February 27th, 2006
The idea that every child in America has a right to a quality education -- a notion first propounded by my main man, Ben Franklin -- is a revolutionary one. It implies that the intellectual tools of citizenship should not be restricted to those with the wealth to pay for excellent schooling. And indeed, my parents -- the children of hard-working immigrants -- were able to receive a solid public education all the way through college. Now, with my son attending a terrific public elementary school, I should be confident that he will do the same.
Except that I can't. Because the public schools are under attack, despite the best efforts of heroic teachers, administrators, and parents. The problem is exacerbated in school districts where -- unlike my own -- parents don't have the financial resources to supplement the grossly inadequate funding of their neighborhood schools. I think we all know that public schools in America are in crisis -- even here in California, where the funding (and, not coincidentally, the quality) of public education has slid dramatically from once-lofty levels.
Like everyone I know, I'm mad about this, and frustrated. And scared -- scared about the future of our country when the majority of students are not being adequately prepared to share the democratic responsibilities of self-government. As my late father -- a teacher in public middle schools -- used to point out, kids who move through school without getting a decent education are, in fact, learning something: they're learning that they can't learn. Eventually the beautiful and natural delight in discovering things begins to fade from their eyes. And they enter the adult world knowing that society does not value them -- and perhaps feeling, understandably, that they owe society the same kind of treatment.
So do we just throw up our hands? Well, I admit, that would be my normal inclination. But in my life so far, I've noticed that throwing up my hands doesn't actually change anything (unless I happen to accidentally deflect a Frisbee or something). So thank goodness that -- on this subject, at least -- we have an important new book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, to offer us information, compassion, and pragmatic advice on how we might make our public schools better. I was thrilled to be able to chat with two of the book's coauthors, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30).