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Law Humor: Arkansawyer
Sunday’s Sermon: Public Education and Unitarian Universalist Values
Here’s the prepared text for last Sunday’s sermon. It varies considerable from the sermon as given:
Public Education and Unitarian Universalist Values
So I was originally going to talk about that most Unitarian Universalist day in January, January 6, Four Freedoms Day, the day in 1941 that FDR declared these four freedoms should be universal: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Especially freedom from fear. I was going to talk about how this painting is different from those other three paintings and use that to locate some of our values, and, well, freedom from fear is not what I’m going to talk about today.
Instead, I’m going to talk about public education and Unitarian Universalist values.
To start with, I’d like to make a rhetorical bet. Ushers, have you counted the room? Yes? Please tell us how many people are here today. Fifty-one people, right?
Okay, then I bet I am not the only person in this room who did not finish high school. I never got a GED. I left high school when I was sixteen and fooled around with college till I finally got my degree at the age of forty-seven, in order to be a good role model to my daughter Quincy. I’m not the only person here who didn’t get a college degree until later in life, if at all. That experience informs how I think about education and Unitarian Universalist values, or education and values, period.
A typical argument for education makes certain points: An educated workforce is good for the economy. Advanced study gives you better earning prospects. A UU making this sort of argument might add where education fits in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Those are okay arguments in some contexts–guidance counselors use them–but I would reject them today, here with you, as an expression of U U values as I understand them. More money, more personal growth. They’re advice for doing well rather than doing good. I’d like to present an alternative case for education built on one particular understanding of those values, one based on our covenant as stated by this congregation, especially: “The quest for truth is [our] sacrament, and service is our prayer” and “To seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humankind in fellowship”. Isn’t it interesting how those qualities are paired up? Truth and service. Seek knowledge and serve humankind. Freedom and fellowship.
We could base it on parts of the seven principles. Rather than relying only on “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, I would talk about education as a foundational requirement for “[T]he use of the democratic process…in society at large.” And if I were to base it on FDR’s Four Freedoms, I’d base it on freedom of speech and expression–and I wouldn’t base, in fact, I would specifically exclude basing it on freedom from want. Whether you’ve gotten a diploma is a criterion by which it should be decided whether you and your family will go hungry or not.
My daughter goes to Booker Arts Magnet. I read in the paper that Baker Kurrus–for those of you who don’t follow local education news, Baker Kurrus just left the Little Rock school board after twelve years–considers the magnet schools to be relatively privileged schools. When I was at Booker for open house last year, our principal made a point of reading out our school’s scores on basic literacy and numeracy, and was pleased that our kids’ performance had risen such that about seventy percent of our children would leave with reasonably good scores.
I know those scores were better than last year’s scores, and I’m glad for that. Still, what that says to me–shouts it into my face, really–is that about one-third of the kids who leave that school after fifth grade are not going to be literate and are not going to know arithmetic.
If that doesn’t offend your sense of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, what does?
Now, that doesn’t mean Baker Kurrus wasn’t right about that relative privilege–I’ll disagree with him about something more fundamental in a minute–but I think he’s right that the magnet schools are schools of relative privilege, more so as you advance from primary, to middle, to secondary school. But my daughter’s elementary school scores aren’t that much better than other schools’ scores. At her level, attending a school of relative privilege hasn’t meant attending a school of relatively high test scores.
The citywide statistics are grim all over, and they’re much worse when you look at them broken down by race, and there is where I disagree with Baker Kurrus when he says the problem isn’t racial discrimination any more. You show me a school system where this sort of ethnically stratified result is accepted and I’ll show you a school system which is practicing racial discrimination in fact. I’m not talking about intentions–in my opinion, everyone has good intentions–but results and facts.
So with all that I’ve said, why is my daughter in the public schools?
