Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education: The Great Equalizer

I had lunch with an "old" friend twice in the past few months (okay...she's not old, but our friendship stretches way back to elementary IT is old). Though I had kind of wondered how our conversation would shake out (after all, we literally had not seen each other in over 18 years), I was pleasantly surprised to see that my friend had not really changed inside and we ended up talking for 2 1/2 hours at each of our lunch dates!

So, why mention this little get-together in a blog about education? Well, let me tell you a little bit about where the two of us came from.

I have always described myself as a mountain girl. For those of you familiar with Southwestern Pennsylvania, I have lived my entire life in the complicated embrace of the Laurel Mountains. I say complicated because, while I can think of no more beautiful place in the world in which to live, the problems that exist here can sometimes seem insurmountable. Poverty is rampant, for one thing. That leaves a lot of us open to things like drug and alcohol use, dependence on government programs, lack of self-motivation, an aversion to change, as well as all forms of abuse (spousal, child, elder, physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, etc.) I could tell you stories about some of my childhood playmates that would curl your hair. When I share these stories with people who live even just 10 miles away they truly think I'm exaggerating. They don't believe that there could be a place here in Pennsylvania...or ANYWHERE in America....where children live in abandoned school buses or houses with big holes in the roof and no windows. They can't fathom that, when we were allowed to bring a present back to school after Christmas break, at least a good handful of my classmates brought plastic trucks that MY parents would buy me at the checkout line if I had been good in the grocery store but that THEIR parents bought them as a treat once a year for Christmas.

But, as I said before, I cannot imagine a more perfect place to live, either. Being a "mountain girl" means that I have grown up knowing that family is the most important thing you can ever have, that roots don't just go back to grandparents but rather extend back at least seven generations. Almost every conversation with someone from the mountains includes a genealogy session where you both trace someone's family history back to the 1800s in order to place one another. Another thing we've learned here is perseverance, the ability to never give up and to keep going even when times look tough.

So....again....what does this have to do with education? Well, as my friend and I talked, we kept coming back to some of the names of former classmates. We spent time talking about where they are now and what they've done in life. And I couldn't help but think about how proud I was of so many of them. My friend and I grew up as poor little mountain girls. Our families had next to least materially. What we were both given was a desire to improve and educate ourselves.

I am disgusted by the ideas and attitudes about education that are fomenting in our society. So much of what passes as debate and conversation on education nowadays centers on accountability, standardized testing, teachers unions, public vs. private schooling, nauseum. While I have opinions on each and every one of those things, I'm not interested in printing them. It's been done. A million times over. It's time, instead, to talk about the power of education. That's all. Education.

It is the great equalizer. It allows us to understand the world around us, to form an opinion about that world, and to express it coherently and intelligently. It helps to put us in our place when we realize that we are not the center of all creation but neither are we an unimportant speck amongst millions of unimportant specks. It shows us that "there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy" (thanks to my dearest "Hamlet"!!), allows us to study the inner workings of plants and animals one moment and the beautiful descriptions of life written by people thousands of years ago in another. It expands our minds and shrinks our world.

Wouldn't it be great if more people would be interested in education FIRST....and convincing others of the "rightness" of their philosophies on it SECOND?


  1. It's interesting to see you post about your heritage after I spent a good part of the night arguing with people on another site about an appropriation of Appalachian culture. The debate started because of an article in SPIN magazine credited Brooklyn, New York with fostering in a new wave of folk and Americana music. I argued that the only reason Brooklyn was credited with reviving folk was due to its proximity to the music press, like SPIN magazine.

    My thesis was that the author of the article could've ventured out of her comfort zone and found places where folk and Americana had never died, let alone needed to be resuscitated. But I found out New Yorkers have thin skin. They like the idea that they're not subject to the same processes of acquiring culture as the rest of us. That we, by virtue of being born where we were born, do not hold dominion over the culture of Appalachia. Our own culture.

    Anyway, I love that we can be proud of our area despite the warts. I believe, with all my heart, that one day the rest of the world is going to see what an amazing region this is. When it happens, it'll happen fast, and some of us will be ready for the change, and be swept up in it. Some will be left behind. Who bashes Fayette County the most? Fayette Countians. I think we do it before other people have a chance to. I always try to remind my students that we have PA's largest state park, 2 Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the only Michelin-starred restaurant between Philly and Chicago. I suppose I'm telling them they can see what the millions of visitors we get every year see, or be left standing on the shore.

  2. Jason, thanks! I actually did read your blog about Spin's article. I wanted to comment but I'm not exactly well versed on that specific subject. I enjoy bluegrass/rural/Appalachian roots music, but I don't know much about it beyond "it's got a nice beat and I can dance to it" kind of comments (well...maybe my knowledge is a bit deeper than that...but not much).

    More than the music debate, I responded to your mention of opportunity based on place. I have felt for years that much of what we have here is valuable and that if we were in a more "accessible" area, you'd see a lot more recognition of that. Some of the smartest most creative people I know are from here....and yet there are people with less brains and less talent who "blow up" simply because they are based in New York or LA. I think there's both a blessing and a curse there. I definitely don't want to see this area become commercialized and falsified. I often joke with people that the "real" mountain doesn't start until you get away from the major highways that lead into it. You can tell where the "real" mountain starts when you no longer see the little stores owned and run by out-of-towners that sell "country" and "rustic" items. I don't want to lose what it means to be "mountain". That's always a fear of mine.

  3. And here, I've wasted my life. At least some of us made it. :)