The basic problem with America???s educational system is not that college is too expensive. Nor is the basic problem that public school teachers are underpaid or that educators are poorly trained. The basic problem with America???s educational system today is that far too many children are given the implicit message at home that education is not a priority. ???Perhaps the nerds and the geeks need these educational skills, but in our home, they just are not that important.???
Our schools face a huge challenge today, because the educational message that teachers are trying to inculcate into their students is far too often dismissed at home. If you live in a subculture where education is not valued, it is unlikely you will come to value your own educational opportunities. We cannot expect our schools to inculcate values of learning when there is little to no reinforcement at home.
The reality of life is that education and learning is not always fun. I was, and still am, an eager learner; nevertheless, some topics were uninteresting and seemed pointless when I first learned them. Some things are not intuitive; being sick and missing math class the day we were introduced to right angles, I was totally confused the day I returned to school. I could not figure out whether a right angle was the opposite of a left angle or the opposite of a wrong angle. That, of course, was an easy fix with a few questions that evening around the dinner table???an easy fix because my parents and my older siblings cared about education.
The college opportunity was not available to my father-in-law, but one of his primary goals in life was to enable his children to be college graduates. In order to fund this educational goal, he worked a factory job in addition to farming his own property. He only liked one of these jobs, but he worked them both, because he wanted to make sure his children had every educational opportunity. In ???Look Homeward, Angel,??? Thomas Wolfe says, ???He loved a farm better than anything in the world except a school.??? My father-in-law communicated that value to his children.
My father-in-law saw both of his children succeed in college, and recently celebrated the diplomas of all four of his grandchildren. He fostered an educational culture in which education was important. His children and grandchildren were motivated by his own continuing love of learning.
President Obama has sought to increase the number of college graduates in America, and is currently proposing that the federal and state governments pay the tuition for community college students. As Michael Horn recently stated in a CNN column, however, community colleges have not been particularly successful (only 22 percent of students complete their two-year degree within three years and 28 percent within four years), in spite of the fact that tuition is already heavily subsidized. He concludes that 60 percent of tuition is already covered by federal, state, and local programs, and, for needy students, the remaining 40 percent is entirely covered by Pell Grants.
Horn argues that providing free tuition will not fix the educational system. Indeed, the problem begins in American homes. When parents and caregivers communicate that education provides access to jobs and opportunities, and when parents demonstrate that college tuition is high on their list of priorities, students will come to value their educational opportunities. President Obama???s current proposal will not fix the problem unless the core issue of educational value becomes the focus.
If we want to improve our educational system, creating an educational culture is the essential and right angle.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.