Reading Club ponders a perplexing quandary

Should today’s public school students all be given a college preparatory education or should we focus on job skills and preparing students for the workforce? Or maybe a little of both? What about civics? Grammar? Technical skills?

At the Reading Club of Durango’s meeting Thursday, Lynn May and Mary Jane Basye took a look at American education and the milestones in education that have brought us to where we are today as well as the challenges we still confront in answering those questions.

Basye started with a situation our educators face – everyone is an “expert” about how schools should be run because we all went to school, even though we see it through a prism of what worked and didn’t work for us personally.

But understanding the history of American public education helps us see how we have arrived at this stage of No Child Left Behind, rich and poor school districts, and standardized test results – not critical thinking skills – driving educational programs, not to mention all of the other quandaries we face as a community and as a nation.

May analyzed the life and impact of Horace Mann, who is often thought of as “The Father of the American Public School System” because of his efforts in the early to mid-1800s.

Mann, who himself received an excellent education, earning a law degree from Brown University, wielded major influence through his political success as a Massachusetts state representative and senator as well as a founder of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, serving as its president for 12 years.

Though brought up in a Calvinist household, after his family’s minister damned Mann’s brother to hell because he had skipped Sunday services to go swimming and drowned, Mann lived a Puritan lifestyle but was a humanist by nature. He was worried that the founding fathers had given so many freedoms to America’s citizens without making provisions for their civic education.

The brother-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mann admitted he didn’t understand Hawthorne’s work and indeed, thought literature in any form was a waste of time. (You can imagine the appalled faces of Reading Club members at that thought.)

Mann once took a whirlwind tour of European schools, coming home particularly impressed by the Prussian school system where the curriculum centered on science and utility. He especially liked the Prussian emphasis on intellectual conversation, problem solving and conceptual understanding, so unlike American education at the time, which was focused on rote learning and recitations.

He thought the practical is always more important than the beautiful or artistic, believed recitations are disastrous and can destroy a child’s sense of wonder in a day, and he constantly criticized corporal punishment.

Mann’s report about how “superior” the European schools were enraged a group of Boston schoolteachers, who responded with a 144-page letter about how fear is a far better spur to learning than friendship between teacher and student, and how Mann clearly didn’t understand teaching methods or have any empirical data about the results of the European educational style.

Another debate we still have today began at this time – local control of schools versus state and federal oversight. Mann’s opponents believed that citizens in a democracy are smarter than their government, so local school boards should control curriculum and teacher training, while Mann believed that would only work if those citizens were well educated. Kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario, I’d say.

Basye took a look at the last century of changes and expectations of education. Circa 1900, formal education wasn’t considered important for economic or social advancement, so only a small percentage got even a high school education. By 1935, public schools were thriving, although the inequality between white and minority students had deepened, so that in 1935, 54 percent of Southern white students attended high school, but only 24 percent of African-American students did.

And then came Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal.

May and Basye, who team taught at St. Columba Catholic School (May is still there), did a tremendous amount of research for the program, and it showed. The quotes they found to tell the story were incredibly eloquent.

“As I watch videotapes now and think back to that first day at Central High on Sept. 4, 1957, I wonder what possessed my parents and the adults of the NAACP to allow us to go to that school in the face of such violence,” said Melba Patillo Beals, about the first day of forced desegregation.

Or the lesser-known case of Joseph Albert Delaine, who filed a lawsuit in Clarendon County, S.C., because buses were only provided for the white children to attend school, passing right by his home. He was fired from his teaching job of 10 years; his wife, two of his sisters and his niece were also fired; his house was burned to the ground; and the church he pastored was stoned and later burned. After men fired at him with shotguns, he and his family were run out of the state.

I’ve always thought of President Lyndon Johnson as sort of a wheeler and dealer, but his personal experience teaching the children of poor Mexican American laborers informed many of his initiatives.

So here’s his quote: “I still see the faces of the children who sat in my classes. I still hear their eager voices speaking Spanish as I came in. I still see their excited eyes speaking friendship. I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here.”

And now, we have come to an era when equal opportunity isn’t the goal – equal educational success is how we ensure that every child reaches their potential.

May and Basye also served as hostesses, with the goodies served on school cafeteria trays. I can guarantee no school ever served anything as scrumptious as Basye’s hazelnut, white chocolate and raspberry mega-layer cake. Yummy!

Perhaps educator David Tyack said it best: “I do not see any way to achieve a good future for our children more effectively than debating together and working together on how we educate that next generation. Children may be about 20 percent of the population, but they are 100 percent of the future.”

durango colorado

Hoping to receive an escape to a tropical beach for their birthdays are Robert Simmons, Jim Bundy, Mary Alice Copeland, Keith Widder, Steve Lavengood, Karen Knudsen, Donna Aubrey, Niki Bryant, Dick Hanlin, Dorothy Shank, Susie Ammann, Connie Matthews and Jane Periman.

Very special greetings go out to Dan Ammann.

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Nothing says happy anniversary like a plane ticket to a warm getaway for Victor and Jo Ann Sanderfer and Mike and Donna Stone.