Ask just about anyone, and they'll agree: Education is in a bizarre place. In most cases, though, the person you ask will follow up their answer with something about the federal or state government, or they'll say something about Jackson Public Schools, even if they truthfully don't know much or don't have much skin in the game.
I'm not talking about that. Not yet, anyway. Here, I'm talking about a problem that stems from the way that we've misrepresented the value of education, most of the time without us even realizing it.
We've all known people who would probably say they understood that education has some sort of value, but they sure didn't show it. When I was a student at Brandon High School, I had plenty of classmates who would pay little attention during lectures, forget every homework assignment (or write it as the teacher picked it up) and still complain that tests were too difficult. If they were gifted "multiple-guessers," they might have scraped out Cs, but if you asked them anything about chemistry now, they'll be lucky if they remember what H2O means. It's like the guy who grew up in church but forgot everything except the lyrics to "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." OK. Good work, but that won't come in handy as often as you might think.
Growing up playing music, I noticed the problem was a little worse for some of my friends who were also musicians. It was rarely because they had the delusional "I won't need this when I'm a rock star" mindset or because it just wasn't hardcore to enjoy math. It also wasn't that they couldn't foresee a career for themselves that would use what we learned in high school. More often, they just couldn't foresee a lasting career for themselves, at all. Need money now. Education can wait.
To better explain why, I submit to you Milton Bradley's "The Game of Life." Ignore the brightly colored tiles that make it to where you, who are currently bankrupt and have three kids, would for some reason throw a $50,000 gala, and there is actually a valuable lesson in there. One of the first major decisions that a player has to make at the start of the game comes at a massive fork in the road: You can take the costly college route, or you can take the quick-and-easy career path and start making money now.
In the context of the game, the choice seems like a no-brainer. Yeah, I'm dropping $100,000 to go to college, but hey, I get more career options at the end. I could become a doctor, and I know I'll multiply that 100 grand many times over by the end of my short, child-filled life. The missus and I will be retired and sipping sangrias in Millionaire Estates while the other players are still chilling in their doublewide RVs.
Of course, deep down, we all know that logic doesn't parallel our real world as closely as we would like to believe. Even college graduates can be stuck in a part-time position with that all-too-real $100,000 of college debt still breathing down their necks. Many of my friends saw that and weren't willing to chance it, and so often, going to Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi or the University of Southern Mississippi sounded great but just wasn't a realistic goal. They knew that their dads couldn't "take care of" their tuition by calling a buddy on the board and getting a hefty discount. For some of my peers, grades were a legitimate source of worry, as well. Even ignoring that scholarships aren't abundant for kids who had a bad semester here and there, it's understandable that the go-to logic is, "What's the point in paying all that money to go to college if I fail all the more spectacularly once I'm in?"
Just looking at that, I'm sure that it sounds like I'm against higher education, but I'm truly not. I attended Mississippi College, and I learned more in four years—both in classes and out—than I had in most of my life. I learned skills that I constantly use in my career and my daily living, I became better acquainted with the systems that make up our world and how I work within them, and I made friends that I still talk to regularly. But it wasn't as simple as choosing Path A or Path B. I had to apply for countless scholarships throughout my senior year of high school and throughout all my years of college to make it possible for me to graduate.
To graduate without debt, I had to get help from my incredibly kind parents, who saved money for many, many years because they knew that my sisters and I would want to go to college one day. And once I was in classes, I had to do well enough and stay active in extracurricular activities to keep those scholarships. With all the work that my family and I put into giving me that opportunity, it's not surprising that Milton Bradley opted for a more fun "Life" experience.
No, I'm not against higher education, which is absolutely life-changing for those who have the luxury to obtain it. However, I am entirely against the way that we've decided that what you can get from it is what determines its value. It's not a gateway to a better career, though it can sometimes be that. It's not a four-year-minimum plan to get a more impressive paycheck, though it can sometimes provide that, as well. If we look at education as just an expensive rental car getting us to an eventual destination, it isn't surprising that so many students would prefer to say, "I can't afford it, and I don't see the point, so I'll stay right here."
I'm not trying to shame anyone who views a university or college through that lens, but when we ask what the value of education is, we're not noticing the error in the question itself. Ask any child in America who is ecstatic to find out that they'll be learning to read soon. Ask any child from Cambodia, from Ethiopia or from any country where people view education as a precious commodity rather than a nuisance or an over-hyped career requirement. The value of education is education.
It might be that you're a casual JFP reader who picked up an issue in the past and saw that we were talking about Mississippi's chronically low test scores, about the state's perpetual underfunding of public schools or about how our school system tends to pay less attention to those with the most need (something you'll find in our cover story, pages16-18). You might have thought to yourself, "Really? This again?"
You're right. The Jackson Free Press has covered all those things many times before—and we'll continue to do so because those problems matter and because education matters. If anything, we should be more surprised that change isn't happening, that not enough people are talking about it and that we aren't doing enough to solve these problems. It doesn't need to be a thought that only enters your mind every now and then when you pick up a JFP issue. Reframe your thinking, reassess what education should mean to you and to the students going through our school system now, and you might see that it has more value than we let on.