devices or other “toys,” with no indication of a modicum of interest in what the class was all about. However, what most negatively impressed me was how the teachers looked exactly like the students! All were wearing the uniform of the culture – blue jeans, athletic shoes and tops that looked as if they were purchased at a rummage sale. I could not help but wonder who convinced the educators that the only way to penetrate the calcified cranial tissue of the students was to look and act just like them. The entire scene was not only depressing, but more an exercise in assimilation than in discipline. Who decreed that youth has a corner on what is savvy and relevant, rather than the teachers who are supposedly educating them and shaping their minds? Who should be looking up to whom? There is no doubt that the students were getting short-changed, big time. I could find absolutely no semblance of what could remotely be called a role model that could and should command respect.

I believe that we, as a society, have a solemn obligation to clearly reflect on what we should mirror back to the youth of this country. By abdicating that responsibility to the media, celebrities, sports heroes, etc., we are surely well on the road to a lost civilization. We need to seriously reflect on what made this country great and how we got to where we are. It used to be that childhood and adolescence was the apprenticeship for adulthood. I think we have lost sight of that fact and now might just be the time to re-visit that concept, for our own individual and collective welfare, and that of our children standing on the threshold of inheriting all that we have wrought.

When it comes to education, there has to be a shared responsibility between parents, educators and society. We must all work in concert with each other in order to provide the stability and continuity required for a sound journey leading to a lasting set of values that will sustain our children from youth to and through adulthood. The hopes, dreams and successes of just one child is infinitely more important to the world than are all the diversions we set before them in the name of entertainment, and prematurely fostering independence long before it is wise to do so. There is more to life than having fun, hanging out and blankly staring into an electronic device that enables our children to isolate themselves from the world around them. The richness of this one life can only be found by raising our eyes and actively engaging our fellow human beings. To the extent that parents and teachers, working in concert with each other, foster that as something to be valued and cultivated, the destructive estrangement from all that is distinctive and wonderful about God’s greatest creation – people – will be lost and the world will be the poorer for it.

We cannot have a system of education that is not based on sound discipline. By “discipline,” I am not referring to fear and corporeal punishment. That is wholly inappropriate and is much too prone to excesses for any serious consideration. On the other hand, there should be a set of standards and expectations to which students, teachers and, yes, parents all subscribe. Instructors and staff should be required to dress as adults and to a standard that sets them apart from their students, and reflect the professionals they are.

There should be standards of conduct and expectations codified and committed to writing for the benefit of parents, students, teachers and school administrators. At the beginning of each academic year, that document should be executed with a clear understanding of the consequences for violating those standards. Parents should not be allowed to intimidate educators, but should be required to assume their rightful responsibilities as one part of the triumvirate shared by educators and school administrators for the benefit of the student. Teachers and educators deserve to be protected from the whimsical ignorance of doting parents.

I view the process of education as falling along a continuum from K through university, beginning with training, followed by teaching and leading to education. From basic skills to intellectual pursuits. For that to be a meaningful and developmental process, students and parents must, of necessity, defer to the professionals to whom we have entrusted that responsibility, at every step of the way. Parents do not tell NASA how to launch satellites into outer space, nor should they tell educators how to educate their children. The latter is no less a professional pursuit than the former. Realizing one’s own limitations is the surest sign of maturity, so parents “listen up!”

I believe there is much to be said about the European model of education where, at some point, by objective means, students are identified as having either an aptitude for vocational careers or academic pursuits. Further, the Europeans respect the value of vocational endeavors, far more than do we Americans. For example, I am at the mercy of every skilled tradesman there is. Am I suicidal because of it? No, but I certainly know and defer to my many limitations, and I am only too pleased to acknowledge what they have that I don’t.

Today, however, I see an erosion of the intellectual pursuits and ferment that should be at the apex of our college and university experiences. My fear is that we have become the means for a fast track to wealth (business schools) and hi-tech schools that are beholden to the engineering, electronics and information technologies at the expense of liberal arts and intellectual disciplines. I fear that studies of the knowledge and wisdom of the ages that have served as the basis for pushing back the barriers of ignorance and indifference are receiving scant attention in the priorities of academia. I would submit, do we need a foundation in government, ethics, philosophy, morality, logic, literature, etc., any less than in days gone by? The value of a liberal arts education is timeless and eternal. When it comes to those virtues, the world seems to be on a starvation diet. Doing is “in;” thinking is out. That is not only dangerous, but frightening to contemplate.

By the time students graduate from high school, they should be firmly grounded in a well-rounded education that prepares them to be knowledgeable and responsible citizens. They should, also, know that they are embarking on a path that will prepare them for a vocation or career in life that will develop their potential to the fullest for a rewarding life as responsible and valued members of society.

I recall once seeing a photocopy of a sign pinned to the bulletin board in the office of one of my colleagues that read, GOD DOESN’T MAKE JUNK! Reflecting on those words gives pause as to where we are and where we should be going. It is time we tore down the barriers that make so many of us believe that we are inherently better than others and, ipso facto, entitles us to a larger share of the pie. Better to embark on a goal of cleaning up the junkyards of humanity and open the doors to all who simply want a piece of the pie.

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