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Age-old wisdom on public education

Date Published: 06/09/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

10 great quotes to inspire a renewal of investment in education
 

Who said this?

“The legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth.”

Let’s deduce. It’s post-democracy, obviously, and no doubt American, given the responsibility delegated mostly to states and their legislatures for education. And considering the pre-feminist reference to “his,” maybe a good guess would be a progressive do-gooder from the 19th or 20th century—maybe even a Founding Father.

That deduction would be wrong, and 2,000 years too late. The words were those of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, considered one of the founders of western civilization, thought and logic; he wrote those words almost 2,400 years ago. I found it recently in one of my favorite reference books of all time, the Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations.

My mission was to find 10 great quotes on the power of public education, hopefully to inspire voters and candidates to realize what’s most important as we head into a crucial election season.

The quotes I’ve selected reveal the timelessness of the education imperative, and they help us at Growth & Justice set up a gubernatorial debate focused on education strategy for the next decade. The June 22 event will be co-sponsored by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the Minnesota Rural Education Association, Parents United for Public Schools, and Ready4K.

“The mob does not deserve to be enlightened.”

Tyrants and oligarchs over the millennia have expressed fears of public learning, including a governor of colonial Virginia who famously said he thanked God that there were neither free schools nor printing presses in his dominion. This declaration came from King Frederick II, of Prussia, in 1766.

“Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” It’s never been easy to get what we need in education investment from taxpayers or to achieve reforms and results from the educational status quo. This champion for ardor and diligence was Abigail Adams, the beloved and brilliant wife of the second president, John Adams, in a letter to him in 1780.

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Cynics often say that money doesn’t matter, that the substantial dollars we put into public schools — especially those for low-income kids — are going into a “black hole.” And often we hear from today’s Tea Party, with tortured interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, that government must have an extremely limited role. Mr. Extravagant here, always deeply influenced by Abigail, is Founding Father John Adams, second president, from his letter “Thoughts on Government” in 1776.

“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
The essential value of education to all the other things we value has been expressed endlessly but seldom better than here, by James Garfield, our 20th president, in an 1880 letter accepting his party’s nomination. He was an advocate for expanding literacy and educational opportunities and full citizenship rights to the recently freed slaves in the South.

“The state has a right to insist that its citizens be educated.”

Although religious groups have long been educators and even competitors to public systems, the leading mainstream faith leaders in Minnesota (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim) are unified in calling for more investment—even raising income taxes, if necessary—to balance our budgets and fulfill our obligations to public education and the common good. And these words were contained in a pastoral letter of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, from February 1920.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

Many of us do-gooder advocates get wrapped up in “return on investment” and education as “workforce development” and we forget that education is much grander than that. It’s the essence of humanity and should be about improving the whole person, not just transforming our children into more productive economic units. These words were a favorite motto of John Dewey, American philosopher and educator, who lived from 1859 to 1952.

“A government’s responsibility to its young citizens does not magically begin at the age of six. It makes more sense to extend the free universal school system downward.”

For at least two decades now, key leaders in Minnesota — from former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe to former Republican Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson, to Art Rolnick, a vice president at the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis — have been beating the drum for more investment in early childhood education. But these words go back to the great feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, publisher of Ms. Magazine, April 1974.

“Is our children learning?”

Had to offer one easy “gimme” in the bunch. But, seriously, this gaffe in 2000 by President George W. Bush underscores something liberals need to appreciate about the Bush contribution to education. In concert with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation reaffirmed education investment as a federal financial responsibility, and the legislation invested billions more toward the goal of improving performance and for children with disabilities. Perhaps most important, it raised visibility and expectations in the long battle to equalize the achievement gap attributed to income and race.

“America shortchanges half its youth — the half that doesn’t go to college.”

This is a personal favorite, because it underscores our goal at Growth & Justice for dramatically and specifically improving higher-education attainment in Minnesota, from a current level of about 50 percent to 75 percent by 2020. But this observation was uttered in 1988 by Harold Howe II, a U.S. commissioner of education and a prominent champion for civil rights and integration in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.
 

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capital Report on Thursday, June 10, 2010. 

 

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a public policy  research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a journalist for the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he  wrote about state, local and federal government and politics.
 


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