Pondering basics in education

Bill (AKA Mo)  Johnson, Hays CISD superintendent for umpteen years, once noted that of the 16 graduates in his 1947 Buda High School class, 11 graduated from college.  That’s an astounding 69%, and it happened before a college education was touted as the sure way to a make more  money.   

The reason was largely the influence of a single teacher, or so said her students. Young, dedicated Jimmy Porter was determined to introduce them to a world beyond their tiny, rural hometown. Apparently she succeeded.

Making money was not her agenda. College grads often (though not always) begin at higher salaries and make more money over a lifetime, but unless we’ve turned into an entirely materialistic society, education isn’t meant to train people to get rich. Money is the sometimes-fallout, the unintended result of learning about the world.

World literature explores the nature of truth, integrity, treachery and tomfoolery. Art trains eye and brain to observe carefully, develops recognition of form and color intricacies, and stimulates imagination. History teaches us who we are, where we came from, and how to learn from mistakes, tragedies and victories of others. Music trains young minds in the eventual rewards of practice and patience and develops a part of the brain closely related to mathematics and logic; and that’s even if you think music’s beauty and order are worthless. Debate teaches students to see many sides of every issue and spot fallacies in arguments that make green appear to be red.

These are not “frills”, as some people are fond of calling them. They are basic to a democratic society. Weapons may protect a nation, but they cannot build or sustain a democracy. Ask the People’s Republic of China. Ask Russia. Ask North Korea. Democracy is dependent on discriminating thought, decision and action of its people. 

When the so-called “Back to Basics” movement was just beginning, educator Harold Westgate spoke to the Texas Education Agency, describing a child who had zero interest in reading and flatly refused to sit in reading group. Lots of things could have resulted, but a wise teacher introduced him to set of intricate building blocks. For days he examined them and played at constructing ever more elaborate structures.The short story is that when his teacher offered him a book about shapes and bridge-building, he became an avid reader (and later, an engineer). Dick and Jane hadn’t interested him.   

As Westgate talked, a reading consultant impatiently tapped his pen. “It’s all very well to talk about teaching engineering to second graders,” he said, “but we have to teach the basics.”   

“Ah, the basics,” replied Westgate. “I couldn’t agree more.  And the basics are love, truth, beauty, justice and faith.”   

As 2017 graduates exit, a new class enters school. With  $46M in new bonds, building ahead and a superintendent to be chosen, we must ask ourselves if we can afford the time to consider seriously education’s larger purpose, or if we can afford not to consider this question.

Both are costly in their own ways. We only have to decide which price to pay.

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