Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Education and Daniel Webster

And now, dear reader, today’s history lesson is from one of Massachusetts’ greatest citizens. In 1837, at a time of national discussion of new approaches to education, Senator Daniel Webster said:

"I apprehend no danger to our country from a foreign foe - Our destruction, should it come at all, will be from another quarter. From the inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence, I must confess that I do apprehend some danger. I fear that they may place too implicit a confidence in their public servants, and fail properly to scrutinize their conduct; that in this way they may be made the dupes of designing men, and become the instruments of their own undoing. Make them intelligent, and they will be vigilant; give them the means of detecting the wrong, and they will apply the remedy."

The children of Newburyport may represent 18% of the population but they represent 100% of our future.

As the product of Massachusetts public schools, as the son of a retired teacher who taught for 30 years in a junior high school, and as someone who has worked with homeless people for 20 years, I can attest to the value of education.

I grew up in Bridgewater, Massachusetts--a historic community not unlike Newburyport. When I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s, it was mostly a middle class community. As a high school student in the late 70’s during a period of fiscal crisis which led to Prop 2 ½, I could see the difference in learning between small classes and large classes, between qualified and unqualified teachers, between care and indifference.

In public school and later at college, I had always been interested in data about countries, states, and cities. I had always read in encyclopedias that the United States had a literacy rate of 99%, right up there with Switzerland, Japan, and the Soviet Union. When I became an adult working at the Pine Street Inn shelter in Boston, I was shocked to find the reality. Filling out forms and applications with people who couldn’t read them was more telling than a statistic in an encyclopedia. And later in other jobs with other clients, I found the same illiteracy and the same correlation: a poor education means no future.

Now I’m not taking the leap that Newburyport students are going to live in homeless shelters if classes sizes continue to rise, if teaching positions continue to be cut, if foreign language instruction continues to be foreign to elementary and middle school classrooms, and if sports, arts, music, and transportation are only available to those whose parents can afford them.

What I am saying is that right now – in this era of globalization, of rapid technological change, of economic and climactic uncertainty – in our little corner of the world we need to come together to find ways to support education. And we need to do that in ways that are not injurious to those taxpayers living on fixed income or little income.

During the campaign, I’ll be talking about my ideas for how we get there as a community and I would very much like to learn your ideas.

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