Free, freely accessible public schooling is one of the really great, revolutionary ideas. Increased levels of fundamental thinking skills in the citizenry at large is another great, revolutionary idea. These are things which change the world, whether by their presence or their absence. I think public education as it is today, despite all its flaws, does more good than we realize. We’re conditioned by its presence to an unwise complacency about its continued existence.
So, given that, how could my daughter not be in the public schools? The presence of each involved parent makes the system better. The absence of any serious student makes the system worse. Presence and absence, again.
Now, there are those who would tell me–and in fact, have told me–that my first concern should be with my daughter getting the best possible education. I have two little quibbles with that.
The first is, “‘Best possible’ by whose measure?” Her education is, in my mind, to prepare her to be a citizen. How else, then, do I prepare her to be a citizen of Little Rock? What better preparation is there than time spent in the public schools?
The second is, “Why is she deserving of the ‘Best possible’?” To get her the ‘Best possible’ by the usual standards, I’d have to start robbing liquor stores and lottery vendors. And if I did manage some such windfall, why is she–or any particular kid–deserving of the ‘Best possible’ when others aren’t? Rather than picking and choosing among students–and let’s admit that the theory of “school choice by parents” so often means “student choice by schools” in practice–why shouldn’t we be raising all of them up? Giving each of them what they deserve?
Again, these are things which change the world, whether by their presence, or by their absence.
There’s one objection to what I say that I’d like to address directly: Doesn’t this mean, Johnnie, that you’re depriving your daughter of the best possible education for some principle on your part? Is that why you’re sending her to inferior, unsafe schools?
There’s just enough truth in that to sting. There is principle involved and acting on it may deprive my daughter of some privileges over time. But let’s talk about the principle involved. As I see it, there’s a very simple test I can apply to how I think about my daughter’s education: Am I going to make things worse for her than they were for the kids who desegregated the Little Rock school system? To me, that’s a bright line test. My daughter is still way privileged next to those kids. If they could do it, we should do it.
Think how well off my daughter is. She’s got caring, well-educated parents, a loving family full of readers with a sprinkling of tinkerers, and this congregation, you, among other things, to make sure she does well no matter what school she goes to. I’m quite satisfied with that.
So what should we do for the public schools? I have, again, a simple proposal. I propose that, until we see the proficiency rates in basic literacy and numeracy up to ninety percent for fifth-graders leaving the primary system, we don’t increase any spending of any sort on anything to do with the middle schools or the secondary schools. I’d squeeze as many resources out for the primary schools as possible. I’d basically give up on everything but pre-K through fifth grade until we got that right.
Again, I take two historical precedents for this.
The first should be dear to us, from our Unitarian forebears the Adamses. During John Adams’ service to the revolution as a diplomat, he took his son John Quincy on a warship, through an active war zone, at the age of ten. As a result of this risky decision, by the age of fourteen, John Quincy Adams was working in the service of the United States, which he pretty much continued, as a diplomat, a president, a congressman, and a lawyer, up until his dying days.
The second is not unknown to you, from the Birmingham campaign of the civil rights movement. The main forces of the Birmingham movement had been depleted and the campaign was near disaster. A couple of organizers–working, I might note, in Martin King’s absence–began training high school kids in non-violent resistance. By the time those kids were deployed against the police forces, the ages in that group ranged as low as eight.
This brought about debate among the organizers. One argument which justified deploying those kids was that they were old enough to be church members, with all that implied, including possible martyrdom. Anyway, they marched, with the kids. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What I take from that? A primary school graduate is capable of being a citizen and acting in his or her own interest as well as the interests of others. It can be civil service or it can be civil disobedience (there are less risky alternatives), but that’s the age where it becomes possible. Ask yourselves: What is the youngest age at which you would consider someone for membership in this church? Not eight. Certainly no higher than fourteen. I’d split that difference and say eleven–a kid in fifth or sixth grade.
Consider what a citizenry in Little Rock which had that level of education, and the higher level of civic involvement that goes along with education, might be able to do, acting in its own interest and the interest of its fellow citizens and neighbors.
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