Back-to-School Basics

EDUCATION, ideally, is a one-on-one experience. Or, as James Garfield said in 1871: ``Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [president of Williams College, 1836-1872] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.''

Many teachers can make each student in a classroom feel they are talking exclusively to her or him. But to a great extent, and by no one's particular fault, elementary and secondary education have strayed far from Garfield's idealization of a great educator.

We don't have to enumerate all the reasons why we cannot return to a culture that has vastly changed in the century about to end. But we do have to discover the right way to confront educational problems and restructure a public school system that has played a crucial role in making this nation what it is. The American philosophy of providing equal educational opportunity nationwide, while at the same time maintaining local control, is still basically sound and can continue to serve the welfare of the nation and its children.

Many innovations have been tried in the attempt to meet needs created by changes in society. Some, like Head Start for underprivileged youngsters, have met specific needs. But nothing beats the basics: skilled and dedicated teachers, strong school-parent relationships, inculcation of self-esteem, and yes, the advantages of an ever-growing body of knowledge and of the tools (computers, for instance), for exploiting it.

The United States public education system must regain its intellectual vigor. Its greatest need is for teachers who care deeply for the future of its children, but those teachers must be given adequate pay and public recognition for their excellence.

Both citizens and politicians who are not willing to dig deep into their pockets for this urgent cause must realize that the clich our children are the nation and the world's future - is simply the truth.

Parents cannot just pay their taxes and get the kids off to school. They must support the system - be aware of what's going on - and provide both aid and criticism when and where needed.

Americans don't want and don't need a ``national'' school system run, in effect, from Washington. They do need federal support, monetary and otherwise, in producing this era's equivalent of Mark Hopkins's log bench.

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