Change an Immigrant’s Life Today

— by Donna De La Cruz

eslWe are excited to partner with Revolution English to empower immigrants in the United States by helping them to learn English.

Revolution English needs volunteer English Conversation Tutors to have a one-hour conversation session with students once a week. This is where YOU come in!

You can help provide courageous students who dare to speak a new language with the support to practice and make mistakes without being judged or punished. We will train you and provide ongoing support.

It’s easy: all you need is an internet connection and a willingness to help immigrants learn English. You can choose times that are convenient for your schedule and you can connect from the comfort of your home.

What are you waiting for? Please volunteer! Your time will change the lives of immigrants that call this country their home.

Thank you,

Donna De La Cruz
Reform Immigration FOR America

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Now Available: A Library of Opportunity

What if we could ensure that every student, no matter where they live or the income of their parents, could get access to a great book?  What if they had access to not just one book, but a library of thousands of titles – and could read them from anywhere?

We’ve taken a big step toward that vision thanks to Open eBooks, a stakeholder-driven project that the President highlighted last April, and that after months of hard work by a team of libraries, publishers, and non-profits, is launching nationwide today. For millions of America’s kids, Open eBooks can be a passport to a world of learning and opportunity – delivering over $250 million of reading material to students who need it most, and introducing them to a love of reading.

Why is this so important?  Ask Colin Rogister, who helps lead the Administration’s ConnectED initiative. Colin began his career as a 2nd grade teacher at a low-income elementary school in California, where he taught Marlene, a DREAMer whose parents emigrated from Mexico to find a better life. An advanced reader, it only took Marlene a few months to finish every chapter-book in Colin’s classroom. If she had been able to access a resource like Open eBooks, she would have had thousands of popular and award-winning books at her fingertips. Stories like Marlene’s help inspire efforts like Open eBooks.

The President said it best:

“No matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you’ve got, you should be able to access the world’s knowledge and information just like anyone else.”

–President Obama, Anacostia Library, April 30, 2015
Open eBooks helps advance ConnectED’s vision of seizing every opportunity technology affords to ensure students, inside and outside the classroom, have access to the best teaching and learning. Thanks to President Obama’s leadership, we’ve already cut the connectivity divide in half in schools. Meanwhile, more students than ever – at all income levels – have access at school or home to a digital device, whether a tablet, laptop, or mobile phone. According to a national survey, 85 percent of families with young children (6-13 years old) living below the poverty line have access to mobile devices. That translates into a unique opportunity to deliver more and better content to students with a hunger to learn.

Open eBooks is not a federal program; it was created by a breakthrough coalition of literacy, library, publishing, and technology organizations who worked together over the past year to make the initiative possible. This team – Digital Public Library of America, First Book, and The New York Public Library with content support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor – created the app, curated the eBook collection, and developed a system for distribution and use. They received support for development of technology critical to the app from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and content contributions from ten major publishers — including today’s big announcement that National Geographic will include all its age-appropriate content in the app.

But they can’t do this alone. To make sure students can take advantage, they need the help of a responsible adult — those who work with children in need through libraries, schools, shelters and clinics, out-of-school programs, and early childhood programs; and those who work primarily with students in military families. This includes teachers, librarians, after-school counselors, and others primarily serving students in need. Students with codes can then download the free Open eBooks app to mobile devices from their mobile app store and enter their access code to start enjoying Open eBooks.

For more information on how to sign up and to connect young people with the eBooks they need, visit www. OpeneBooks.net.


R. David Edelman
Special Assistant to the President for Economic and Technology Policy


Hillary on Flint Water Crisis

For months, government officials in Michigan have been scrambling to address the fallout of the man-made water catastrophe in Flint that poisoned thousands of mostly low-income people of color. While many Americans believe that racism can be boiled down to a sin marked by slurs and men burning crosses under the cover of night, Flint serves as a stark reminder that racism is in the air we breathe, flowing freely into our homes.


 

— a request from Hillary Clinton

For two years, the people of Flint, Michigan, complained that their water was murky, that it smelled bad, that bathing in it gave them rashes — and for two years, they were told they were wrong, and that their water was safe. But it wasn’t. It was poisoned, and the children of Flint were drinking it.

