Education: What is it worth to you?

By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 02, 2014

Sometimes I see this bumper sticker (more often in Belfast than Rockland): "Think Globally, Act Locally."

It's easy to shrug a message like that off or not even really think about it. However, some of the books I've been reading lately remind me that we think from a uniquely local perspective, as Americans, especially when it comes to education.

In the past few weeks I have been reading the book "I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban," by Malala Yousafzai. I'm sure you've heard at least part of her story in the news, and I would recommend the book.

Malala grew up in a small, beautiful valley in Pakistan with both cultural and family ties to Afghanistan. She paints this picture of her father as a wonderful, courageous idealistic optimist who runs a school. So open-minded is this Muslim man that he was willing to educate both boys and girls at his school, even though there are some militant and fanatical people around him who oppose educating girls. Not only that, he educated rich and poor, took in homeless children and offered hospitality to any who knocked on his door.

Growing up with these ideals, Malala became a champion of education and women's rights. In her homeland, women in more liberal households can at least go with their faces uncovered, but even in the best of circumstances, most women are denied education, a chance to work or have a career and sometimes even choice in who they marry. The birth of a baby boy is celebrated while that of a girl is not (unless she has a dad like Malala's). For some reason, the oddest thing struck me while I was reading this. They like to drink tea in her part of the world with milk. The milk goes to the boys first and the girls aren't allowed to have any. Imagine sexism that ingrained, to a point where the most mundane activities remind a woman of her lower status!

The Taliban was much more fanatical in the enforcement of these restrictions than was normal in her culture and country. They would require women to wear burqas covering their entire body like an outer shell and allowing them to view the world only through a mesh screen at the eyes. In the heat, it's like walking around town under a blanket.

So Malala defiantly goes to school with other girls, seeks her education and speaks out in favor of it.

A young man, a Taliban soldier, shoots her in the head. Miraculously, she survives the point-blank shooting and continues to advocate for education rights.

Contrast this perspective on education with that of the average American student, or maybe even a parent or citizen.

When I was a kid, I was more of a Bart Simpson. I skipped school on several occasions, starting in the fourth grade. While that led to some pretty funny stories, it also shows how spoiled and pampered I was as an American. When I was a kid, we thought school was kind of a drag. Homework kept us from watching our favorite shows, playing Atari or zoning out to MTV. Since public education was available to all, we didn't really appreciate it (and this is not an argument against public education by the way. Far, far, far from it). Rather, I would like to see us start to appreciate what we have.

Today's students have far more distractions, and they probably lack a global perspective. Many of the young people I know and have talked to would far rather watch a 3D movie, play XBox or watch TV (anything you want, streamed onto your 47-to-55-inch flat screen day or night) than stick their noses in a book.

Their parents are busy working to pay for the "typical" middle class American lifestyle. All of those skyrocketing grocery bills, increased fuel and utility bills, cellphone plans and car payments require a good job that demands a lot of energy. Parents, by the end of the work day, are often spent, and fighting with their kids to get them off the game console and onto homework may be the last thing they need.

However, it's more important than ever. Some students in other countries, where school is considered a privilege, or maybe even a luxury, are starting to pull ahead.

Consider this headline and lead from Dec. 2 in the Washington Post:

"U.S. students lag around average on international science, math and reading test. Scores in math, reading and science posted by 15-year-olds in the United States were flat while their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces or countries — soared, according to the results of a well-regarded international exam..."

I was fortunate to have parents who valued education. They pushed me to become a reader and get good grades. They encouraged me to go to the University of Maine and continue that education. They did not have the opportunity to go to college themselves, and that gave them some perspective. They saw the value of education.

Looking around as I shop and work in Rockland, I see the writing on the wall for unskilled, uneducated workers in the future. The stores have self-checkout machines. They're clunky now, but they will get better. The fisheries we depend on are vulnerable to environmental pressures.

Thirty years ago, anyone who wanted to work could find a job somewhere. People used to pump gas and work in sardine factories. Where are those jobs today, and how far would those paychecks go today at the supermarket?

