What did they do? Those millions of poorly educated Americans who, as preadolescents and, later, as adolescents during the last forty years, took much less than seriously the twelve years of public education that they were freely afforded from age six to eighteen, who eventually strode nonchalantly across commencement stages to be handed diplomas without having obtained the fundamental academic skills properly accompanying genuine graduation from high school? And what do they continue to do now, as it inexorably goes on, when countless unprepared young men and women are handed those diplomas and sadly discover, a few years later, that the lessons on reading, writing, and arithmetic that fell on their rebellious minds and deaf ears as they languished unattentively in classes where teachers were laboring to present their prepared lesson plans, might have allowed them to go on to higher education in order to get rewarding and better-paying jobs? I see them all the time, nearly always in U.S. cities, the abject unemployed and unemployable, those wandering people milling about the streets with desperate desolate looks in their eyes, who are unable to get jobs because they are not properly educated, because they cannot compete in the job markets against those men and women who took public education seriously and learned those fundamental academic skills well enough to accede to post-secondary education and training. Yet, it goes way beyond the formal classroom, to the secluded carol at the public library and the booklined study in the home, where an individual may use those basic essential academic skills to burn the midnight oil while selectively researching and delving into subjects and discliplines of personal interest for the sake of intellectual betterment.
The age group of the foregoing individuals, to which I am referring, comprises those adult men and women between 19 and 35, who failed to attain, in 12 years time, the ability to read, write, and do mathematics on, at least, an 9th grade level. These innumerable men and women throughout the fifty states go from dead-end job to dead-end job earning barely minimum wages, never able to realize a continuum of successfully gainful employment. Perhaps these former adolescents didn’t have parents who regularly encouraged, and helped, them to studiously acquire the rudiments of learning in elementary, middle, and high school. Currently, between 75-to-80 percent of all American public school children don’t have this type of parents, the ones who regularly take an active part in their children’s primary and secondary educations, who regularly help and encourage them at home to understand and complete homework assignments and to assimilate subject concepts, to help make learning fun. And I believe the reason for this is the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of learning dysfunction that is viciously generational in effect. For most unlearned mothers and fathers, who had parents hardly interested in their education, usually have problems being nurturing caring parents.
Yet, there is another pertinently relevant reason for the shocking downturn in American learning within the last 40 years, and it is systemic in nature. It used to be that a thorough basic education, comprising learning to comprehensively read, to write with grammatical skill and clarity, and to solve basic math problems, was the substrate for an advanced education, and was basically good as an end unto itself. That is, when a person learned to read, he, or she, would then voraciously read to learn. A person did not, from 1900 to 1970, go to school to get a job, but, rather, to get a thorough basic education; and with a through education a good job was, later, acquired. Back then, most engaged students seriously studied Latin, world history, Western civilization, English literature, basic and advanced mathematics, the physical and biological sciences, and geography in public school so that advanced studies in foreign languages, political history and philosophy, world political development, creative writing, advanced theoretical mathematics, physics and micro-biology, and advanced cartography could be later pursued at the college/university-level. If it is, rather, the other way around, and students who have done poorly in public secondary school seek post-secondary education in order to get specific jobs, say as computer programming specialists, the students who are not equipped academically to acquire well-rounded liberal college educations will channel only into courses and subjects, at junior colleges or universities, which will prepare them only to perform specific jobs, not to continue learning throughout life through diverse reading and conceptual thinking.
Thank God for the private and parochial elementary and secondary schools, and, perhaps, the public magnet and charter high schools throughout the nation, which cater to the small minority of preadolescent and adolescent children who are shaped by their parents to enjoy learning. But thank God more for those parents who take seriously their essential jobs as developmental nurturers for their children, who regularly devote priority time to their children, helping them to become wise and intuitive, while sacrificing their own personal time for the greater good of learning. These are the parents of the children who will become the Leonardo De Vincis, the Thomas Edisons, the Jonas Salks, the Louis Pasteurs, the Mark Twains, and the Michel de Montaigns of the future. These children will become the adults who will continually rely on that basically thorough substrate of knowledge they acquired from their parents, and in the classroom before they were 10 years old, in order to pursue eclectic personal reading to continually learn and internalize increasingly more convoluted subject material.
I fondly recall a profound statement made by an eminent academician, Dr. Stephen R. Lefevre, my mentor while studying political science for my graduate degree at the University of Texas at Tyler. While reminescing one day in the early 1990s about his graduate experiences at the University of California at Riverside, where he took his doctorate, he said, “I was quite humbled when I walked across the stage to be hooded as a doctor of philosophy and suddenly realized that there was so much more to learn, in so many related disciplines, that I didn’t know.” Stephen Lefevre remains a living tribute to continuing personal education and the advancement of knowledge, for he has used his acquired intuition and basic academic skills, obtained early in his life, to go far beyond the university classroom to the ever-continuing academy of mortal learning in order to enrich the lives of others, like me. But what do “they” do? Those innumerable young people who suddenly become adults and discover that they have wasted the most important years of their lives, when they could have been acquiring, at no cost to them, the essential rudiments of learning, the 3 Rs (“R”eading, w”R”iting, and a”R”ithmetic), the basic academic skills that would have prepared them to study for a rewarding and, in most cases, lucrative profession. Well, they, either, realize the need to remediate and make-up for what they failed to attain during their earlier years, and do it at their own expense, or they sadly stagnate in ignorance, socially and financially, for the remaining part of their lives, unwilling to step-up and take responsibility for their actions, and, perhaps, those of their parents. As I learned from my own dear mother, accomplishment, in any particular avenue of life, involves accepting a premise that it’s all about “mind over matter.” That is, you can’t afford to “mind” what it takes to do it, and it doesn’t “matter” how long or how hard it takes to get there. It’s ultimately getting there that really matters.