I traveled to Flint last weekend at the invitation of Mayor Karen Weaver to talk with residents and community leaders. The people I met were passionate, thoughtful, and tireless — one 6-year-old came to our meeting, and his mom spoke about how she’d tried so hard to shield her son from the ills of the world, only to learn she’d been giving him baths in poisoned water.

What happened in Flint is the cruelest kind of indifference, and an affront to what we stand for as a nation. Clean water is not optional, and it’s not a luxury — it’s a basic human right. The children of Flint are just as deserving of bright futures as the children of any other community. And today, those children need our help.

If you can, please chip in to support the Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which is working to provide health care and educational support to families in Flint affected by this crisis. We know that lead poisoning can affect kids for their whole lives, so 100 percent of your donation will help provide ongoing services for the next 20 years to the most vulnerable families in Flint:

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We need to keep talking about Flint, and we need to make sure that every child in this country can grow up to reach his or her God-given potential — no matter where they come from, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents make. Thank you for standing with me in this fight and so many others. Thank you for doing your part to help the children of Flint.

 

Fraud, Waste, and Lies: Charter Schools Cheating Communities Out of Millions of Dollars

New report warns that, due to lack of oversight, ‘vast majority of the fraud perpetrated by charter officials will go undetected’

— by Sarah Lazare, staff writer

CharterFraud
“Charter schools act like they have a ‘get out of accountability free’ card,” said Jonathan Stith, spokesperson for the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. (Image courtesy of report)

Accepting and soliciting bribes. Diverting public funds for personal profit. Lying about the number of students. These are just a few examples of the fraud and malfeasance committed by charter school officials—cheating communities out of millions dollars that were supposed to go to education, a new report finds.

The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse (pdf) was released Tuesday by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) and the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD).

It concludes that, in 15 states alone—a third of states with charter schools—such waste cost more than $200 million.

This number is significantly higher than estimates released last year by CPD, which identified at least $136 million lost to fraud and waste. The revised figure of $203 million includes “all of the cases from the 2014 report, $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in additional cases not included in the 2014 report,” the study states.

“Charter schools act like they have a ‘get out of accountability free’ card,” Jonathan Stith, spokesperson for AROS, said in a press statement. “Two-hundred-million dollars that was supposed to go to schools and classrooms is just gone. And that’s likely to be the tip of the iceberg, given the lack of transparency or standards applied to charter schools.”

However, the report warns, “The number of instances of serious fraud uncovered by whistleblowers, reporters, and investigations suggests that the fraud problem extends well beyond the cases we know about. According to standard forensic auditing methodologies, the deficiencies in charter oversight throughout the country suggest that federal, state, and local governments stand to lose more than $1.4 billion in 2015.”

“The vast majority of the fraud perpetrated by charter officials will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud,” the report adds.

The report cited numerous examples of such transgressions in charter schools from California to Ohio, including the case of a Washington, D.C. institution, highlighted in a summary of the findings:

“The DC Public Charter School Board unanimously revoked the charter of Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School—which enrolled 1,600 students across three campuses and an online academy—after the school’s founder, Kent Amos, was accused of diverting funds from the school for his personal profit. Despite evidence that Amos—who is currently being sued by the DC Attorney General—diverted more than $14 million from the school in the last 10 years, the DC Public Charter School Board pointed to their limited ability to oversee for-profit management companies, which are often intertwined with non-profit charter schools and face no requirements to disclose salaries or other pertinent information that could prevent rampant fraud.”

The release of the report comes amid growing nation-wide concerns about the dramatic expansion of charter schools and mounting evidence that this trend leads to greater racial inequality and segregation in education.

CC-BY-SAThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Nevada BluePrint

NV-Blueprint002

— by Senator Aaron D Ford, Senate Democratic Leader and
     Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Assembly Democratic Leader

As Nevada Democrats, we share a core belief: Every Nevadan deserves a fair shot at the American Dream. That starts with a quality education, and it includes access to  good jobs that can support a family, a safe community in which to live, and a secure retirement.  Achieving the dream is not a guarantee – it requires personal accountability and hard work – but it also should not be impossible.

Nevadans have a natural instinct for hard work and ingenuity. In the 2015 Legislative Session, Democrats’ focus is on creating opportunities that lay the necessary foundation for Nevadans to improve their personal economic security.

We must ensure that those who work hard and play by the rules are rewarded for it – whether that means having access to affordable higher education, or the ability to buy a home, raise a family, and retire with peace of mind. We must also ensure that the middle-class families who suffered most during the Great Recession will not be punished again as we transition into a 21st-Century Nevada.

