I spent many years teaching mathematics to students who ranged in age from twelve to seventeen years old. Some of them viewed compulsory education as a dreadful impingement on their individual rights as Americans. The would complain as though they were imprisoned in school and boast that as soon as they were of age they intended to drop out of the system. Many, but not all of them, were from low income minority families. Often none of their relatives had ever graduated from high school, but still managed to survive and care for their families. These student saw schooling as a punishment rather than one of our rights and privileges.
I had a stock question and and answer lecture that I used to inspire them to take full advantage of the opportunities that their free education gave them. I reminded them that historically only the wealthiest and most powerful people learned to read and write and work with numbers. The general population was left to its ignorance sometimes intentionally lest they become more aware of the indignities being forced on them. I spoke of slavery in the Untied States and the fact that most of the time those treated like property were not allowed to read or write. I told them how in modern times the Khmer Rouge had murdered teachers and professors and destroyed the educational system in Cambodia. I pointed out how the Taliban would not allow young girls to go to school with their brothers.
Usually at this point in the discussion the students were demanding to know how tyrants could be so unfair. They wondered why schools were often targets of suppression. I allowed them to provide the reasons why they thought that such practices were used and they always came to the conclusion that keeping certain groups ignorant also kept them from being free. They began to get angry at the thought that anyone would attempt to lie to them by not allowing them to be able to learn certain truths. That’s when I warned them to beware of anyone who would begin to censor books or movies or television programs or what they would be allowed to learn. I urged them to revel in the freedoms that they enjoyed and to view school as one of the greatest gifts they might ever receive. I told them to never let anyone take their rights to an education away from them.
Because most of the students who railed against forced education were rather rebellious and angry many of them began to understand that education was indeed a sacred right that they should appreciate and safeguard. They often became more attentive in class and began to talk about the part that schooling would play in their futures. Of course I never reached a hundred percent of them, but it felt good to change the minds of those who had seen going to school as a curse.
During the war in Afghanistan I heard from one of the students who had participated in my little seminar. He sent me a message telling me that he had just returned from fighting there. He had been stunned by the authoritarian policies of the Taliban, especially with regard to who would be allowed to attend school and what they would be allowed to learn He remembered my warning about authoritarians who would deny education to any part of the populous. He told me that he was going to use his GI bill to go to college.
One of my teaching colleagues was the daughter of Cambodian refugees who found their way to Las Vegas during the reign of terror that the Khmer Rouge had inflicted on the citizens. Her parents were Hmong, a minority group that was targeted by the rulers of the Cambodian government during the Vietnam War era. The movie The Killing Fields was based on the horror that was happening there. My friend told me stories about what took place in Cambodia that were horrifying. Years late she and her husband went back to Cambodia armed with advanced degrees and incredible dedication to the idea of building a strong educational system in the homeland of their ancestors. They were literally starting from the ground up.
The educational system of the United States may be admittedly imperfect, but it has lifted the population out of ignorance dramatically over the decades. My paternal grandmother was born in the nineteenth century and was unable to either read or write. My paternal grandfather had little more than a fifth grade education. Their son graduated from high school and then earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University. My brothers and I all have Master’s degrees. Our children all went to college and some of them are medical doctors and have PhDs. Now my grandchildren have earned degrees in engineering or are in the process of earning degrees at some to the most rigorous universities in the country. All but myself attended public elementary, intermediate and high schools. The record for public schools is deemed wonderful by my family.
I am concerned that there are people dabbling needlessly with our public schools and the curricula that they offer, They appear to be are intent on inserting political or even religious beliefs than providing our students with the critical thinking skills that they will need for the future. While their efforts are not on the level of dictatorships, many of them are intent on banning the free discussions of differing ideas or censoring what our young may learn. Every parent should have the right to opt their children out of engaging with specific topics or books, but their views should not impinge on all students. The solution is not to ban controversial ideas from even being mentioned but to be sensitive to the idea of allowing parents to opt out of certain lessons or books for their students.
As a parent I recall being informed that a sex education unit would be part of my daughters’ health lessons. I was given the right to remove them from the presentations of that information. The school gave me an outline of the topics covered and the materials being used. I had to sign my approval or request that my girls be removed from such discussions. I was happy that a knowledgeable person would be instructing them and the unit proved to be quite good for them. Nonetheless I appreciated that the school respected my decision one way or another. What it did not do is deny the lessons to everyone because a few did not want their children engaged in such discussions.
We are needlessly dismayed and frightened by what our young are learning in our public schools. As with any huge system whether it be churches or government agencies, there will always be a few bad apples here and there that we must ferret out. The reality is that mostly schools are places where dedicated people work harder than anybody ever realizes to help produce the future adults of our society. Neither do we need to be too concerned that historical truths will devastate our young. Quite the opposite is generally true. Young people demand honesty from us and respect our systems more when we are unafraid to tell the truth. Remember to beware of those who would tear down our educational systems. They are rarely invested in our freedoms.