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What is the point of education?

I'm sure every teacher has had a student at some point that has mumbled under his or her breath, or even shouted, "what is the point of me learning this??" When I was confronted with this question (the language was much more colorful, but the point held), I suddenly felt for all of those teachers that I had, because kid, I've been there.

In high school, I was consistently one of those students whose teachers would shake their heads and tell my parents at open house night - "Nastasia could be so successful if she just applied herself". I couldn't roll my eyes far enough into my teenage head to convey how I felt about "applying" myself. I threw blame everywhere: at my young, enthusiastic English teacher for ruining Crime and Punishment for me by forcing me to analyze Raskolnikov within an inch of his life, and at my history teacher, who used a textbook that had the same effect as Valium. It was my veteran, no-nonsense Spanish teacher's fault for giving me a detention when I forgot my book one lousy time. Well, fine. If you're going to be like that, I'm checking out. Leave a message at the beep.

I was just engaged enough to have earned a report card that was decent enough to get me into a small, off-the-beaten-path college, which turned out to be the exact place I needed to be - Clark University. Although I was somewhat ambivalent about going to college at all, my parents, who both understood the essential value of education, did what they needed to do to get me there. (Mom, I know I was really angry that you grounded me until I finished my college essay, but it was one of the best things you did for me - thank you.) As passionate about education as I am now, my "ah-ha" moments as they call them were often eclipsed by an overwhelming feeling: what is the point? How is learning the Krebs cycle going to make me more successful? And why, oh why must I sit through yet another lesson on logarithms? (Two weeks in Professor Goldman's statistics course gave me the answer to that one.)

My high school experience leaves me with questions that make me shudder to examine the possibilities. What if my high school didn't have enough funding to keep music and drama program, which often kept me going when I was ready to throw in the towel? What if I was in a high school with so many students that my teachers didn't know my name or have the capacity to persistently harass me for my homework? What if my parents had to work two jobs apiece and didn't have time or financial resources to drive me throughout the northeast and Canada to find a college that I liked? What if we didn't speak English well enough to advocate for ourselves throughout the financial aid process? Would I have ended up where I am, or would I have fallen through the cracks?

The students at Boston Day and Evening Academy, where I work in the Advancement Office, have all felt the same way at some point, and some still do. The difference is, the cracks were so wide that they fell through the second they became disengaged. Whereas I sullenly sat at the kitchen table writing my college essays, many of these young men and women were out in the world learning life the hard way: trying to find employment without a high school diploma, serving sentences, parenting children when they were still children themselves. And the outlook for adulthood doesn't get any better. People without a high school diploma have more health issues but not enough insurance, are more at risk for substance abuse, incarceration, and gambling addictions, and do not have the skills necessary to make a decent salary. These out-of-school students represent up to 47% of all students in Boston*. Most students who enroll at BDEA have been out of school, learning their lessons in the harshest ways. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to tell a struggling 17-year-old single mother why computing quadratic equations is a necessary thing to learn, or to convince a young man swept up in the pervasive violence that invades neighborhoods how Shakespeare will be needed in his life. But it is. It all is.

I am a sucker for graduations. I love to read transcripts of commencement speeches and vicariously relish that glorious feeling of accomplishment. I can feel the expanse of possibilities that arises from the words of a really great speaker inspiring graduates to get out there and fix what is broken; to rise up and be the future we need. I even love those square hats. Often, many speak about the point of an education, and in my opinion, none more concisely and wisely than Theodore Geisel, Dr. Seuss himself. After accepting an honorary degree from Lake Forest College in 1997*, he read only the following poem entitled "My Uncle Terwilliger and the Art of Eating Popovers":

My uncle ordered popovers
from a restaurant's bill of fare.
And when they were served
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
'To eat these things,
said my uncle, 'you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid
you must spit out the air!'
as you partake in the world's bill of fare,
that's darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow

And this, to me, is the point of education: gaining the skills and knowledge to choose your life. Choose to spit out the empty rhetoric that descends on us daily from media, politicians, and scam artists because you have learned to recognize it and you have learned from our history that getting swept up in the personal agenda of an irresponsible leader can have disastrous results. Choose to work at what you love, because your practice of solving problems creatively across all disciplines of your studies has broken the fetters that bind you to a single pathway. Choose to have the family that you want when you want it, because you have learned the great depth to which your physical and mental health is promoted by your choices. And choose to be a responsible citizen, because you have learned that we cannot be a truly great society until all people are safe and healthy.

This is why I am here, and I cannot think of a more inspiring place to be than here at Simmons in this Educational Leadership program.

*If you are interested in where I got these data, please feel free to email me and I will send my resources.
**I retrieved this wonderful poem from a site featuring some incredible commencement speeches. It is worth a look!

Posted by Nastasia Lawton on December 8, 2010 10:06 AM

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