Democrats are at the table ready to work and look forward to honest conversations, fair hearings, and debates on our ideas to address the needs of all Nevadans. If we come together now to put middle-class families first, then our future is undeniably bright.  To that end, we offer our Nevada Blueprint – an agenda outlining our principles and legislative goals that will help every Nevadan reach their own American Dream – from childhood to retirement. We hope you’ll join us in working to achieve these goals on behalf of all Nevadans.

Read or download the full document from Scribd:

FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES: Stealing America’s Future

David Halperin, Stealing America’s Future, joins Thom Hartmann to discuss what’s happening with for-profit colleges. As the cost of a higher education goes up – more and more Americans are turning to for-profit colleges to get what they think is more bang for their buck. But are for-profit colleges really just a big scam fueled by a never-ending supply of student loan debt?

It’s Time for Voters to Take Out the Senatorial Trash

— by Vickie Rock, Humboldt Dems Secretary and proud Navy Veteran

Today, S1982 came up for a vote in the Senate. S1982 is the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.  S1982 amends federal veterans provisions revising or adding provisions concerning medical services and other benefits provided to veterans and/or their dependents through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the following areas:

  • survivor and dependent matters, including benefits for children of certain veterans born with spina bifida;
  • education matters, including the approval of courses for purposes of the All-Volunteer Force and the Post-9/11 Educational Assistance programs;
  • the expansion and extension of certain health care benefits, including immunizations, chiropractic care, treatment for traumatic brain injury, and wellness promotion;
  • health care administration, including extension of the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Professional Scholarship Program, and
  • complementary and alternative medicine;
  • mental health care, including an education program and peer support program for family members and caregivers of veterans with mental health disorders;
  • dental care eligibility and expansion, including a program of education to promote dental health in veterans;
  • health care related to sexual trauma, including appropriate counseling and treatment and a screening mechanism to detect incidents of domestic abuse;
  • reproductive treatment and services, including fertility counseling as well as adoption assistance for severely wounded veterans;
  • major medical facility leases;
  • veterans’ employment training and related services;
  • veterans’ employment, including within the federal government and as first responders;
  • career transition services;
  • employment and reemployment rights of members of the Armed Forces after active duty service;
  • small business matters, including contracting and subcontracting participation goals with federal departments and agencies;
  • administrative matters, including regional support centers for Veterans Integrated Service Networks;
  • the revision of claims based on military sexual trauma as well as claims for dependency and indemnity compensation;
  • jurisdictional matters, including with respect to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims;
  • the revision of certain rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, including protections with respect to the expiration of professional licenses, a prohibition on the denial of credit or the termination of residential leases due to military service, and the temporary protection of surviving spouses under mortgage foreclosures; and
  • outreach and miscellaneous matters, including: (1) repeal of the provision of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 that reduces the cost-of-living adjustment to the retirement pay of members of the Armed Forces under age 62, and (2) the accounting for discretionary accounts designated for overseas contingency operations/global war on terrorism.

When the bill came up for a vote, we witnessed pure unadulterated partisanship run amok as 41 reprehensible members of the REPUBLIBAN displayed their disdain, not support, for our troops and voted against passage of S1982:

Alexander (R-TN) . Ayotte (R-NH) . Barrasso (R-WY) . Blunt (R-MO) . Boozman (R-AR) . Burr (R-NC) . Chambliss (R-GA) . Coats (R-IN) . Coburn (R-OK) . Cochran (R-MS) . Collins (R-ME) . Corker (R-TN) . Cornyn (R-TX) . Crapo (R-ID) . Cruz (R-TX) . Enzi (R-WY) . Fischer (R-NE) . Flake (R-AZ) . Graham (R-SC) . Grassley (R-IA) . Hatch (R-UT) . Hoeven (R-ND) . Inhofe (R-OK) . Isakson (R-GA) . Johanns (R-NE) . Johnson (R-WI) . Kirk (R-IL) . Lee (R-UT) . McCain (R-AZ) . McConnell (R-KY) . Paul (R-KY) . Portman (R-OH) . Risch (R-ID) . Roberts (R-KS) . Rubio (R-FL) . Scott (R-SC) . Sessions (R-AL) . Shelby (R-AL) . Thune (R-SD) . Toomey (R-PA) . Vitter (R-LA)

It’s one thing to shut down our Government because they don’t want to pay the bills that they authorized and that they had already incurred.  It’s another thing entirely when they send our children to unwarranted wars and then refuse to provide necessary funding to support healthcare for the injuries of war incurred, PTSD, sexual trauma, traumatic brain injuries, et.al.  Our troops should never be thrown out with the trash like these Tartufes did today.  This is an election year.  It’s time for voters across this nation to take out the Senatorial trash.

