If you want to talk about education in Mississippi, you need to prepare for a pretty depressing conversation. We're either in the top five or bottom five of every national education-related list—whichever end you don't want to be, there we are.
Early childhood education is nonexistent in much of the state, starting our children with an automatic disadvantage. Abstinence-only sex education continues to be the norm; while, strangely enough, teenage pregnancy continues to affect young people across the state. College preparedness is dismal in many areas. My best friend works for Education Services Foundation and travels to high schools across the state, bringing back horror stories of kids who still haven't even heard of the ACT. Meanwhile, university tuition is only becoming more expensive, and as the wealth divide continues to grow, the ability to earn a college degree (not to mention a graduate degree or higher) is becoming less attainable than ever.
But I want to take a minute to appreciate a few good things about Mississippi education.
St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Jackson State University, the University of Mississippi Medical School and Murrah High School are all making their way onto national lists for quality education. And then we have my alma mater, Millsaps College.
Back-to-school season stirs a lot of different emotions, depending on who you are. Dread at losing the long, lazy freedom of summer days. Anticipation at returning to regularly scheduled sports events. Excitement at the prospect of seeing friends every day. Most likely, people feel some combination of these emotions and others.
For me, the arrival of freshly bound sheaves of college-ruled paper on store shelves and bombardment of ads for dorm-room decor brings a yearning to go back to freshman year of college—to relive four of the best years of my life and to re-immerse myself in an environment dedicated to learning.
I have always loved learning. I checked out as many books as they would let me from my local library as a kid (literally, I reached the maximum check-outs and remember having to sit and choose which books I would leave behind). I remember the first time I really understood a calculus problem in high school—the moment when I wasn't just following the professor's instructions, but each step made sense in my head, leading me to the next step and on to the correct answer. That feeling of triumph, the thrill that goes through you when something clicks into place—that feeling is awesome. I've never been much of an athlete, but I imagine its something like scoring a touchdown.
Let's just call a spade a spade: I'm a nerd (but, you know, a cool one). And after high school, I was lucky to find myself in cool nerd heaven: Millsaps College.
It's the kind of place where teachers don't look at students as vessels to dump the requisite amount of information into before sending them out into the world. Rather, the best professors there see their students as collaborators and fellow discoverers. It often becomes the sort of relationship where mentor and peer begin to merge.
It's not uncommon to see Millsaps professors having a beer at Fenian's with current or former students, discussing anything from religion to politics to pop culture. I'm part of a group of graduates working in communication-related fields in Jackson who get together with the communication-studies professor about once a month to discuss news, media and more.
At Millsaps College, my professors' primary goal wasn't to teach me to construct a well-thought-out essay or analyze works of fiction, although I certainly became good at those things along the way. They didn't set out to teach me how to juggle five things at once and to manage when another got thrown at me, although I can certainly do that now, too.
The people at that school taught me to think for myself. They demanded nothing less. I learned to care about the world both across the globe and across the road. I learned about myself and what is important to me.
Of course, Millsaps is not perfect, and it may not even be the same school it once was. But when I attended, it was a school where people loved to learn. I found kindred souls there, people of all walks of life who crave knowledge the way I do.
Don't get me wrong. I understand that the cost of a private college such as Millsaps is prohibitive to many, many people (including some of the students that wind up there and end up leaving). It is an expensive school, and only becoming more so. The yearly tuition is up many thousands of dollars today from when I matriculated. The vast majority of students are those who can pay the high price tag, or those that are able to get scholarships.
So I'm not saying that the solution is for everyone to find a way to go to Millsaps College or even other schools like it, because a lot of students wouldn't get what I got out of the school.
What I wish is for everyone to have that same thrill I felt when calculus finally made sense, or when I started writing a paper and surprised myself with my own insights on a novel. I wish for them to look up from deep in a good book and realize two hours have passed without them noticing. I wish for people to find the school that fits them, that both supports and challenges them. That school may be different for each person.
Money for education in this state simply isn't where it should be, and people have drastically different opinions on how to fix that. The conversation will be hard, but to even get to that conversation, we have up decide once and for all that education is important—no, vital—to us.
Students have to want to learn. They have to treasure education. It's not something that can be taught, but it can be instilled. It takes all of us: students, teachers, parents, peers, friends.
We have to seek out teachers and professors who are exceptional and lift them up. We have to press upon our children the value of education. Show them the thrill of putting something together, of coming to a conclusion after real mental work. Tell them its cool to be nerdy. If kids can learn to love to learn, they've conquered half the battle.