The message is clear. Young people, teens, kids in the elementary schools and especially parents need to prioritize education.

While we all enjoy "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," it's time to grow up and think globally.

Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, and two children. He can be reached at or 594-4401 ext. 122.

Comments (2)
Posted by: RUTH ROWLING MAXFIELD | Jan 04, 2014 19:55

IMHO (while I am not at all humble, I *am* very opinionated) . . . I wonder if we might lay much of our country's decline - educationally, fiscally, in sound leadership, etc - at the feet of our Congress, our Supreme Court and, yes, our current and recent past presidents? (And so - to ourselves who hold the ballots in our hands).  It all DOES 'trickle down' . . and we at the head of the cove are getting a lot of garbage washed upon us!  We see it in our student's national test scores, in our local, county and state governments . . in the popular media . . . even in our print 'news'.  (Who 'edits' for spelling and grammar before everything goes to print?  Most entities seem to cut even the most important areas to 'save money').  Bah!  Give us a solid product of which we can all be proud and just watch us support it!  Schools, businesses, governments . . . all.

Laffin' . . . . I got a box of chocolates recently . . the box the same size and shape as dozens over the years.  I happened to notice . . in quite fine print . . that the box held 12 oz. of candy.  I swear . . this is the exact same size and shape box I have always been gifted . . . . but the others were 1 lb. boxes.  HOW STUPID DO THEY THINK WE ARE?  Big business . . big government . . . big everything.  Bah!


"Belief" in our government . . . in our institutions . . . in our own elected or duly appointed officals is fast waning.  Sometimes I feel a bit ashamed of us.  I hate that feeling.  ~ ~ sigh ~ ~

Posted by: GAIL HAWES | Jan 03, 2014 12:51

Thank-you very much for this article, Dan. As a parent of two children who have dual citizenship with the US and a European country, and as a former school board member, I have had this conversation with many people in various functions. It's frustrating to see the lack commitment and investment in education, and the lack of motivation and self-discipline in so many students. We have become complacent, but the world is changing around us. For the last decade we have seen other countries outpacing the US in math and science. After having worked in the sciences abroad, I really began to see the differences.

Our schools are trying to do more with less money. We can lay some blame on the education system, but on the system as a whole and the bureaucracy it has become. The teachers take the blame, but that is often the last place to be looking. The whole system is broken. We have some top-notch educators who have been ham-strung by a broken system. I have seen a major down-turn in the quality of education since NCLB and before. All students are lumped and taught homogeneously. The lowest in the classes must learn or there is a financial penalty to the schools if they don't, but there is no converse that brightest academically must also learn at their pace. It is a bad myth that the brightest will be ok no matter what you throw at them. They also are at risk of checking out and losing the enthusiasm for school too. I said when my oldest was in kindergarten many years ago when they were rolling out NCLB, we will see an overall lowering of our scores because the masses will move only at the pace of the slowest to learn. We need to go back to teaching kids at their levels, and accept that not all kids will learn at the same pace, nor will all students be interested in the same things. We need to teach ALL kids to their ability and interests, and foster that love of learning for what they truly want to learn, in the way they learn best. That is not the same for all kids. Anyone who has kids knows that. I'm willing to bet that in any family with more than one child, a parent will tell you they do things differently with each of their children.

Families all need to take their responsibility in educating their kids too. I remember so many things that I learned, not only from school, but from my parents and my grandparents. In fact, some of the most valuable things I learned came from them. Hard work, determination, and to look no further than the end of your arm for a handout. Education really needs to be a partnership between the teachers and the families. Teachers need to be allowed to teach (not cook out of a cookbook with all these canned curriculum programs). Good teachers need to be paid accordingly and well. Teachers who are not doing very well should be held accountable. Parents need to know and understand what is going on with their kids at school and support that at home. Kids should be coming to school ready to learn and ready to follow the expectations. When they don't follow expectations, they shouldn't be allowed to disrupt the process for the rest, but rather the parents then need to be held accountable. It's a two-way street.

You are absolutely correct to point out that other places in the world do not have the same luxury. Education really is a privilege that we should value and protect.

If you wish to comment, please login.