ABRAHAM Lincoln. Thomas Edison. Ben Franklin. Bill Gates. The voice on the message followed each man’s name with the meager amount of schooling he completed. The Harvard dropout who turned us into cyborgs looks like a scholastic overachiever alongside his predecessors. Of course they are separated by centuries that have, for better and worse, exponentially increased the need for formal education, and of course that’s beside the caller’s point.
His point was that while it was “statistically” accurate to say that a better education leads to a better outcome, the many notable exceptions negated my suggestion that South Carolina needs to provide a decent education to all children.
Then his bottom line: When children don’t get a good education, it’s not the schools’ fault — and by extension, it’s not the state’s fault; it’s the children’s fault. Children who want an education will get one no matter how bad the school; children who do not want a good education will not get one, no matter how good the school.
Truth be told, there’s a lot of truth to that last part; much less, but still a tiny bit, to the first part. But even if we imagine that there are no shortcomings in our poorest schools, and that the problem is the children instead of the schools, we are left with this reality: We can’t wash our hands of the problem.
The “liberal” reason is fairness: When children don’t value education, it’s often because their parents don’t value it. Are we really willing to doom a child to a life of failure because she has bad parents? For how many generations will we visit the sins of the parents upon the children?
The “conservative” reason is this practical fact: We can’t throw those children away. Can’t ship them off to another state. The children who don’t get a decent education in our state are the ones who will stay here, and they will continue to drag us down.
They will end up with lousy jobs, held afloat by government safety-net programs. Some will become criminals, and we will have to spend more on police and courts and jails to defend ourselves against them. They will raise children who are just like them.
And this takes us back to that argument about Messieurs Lincoln, Edison, Franklin and Gates, which seems so reasonable … until you take about 10 seconds to think about it.
Then you recall that “statistically” speaking is the only way we can speak of whole populations, particularly when the statistics are so lopsided.
You remember that exceptions are … exceptions — and that the overwhelming majority of us are not so extraordinary as our Renaissance men. Our society could not have built the technological foundation from which Mr. Gates built so much more if we had relied solely on the few geniuses among us. A good education allows the mediocre — which, statistically speaking, is most of us — to become productive and creative. It allows those who are below-average to become contributing members of our communities.
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You realize that Gov. Nikki Haley and the Legislature would not be under court order to provide a decent education to the children in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame if those children had access to the exclusive preparatory school Mr. Gates attended, much less his two years at Harvard.
If I were placing blame for the children who don’t work hard enough to overcome the obstacles our state puts in their paths, I’d place it on the parents. It is the parents’ responsibility to make sure children get the best education they can. But when parents can’t or won’t instill in their children the value of education, can’t or won’t insist that they do their homework every night, can’t or won’t make sure they read books over summer vacation, we as a society have to do that. If not out of altruism, then out of pure self-interest.
We have to teach children to value education. Then we have to make education take, whatever their learning style. And the place we do that is in the public schools.
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It is difficult to know how to do that — although it would be much less difficult if we stopped worrying about turf protection and job protections and making sure the right people get lucrative contracts and pursuing our ideological goals.
It is difficult to get our legislators and our governor to ignore those distractions. But it is their job to do that.
Once we figure out how we need to change the structure and governance and curricula and funding of our schools so that they will deliver a decent education even to the kids who don’t want it, the jobs of teachers will become much more difficult. The jobs of everyone who touches education will become more difficult.
But when have Americans said we won’t do something just because it’s difficult?
Doesn’t American exceptionalism flow from our willingness to do the difficult work in order to achieve success?
Aren’t we the nation that was inspired to rocket to the moon and defeat the Soviet Union and become the most prosperous people on the planet after a president reminded us that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”?
The sad thing is that as difficult as it will be for our leaders to develop a plan and our teachers to implement it, the hardest part could be convincing ourselves that it’s worth doing.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.