Friday, November 23, 2007

A Post-Thanksgiving Flashback: Why Bother With an Education?

This post is a revised version of a column I wrote that was first published shortly after Thanksgiving on Nov. 29, 1979 in the West Concord Enterprise, a weekly community newspaper where I once served as a full-time reporter and editor.

Thanksgiving is over, and it’s back to slaving over a hot typewriter at the Enterprise office. That doesn’t imply that I spent hours single-handedly slaving over a hot stove last week.

It was great to have daughter Jean home from college for longer than a weekend. She and son Steve pitched in to help Mom and Dad out with the baking, cooking, and clean up. The holiday was perfect when the predicted sleet and snow for southeastern Minn. never happened, and friends from the Twin Cities made it down to join us for our family-prepared meal.

But that isn’t what I was going to write about this week. What was it anyway? Jean was telling me about the trauma of her first semester away from home. I’ve got it: the topic for this week’s column is why bother with an education? That may seem a ridiculous question, but in the past few years I’ve heard it asked more than a few times.

Back in the dark ages when I was in high school, a favorite gimmick for promoting higher education was The Chart placed in strategic places throughout the school building. The Chart showed comparative salary ranges over a lifetime for the graduate and the dropout. The message was clear: stay in school and eventually you’ll get rich.

During my senior year, however, a change occurred. The Russians launched Sputnik, and the space race was on. Adults suddenly decided to appeal to another motive to encourage us to get smart(er). Now instead of exploiting our greed with The Chart, they interrupted our classes to announce in solemn tones over the PA system that it was our patriotic duty to major in math and/or science so that Americans could beat the Russians to the moon.

Greed and patriotism are of course worthy motives for continuing our education. But let’s not forget the other reasons for pursuing knowledge that have been around at least since the ancient Greeks introduced thinking as a respectable way to spend time.

The Greeks are credited with having established the world’s first successful democracy. Democracy as practiced in those days was a peculiar form of government which, in order to function well, required the active participation of a majority of the citizens. To be a good citizen, you had to know what was going on at the Athenian City Hall.

The Greeks, though, always a radical bunch, weren’t satisfied with an electorate informed only in politics and government. One idea led to another –the Greeks are remembered for their hospitality to new ideas—and before long, the city-state of Athens proved to be an incubator for discoveries in nearly every field of human endeavor, including philosophy, art, math, and science.

In studying the Athenians, we can’t help but conclude that these neophyte democrats valued knowledge for its own sake and as Edith Hamilton, author of “The Greek Way,” observed: “The special characteristic of the Greeks was their power to see the world clearly and at the same time as beautiful.”

Attainment of that characteristic alone is reason enough to bother with an education - despite the trauma of that first semester away from home.

Footnote: Jean graduated college with a degree in history and political science.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ginny:

    I got an email the other day that is supposedly authored by a University of Minnesota professor. The email said in essence that democracy only lasts 200 years and it has stages. That democracy has a short golden age and then it goes downhill. I can not remember all the stages but according to the professor the United States is in the final stage of democracy. The author, if I remember correctly, seemed to say the next stage was dictatorship. Have you ever heard of such a theory? Ava