Last Friday, we buried my mother’s ashes. I mention this partly to explain my recent hiatus from blogging and partly to introduce my topic. It was a small family ceremony: there was no twenty-one gun salute, no priest chanting and sprinkling holy water, no parade of mourners and no second line. This is not to say that her life was without significance.
My mother was eighty-seven years old. She was married twice and had two successful careers. Earlier in life, she had earned a certificate in medical technology, worked as a medical technician and married an M.D. Later, she had earned a broker’s license, worked in real estate and married a Naval officer. She was attractive, intelligent and witty. She was survived by five children, twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. As everyone does, she overcame disappointments from time to time; but she died with only one bitter regret: she never had the opportunity to attend college.
It was not that she lacked sufficiently strong grades or test scores. It was not that college was an utter financial impossibility. Certainly, paying for college would have been very challenging; her Irish immigrant family had struggled to survive the Great Depression. However, she was an only child and my grandparents had worked hard to save for the future. They were ready to make sacrifices to help her pursue higher education. That is, they were ready until a high school counselor (assisted by my grandmother’s older sister) persuaded them otherwise. “Why does she need to go to college? She’s a girl. She’ll just end up getting married and having babies. You’re a working man. If you waste your life savings on this foolishness, you will never be able to retire.” And so, instead of a pre-med course of study at a four-year institution, she worked her way through medical technology trade school and made the best of it.
Nowadays – as our state colleges and universities have been forced to raise tuition to where higher education is beyond the reach of so many families – it has once again become fashionable for both politicians and educators to remark that not everyone needs a college education. At first, it sounds almost reasonable. Many jobs require no more than a high school diploma, after all, and in the current economy even new graduates with four-year degrees from prestigious institutions are having difficulty finding employment. Sometimes a degree actually causes a candidate to seem “over-qualified” for the available positions, hurting their chances of an offer. Advocates of this “high school is more than enough education for most people” world view are also quick to point out that some of our nation’s most successful entrepreneurs never finished college, dropping out of Harvard, Stanford, and other universities to start successful ventures. (The fact that they were admitted to such prestigious institutions, in the first place, is rarely mentioned.) In other words, for most people, whether you attend college or not shouldn’t matter. What matters is acquiring the skills needed for the available jobs; most people should learn a trade. Right?
Lowering our expectations in this way is seen as simply a “down to earth,” pragmatic analysis of the “purpose” of education. The real truth is that selective access to higher education (including selective preparation for higher education through “tracking”) has always been a mechanism for systematized social injustice. This group does not need to go to college; they will just get married. That group does not need to go to college; they will just end up working at low skill jobs. Needless to say, we observe the same sorts of discrimination in access to technology for learning. The “drop out factories” have aging computers, with slow Internet access, used mainly for “drill and practice.” The “college prep” schools have modern computers, with faster Internet, used more for project-based learning. Ensuring that every child has access to equitable educational opportunities, including access to and appropriate use of technology, has become the “Civil Rights Movement” for the first few decades of the twenty-first century.
Although my mother was denied the opportunity, herself, one of her greatest life achievements was helping to ensure that each of her children did have the opportunity to pursue the level of education to which they aspired. In an ironic way, my own education could be viewed as partly attributable to the male chauvinistic, life damaging advice doled out by my mother’s high school counselor. For that matter, my own high school counselor advised my mother that I should settle for attending a small, mid-western college (such as the one she had attended herself); she doubted that I could survive the rigors of a large university such as the University of California, despite my excellent grades and test scores. Fortunately, my mother already knew better than to let a high school counselor lower my expectations and destroy my dreams.
We began our weekend with a burial ceremony. What followed might seem a curious segue. We ended our weekend by attending the wedding ceremony of our good friend, Bully Soares, who has devoted much of his career to helping Hawaii’s charter schools with technology integration. Sunrise, sunset. As time passes, life seems to become a blur of weddings and funerals. As our children marry and raise children of their own, let us never waiver from our commitment that every child deserves the opportunity for a first-rate education. Our children and our grandchildren deserve nothing less.
If we do not ensure that our children learn to think critically, including learning to use the power tools of knowledge, then our future will surely be decided by those who dabble in witchcraft and superstition. “The world is flat.” “Earth is the center of the universe.” “Evolution and climate change are mere theories.” And, implicitly through the “pragmatic” advice of so many high school counselors, “only the male children of wealthy, Caucasian families need a college education.” In honor of my mother, I ask: as a society, are we not better than this?