In 1989, the late essayist Florence King wrote of her early educational experiences as a precocious child from the South who could read before kindergarten. She was similar to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but was raised in a small DC apartment by two parents and a widowed grandmother who were coping with The Great Depression.
Miss King was around my mother’s age, and knowing how my grandparents felt about educating women, I was impressed by her struggle to earn a master’s degree in the Eisenhower years in spite of frequent encounters with anti-intellectuals – some from within her household – who feared that too much education – especially for women – was ruinous. She was once a regular columnist for The National Review and no friend of liberalism, but she advocated for quality K-12 education for all, perhaps without meaning to.
Not every student must choose college, but it should be available to anyone who has the aptitude and wants to attend. Even if one chooses a field that doesn’t require a degree, there are major benefits to broadening one’s horizons. My guidance counselor was terrible at his job and had no imagination. He was more hindrance than help, and once I got to college I realized that the world offers many choices that I would never have been aware of if I’d listened to him.
However, not everyone is destined for college. I’m eternally thankful for the trained professionals who are certified to do things for which I have no aptitude. I celebrate the working class, but I also want them to have the highest quality K-12 education possible, which coordinates with the vocational and technical training they get in their high school years. Students should emerge with the equipment to navigate life and make informed decisions.
At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I attended school when courses in accounting, American government, art, civics, drama, economics, foreign languages, journalism, music, physics, psychology, sociology, and trigonometry were offered, and some of those were required. I even took a class in which we learned how to apply for a car loan and a mortgage. Our accounting teacher spent an entire unit teaching us how to compile tax information and complete every type of income tax return that we might face. Our civics teacher taught us about the political spectrum and how each branch of government maintains checks and balances. We were required to know every world leader, and though she was rather totalitarian in her methods, I emerged with a greater understanding of the benefits of democracy. We were entering an era when it was difficult to survive without an MBA, but we graduated with tools to equip us regardless of the paths we chose.
My family believed a college degree would make life more secure. My grandmother thought that college would make perfect spellers who were experts in grammar and geography. One family view of college was that we were somehow learning a trade that would make us marketable, but one of their strongest beliefs was actually a fear of too much education.
We were expected to get a degree, but get in and get out. Go to college, but don’t stay so long that the neighbors would talk. The notion of college was to use our brains to tick off the necessary boxes to earn a degree, but don’t fill our heads with ideas that might lead to discussions of Comparative Religion, Women Who Changed History, Feminist Authors, or Social Changes of the Late 20th Century.
I received quite a few mixed messages in childhood that required sorting out, but one that I instantly discarded came from a college-educated family member who had a master’s degree. Both she and her husband were college educated, but they delighted in belittling the teeming masses that had degrees. During at least two holiday dinners, which were populated with a mixture of degree- and non-degree-holders, she repeated that a bachelor’s degree is just BS. “And M S,” she brayed, “stands for more of the same, and a pea aitch dee is just piled higher and deeper.”
There were a few polite chuckles, but her lowbrow anti-intellectualism was more disappointing than surprising. The intention of this statement was to prove that she hadn’t lost her common touch; that education hadn’t changed her, but that is exactly what education should do. The attainment of knowledge and applying it to our lives should change us for the better. We should use what we have learned to improve lives rather than pandering like politicians who wish to appeal to voters as someone with whom they can have a beer.
Anti-intellectualism isn’t new, but it’s effects are dangerous. As a culture, we haven’t valued quality K-12 education for decades. Underfunding school curriculum, shockingly low teacher’s salaries, removing the arts from the classroom, decayed facilities, and forcing educators to stick with methods that prohibit time for discussion. School shootings have been reduced tremendously from our daily lives because of covid, but when kids return to the classrooms, so will the argument that teachers should be armed.
How about training our teachers to teach civics instead of preparing for combat? Perhaps we improve the quality of education so that students can develop critical thinking skills. Perhaps we improve classroom education that works in harmony with vocational and technical education so that future generations of working class families can feel included again. Perhaps we teach why it’s wrong to take up arms and overthrow the government. How about teaching that?
Many argue against having too much knowledge, but we’re certainly in no danger of overdoing education in this country. Possessing knowledge provides options for greater understanding of our fellow planetary inhabitants and their conditions. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and it seems that many are unwilling to find out. We have ended up in bubbles of like-minded thinkers who face no challenges to our ideas. How, then, are we to realize a greater truth?
