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home : insight & opinion : guest columns July 21, 2017

4/18/2017 2:17:00 PM
Does education leave room for learning?
For the Daily News

I used to take a busload of high school students from the community all over Europe. Then, it cost less than $800 for 10 days including the airfare, hotels, two meals a day and local guides. Of course, I worked in as many culturally and historically important venues as possible, but kids being kids they still managed to enjoy themselves. Watch "Braveheart" and you get some sense of William Wallace and the Scots' struggle for freedom.  Stand in the great hall of Westminster on the bronze plaque where he stood when he was tried for treason and you get goose bumps.

Have you been to Shakespeare's house? Or Anne Frank's? My students went. Did you get the impression from the American Cemetery at Normandy that we will always have an interest in what happens in Europe? They did.  Educationally speaking, those were priceless experiences.

The model for that program was Robinson High School. There I participated in youth in government, debate and traveled with Speed Tilton and other teachers, who volunteered their time and stuck their necks out to arrange for us to broaden our horizons. 

Mr. Tilton took us to Chicago to the Auto Show, the Museum of Natural History, the Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry, and did it all in one day. Mr. Miller took us to Springfield, where we sat in the chambers of the House and Senate and ran a better session than what's going on there now (just my opinion), and we were only kids.

We went to Washington, D.C., and Arlington and took different trips for different clubs and interests near and far. The impressions made on impressionable young minds are indelible and invaluable.

True, there was effort involved, but it demonstrated to us what was possible in a way that nothing else did. This is our country, all of it, which brings both privilege and responsibility. As a scout with Troop 901 I went to Valley Forge, Cahokia Mounds, Cave-in-Rock, and hiked across the state on the Ozark-Shawnee trail. I have my Scoutmasters through the years to thank for making it possible and for showing me, repeatedly, how to properly tie a bowline hitch.

Years later, as a social-studies teacher, I made the effort to do what I could to enrich my students learning with such experiences, ultimately including the trips to Europe.  Those were ended after a contentious election in which a new school board mistakenly mistook its mission as lowering taxes as much as possible rather than elevating everyone's learning as much as they could. They saw it as their job, and running the schools as their business.

Here in America we give all children of the community free public education. We do that for our own good as well as theirs. We tax everyone for it one way or another. Parents complain that it is not free enough, while everyone complains about their taxes. That's not the proper subject for this discussion. I just want to talk about the children.

When we scrimp and save to save ourselves a penny here and there and deny them some foundational experience as we do so, it hurts us more than them.  Children always have full days; they fill the voids we leave with whatever entertains them. We fail at our peril when we don't fill as many of them as we can with meaningful and worthy experiences. 

Some see the work of education as vocational, and believe our schools are there just to fill the jobs in town with workers to make money so the owners of those businesses can prosper.  That money-making view overlooks the wisdom that love of money is the root of evil, not the goal of education, and while we are restricted from teaching a religion in a public school, we can mention that there are some, can historically tell the tale of Joan of Arc and, if we have an especially enlightened administration, we can take the kids to France and let them see the place for themselves. I was privileged to be able to do that, and while it was 40 years ago now, when I see someone who was with me on that trip, they never fail to mention how much it has meant to them.

Finally, I worry that we label the wrong people impatient.  Teachers often present a lesson and expect immediate results and grade accordingly when they don't get them.  I see the work as more in the realm of the old Polaroid cameras - if we present a quality impression worthy of preserving, and give it time to develop, the magic will happen on its own. To say that in teacher-talk: So long as you had their attention when the truth was told, they will come to understand it in their own good time.  That may not be testable, that's true, but then not everything has a price either.

As darkness fell on the Tenderfoot scouts, a light rain began to fall. Those who had listened to their Scoutmaster knew how to pitch their tents and stayed dry. The others had to learn on their own.

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