How to start the school year off on the right foot.
The exciting first day of school is not far away, and with it reawakens that familiar fear students have of missing the bus. On my first day at a university in Rome I remember a few students being left behind. The doors of the college bus closed at 8:10 sharp, and two latecomers on the other side missed the first period. No big deal. They were probably thinking, “Oh well, life goes on.”
Not all students can say “life goes on” when they are left behind. When a class goes on without you, you can borrow notes but when high school graduation goes on without you, it is not so easy to catch up. That is what happens to the nearly 30% of America’s public high school students. Some people blame the longstanding “left behind” phenomena on the educational system. For them, the hope of educational reform lies in legislation, like the No Child Left Behind Act. It was aimed at increasing accountability and encouraging measurable results. A decade later supporters and critics still argue about its effectiveness. Some contend it raises the standards, while others say it forces teachers to teach for a test rather than to educate. Whatever the case, many should-be-graduates are still falling back. And so parents and students hoping for the perfect legislative education reform may be a long time in waiting. But whoever said we have to wait for lawmakers to push our children through school?
In times past men like Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin taught themselves by the dim light of wax candles. In their humble beginnings, they barely had books and, much less, someone to test them about books. What books they did have came from pocket money which today’s young people would most likely spend on violent video games and lipstick. Lincoln took his education—and its expenses—into his own hands and pulled himself through law school. Some might think Abe a weirdo for actually loving to learn. But his passion for knowledge helped get him out of a dirt floor log cabin and into the White House, while many students today with iPods capable of storing hundreds of books cannot get out of seventh grade and into eighth.
Like Abe, youth today also have passions. Those who plug headphones into their ears six hours a day are passionate about music. If they are passionate about Warcraft they will spend that time on line and sip Mountain Dew and Monster drinks into the early morning hours. Today passion comes in abundance. The only question is, “Where is it taking us?” And that is a question which should probably be answered before a student gets on the bus to go to school, not at the end of a grading period.
A long, long time ago the school teacher and philosopher, Plato, tried to help his own students answer the question. He called truth divine and the quest for learning truth something out of this world. For him the search for the truth was something to be passionate about. It gave meaning to life. A school teacher himself, he saw that to train the mind was one of man’s highest achievements. Teachers today also try to give good reasons for learning. They usually say “study for life”, but something more basic is missing. Most students today do not even have a clue about what the meaning of life is. Maybe they have not had Plato’s leisure time to think about it. Maybe they are not sure if life is important. Maybe it would help if parents stepped in and pointed them in the right direction. They would certainly have the better footing to field the questions about why we are here and what we should do with our existence. Whatever the case, a little life direction and well directed passion may be all that a child really needs to put his energies into learning and pull ahead.
As we pulled out of the bus stop in Rome, no one really thought much of the two students left behind. But if instead of one or two it were ten or fifteen, we probably would have begun to wonder, “Do these guys really even want to learn?” That may be a good question to ask when trying to reform education. And before we blame systems, institutions, or authorities on the first or last day of school for being left behind, it helps to have the courage to ask if perhaps it is actually we ourselves who have missed the bus.
John Antonio, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ.