Education is very patriotic in origin

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 2, 2010

I’ve heard our Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education, Dr. Hank Bounds, say on more than one occasion, “Regardless of the question, education is the answer.” So, when I asked myself what I should write in a column for Independence Day — preferably a theme promoting a red, white and blue spirit — I remembered the commissioner’s advice that education answers every question. Indeed it is the perfect answer in this case because at the heart of our democracy is an educated citizenry.

Here’s what President Lyndon Johnson said: “Every child must be encouraged to get as much education as he has the ability to take. We want this not only for his sake, but for the nation’s sake. Nothing matters more to the future of our country … for freedom is fragile if citizens are ignorant.”

As President Johnson used these strong words to promote his programs for expanding the nation’s investment in education, he was echoing a theme that has been at the heart of our democracy since its inception.

Clearly Johnson and many others who offered similar insights have understood that democracy relies on informed participation by the people. In order to choose outstanding individuals for elected offices and support effective public policies, we must have sharpened abilities to assess character, intentions and political positions. Educated opinions have power.

One report after another over the past few decades has warned that the United States is falling behind other nations in educational advancement. The percentage of our gross domestic product spent for education ranks 37th on the list of nations according to one study. Another set of measures reports the performance of our students on mathematics tests at the 27th rank and on science exams at the 22nd rank. These are, of course, random citations that don’t make a case for alarm, but there are similar indicators reported these days with disturbing regularity.

Interestingly, another document showed the United States in the top rank among all nations for the average years of schooling completed by adults in the population (12.0 years). That particular statistic, it seems to me, is noteworthy because it points to an American culture where school enrollment is highly valued and expected. States recognize the importance of education by requiring attendance to specified ages. Mix those facts with the recognition that most seeking public office run on a pro-education platform and you have clear evidence we still understand the paramount importance of schooling to our nation.

John F. Kennedy said, “Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain.” It is a statement underlining the paradoxical nature of the challenges before us. We’re not doing as well as we should with the teaching of our children, yet we know in our hearts that education is vital. We’ve recognized from the first days of our republic that being well-educated is significant not only to an individual but also in what that individual contributes to society.

As the fireworks explode year-by-year over our Independence Day celebrations, it is a good time to consider key elements in the fortunate history of our country — founding principles, patriotic fervor to protect our freedoms, government of the people and an educated citizenry. We must care for these foundational values because all are necessary for the United States of America to continue and prosper into the future.

Education needs special attention now in our homes and our communities. I encourage everyone who reads this column to work on solutions for the problems affecting students in our nation’s classrooms.

John M. Hilpert is the president of Delta State University.