Op-ed column: Putting learning to use

If I were asked to deliver a commencement address, this is what I would say. Seniors, families, scho

If I were asked to deliver a commencement address, this is what I would say.

Seniors, families, school staff, village people who helped raise you: Good Evening. You have spent most of your life getting ready for tonight’s ceremony.

It’s called “commencement” because it is a beginning, not an end.

You have learned facts and skills, but mainly you have learned how to learn, if the teachers have done their jobs. And I’m happy to tell you that you’re not done yet.

Your job now is to keep reading and thinking and talking and taking care of the world you are going into, because those of us who went before you need your help. If you go on to college, which I encourage you to do, you can make your life better financially, socially and personally. Not a bad investment.

You’re fortunate to be in upstate New York, where the high-school academy was invented. It was created to provide public education beyond a basic eighth-grade diploma. Many amazing and revolutionary ideas came out of upstate New York — Spiritualism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, women’s suffrage, Mormonism . . . maybe it’s the long winters.

When President Lincoln signed the Land Grant University Act of 1862 for universal college education, this allowed Americans who couldn’t afford the elite private universities to sit at the table. Public higher education is the power source for social improvement and a bridge over hereditary privilege. If Harvard or Yale weren’t in the cards for you, then your state university could be. It helped Americans to move up. And they did, by the millions. That is your option as well.

Keys to ideas

I’ll say right up front that my heroes are teachers. They have the key to where the ideas are. Teachers open the worlds of reality and imagination, and the main doors are books.

When I hear people complaining that teachers are paid too much, I think, “poor dears, they’ve been hurt.” In fact, in my opinion, the pay scale is badly skewed. Kindergarten and Head Start teachers should be paid the same as full professors with two or three graduate students in a seminar that meets three hours a week. After all, “seminar” is just another name for what already goes on K-12 — face-to-face, one-at-a-time learning. Both are doing the most important work there is — teaching our future citizens how to figure stuff out by reading and talking to each other.

Knowledge is our most important future resource. You are part of that future, and you need a liberal arts education to help you figure everything out. Science education is important: It creates technologists. But a general information/liberal arts and humanities education creates citizens, people who can think broadly and make connections about themselves and the world. Those are the citizens that we need and they terrify those who want subjects, not citizens.

Maybe the 1960s and ’70s scared a lot of folks. All that chaos and thinking going on! All that noisy demonstration against The Way Things Are! No wonder some commentators speak of our smarty-pants liberal academic eggheads with the venom usually reserved for serial killers. “Our taxes are too high! Balance the budget! Throwing money at schools won’t solve the problem!”

(An aside here: I have noticed that those who yell the loudest about the high cost of public education are often the same ones who send their darlings off to expensive private schools — a particularly odious form of classism and, often, racism.)

So let me say three very important things here:

— Schools are not factories.

— Kids are not widgets.

— Tests are not as important as we think they are.

Running schools like an industry that cranks out a product has it all wrong. Being efficient and using resources wisely is one thing, but putting bean counters and number crunchers in charge of teachers and curriculum, who try to measure the immeasurable, is quite another.

Even Einstein knew that, saying “Often the things that count can’t be counted, and the things that can be counted often don’t count.”

Need to be messy

That goes double for the arts and humanities. They make us human, which is hard to measure. Freedom and creativity are messy. But we need “messy” like kids need free time to just play.

(Grammar alert! Split infinitive in that last sentence. I learned that from a teacher.)

The current open season on education and teachers is both insane and dangerous. We have to create the future, organize it, and make sense of it. Only the liberal arts and humanities show us how to do that.

In villages like ours, the school is frequently at the very center, the warm, beating heart of the community, which we all pay for. Teachers do the most crucial job there is, and they deserve living wages and health care and retirement, and time off in the summer to study and recharge. They didn’t design that schedule — the farmers did when they needed kids at home to help with the crops. Don’t like it? Change the schedule.

Take what you have learned here, read, laugh, dance, sing and be humans. You are the best young minds we have. We need your help.

Thank you, and bon voyage.

Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a former board of education member and officer. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Life and Arts

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