Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Education, Building Community, and Individual Growth

Education is one of the most important things that we can do as individuals or as a society. Through education, the mind is transformed, given the nourishment to explore new avenues of thought.

A quality education isn't just the province of teachers and the students, as much as we'd like to relegate it to them. It is something everyone has to take part in, throughout an entire community. Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, is a school where the creation of a supportive educational community has led to amazing things, as recently cited in Barack Obama's commencement address (read the speech or watch the video).
Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation.  For a long time, just a handful headed to college each year.  But at Booker T. Washington, you changed all that. 

You created special academies for ninth graders to start students off on the right track.  You made it possible for kids to take AP classes and earn college credits.  You even had a team take part in robotics competition so students can learn with their hands by building and creating.  And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture -- a culture that prizes hard work and discipline; a culture that shows every student here that they matter and that their teachers believe in them.  As Principal Kiner says, the kids have to know that you care, before they care what you know.  (Applause.) 

And because you created this culture of caring and learning, today we’re standing with a very different Booker T. Washington High School.  Today, this is a place where more than four out of five students are earning a diploma; a place where 70 percent of the graduates will continue their education; where many will be the very first in their families to go to college.  (Applause.)
I discuss some of the intellectual benefits of education elsewhere, but here I'd like to focus on even more ephemeral benefits of education, including some which matter even more than better mental acumen. President Obama goes on to highlight these ideas as well:
And finally, with the right education, both at home and at school, you can learn how to be a better human being.  For when you read a great story or you learn about an important moment in history, it helps you imagine what it would be like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to know their struggles.  The success of our economy will depend on your skills, but the success of our community will depend on your ability to follow the Golden Rule -- to treat others as you would like to be treated.

We’ve seen how important this is even in the past few weeks, as communities here in Memphis and all across the South have come together to deal with floodwaters, and to help each other in the aftermath of terrible tornadoes.

All of these qualities -- empathy, discipline, the capacity to solve problems, the capacity to think critically -- these skills don’t just change how the world sees us.  They change how we see ourselves.  They allow each of us to seek out new horizons and new opportunities with confidence -- with the knowledge that we’re ready; that we can face obstacles and challenges and unexpected setbacks.  That’s the power of your education.  That’s the power of the diploma that you receive today.
You can see the impact of this way of thinking resonating from Obama's education - both his formal education and his family life - but I think that Michelle Obama's story is even more relevant, because it seems to have taken her longer to realize the course that she wanted her life to take. In a recent college commencement address in Iowa (with video also available), Mrs. Obama outlines the path her own life took as she searched for inspiration:

... that process of discovery doesn’t stop when you leave this campus.  I know that from my own experience.  Back when I graduated from college, I was certain that I wanted to be a lawyer.  So I did everything I was supposed to do.  I got my law degree.  I went home and got a job at a big firm in Chicago.  By all appearances, I was living the dream.  But the truth is, all the while that I was climbing, I knew something was missing. 
Sure, I was working up in a tall building downtown, but when I looked out across the skyline of the city, even though I could see the community I’d come from off in the distance, I was so far up, and so far away, I couldn’t feel that community.  I felt like I was beginning to lose that connection to where I had come from.  And I realized that I didn’t want to climb anymore.  I wanted to be grounded, working with the folks that I knew, folks like the ones I grew up with.  I wanted to be mentoring young people, I wanted to be helping families put food on the table and a roof over their heads, I wanted to be giving folks the kind of chances that I’d had. 
So I did something that shocked my friends and family, and added about a decade onto my student loan debt: I quit that job. I left that high-paying firm to go work for the city government.  And from there, I moved on to lead a nonprofit organization called Public Allies, helping young people pursue public service careers.  I wasn’t making nearly as much money and my office wasn’t nearly as big or as nice, but I was working with terrific young people and colleagues who inspired me. 
I found that I would wake up every day with excitement, with a sense of purpose and possibility, because I was finally doing something that made me feel fully alive.  And graduates, that’s what I wish for all of you today – for you to find that career, that calling, that makes you feel alive.
What I like about this passage is that it is supportive of education while also pointing out that just getting advanced degrees for their own sake will not lead to happiness or fulfillment. You have to really find the things that you love and then pursue those. College degrees, and even advanced degrees, may lie along that path, but they may not.

Whatever one's views of the Obama's political objectives, the course of their life is certainly inspirational, especially for anyone who wants to work to serve others. Their overwhelming commitment to the goals of education should be commended, even by those who normally like to focus more on fiscal concerns. An educated populace is the best defense we can have against a failing economy in the future, while a failing educational system will devastate every aspect of our society.