Monday, December 29, 2014

"One Man's Education"

                  Sydney M Williams
                  December 29, 2014

A Note from Old Lyme

“One Man’s Education”

“You are always a student, never a master.
You have to keep moving forward.”
                                                                                                                Conrad Hall (1926-2003)

The end of the year is a good time to reflect on subjects we deem of particular importance. Education, along with stability at home, is perhaps the most critical requirement for future success. I want to offer my own experience and to provide some additional thoughts. In public schools, administrators too often put students and parents second to demands of unions. They are, for example, reluctant to approve options available to the well-off. Vouchers and charter schools are inimical to their interests. In colleges and universities, political correctness has driven out the concept of liberalness – the importance to confront differing opinions. Walter Lippman once wrote: “When genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work.” With ten grandchildren in school, education, especially its promises, is close to my heart.

Too often, our high schools are considered successful if 80% of their students graduate on time and matriculate. The fact that many seniors may be illiterate and/or innumerate seems of little concern. Any number of colleges and universities – for profit as well as not-for-profit – have sprung up to accommodate the growing supply of students, most of whom must borrow the cost of tuition, and many of whom are unqualified. They have been told that a college degree – not education – is critical to success.

What has been lost in this mechanical process of sloppy manufacturing has been learning how to think. Too often, high school students graduate in need of remedial training. College seniors, in turn, graduate unprepared for the real world. I recognize that condemnation is broad; it ignores hundreds of good schools – public and private – and tens of thousands of even better teachers. But, as a generalization it stands; for learning should be pleasurable, solid and provocative.

I am sensitive to this issue because of my own experience. While I grew up in an educated household – my father, like his father and both his grandfathers, were alumni of Harvard – I never took advantage of the opportunities offered …or I did not until I was twenty-one, after I met the woman who became my wife. I blame only myself. I did have a few teachers in school and in college who tried to reach an unreachable boy. I remember those few fondly, and some of what they taught did stick, in spite of my best efforts to remain impervious to their attempts.

As a youngster, I liked to read. I loved Greek and Roman mythology, and read the Scribner classics. I read and enjoyed books of less importance, like the Hardy Boy series. By the age of fourteen, I had read Carl Sandburg’s two volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, and memorized the Gettysburg Address. About the same age, I became the youngest member of the high school debating team. But around that time I became rebellious; so when I went off to boarding school – Williston Academy in East Hampton, MA – I was in no mood to study, or behave as I should.

After barely graduating, I scraped my way into the University of New Hampshire. I recall a professor of algebra handing back an exam, telling me it was the lowest mark he had ever given, but also noting that I had scored one of the highest marks ever recorded on the university’s math entrance exam. After two years of dissipated living, I left. I worked, met Caroline, joined the army and returned to college. With less than a year to go in college, Caroline and I married.

Looking back at those pre-Caroline years, I regret not having had a positive interaction with teachers and professors. But my mishaps provided lessons. First, my wife and I worked to ensure our children would have positive school experiences, which they did. Second, I established a personal reading curriculum. Generally, I read about 35 books a year, divided roughly equally between fiction and nonfiction. For the past fifteen years, I have maintained a record of the books I have read. I collect and read a fair amount of P.G. Wodehouse and it is easy to forget titles read. Additionally, the list allows me to more easily recall what I have read and which books I enjoyed most. In terms of fiction, besides Wodehouse and my daughter-in-law Beatriz’s novels, I prefer mysteries and classics, like Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Character studies in great literature provide clues to human behavioral responses. Biographies and history help us understand the manifestations of that behavior.

Writing ‘Thoughts of the Day’ requires staying abreast of current events. Most days I read six papers, as well as numerous publications and essays sent me. While I am not a fan of the editorial page of the New York Times, it is like perusing enemy dispatches as a friend put it. We should know what the other side thinks. A reason we are polarized is because most people tend to read and watch only that which supports their beliefs. And college graduates tend to mimic what they have been taught in our “liberal” universities, institutions where open forums have become rare. 

A baby is born with an empty brain, but with an insatiable appetite for learning. Watching my grandchildren grow from infancy to childhood to early teens, I have been amazed at how fast they learn and how rapacious is their desire. The role of a teacher is to keep inquisitiveness alive. The role of the school is to support teachers. There are few jobs more critical than that of the one charged with encouraging and channeling curiosity, in a bid to satisfy the quest for knowledge. As children get older, other interests intercede and distractions appear. Students must understand the consequences of decisions. Einstein said, “Education is…the training of the mind to think.”

Learning is fun and exciting. That flame should never be doused. It is incumbent on all of us to continue our own education; to inspire our youth; to inculcate the desire to learn; to question; to think; to seek answers, even where none may be found. In spite of my criticism of our educational system and despite how poorly our students do in international competition, no other country comes close to ours in terms of creativity and innovation. Something is working.

It is telling that one of the more successful TV series is called “How It’s Made.” Over the past dozen years this Canadian company has documented the process behind 1,200 products, from pantyhose to race-car engines. Young people want to learn. School administrators could learn something from watching this program. Education should encourage aspirations and allow us to think independently. As we roll into 2015, our New Year’s resolutions should include: don’t stop learning and don’t stop thinking!


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