Dirty Boots: Education, Alabama, and the Need for Grassroots Effort

About two weeks ago, I was helping a student do some research on her senior thesis, which I assign in English 12, when our efforts led us to US News & World Report‘s state-by-state rankings on quality of life, published earlier this year. Scrolling down the webpage to find information related to her topic, we found that Alabama is #3 in the nation for graduation rate, yet #45 in college readiness, #46 in NAEP reading scores, and #50 in NAEP math scores. And while our state’s Pre-K program was ranked #1, a fact that we enjoy sharing, we’re #39 for pre-school enrollment. This discovery prompted me to ask myself again, how can our state rank so high in its handling of four-year-olds and in its handing out of diplomas to eighteen-year-olds – the very beginning and the very end of the process – yet rank so low in what occurs between the two?

I don’t have an institutional solution to offer, and unlike some public voices, I won’t posit a guess as to who we can blame, castigate, and eventually run out of town. I will, however, assert there is an obvious problem to address, and it’s not one that gets lain at any one person’s feet. The simple fact is this: Alabama has a long-standing habit of of devaluing schools, education, and sometimes even intelligence. Nearly a hundred years ago, in the early 1920s, the Alabama State Department of Education published a report about something we still struggle with today: our education system has to be funded properly if it is going to function properly. Fifty years ago, in 1968, George Wallace made his now-famous anti-intellectual remarks about his disdain for “pointy-headed college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.” More recently, after state leaders had made some of the nation’s deepest education-funding cuts, Robert Bentley answered complaints by replying that teachers would just have to “do more with less.” Our education problems weren’t caused by one person, and they won’t be fixed by one person.

A year before George Wallace’s “pointy-headed college professors” remark, another Southerner, James Brown, was taking a very different stance on the issue of education in his 1967 song, “Don’t be a Dropout.” Lesser known than “Sex Machine” and “I Feel Good,” this socially conscious minor hit extolled listeners that “without an education / you might as well be dead.” Brown had grown up desperately poor in western South Carolina and eastern Georgia, and had spent time in prison. He knew firsthand what could happen to a young person who lacked direction, guidance, and job skills, and in an effort to help, he would visit schools during his tours and encourage young people to stay in school then get jobs.

Where I think we’ve strayed is in the assumption that education only occurs in classrooms. Whenever someone calls for year-round school, the rationale is almost always the loss of academic knowledge and skills during the summer. Whenever public figures delve into education, they always seem to offer up a school-based initiative or program. But those well-meaning efforts ignore what children learn outside of school from the everyday people all around them. Growing up, we learned how to do yard work and minor home repairs from our fathers and uncles, how to cook and clean from our mothers and grandmothers, and how to swim and ride a bicycle from other kids around the neighborhood. Everything that a child needs to know can’t be addressed in a structured academic setting— and that’s where family, neighbors, and friends come in.

Every adult can teach a child something. There is geometry in carpentry, chemistry in small motors, botany in yard work, and history in conversations. Before the practice was dubbed “culinary arts” by schools, it was called cooking, and someone in every house did it, and taught younger generations to do it. We can’t wait on schools and teachers to do all the work of educating children, and we can no longer afford to blame schools for not educating children. Put in real-world terms, you can’t learn to drive a stick-shift from a textbook, and you can’t learn to bait a fishhook from an app. Children can be made to understand the value of education if we show them what teaching and learning look like. And when they see education not as schoolwork but as practical learning that’s used in everyday life, then they will begin to ask, what else can you show me? 

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