The Importance Of Education
( Originally Published 1924 )
THE people of the United States have been, perhaps on account of their democratic form of government, insistent on educational opportunities for all their children. Little by little that opportunity has widened and grown until free education through the high school is available almost everywhere, and college is within the reach of a constantly increasing number.
A large part of the population, however, has been satisfied with the knowledge that public education was being provided. They have never felt any personal responsibility in regard to it, nor have they been easy to convince of the need of further improvement and consequent further expenditure. It is a well-known fact that an increase in school taxes is usually resisted violently.
Some show their scant appreciation of education by their eagerness to start their children at work as soon as they pass the legal school-exemption age. Thousands of parents, in all kinds of homes, prove that they fail to realize that school is the all-important business of their children by their unwillingness to inconvenience themselves for the sake of the habits the school is trying to establish. They keep their children from school on the slightest pretext — the mother needs the child, the father wishes to have an extra week-end day in the country, or whatever it may be. Punctuality is of slight importance if the parents wish their breakfast later than is possible without infringing on school hours, or if an errand must be done in the morning. More than all else is their carelessness in interrupting study again and again (even while they blame the school for not "teaching concentration ") to have children do minor tasks that serve only to convenience slightly other members of the family.
Neither, unfortunately, do parents as a whole show an attitude toward school life that dignifies it in the eyes of their children.
There are even those who say that the limit of expenditure for education has been reached, and that improvement, if improvement comes, must come entirely in better value for the money expended.
And this despite the fact that the nation spends many times more for minor luxuries than it does for its schools. For example, it is estimated that in 1920 candy cost the nation as much as its entire bill for education, tobacco cost twice as much, even soft drinks cost one third as much, while all luxuries combined cost about seventeen times as much I It is also
despite the fact that education has turned back to the world, a thousand times over, all that has been put into it. What of the incalculable value of nature's forces and wealth that science is opening up? What of the return from better farming, from the increasing use of machines, from all the activities that depend, as all do, on trained men and women ?
Better return for our money is an excellent goal, but let it not be accompanied by niggardliness in withholding from education even that tithe of her production that is due her !
Evidently, up to this time the average citizen has not become an enlightened, determined and self-sacrificing advocate of superior education. He does know, theoretically, that it is a desirable thing. He quite seriously wishes his own children to be well educated, but to recognize lack of education as a national menace, to realize that a breakdown in our educational system would be as disastrous as a losing war, to see a setback to civilization itself, a catastrophe of overwhelming proportions, in any faltering in this tremendous machine — that is still beyond him.
The reasons why we cannot sense the magnitude and importance of education are many. But this perhaps is the dominant one.
We cannot see an immediate material return for the expenditure of effort and money put into it. In any business undertaking, if a new machine can take the place of an old one with increased efficiency and earning power, the old machine is scrapped without compunction. The extra cost is justified because it is "good business." Yet a board of education one spring actually refused to buy a lawn-mower to keep the school grounds in order on the plea that lawn-mowers were cheaper in the fall. That is a fair sample of much of the unbusinesslike reasoning concerning school matters, whether of equipment or of personnel.
It is true the dividends from an investment in schools are sometimes deferred, but they are always cumulative.
What chance do you suppose a country without efficient education will have in the economic struggles of the rest of this century ? What will happen to the town or city whose schools fall below the efficiency of those in competing communities ?- The answer is obvious.
As a matter of fact, there is even an immediate material return — an actual dollar-and-cent return. It comes, if education is really sound, through a more enlightened citizenship, a better administration of public and private business, more effective publicity and better conditions to justify it, a higher average of earning power, less expenditure for jails, alms-houses, and other such institutions — in fact, in a better community, industrially as well as humanly.
Just consider for a moment the colossal folly of building up great and wealthy communities with paving- and sewer- and water-systems, with telephones, gas, electricity, and street cars, with towering buildings and the business and manufacturing they house, with communications by land and water, perhaps even by air, and yet failing to train in the most efficient way possible those who must manage it all !
If you owned a business the management of which you must give up one year from to-day, what would you do during the coming year ? Wouldn't you bend every energy toward preparing a capable successor to carry it on? Would you spare time or effort or money in that attempt? Of course you would n't. You couldn't afford to.
We own this United States of ours, and soon, pain-fully soon, we all shall have completely stepped out from its management — from our personal affairs as well as from those of greater importance. We shall be gone, our only influence that which survives after we are dead.
Stop and think for a moment: Not one single brain of all those directing human activities today will be here in a few years.
But there is one saving factor. We know we are going; we know who are to step into our places; we can, if we will, prepare them to achieve far beyond what we are doing.
Can we afford to? We can't afford not to.
Will it pay? Yes, a thousand times. Yes, even in our own lifetime, when the initiates are only getting ready; but in the future, to civilization, to the human race, who shall measure what it means? While against it there stands only an unwillingness to meet the issue, a weak postponement of action, or a "penny wise and pound foolish" policy that we should have outgrown long ago.
Let us throw off our lethargy and demand a practical, constructive improvement in educational opportunity that will rapidly bring about a condition where all the children of all the people will be able to have the best education that experts can plan.