washingtonpost.com  > Education > Columns > Class Struggle

Learning for a Better Life, Not Just a Better Job

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; 10:45 AM

I received recently one of those commercial genealogies that suggested the Mathewses had some distinguished forebears, but I didn't believe it. It is far more likely that I came from grimy peasants who could not read or write and only left northern Ireland because the potato crop failed in the 1840s.

The most interesting thing to me about this unremarkable family history is what it reveals about the way we look at American education these days, particularly the popular notion that unless our schools get better, our economy is going slip into the doldrums and the European and Asian nations whose children are already outscoring us on achievement tests will have to start sending us CARE packages.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
How to Pick a College That Cares if You Graduate (washingtonpost.com, Feb 1, 2005)
Quotas for Asian Americans? Yes and No (washingtonpost.com, Jan 25, 2005)
Seven Reasons NOT to Fear the New SAT (washingtonpost.com, Jan 18, 2005)
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A less overstated version of this argument was advanced in the Feb. 2 issue of Education Week in a commentary by Erik A. Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and another by Anthony P. Carnevale of the National Center on Education and the Economy. What bothered me about the otherwise erudite pieces was that they ignored the possibility that there might be reasons for improving the educations of our children other than lowering the unemployment rate and raising the gross national product. I found this same focus in a useful new book, "The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling," by W. Norton Grubb of the University of California at Berkeley and Martin Lazerson of the University of Pennsylvania, which examines what it calls the "vocationalism" of American education.

This is think-tank talk, which has its place, but it does not seem to fit what I know about good teachers. They don't think of education as a way to get their students good jobs, or even reach adequate yearly progress on standardized test scores. They may SAY that is what they are doing if you ask them, since that is what the new federal law says they are supposed to do. But if you watch and listen to them long enough, you see that what they are really doing is helping young people grow and mature and come to better understand a confusing and changing world. Among the teachers I have spent time with, providing their students with job skills is often the furthest thing from their minds.

When John Esposito at Mamaroneck (N.Y.) High School was awakening the prose talents of Samuel Telesford, who lived in a single motel room with his mother, or when Tom Woessner at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, Calif., was inspiring an interest in history in Desiree Esparza, who was pregnant at age 16, they were not thinking so much about how their lessons would rescue these students from their difficult circumstances. Instead, they were thrilled by the beauty and power of what they were teaching and wanted to pass those feelings on to a new generation.

I miss that in much of what I read, and sadly much of what I write myself, about schools. The best teachers think the education they are providing, even the alleged drudgery of phonics and multiplication tables, are good for all students, whatever lives they choose. Many of those teachers believe, as I do, that college is good for people at some stage in their lives even if they become construction workers or retail clerks or electronics assemblers who don't need a deep grounding in literature or science or foreign language to get the job done.

The best teachers think they are helping students have better lives, not better salaries. They want the act of learning to become a regular pastime. A football fan's delight at reading a detailed account of Bill Belichick's offensive strategy can be just at uplifting as a gardener discovering the right way to plant a new variety of rose, or a never-under-100 golfer like me finding a consistent way to hit with my three-wood off the fairway.

That is what they want to inspire, that simple joy in learning about the many things that touch our lives, not just the stuff that will earn us money. I don't know of any research to confirm this, but in my experience, people who seek that thrill, no matter what they do for a living, tend to feel better about themselves, become better friends, become better parents and have richer lives, particularly in retirement which, these days, is often a third of one's adult life.

I think I speak for most of the Mathewses when I say we are glad to have moved to a country that gives us so many opportunities to make a living and have a few dollars left over to place a Super Bowl bet. But if any of us were told we were going to have to go back to 19th century rural Ireland, I think the first thing that would occur to us is how boring that would be -- no books, no films, no newspapers, no television, no radio, no Internet, not even much debate over the issues of the day.

There are people who think that pastoral life would be, in some ways, better than the life we have now -- less pressure, less pollution, stronger family ties. But I don't see many of them moving to Guatemala.

I think there is a basic human desire, hard-wired in our DNA, that from the very beginning has made us want to look over the horizon and see what was going on. We are very curious monkeys. We seek a wider state of consciousness. That is what has brought us so far.

Those of us, particularly me, immersed in the debate over how to improve our schools should try harder to keep this in mind. While we need to make sure more of our children get decent jobs and keep the economy going, our best teachers and our best schools are trying to nudge us a little further, toward the excitement of a rapidly expanding universe.

They are not just preparing us for a job. They are sending us off on an adventure. And at the end of the long lives medical science has arranged for us, that may be the most important thing.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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