A new syllabus

Breaking with all precedent, I’ve decided to skip my usual rambling opening to go straight into something controversial.

I believe that nothing is more important to the future of this nation – to its prosperity, its sovereignty, its institutions, its very survival – than the education of its citizens.

And I believe we are failing miserably at that job.

So I propose we make up our minds to do something about that.

I suggest we start right here, right now, taking a page from the 2008 Obama campaign, and today’s Tea Party movement, both of which began with local, grassroots organization.

And there’s no time like the present.

We should begin, of course, with our schools. A lot of adults will admit that the educations we received in the public schools could have been better. But before we get into the question of repairing damage done in the past, let’s take care that the present generation of kids is spared the mishmash and hodgepodge we received.

We need to improve our schools. Agreed? Now, how do we do that?

In the past, I’ve written about something my father, a B-17 navigator in World War II, taught me. According to Dad, you could figure out most things if you could answer three questions:

A: Where are we?
B: Where do we want to go?
C: What is the best course to get us from A to B.

It sounds simple, but most people, including the people we elect to govern us, seldom bother with all three steps.

In most political campaigns, if we hear about A, it’s always self-serving. An incumbent will take credit for all the things that are going well, while ignoring anything that’s gone wrong, and any signs of trouble on the horizon.

His opponent will happily blame the incumbent for the things that aren’t going well, while ignoring things that are just fine, or that will get better on their own, over time.

In most campaigns, we’ll hear a good deal about B and C, but almost never at the same time. If a candidate talks about the Promised Land, she almost never mentions the 40 years it will take to get there. If she focuses on the way things should be done, as most ideologues are wont to do, she’ll sedulously avoid a scrupulous analysis of how her methods will yield the desired results.

What you will almost never come across is a candidate who says: “Here’s where we are – good, bad and ugly. Here’s where I’d like to lead you. And here is the difficult, perhaps costly, path I would take to get us there.”

Here’s my question: Can’t we do better than that?

To be sure, it’s difficult to change the course of an entire nation, or even a fairly large state. Especially when the two major political parties have entered into a sort of open conspiracy to prevent any third – or fourth, or fifth – party from gaining a share of power.

It’s not even that easy to change the course of a city or county. As promised, Chesterfield’s new Board of Supervisors has presided over a sharp pullback from suburban sprawl. But I’m not alone in wondering how much backbone the board would have shown if the real estate market hadn’t collapsed, especially as re-election time loomed and the big developers started deciding where to make their campaign contributions.

Still, when it comes to our schools, a different set of values takes precedence. Even the loudest advocates of tax cuts pipe down a bit when the consequences will adversely affect our children. Even the dreamiest liberal waxes punitive when it comes to bullying on campus.

When our kids are involved, we’re more concerned about results – and less infatuated with our ideologies – than we might be in other contexts.

At any rate, here’s what I’ve decided. For a while – at least, while this column is running only every other week – I’d like to focus my attention on educational issues.

Having attended Chesterfield County’s schools from first grade through graduation; having taught for seven years at Midlothian High (and for two more years at Appomattox

Regional); and having substituted in the county’s schools (on and off) since 1982, I have some notion of what we’re doing and where we’ve come from.

And with three years of grad school in educational administration, I’m hardly new to the field.

But there’s a lot more I need to learn, and I’d be happy to hear from anyone, especially teachers and parents, about the things we’re doing well, and not so well.

But my main concern will be to talk about where we should be going: Defining the proper goals of a public school system in the early 21st century, and discussing specific ways in which we could get there.

We’ll start that conversation next time.

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