Educational opportunity is the centerpiece of American democracy.
I have spent my whole life in school: grew up in a college town, went straight through from kindergarten to college, graduate school to the faculty. I love the smell of libraries; the feel of a sharpened pencil. New Year’s Day, for me, comes in September, not January. Students are still my favorite people, whether they are six, 16 or 60.
I am keenly (and sometimes painfully) aware of how being embedded in the world of education limits my savvy and makes me more naïve. But it also makes me a passionate about learning and its transformative ability in individual lives and in our collective national life.
Our Declaration of Independence is rooted in the assertion of a self-evident nature of human equality. All persons, our founding documents assert, are endowed by with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This final right – the pursuit of happiness – is about the ability of individuals to reach their human potential. It is one of the most striking and audacious aspects of our democracy – this belief that individuals have a right to pursue to something beyond survival. Education is the way that this promise comes into being.
Late last week, Senator Rick Santorum decried President Obama’s notion that there should be universal access to college education, and deemed him a “snob.” Early this week, President Obama delivered a common sense education address linking educational opportunities to jobs and economic development. Today, mayors of America’s largest cities gathered to discuss issues of education reform and access. With education so much in the news, I am still surprised by how rare it is to hear people defend and discuss education as anything more than an act of skills acquisition.
This weekend, #nerdland will push our education conversation beyond the usual debates. If you care about the health of our democracy then you better care about what happens in the classrooms. A child’s skills, talents, passion and effort should be better predictors of her educational outcomes than her parents income or her zip code. Harvard may not be for everyone, but we ought to be disturbed when it seems to be for nearly everyone from some neighborhoods but not for anyone for other neighborhoods. Education is not just about getting a good job.
Education is about being a good citizen, cultivating a fulfilling life, and fulfilling the American promise of the opportunity to pursue happiness. This does not mean everyone needs to earn a bachelor’s degree, but this does mean that no one should have that option eliminated simply by accident of birth.
My teaching philosophy is borrowed from French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who writes,
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Join us this weekend in #nerdland, where we’ll long together for that endless immensity.