Dickens had it right. In David Copperfield, published in 1850, he knew what schools should strive to do for children – “’Why, to make the child happy and useful.'”*
Such happiness comes in being productive, in contributing to a part of life greater than oneself, in having a purpose and in being confident that one possesses the skills, knowledge and grit to be able to adapt and progress.
The capacity to adapt will be critical because no one force is driving the American economy. No economist or business analyst seems able to predict which careers will produce middle-class jobs over the long haul. Our graduates will have to find ways to cut through the maze of a chaotic, uncertain economic landscape. They will have to be able to evolve. We are heading into an era of scarcity, where each will have to do for him or herself, where making a good life will require self-reliance. The American future looks to be one where an eighteen year old had better be independent, flexible and mobile.
There will be few ‘anchor’ jobs, work that allows a person to stay in one place – teacher, police officer, fireman, some jobs in government, a few others perhaps. Instead workers will have to move to hot job areas. Their skills will have to be portable. That means being able to call upon multiple skill sets — speaking, writing, language skills, business skills, technical skills, computer skills, and solid math and science backgrounds.
Blue collar workers will be needed – we will still want our homes repaired, plumbing corrected, roofs redone, windows replaced. Carpentry and electrical work, plumbing and repair jobs of all types – whoever has these skills will do well. The life of the hands will still matter, and therefore schools should give students, male and female, the opportunity to work with their hands.
We owe our students these three gifts: the opportunity to fall in love with a vocation, with a way of being, the ability to know how to glide from position to position and the skills to be able to do so, and the character and guts to always work hard.
We will never be droids. We have souls. Students need the chance to search out occupations where they can make a living doing what they love with their days. Schools have a responsibility to avail kids of the opportunity to fall in love with ways of seeing and doing. Some may see this as a luxury, but it is the essential part of an education – the right to be awakened to a sense of the promises and beauties of life.
First and most importantly, the desired end result of 12 years of public education must drive the conversation about what we want kids to know and be able to do. This is common sense. The needs of the graduating senior should drive every conversation about curriculum. Everything that elementary and middle school teachers do should be predicated on making that eighteen year old supremely well prepared. Anything less than this is a disservice to kids.
A graduate should have a robust background in math — at least Algebra II and Trig and four years of challenging sciences.
They should have reliable, competent skills in writing, in reading and analyzing difficult, interesting pieces of literature and in speaking, both formally and informally. Every teacher in language arts and social studies should be asking their students to write often. Graduates need to be able to present themselves as literate, as familiar with certain novels and plays and as able to speak at length in complete sentences and paragraphs.
They need lots of American and world history, a solid grounding in economics, and lots of geography. We have become utterly interconnected as a species and yet many seniors do not know basic geographical facts.
They will need languages – Chinese, German, others. We live in a global economy. Our interdependence is increasing. The next few generations may need to emigrate to earn a good living. Languages are critical to that desired mobility.
Differences in intelligence and of talent exist. That fact cannot be brushed away by some appeal about all children being equally blessed. They are not. However, these areas of academic concentration are so important that they should serve as the basis of every child’s core curriculum. Accommodations can be made by level and/or through the use of special education teachers to help those who struggle to reach their best levels of achievement. Every student deserves equality of opportunity.
Of critical importance is this — from the day five year old kindergarten children stumble into their first classroom to that June day when nervous seniors walk into their graduation ceremony, every teacher, every administrator, every aide, every school employee should consciously, purposely, repeatedly emphasize the necessity of working hard, of cultivating sand, stick-to-it-tivness, a determination to finish a job, the necessity to perform at one’s best. Hard work hones talent. Hard work builds character. Hard work generates actual self-esteem and not the BS kind that floats through some schools like a poisonous fog.
Finally, give kids a chance to fall in love with patterns of action as found on the stage or in making films or in an art room or in music. God forbid we destroy all that is sacred in the wonder and joy of learning by making our schools into utilitarian warehouses for standardized testing. Public education must resist the terrifying pressures of no nothing pundits and education bureaucrats and idiot legislaters who want schools to become test taking factories that churn out zombies who, upon being fed into the world, hate the very idea of schooling.
Since the collapse of 2008, maybe since the attack of 2001, American life has been growing more desperate and more fearful, but we are an optimistic people and even in hard times we find ways to change and succeed.
An example: Paige Meyer loves his job as a firefighter; he believes that a firefighter has a moral responsibility to save lives and to serve the community faithfully and honestly. He works in Vallejo, California, a bankrupt city, and as of the fall of 2011 had been named its Chief. His Department handles 13,000 calls a year in a city of 112,000 people and had been cut to 67 firefighters, “four stations, four engines and a truck”. **
Instead of holding onto to old ways of thinking, he improvised. He tried to figure out how to serve his community with fewer resources. He attacked the problem of scarcity, this harsh, new reality, with innovative thinking and with optimism. “He began…to rethink firefighting.” He consolidated engines, cut response time, and increased training. He figured out how to make his situation work.
Mr. Meyer showed himself to be flexible and smart. He knew how to analyze information, how to present himself to his supervisors and how to make an argument. He loved his job, and in Vallejo he made it better. We owe our kids the chance to become citizens as “happy and useful” as Paige Meyer.
*David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: Chapter 15. “I Make Another Beginning.”
**Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis: page 211