Two inspiring young men from the past and present have helped to remind us that "back to school" doesn't make the grade anymore. It is "back to learning" that is required, whether in school or out, as Americans of all ages face unprecedented opportunities for learning -- and distractions from it.
Yesterday's young man was already a licensed preacher of the gospel when he resisted his own father's opposition to education and decided he had to find out what he didn't knw and learn about it. He was placed in the fifth grade, towering over his classmates and burning the midnight oil to the kidding of his contemporaries. They called him Mike then, but he became known as Martin Luther King Sr., father of civl rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In his just-published autobiography he evokes the special excitement of a mind expanding to see a world that had been closed to it by ignorance.
Today's young man was a voice on the radio. He had managed to get through school and some college without fully confronting the fact that he was esentially illiterate. What finally sent him back to learning was failing to understand some of the words his four-year-old recognized in children's books. Now he wants to teach others as one who knows what it is like to be illiterate in a literate society.
To kindle and serve the desire for learning long before adulthood is one fundamental challenge to parents, teachers, and government policy amid the ups and downs of America's presen educational transition period. Another basic challenge is to kindle and serve that desire all through the adulthood years as well.
Among the elements of the transition are the move away from segregated public education, the move toward more equitably financed public schools, the rise of unionization among teachers, the potential rise of federal involvement symbolized by the new Department of Education, the decline in the schoolage population, the inflation in school costs, the changing educational needs of an economy increasing based on service and information, the expansion of educational options through technology and alternative schools, the increase in black, Hispanic and other minorities.
All these matters and more have to be dealt with. Instances can be found of bette and worse ways of dealing with them. Controversy abounds, indeed, over what arem the better and the worse ways.
But what must not be lost in the fray is a sense of all sides that learning is something to be valued and respected. Then the controversies get put into perspective. As Milton wrote more than three centuries ago: "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."
Does this have to be said in a nation where so many not only to go school but to college? Where the women of whose education Abigail Adams despaired are in the educational mainstream? Where businessmen and professionals continually refresh themselves with forums and seminars? Yes, it is reported that even these many years after Mike King's father put down education there are places where it is not the thing among the young to want to learn.
Part of the cynicism is said to be due to a hopeless sense that there is not enough equitable opportunity to warrant the learning effort. And unquestionably the United States has miles to go in ensuring that minority status, for example, is not a block to opportunity for those prepared to take advantage of opportunity. But, without the preparation, opportunity can knock forever with nobody opening the door.
Farther along the age spectrum, there is another insidious argument against keeping up the desire to learn. What is there to learn for? Here lies one of the glorious opportunities in American education. It is the continuing education concept, fostered not only by video education and various institutions but by the availability of school buildings no longer needed for a smaller school-age population. Learning has the potentiality for becoming a community affair. It is not always necessary to learn for a purpose specified in advance. Just to know what one didn't know before, as Mike King discovered so long ago, has an excitement of its own.