After the January 6th insurgents stormed our nation’s Capitol, Mitt Romney addressed the Senate that night and said the best thing we could do for the people who preferred their fears and stubborn ignorance is to tell them the truth. I can hear the cries of “What is truth?” Truth is based on facts. Truth absolutely is not collecting opinions and deciding what you want to believe. One cannot determine the truth by reading five opinion columns and creating a thesis based on the few common statements taken from each. To do so is to base one’s knowledge on a game of Telephone.
Facts matter, and our opinions are better formed when we respect facts. “But who can we trust to tell us the truth?” Begin with scientists and valid, certified experts on a particular subject. Trust peer reviewed studies; not a political activist who once heard something about drug research and decided to make a video. Trust a constitutional scholar who clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, but disregard the opinions of a raving hillbilly wrapped in a Trump flag running up the Capitol steps with a bait cooler full of ammunition.
We have much work to do. We must stay involved in our government of, by, and for the people, as the domestic terrorist groups gather to find new ways to intimidate and wreak havoc. We must fund quality education, value intellectualism, and choose leaders who know what they’re doing. Congress is populated with a number of extreme right-wing anti-intellectuals who got into government by winning elections in severely gerrymandered districts because people have been led to believe the best candidate will have a beer with them. That’s why we end up with unscrupulous wrestling coaches, cage fighters, gun-nuts, and religious wackos who couldn’t pass a civics class much less debate constitutional law. Why would anybody in their right mind elect such troublesome fools to public office?
Speaking of, U.S. Representative Mary Hill (R-Ill.) recently stated that Hitler had made a good point while she spoke about the dangers of children being propagandized through education. She obviously believes that her extreme right-wing philosophies are threatened by education, which should prove that quality education for all students in every state would expose the hate, bigotry, and weak-mindedness that chip away at our free society.
© 2021 by Patrick Brown
9 Replies to “Preserving Freedom Through Education”
Absolutely wonderful essay, Patrick. Thank you!
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Thank you! We really have to reform education. Between No Child Left Behind, Reagan’s treatment of Pell grants, and Betsy DeVos, it’s quite clear that preventing education has enabled the right wing agenda to reach dangerous proportions.
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This critical essay on the decaying attitudes of Americans toward a sound educational background should be required reading in every PTA meeting in the Nation. Two of my relatives who are (were) teachers quit their jobs due to scaling back of curricula, mounting accountability requirements for reporting to School Boards which had nothing to do with educating our young…and automatic advancing students whether they receive passing grades or not; not only scandalous…also dangerous as the January assault on our Nation’s capital revealed.
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This is a nice essay, and I completely agree with you. I like how you mentioned that not everybody necessarily needs a college degree—that mindset that everyone should get a degree as been prevalent in Western society for decades, and it’s a misguided belief. I would also add that it would be wonderful if we could do away with the subtle stigma of an Associate’s Degree. Many people only want (or need) an Associate’s, yet that degree is always treated as an unfinished Bachelor’s. To put it more simply, it also would be wonderful if we could do away with the prejudices surrounding educational achievements.
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Daniel, you are absolutely correct! I didn’t get into Associate’s Degrees, but yes, there is an unnecessary stigma. Everyone needs to feel free to make their choices, and educational pathways are personal. We need to also give credit for experience. I know someone with a music degree who worked only a few years in the field because of money. A 20+ year career as a baker with some expert training along the way has to count for something. Someone who can speak with accuracy and authority on what she’s done daily for over two decades shouldn’t be dismissed.
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Patrick Brown, what are your thoughts regarding the idea of having a right to education?
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As I believe access to quality healthcare is a right, so is access to quality education.
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Patrick Brown, are you a fan of Medicare For All?
What has happened to public education, including many (perhaps most) colleges, is the opposite of real education. This was done with a purpose. One only need look back over the decades, certainly from right after WWII, to realize a systematic effort to get into our institutions, media, and corporations were in effect. I won’t go into the details here, for we’ ve done that before, and people, if they truly wish to understand, will do their own honest research. We rarely see young people who have respect for themselves, respect for others, and can think for themselves, making responsible decisions. If the youth are going to learn, I’m afraid they will have to do this at home, with their parents, and take the time to really learn and understand. With the basics, they can learn about business and real practical skills, but search for real information that they learn the real history of this country. From that, along the way, the honest ones will learn, and perhaps they will be part of the solution in the future. The seeds of opportunity are there, but they are not in public propaganda camps.