College Kickstart

by Kate Marshall, NV State Treasurer

KateMarshallIf you have not already heard the news, yesterday, I announced the statewide launch of Nevada’s College Kick Start program!

The Nevada College Kick Start program establishes $50 in a college savings account for every kindergarten child in Nevada’s public schools.  This year approximately 35,000 accounts will be opened with the goal of creating a college bound culture here in Nevada.

Studies have shown that children who have a college savings account in their name are 7 times more likely to attend an institution of higher learning. It is important to note that even a small account improves a child’s determination and preparedness for college and higher education, regardless of family income, ethnicity, or the educational attainment of the child’s parents.

The accounts (funded without tax payer dollars) will accrue interest for 13 years and can only be used for qualified higher education expenses at any institution in the United States.  The Nevada College Kickstart program will also encourage families to begin saving for college earlier rather than later.

According to The Future Ready Project,

“81% percent of U.S. jobs are middle- or high-skilled – and require at least some postsecondary education, be it a two-year or four-year degree, technical certification,  apprenticeship or another training program.”

Yet, only 30% of Nevadans have a postsecondary education according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce.

With the costs of a college education escalating it is important to reachout to Nevada’s hard working families and offer a path for their children’s future. Nevada families that open a college savings account are also eligible to receive matching funds up to $300 a year.

The Nevada College Kickstart is just one step in a series in our progress towards making Nevada a premier state to learn, live, and play.

Thank you for letting me take time to share with you this important program. And — if you would like to learn more here is the Washington Post write up on my program or visit collegekickstart.nv.gov

A ‘No Excuse’ Approach to Education Everyone Can Support

by Jeff Bryant

“No excuse” has been a mantra from people who present themselves as advocates for “reforming” America’s public schools. And the term is a “pillar of more than one popular charter school franchise.

The term originated from the belief that “the schoolteacher’s age-old excuse” was that factors outside the classroom – such as “not enough money, indifferent parents, kids arriving at school not ready to learn, and bureaucracy” – were reasons for poor test scores and school dropouts, rather than, focusing on the real, unaddressed cause of low achievement: teacher “malperformance.”

Over the last 20 years, “no excuse” has become the law of the land as state after state – incentivized by Obama administration policies such as Race to the Top – is now rolling out evaluation systems that make teachers the ones who are most accountable for rises and falls in student test scores.

Classroom teachers have raised the alarm, in increasingly louder voices, that blaming “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools” for systemic dysfunction in public education is not only unfair, it’s downright “dangerous.”

For sure, “no excuse” policies have led to numerous instances of talented teachers being unfairly fired.

Teachers have pointed out repeatedly that sourcing learning failures to multiple factors is not making “excuses.” They assert that making classroom teachers the primary targets for “accountability” is overly simplistic and ultimately detrimental to students because it causes teachers to engage in more test prep and to narrow the curriculum to what is most likely to appear on the tests.

“No excuse!” reply the “reformers.”

And back and forth it has gone. Until now.

Last week, the term “no excuse” was forever rebranded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. His use of the term, in the most honest way possible, was made necessary when faced with the blatant truth of what the nation is doing to its system of public education. And now we have a use for “no excuse” that everyone who cares about education can support.

A Fiasco In Philadelphia

Duncan wielded the term “no excuse” when confronted with the fiasco occurring in the public school system of Philadelphia.

In the past two months, Philadelphia public schools have sustained a fiscal one-two knock-out punch.

First a catastrophic “doomsday budget” was enacted by a state appointed commission that oversees the schools rather than a locally elected school board. The budget cuts essential school personnel such as counselors and safety officers; eliminates art, music and physical education programs; and provides unacceptably low funds for books, paper, and other supplies.

“The plan would institute unlimited class sizes and reserve the right for the district to contract out union jobs,” explained Andrew Elrod in Dissent. “Other clauses absolve the district of the responsibility for providing water fountains and educators’ desks.”

