Our greatest accomplishment?

By Martin Hackworth

GOAT (greatest of all time) is a catchy popular acronym. Greatest ballplayer, greatest artist, greatest musician – you name it and someone is talking about who’s the best of all time at it. I have my own nomination for GOAT, but it’s not an artist, athlete, scientist or even a person. It’s something, it’s quite common and in my opinion totally underappreciated. It’s the public education that’s available to every kid living in this country.

Public education is one of the greatest features of our democracy. In the USA we’ve built a system of pretty darned good schools for everyone. You daddy doesn’t have to be rich and you don’t have to take exams designed to weed out all but the best to get through 13 years of schooling that we all work together to make possible. Our system of public education isn’t perfect. But it is, at least in my observation, pretty darned good.

A tremendous benefit of public schooling is that kids like my son will be exposed to many influences while there. Kids have to learn to get along with a variety of others and are exposed to different expectations and styles — kind of like the world they’ll one day enter. Rich kid, poor kid, athlete, budding genius and perfectly average — all seated in the same classrooms. It’s the definition of a melting pot. One of my favorite features of going to school activities is meeting parents I know from the tire shop, the grocery store, the doctor’s office and all over the community. We’re all in it together – just like this country. And the fact that all of us have a say in what goes on in school makes the experience richer.

The world is a big place with lots of ideas floating around out there. I know that some ideas are better than others. But that’s a determination that’s ultimately up to each of us to discern for ourselves. Learning to evaluate ideas on the basis of facts and evidence is an essential skill in an enlightened democracy. School makes that possible – at least as long as schools are allowed to function as they should. I know that some parents imagine a world where little Johnny and little Suzie are never exposed to an idea that doesn’t cut it with mom and dad, but that’s simply not going to happen. You can run off to a charter or private school, but you can’t hide.

I don’t agree with everything my son is exposed to at school. But it’s my job as a parent to make the case for what I believe; then let the chips fall where they may. The last thing that I’m for is narrowing the types of ideas to which kids are exposed. As long, that is, as those ideas do not fly in the face of science and reason, and then pretend not to. Other than that bring it on.

I’m aware that not everyone feels this way. Increasingly there are movements to segregate kids in schools where they are exposed only to ideas and methods and others deemed proper and safe, and kept away from the hoi polloi. A lot of this is driven by religious, political or social mores. Good luck with that. I’d much rather that my son, JR, and his on-the-way little brother MJ, refine their abilities to deal with people who are different and sometimes problematic during the leisurely 13 years they spend in public school than when they meet their first roommate in college.

I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen in our local school system. Those folks do an awful lot with the resources that they have, which are less than great. A lot of JR’s teachers have been well above average. A few of them have been tremendous. When I sit down with him evenings to help him with his homework, I’m impressed with the quality of what he brings home. Some of what he’s studying is pretty sophisticated for seventh grade. He’s in good hands. The fact that I can go to work each morning with complete peace of mind that JR’s being well cared-for is really a benefit. I think that a lot of us take this for granted. But we shouldn’t.

I have no desire to send my kids to private or charter schools. I want them out there with the great unwashed masses learning what it’s like to be part of something in which you don’t always get your way and where you really aren’t any more special than anyone else — unless you prove it.

Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth is a physicist, writer and motorcyclist who lives in Pocatello.