“The beginning of every government starts with the education of our youth,” Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, advises us.
The official end of summer is nearing and with it comes the beginning of the new school year. Back to school sales are a familiar sight and last minute family outings try to hold on to time quickly passing by. Whether anyone likes it or not, it’s time to get back to the books, parent-teacher conferences, academic standards, career planning, extracurricular activities, and, hopefully, the joy of learning (as well as an uneventful flu season)!
Yet with all of the attention being paid to the health care reform, or as some would prefer to call it, the “health insurance,” debate, there does not appear to be much concern about reforming another massive human service system that also isn’t working as well as it should. I’m talking about education reform. And one would think, along the lines suggested by Pythagoras, that a focus on improving the quality of education in America, along with an investment in “educating” the public about the fundamental importance of education in creating and sustaining a democratic society, would be no-brainers. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we have not yet realized-and perhaps do not fully understand-the true meaning and implications of Pythagoras’s profound words.
Last year, I contributed an essay to a book with the powerful and provocative title, Responsibility 911: With Great Liberty Comes Great Responsibility. Importantly, the 56 authors in this anthology make a strong and diversified case for the role that responsibility plays in a free society. The contributors, moreover, represent the gamut of political perspectives, as well as come from the diverse worlds of business, government, and nonprofits, including religion and education. Besides my chapter, for example, this book includes contributions from the likes of George W. Bush, Jack Canfield, Howard Gardner, George McGovern, Barack Obama, John McCain, Pope John Paul II, Ross Perot, Tom Peters, Christopher Reeve, Anita Roddick, Norman Schwartzkopf, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Desmond Tutu, and Oprah Winfrey. You get the picture! The issue of personal (and collective) responsibility is examined from multiple, diverse points of view.
Let me suggest now that the ideals of education reform are closely tied to the responsibility issue. Moreover, unlike the debate surrounding health care, which is treated, more often than not, strictly as a matter of “entitlement,” the aims of education can never be achieved without personal responsibility on the parts of students/learners, parents, teachers, and other involved stakeholders, in addition to the collective responsibility of families, local/state jurisdictions, and other levels of community and society. To be sure, there are also elements of personal responsibility at work in the health care arena, such as those that require “preventive” action to reduce health care costs and counteract the illnesses, diseases, and accidents that require primary care intervention. This said, in a “managed care” and “disease management” culture, health care in America still is based more on a “take care of me,” sickness, entitlement model than it is one based on the notion of personal responsibility for health and wellness.
In the education arena, a “teach me,” ignorance, entitlement model has less chance of observable or sustainable success without a measurable dose of responsibility by those seeking access to and services from the “system.” In other words, while you, as a patient, don’t necessarily have to be “engaged” with health care service providers in order to achieve the benefits that they offer, you, as a student (or parent), do need to be engaged with education service providers, especially teachers, in order to achieve the benefits that they offer. The education process, in the final analysis, is a two-way street. Minus some kind of brain implant like those depicted in science fiction, which is probably something that we would not want to see become reality, the true benefits of education derive as the “return on investment” that is made in yourself and in your future. And this kind of “ROI” can only occur when you become fully engaged and demonstrate that you are responsible for the investment.
I’ve had the good fortune of sharing my meaning-centered message with public school systems and other educational entities and speaking at conferences where the pursuit of excellence in education was the primary theme. For example, I’ve keynoted the National Quality Education Conference in the USA, as well as addressed some 10,000 teachers in Canada. Most recently, I had the opportunity to be the convocation keynote speaker and conduct in-service training for teachers and administrators representing an independent school district in Texas. Importantly, the topic of my engagement with the local school district was “Meaningful Improvement: Engaging Minds, Achieving Results.” In other words, education “reform,” to be truly effective and sustainable, needs to be both meaningful and engaging. And the power of full engagement, in all of life’s pursuits, stems from the search for meaning, which is the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings. This basic tenet, moreover, applies to everyone involved in the educational process-students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the community-at-large.
No person can be left behind if we really expect to see meaningful improvement in our education “system,” broadly-defined, become a reality.
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning
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