The hunger to learn and to know

Neither my sister or I can understand why, but we were each blessed with a hunger to learn and to know. Oddly, our parents weren’t especially curious. Our mother read the Reader’s Digest and Lutheran devotionals; our father read Scientific American but didn’t, as a rule, discuss what he’d found in it. The books on our family book shelf were few and mostly of the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia variety. I still burn with envy when I read a biography whose subject, at a tender age, curled up with the classics in a library of floor-to-ceiling shelves, where the light was soft and brown, where ideas and feelings fairly danced from the leather-bound volumes that lined the walls.

My sister, who’s nearly as old as I am, is still so caught up in learning it’s hard to talk with her about anything that she hasn’t just studied—the culture of the Hopi, the life habits of the dinosaur, the geological shape and pitch of New Mexico, California and Vermont….

Because it’s been central to my life, I’ve always believed that the desire to know and understand is at the root of education. That’s why I was deeply disturbed by George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” which put the test at the center of education, and where, I understand, it still remains under Obama. My own experience with tests is probably not atypical. I crammed for them, passed them, and forgot most of what I’d memorized. The best exams are learning experiences, but most aren’t:. They’re onerous and frightening, and not at all inspiring. When I taught, I tried hard to make exams “open book.” I didn’t want students caught up in the same exercise I’d experienced. I wanted them to learn to think. I wasn’t very successful, but that’s another story, one about my own deficiencies as a teacher.

Watching teachers over the years, I’ve acquired a deep respect for most, though, of course, not all of them. How many of us in our jobs work hours without pay and spend our own salaries on supplies the state won’t pay for? How many of us invest ourselves in the lives of others so whole-heartedly? Which is why I was shocked the first time I heard teachers booed at a Republican convention. Some of the scoffers may have meant to deride the NEA, not the individual teacher, but that’s not how it sounded. It seems obvious to me that there’s no job that’s more important than teaching, and to talk of undeserved privileges and too-high salaries is nearly as ridiculous as blaming God instead of humanity for global warming.

It’s probably apparent to you, dear reader, that I don’t understand Republicans. I try, but I truly don’t. Why isn’t it as obvious to them as it is to me that no system that has greed at its core can be left in charge of us, and certainly not of our children? The answer to our educational dilemma can’t be turned over to corporations out to make a profit. In the dim light of an economic crisis driven by corporate greed, why is the right so enamored of the rich? The idea of smaller government sounds wonderful—I mean God knows government is a mess—but if it’s only smaller to make way for big business then it’s way too small.

It seems to me that wherever we go in the debate over education, we need to begin with a recognition that public education has been at the heart of who we are as a nation, and that there is no profession more worthy of honor and respect than teaching.

I just read an article by Stan Karp entitled “Who’s Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and What Can We Do About It?” (Recommended by a Facebook friend and retired teacher.) The answer to the question in the title, says Karp, includes the well-meaning parent worried about his children’s poor schooling, as well as the corporate reformer who wants to replace public education with privatization. Unfortunately, the latter is the more powerful of the two.

What we’re facing is a policy environment where bad ideas nurtured for years in conservative think tanks and private foundations have taken root in Congress, the White House, and the federal education department, and are now aligned with powerful national and state campaigns fueled with unprecedented amounts of public and private dollars.

Unless we change direction, the combined impact of these proposals will do for public schooling what market reform has done for housing, health care, and the economy: produce fabulous profits for a few and unequal access and outcomes for the many.

Karp lays out the history of what is happening to us today. The article is well worth reading.

But back to that hunger to know that I began with. I remember I had a delightful teacher in high school who taught world history. In my school, as in most, the classrooms were filled with youngsters who were much more interested in their own social matrix and, of course, in sex, than they were in the world at large—and especially its past. But this man had us exploring what it meant to be human, making sound recordings of the first music and playing Roman games on the football field. He had us cheek by jowl with Hitler himself. I don’t remember if he ever gave an exam. But was he ever a teacher!

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One thought on “The hunger to learn and to know

  1. The real mystery is how you became so motivated to learn. I was following you, my wonderfully wise sister. You told me that everything was interesting and you wanted to know everything. So, of course, this became my goal as well. You were introduced me to really good bookstores and fascinating record stores in San Francisco. I still haunt such places, even though my collection of books and records has grown to such a point that the very thought of ever moving again is frightening.

    J

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