On Education—When You Can Get It…

Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

April 17, 1971

SUMMIT HILL—Sirens wail like berserker banshees left out overnight, water pounds itself against time-worn concrete and batters on huge doors trying to get inside, firefighters wade wearily about like negative images of Klansmen coming to ground after a hard night’s work, orange and bleach blonde flames slither excitedly up the side of a building looking for a place in the night sky where they can disperse. A small, serious business-first voice speaks in a regular cadence, breaking occasionally over the unfamiliar juxtaposition of words that form an effective metaphor that designated today’s schools as “Taj Mahals.” An irate mother, her coat clutched against the unseasonably chilly wind, faces a picket line, her head jutting far forward, shouting, over and over like a bad groove in an antiquated 78 rpm record, “Teachers are supposed to work for less; it’s their profession; it’s not time to change it.” A few more minutes of shouting will put flecks of froth around the corners of her pale lips.

Education is caught in the vice-grip between sensibility and insanity, and its guts are being squeezed out of it like a gutted trout.

School boards plot tirelessly in back rooms as to how they can finance the state’s most luxurious school—and they plot how they can make sure that teachers in the district are kept away from a power play for a raise for the upcoming school year. Students congratulate themselves on getting an extra day off, and plan on how to get a few more. Audio-visual aid equipment, the avatar of a “new age in educational expertise,” gathers dust in a broom closet while half-trained AV instructors scan the catalogs for new, improved models of the same overhead projector that they made little use of the year before.

Education is turning into a very big business that concerns itself with matters of tenure, indirect lighting in a new wing, and prognostications of how it is going to move ahead so that it can get to where it has already been.

There was once a man who sat within the walls of an open field and who taught the young men of Athens. He used no texts, for he knew his subject by stating his basic belief that he was genuinely uneducated and was looking for understanding and knowledge. He believe that the way to knowledge lay through the understanding of mankind. He made a marathon race of his life, instilling in his students the need to know what is not known, and from that, to quest for other knowledge. The statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” has been attributed to him. In 399 B.C. he was awarded a diploma of death by a school board that did not agree with his ways.

Since Socrates’ time, the educational institution has grown into an unwieldy bureaucracy that is second in ineffectiveness only to the bureaucracy of the Federal Government of the United States. Its basic structure has not changed since the Dark Ages.

It is, however, the only educational system we’ve got; and, it has been rumored, through certain quakes in the fabric of the system, thing have been taught and learned. It is not exactly easy to learn today, though.

Schools have become so bogged down in frills that the basic job of education has been sunk somewhere in the quagmire.

School boards who plan school building programs, administrators who look for personnel who have published in learned journals and who have a multitude of initials affixed to the rear end of their names, teachers who find it easier to rely on prepared lesson plans and class notes they have used and re-used for thirty years, parents who vote for and are impressed by a fancy new building while begrudging a teacher an honest day’s pay—all are hell-bent on drying the oil from the machinery of education and on playing up a façade of machinery that has little or nothing to do with basic education.

Somewhere along the line a lot of people forgot to learn the basic education: learning is an interchange of knowledge between a student and a fact, directed by the teacher. It is the basic triangle of all education: simply a student, something to learn, and someone to guide him toward the attainment of that understanding.

Students who would burn down a school building, administrators who would fill those schools with something other than learning, parents who would not be interested in the proper development of the minds of their children, school boards who are addicted to the thrill of playing with seven and eight figures with dollar signs in front of them, teachers who have lost the connection between the student and the education, are all wasted matter in the process.

Most students, when pressed a bit, can, on reflection, spit forth the names of a handful of teachers who were the instruments for putting a whole shovelful of learning into their heads with very little pain; they will not, upon reflection, be able to tell you much about a “chummy” former teacher beyond one of his well-worn jokes; they will not be able to recall a square root of a number that was repeated to them three dozen times by a particularly uninterested teacher, but they will be able to tell you how many times that teacher cleared his throat in a 50-minute period.

What do the good teachers have that no one else does? Ask a kid who has had one.

He is uniformly a man or woman who respected education and his students enough to take both seriously. There is no thought in him of anything else while he is teaching.

He does not teach with the conscious realization that some mother is sighing deeply because someone has taken her kids away from the house for the day; he does not concern himself, while he is teaching, with what type of schedule some new computer is cooking up for the next semester in the administrative offices; he isn’t concerned with the number of bricks that are going to be used in the new wing of the school; he isn’t concerned with what is going on in the next classroom; he isn’t even concerned, for that period of time, with the fact that his paycheck may not pay for the night courses he is taking to keep up with his subject or for the laundry bills he gets weekly to keep a clean shirt and tie on himself.

He is concerned with seeing the understanding of some point dawn on the face of one of his pupils; he is concerned with trying a new concept of getting a particularly thorny point across to his class; he is concerned with helping one of his students find the answer to a question that he himself has not been able to answer.

There are teachers like that working in the school systems—and what they are doing is worth keeping school buildings from burning down for.