The academic calendar that traditionally begins Labor Day week exerts a powerful force on the public - in many ways more compelling and lasting than the Gregorian calendar that starts Jan. 1.
The new year is the time for resolutions. But the school year is the moment of commitments to learning, progress, investments in education that will determine the cultural and financial course of our lives.
This fall, some 33 million Americans are enrolling at the nation's schools and campuses, teaching, or working as administrators. Many more millions of Americans are secondarily involved as parents of school-goers, or are themselves enrolled in adult education programs. Then there are the taxpayers with their own special interest in school costs and productivity. And the larger societal interest in whether flagging student performance is weakening the US competitive position in the world.
Education became a major public issue in 1983. Education is primarily a local government function. But topics like merit pay for teachers, longer school days, basics vs. a wide variety of subjects, have moved into presidential candidate jockeying for next year's election.
Much of the discussion about schools has grown negative. Remedies must of course be found for many of the education system's problems. But before taking these up it is important to remember that learning remains ultimately an individual experience. Learning is both the opportunity and responsibility of the individual.
To argue that the tens of millions starting to school and campus now must wait entirely on the repair and improvement of the education system later would be unfair. It would further dampen spirits. It would ignore the measure of good the system is already achieving. It would fix attention on the band of problems without holding in view the broader learning spectrum, in which the American system compares more than favorably with others in the world.
It is asking much to suggest that those disadvantaged by the quality of their schools - whether students, parents of students, or faculty - will have to compensate for their disadvantage with their own inventiveness and industry. But there is a tradition for this too in this society.
In the long run, the overriding educational issue may come down to teachers' salaries as a reflection of the value Americans put on learning. The average starting salary for teachers in 1981-82 was $12,669, at least $2,600 less than for graduates in other fields, including liberal arts and business administration. How can the public expect $13,000-a-year teachers to educate students who can outearn them so decisively in the marketplace?
At the moment, the individual starting back to school this fall does have the reawakened national commitment to education behind him as a motivating force, if he views it this way. The heads of six universities - Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin - met last month to seek new joint ventures between their universities and public schools and teachers. States and communities are launching special task forces.
The public itself remains divided over issues like the high school curriculum. About half want fewer, more basic courses. Almost as many (43 percent) favor a wide choice of subjects, according to the Gallup Poll.
But it is of one view on education itself as a national priority. Developing the best education system in the world outranks having the most efficient industry or the strongest military force. This commitment should help motivate the individual to find his own success in academic year 1983-84.