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Education Matters

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by Arthur Mallory

Dec. 7 is Pearl Harbor Day. Remember? The news broke in the small town of Verona that the United States had been attacked. Shortly thereafter, our family gathered in front of the large floor-model radio and listened to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ask the Congress of the United States to declare war on Japan.

I was 8 years old when we entered the second World War. I remember vividly the events of the next four years. Everyone my age and older remembers. All school-age children were in some ways involved in the war effort. We collected scrap metal and rubber for recycling.

We bought savings stamps and bonds and we participated in a nationwide rationing program designed to make much-needed goods available to the military personnel which resulted in our having less sugar, fewer tires, a limited supply of gas and no new cars or trucks until after the war.

Rationing books were distributed throughout the country and we had air raid exercises and blackouts, especially on the coasts of the country.

These small hardships were viewed by the American public with a nearly euphoric feeling of good deeds done and hardly ever a complaint. This attitude of public service was to a considerable degree the result of what happened in the public schools of the land.

In our small school district, the superintendent held regular assemblies of all children and youth to talk about the progress of the war and emphasize the importance of our participation in the effort. We received a dose of patriotism in these assemblies, and we had moments of silence to remember and reflect.

One of our school's most popular young men went into the Army at the end of his junior year. He would finish his high school work in the service. He lost his life somewhere over Italy while flying a combat mission. Our community suffered at his death. Our school's children, youth and teachers remembered his sacrifice.

The public schools of the United States were actively involved in the struggle which gripped the nation and ignited in us a determination to survive. This was an issue of survival, and the national crisis pulled our people together in a mighty effort.

In recent years there have been other times when the schools have been called upon to react to a national concern. When the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in space, our nation was embarrassed with the feeling that we were behind in this technology.

President Eisenhower called upon Congress to enact the National Defense Education Act, designed to strengthen science and math in the schools, and immediately thereafter President Kennedy stated that we would put a man on the moon within the decade.

We went to the moon, not because of the push in science and math in the schools, for the scientists working on the project were already in the work force, but because the people responded, and the schools were electrified by the challenge.

Here again, the schools were engaged in a national effort. Incidentally, our science and math scores went up.

From the beginning of our country's history, the schools have been called upon to respond to the needs and requirements of the people.

Benjamin Franklin observed that the new nation needed a "common school" for two purposes, to assure a common language and emphasize a common culture.

Believing that the people of the young nation, with all their diversity, needed something in common, the forerunner of the public school came into being.

Increasingly throughout the history of the United States, the public schools have served as a focal point. Most of the nation's population has attended or will at some time in their lives attend the public schools. This year approximately 16 percent of the nation's citizens are attending the public schools.

During my youth, the school served as a social center for the community and commanded a significant portion of my attention and time for a period of 12 years. Now, my grandchildren are finding the same to be true for themselves. Many of their family activities center on school events, and every evening at the supper table they and their parents discuss the day at school and plan the evening study activities. Clearly, the school is a vital part of their lives.

The public schools in the United States have played a central role in the history of our nation and are at their best when their mission is intricately intertwined with the well-being of the people.

Public educators and the schools they serve will continue to provide an educational program to suit the needs of all the children of all the people, regardless of the child's ability, his or her interests or the kind of family support provided. This mission alone is mind-boggling, and yet they succeed to a degree greater than most might imagine.

Beyond this effort to provide excellence of program, the school in America is in the business of serving the people of the nation by providing a safe, clean and uplifting environment where children and youth can learn and where the principles of good citizenship are taught.

Right now it may be that one of the greatest concerns of our nation is that we, in whatever way is possible and best, secure for our children and grandchildren a future which will assure a way of life filled with the kind of liberty my generation has felt and experienced. Liberty must be nurtured in the soil of constant care, and earned time and time again by each generation.

How can we assure the continuation of the American style of liberty? It is an attitude and must be taught. I believe the public schools, along with everything else we must do, have a duty to explain and teach the kind of citizenship which serves the nation and will help assure our freedom. This is a movement worthy of our best effort.

To the degree that any one school may not succeed in this responsibility, we must require improvement; for indeed, the public schools are among the nation's most important institutions, and they require care and constant vigilance if they are to meet the expectations of the nation.

The public schools are vital to our strength, and demand our attention and support. Where else are as many of our nation's children and youth congregating, and waiting for what we will provide? We must do it right!

Soon the generation with the clearest memory of events leading up to Pearl Harbor and our nation's response will pass from the scene. This will significantly reduce the passion we feel for that event, and that may be OK.

But we must never lose our passion and love for a nation where the greatest degree of freedom ever known to humankind continues to be an everyday experience. Imperfect? Yes. In need of improvement? Yes. Worth preserving? You bet!

(Arthur L. Mallory, EdD, is a former president of Southwest Missouri State University and former commissioner of education who resides in Springfield.)

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