Notes From My Knapsack — Granville Sentinel 2-9-17
Educational essentials then and now
Reading in history can be illuminating, but to be perfectly frank it can also be depressing at times. There are themes and ideas that keep coming back; it's been said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Charles Browne White, "the Sage of Mount Parnassus" recorded some of the minutes of "The Centerville Farmers Club," a gathering of agriculturalists from north and east of the village of Granville, Newark-Granville Road in another century being known as "Centerville Street."
In 1876, as the Newark courthouse was being erected to no small controversy, as property taxes were being raised to build it, even as a financial panic gripped the country as a whole, the farmers of the township met . . . one of them had this to say about our public school system:
"One of the best. I thoroughly believe in it, so long as it secures to all a plain, common education. But in these days it does not stop at that. The languages, music, drawing, etc., are being taught. These should be discontinued. There is a loud call for economy in our families, in time, labor, clothing, etc."
In every era, this debate has to be taken up again. What are the basics, what is necessary, and what is an extravagance? Meanwhile, tax cuts on the federal and state level are accompanied with mandates and non-negotiable requirements to local governments and school districts, which are forced to ask for additional tax levies to cover the gap between what they are required to do and how they are funded. If I were in a more cynical mood, I'd call it a shell game, and one where our schools and communities are left holding the empty bag.
In fact, this same 1876 worthy (you can look up the details in seven volumes preserved by the Granville Historical Society) said this as well: "Much is made about the poor being unable to live. If this is true, it is owing largely to their aping the rich in dress, in extravagant style of living, in burying their dead, etc. These things should be corrected." One wonders what the "etc." stood for in the unrecorded portion of the club discussion, and then sighs. Or at least I do.
It's true, poverty isn't what it used to be. No one lives on the edge of town in a dirt floor shack, with barefoot children who own one pair of winter shoes with holes patched by newspaper. Yes, some get assistance today who have access to amenities our grandparents could barely dream of.
But this is where history is an uncertain guide. The nature of education in 2017, the reality of the economy in the present day, call on us to make different calculations about what must and will be tolerated in the public sphere, and how we pay for what we define as basic or necessary. "What was good enough when I was a kid" will only tell us what was true within those parameters.
Today, poverty means no access to dental care; lack of access to a car means destitution the poor of a hundred years ago couldn't imagine. The idea that you could not even hope to find a job within thirty minutes' brisk walk? Incomprehensible. When I was in school, I was taught penmanship, typing, and learned how to set type in a printer's stick during shop class. My son learned none of these things, for which I am wistful, but not regretful.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think is essential in education at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.