Layoff notices were promptly sent to over 3,800 district personnel, including hundreds of classroom teachers.

The second blow, as Daniel Denvir reported in Philadelphia’s City Paper, came from Pennsylvania’s conservative Republican governor Tom Corbett, who pushed through the state legislature an Orwellian named “rescue plan” that shorted Philadelphia schools even further, coerced city government to wring even more money from its low-income tax base, and permanently restructured the tax burden so even more financial responsibility would fall on the cash-strapped city.

The alarming nature of these funding cuts prompted education historian Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to write a letter to Duncan requesting his intervention. The letter, posted at Ravitch’s much-trafficked blog site, warned about what the cuts would do to the schools: “Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone.” They beseeched Duncan to “publicly intervene” because “the children of Philadelphia need your help. Do not let them down.”

A few days later, Duncan responded to this outreach. As reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, In his released statement, Duncan declared, “There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century.” (emphasis added)

In a separate interview at The Huffington Post, Duncan expanded his criticism. “I’m concerned about a lack of commitment, a lack of investment. … massive cuts and a loss to basic curricular offerings. … When you see all counselors, social workers, assistant principals, drama, art, music – everything being eliminated, what’s left? What’s left is not something that folks can feel proud of or good about.”

But “No excuse?” Really?

Hasn’t budget austerity routinely been the reason for closing schools and firing teachers? Weren’t educators supposed to make resource-deprived schools “work” despite what irresponsible legislators do to school budgets? Because, you know, it’s “all about the kids?”

Or perhaps, the situation in Philadelphia has revealed to Duncan, and others, just how badly America’s public schools are hurting and who really is to blame for the pain?

Philadelphia Story Long Time In Making

As Elrod reported in the Dissent piece, “Austerity is nothing new in Philadelphia, nor is the district’s insistence that teachers take the fall for budget deficits.”

Since 1981, conservative-minded budget sharks have gone after school funding, personnel, and teacher salaries in Philadelphia, especially after the state-created School Reform Commission took over in 2001 and effectively neutered the union and allowed the unilateral imposition of contracts. “Since then, perdurable budget deficits have eroded school district resources in a process accelerated by the recession,” Elrod stated.

In fact, as Ravitch and Weingarten noted in their letter to Duncan, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed “a budget that fails to adequately fund schools while at the same time dedicating $400 million for a new prison and pushing through a set of tax breaks for corporations. This is on top of $1 billion in education cuts over the past two years.”

The assault on the funding of Philadelphia’s public schools is not only longstanding – it’s intentional and engineered from outside the city.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains at his blog School Finance 101:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

There is indeed, to quote Duncan, “no excuse” for a public school system to be blatantly targeted for bankruptcy.

It’s Not Just Philadelphia

The situation with public education in Philadelphia follows a pattern that is becoming all too common across America.

As a financially burdensome model of school reform has been rolling out across the nation, draconian budget cuts have made it increasingly impossible for schools to adapt to the new terrain of high-stakes testing and the increased scrutiny of teachers.

As Bruce Baker notes in the same blog post cited above, there are other places, principally Chicago, where schools needing funding the most are enduring deep cuts. Baker wrote, “Chicago and Philly are consistently among the most screwed major urban districts – operating in states with the least equitable state school finance systems.”

Even in smaller municipalities, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn., the same dynamic is taking place, as state leaders carve out affluent white communities from racially mixed districts and leave the district – now made even more minority, even more low-income – with schools that get lower standardized test scores and fewer resources to help struggling students.

Competitive Pressures Don’t Help

As public schools are increasingly under the gun to meet strict mandates, seeing their budgets axed and services cut to the bone, charter schools and other types of privately operated education providers are being ramped up as competitive entities.

In such a competitive system, there will be increasing gaps between children and families who can manage the system and those who can’t. And there is no excuse for that disparity.

A more positive way forward would be to take the guidance offered earlier this year by an independent commission chartered by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education.

The Commission’s report, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” declared, “The federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility” to address inequality in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

And the report authors called on the federal government to take corrective action against “local finance and governance systems [that] continue to allow for, and in many ways encourage, inequitable and inadequate funding systems.”

It would be helpful if Duncan would heed this advice and explain what kinds of corrective actions his administration is prepared to take. In the meantime, telling state and local officials “no excuse” is at least a good start.

