These days we tend to take the education of our children for granted, but there was a time in the not so long ago when children spent little, if any, time in school. I’ve often spoken of my grandmother, Minnie Bell, being illiterate, but I never knew the exact reasons why that was so other than the fact that she only attended school for a brief period of time. By her recollection she may have gone for about two years before she was called upon to help out at home.
Even my grandfathers, both of whom were avid readers, claimed to have never extended their formal educations past about the seventh or eighth grade. By then they were adept enough with reading and writing to be able to continue learning on their own, but each of them considered education to be a noble goal. My paternal grandfather was particularly proud that his son was a college graduate and that his grandchildren went on to earn multiple degrees. He often explained that when he was growing up it was difficult to find teachers, particularly in rural areas. Back then communities pooled funds to bring a teacher to the area, often providing room and board but little else.
The tradition of bringing an apple to the teacher was originally a way of paying an educator for his or her work with children. Often all that the people had to give was a small room in someone’s home and a share of the crops that they grew. Sometimes not even the draw of a place to stay and food to eat was enough incentive to attract a teacher, so youngsters often grew up without perfecting the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Only the wealthiest families were able to insure that their sons and daughters received an education.
The establishment of public school systems supported by funding from taxes has been one of the greatest equalizers in history. Making it mandatory for students to attend school until a certain age freed young people from being commandeered by their families to work in the household or on farms and in factories. A more educated populace enriched the lives of individuals who might otherwise have been like my illiterate grandmother. Suddenly people who might once have been thought to be ignorant were transformed by the gift of knowledge. Likewise societies as a whole benefitted from more universal schooling.
Over time we have tended to take our schools and our teachers for granted. We certainly pay more than a bushel basket of produce and a room with a bed for the services of our educators, but in general we do not give them the respect and admiration that most of them are due. We gladly pay ridiculously high prices to attend a ballgame, but complain about the cost of finding and keeping good teachers. We become armchair quarterbacks when it comes to judging teacher performance based more on emotions than actual knowledge of what happens inside schools. We don’t seem to appreciate the fact that the great great grandchildren of an illiterate woman are able to read difficult books, perform impressive calculations and write coherent tracts. We take it for granted that our children will learn.
I suppose that I value education because both my mother and my father did. From the time that I was a small child my dad surrounded me with books and music and experiences that made me curious and eager to learn. He had once attempted to teach his mother how to read and write, but his efforts came too late in her life. He was determined that nobody in his family would ever again take the gift of education for granted.
I used to tell my students who grumbled about having to attend school each day that they looked at the situation with the wrong attitude. I told them that they were not somehow being punished, but had indeed been provided with a right that they must never let anyone take away from them. I pointed out that despots throughout history have first destroyed the schools, persecuted the teachers and kept the population ignorant. I wanted my pupils to understand that they should challenge any person or any group who seems intent on dismantling schools. I argued that knowledge is more powerful than guns.
I’m not sure how many of my students took heed of my commentaries on education, but I know for a fact that some of them did. As adults they came to realize that democracy really does die in darkness. They saw evidence that we become slaves to the powerful when we are denied the right to learn.
When we take an apple to the teacher we should always remember that there was a time when we did not have schools open to everyone in every town. Those heroes of yore who were willing to work for a pittance were the pioneers one of the most important movements in the world, universal education. Today’s teachers continue the tradition of working to assure that every child receives the powerful rights of reading, writing, arithmetic and beyond. Nobody should have to be rich to possess such precious things.