An immigrant engineer from India told me: “You need to understand. Education is the universal passport.” He arrived in New York as part of the post-1965 brain drain with a good education and a few dollars, and his education passport opened his path toward United States citizenship. His hard work, knowledge, skills, and drive, along with those of recipients of the GI Bill following World War II, empowered amazing American economic growth. They gained a secure foothold on the ladder to the American dream and built a middle class. Superior education-stamped passports are now required for all our young people.
During my research in India, kids surrounded me on village paths, primarily to practice English language skills. English is currently the international language of education, commerce, and technology. Groups followed me chattering in English about Indiana, Indianapolis, our major products, and other school lessons. Their enthusiasm and diligence taught me that American kids must pull their socks up and get serious about learning. Millions of kids around the world study hard to get ready for emerging opportunities.
Unskilled manufacturing jobs supporting middle-class lifestyles of previous American generations are disappearing. Brawn and low cognitive skills are inadequate. Mechanization, computers, robots, and developing technologies replace them everywhere. Those who design, build, and manage evolving supply chains need advanced education, training and skills in order to avoid minimum wage jobs and poverty. A high school only education or less is a ticket to a declining standard of living. Higher cognitive, technological and social/emotional requirements already govern the workforce. Effective education/training and a capacity for life-long learning are required to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.
Many Montgomery County youth are blessed with needed resources and are preparing for bright futures. An increasing number are not. The bar for pathways to success are rising, whereas social barriers increase. Predictors of future misfortune include unstable home life, lack of family encouragement and support, inadequate schools and training from childhood through adulthood, addictions to drugs and alcohol, license in place of discipline, playing games rather than studying and pursuing ephemeral celebrity or pleasure instead of long-term success. Resulting destructive effects are strengthened by negative peer pressure, poverty, discrimination and community neglect. It takes an entire village to prepare children for our uncertain future. Through aligning a common vision and a collaborative approach, our village/Crawfordsville can do better.
Contemplate these actions:
Pregnant women/family: Avoid drugs and alcohol and other harmful behaviors. Regularly access pre-natal care.
Community: Support excellent pre-natal healthcare at low-cost or no-cost when needed.
Parents/caregivers: Provide safe and secure homes that encourage and support children. Read to babies and toddlers. Provide age-appropriate educational materials.
Community: Provide good healthcare and preschool learning experiences, including free or reduced fees for preschools if required.
We expect too much from teachers and schools and colleges. Schools are not equipped to deal with the ugly societal scars students bring to school every day.
Our entire village: Encourage and support excellence in all public-school teachers, administrators and students. Encourage administrators and teachers’ associations to negotiate reward systems for excellent teachers and procedures to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. Provide tutors for students who are at risk of falling behind. Arrange reading clubs and after-school learning opportunities in libraries, schools and clubs. Prepare for success in our global-linked context by study and exposure to other nations and cultures. Create classes in other languages in the early grades. Open appropriate paths to careers after high school for both college-bound students and those seeking other positions. Donate need-based scholarships in addition to valuable merit-based scholarships already available to our high flyers. Support adult role models and organizations that display and encourage the social skills, character, ethics, and morals that inspire, motivate and empower all education for flourishing of the individual and society.
Few will keep one job with one company for an entire career, and those who do must adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Opportunities for life-long learning are essential. ‘Up-skill’ to gain new knowledge and skills for current tasks and ‘re-skill’ to develop capabilities for new roles are the emerging models for continued success. Learning how to learn provides the foundation. A basic presupposition is that one does not learn in order to know a few things; instead, one knows in order to learn more.
Community leaders can engage the entire village in developing community vision, aspirations for the future, effective strategies and commitments aligned with realities, and evolving requirements for success. Details of a community-wide effort are beyond the scope of this column. Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, do something.
August 26, 2020
Raymond B. Williams, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus Wabash College, contributed this column.