A “No Excuse” We Can Believe In

The idea that elected state and local officials and top public school administrators should not be the ones most accountable for what’s happening in America’s system of education – and that primarily classroom teachers, the most underpaid people in the system, should – seems crazy on its face. But that nevertheless has been the case.

As a Texas school superintendent, John Kuhn, wrote at the site of edu-blogger Anthony Cody,”no excuse” school reformers contend, “Accountability is only for the teachers.” Reformers never join into any “visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn.”

Duncan’s more honest use of “no excuse” changes that.

In his statement to the Pennsylvania officials overseeing the Philadelphia mess, Duncan urged, “We must invest in public education, not abandon it.”

So yes, “No excuse.”

When valued neighborhood schools are shuttered with no more justification than a press release, there’s no excuse.

When public school administrators are forced to cut learning opportunities that keep students safe, healthy, engaged, and supported. No excuse.

When teachers and parents have to speak out to prevent larger and larger class sizes…

When students walk out of school because their favorite subjects and teachers are cut…

When whole communities have to turn out into the streets to protest the plundering of the common good…

No excuse. No excuse. No excuse!


This work was published on Friday, July 12, 2013 by Campaign for America’s Future at Common Dreams and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License (Photo: Rally to save Philadelphia schools from Business Insider)

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

An Endangered Species Up in Arms

The number of students taking humanities courses is plummeting, and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

— by Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

As many of you already have intuited, I don’t know everything. Nobody does, I suppose. More importantly, I don’t know everything about anything.

I’m what used to be called “a generalist,” someone whose knowledge in any direction is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.

Sad to say, we generalists are an endangered species.

Everywhere, the pressure is on young people to specialize. They’re also being urged to concentrate on the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Why? These are disciplines that can predictably get you a job upon graduating from college.

A Florida task force last year went so far as to suggest that college courses in the humanities — literature, history, the social sciences, the arts — be made more expensive than STEM courses just to steer students away from them.

Kaul-Humanities-tom.belteThis idea has the humanities people up in arms.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead headed a study group of educators, business leaders, artists, and politicians that recently delivered a report to Congress decrying the attitude that studying the humanities and social sciences is a waste of time.

“This facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education,” he said.

The report comes at a time not when hordes of students are crowding into “wasteful” humanities classes, but rather when attendance in them is plummeting and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.

Our higher education system is forgetting what education is supposed to do in the first place.

I entered college as an engineering student — a mistake on the order of Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. I was lucky though. I made a last-minute escape to the English department where I was not only allowed to read novels for fun but also find out about things I was actually interested in — history, psychology, architecture, and the arts.

I hasten to add that I had no idea what I was going to do with this information. Neither did my father, a tool and die maker who wanted me to join one of the more practical professions — preferably dentistry. He wanted me to make a living without being in danger of killing someone.

That didn’t appeal to me either. Like many students (particularly English majors) of the 1950s, I wasn’t going to school merely to learn a trade. I was out to become an educated person — well-read, witty, sophisticated — like someone in a Noel Coward play.

Unfortunately, Coward never tells you how his people earn a living. When I graduated with my English degree firmly in hand I had no answer for my father’s question: “What now, bigshot?”

Thus, I drifted into journalism. It wasn’t an unfamiliar story in the newspaper business of the time. Back then, it served as a refuge for failed novelists, playwrights, and other flotsam bearing a liberal education.

The thing is, it worked out fine for me. I led an interesting life, had a lot of fun, and earned enough to raise a family in modest comfort. Moreover, at one time or another, I pretty much put to use everything I had learned in college.

And that’s my point — a point these STEM people miss — there’s nothing wrong with learning for its own sake. Knowledge doesn’t go to waste. It comes in handy somewhere along the line, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

I realize that the world now is a very different place from the one I grew up in. Back then, you didn’t have to be a hedge fund manager to work your way through school for one thing. But another difference is that workers today change jobs, even professions, four, five, or six times during their working lives.

Specialists who know only one thing might be left out in the cold when circumstances change. Generalists have the intellectual tools to adapt.

Actually, we’d be better off if more of our politicians had read a few more good novels. Or if perhaps they’d written a poem or two.

Knowing something is always better than knowing nothing.


OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org  Photo credit to Tom Belte/Flickr