2021 Update: I wrote this blog back in 2014, but wanted to revisit it because while much has changed since then, one thing remains the same: we have got to do better for our kids…and by “better,” I mean we have to teach them respect, responsibility, and personal accountability while still teaching them empathy, compassion, and concern for others.
Original Post: 2014
I recently saw a report on CNN (also covered in The Washington Post) stating that most Americans believe the American Dream is dead, or at least out of reach. Few believe that today’s generation will have a better life than the generation before it. Instead, the belief now is that where a person is born in terms of socioeconomic status is where they will stay. For me, there is little wonder regarding why statistics show this belief to be true.
My Back Story
Neither of my parents had a college education. My father was a hard-working man in a blue-collar job who provided well for his family. My mother was a stay at home mom who provided well for the family too.
Neither of my parents accepted failure as an option and both encouraged my brother and me to work hard for what we wanted. I don’t remember either of them attending many school functions or parent/teacher conferences, but I do remember that excellence in education was expected.
They often said they couldn’t make me study, but they could make sure that I brought home every book from every class so they could make me stay in my room with no phone or TV and only those books until I brought my grades up.
They wanted more for me than they, themselves had.
While they encouraged excellence in education, my daddy, at the time, didn’t believe in putting money into a four-year college education. To him, a degree was a degree. I believe part of his reluctance to consider a four-year college education for me was because it meant my moving out of his house and being free to “party,” as he had seen so many others do; however, he did believe in a college degree.
I remember MANY times he said, “Carol, I don’t care if you have a degree in shoveling shit, you’d better get a degree.” I imagine he had been passed over for jobs to men he thought couldn’t even shovel said “shit,” and he didn’t want to see that happen to me. He also knew that women had a harder time earning equal pay in the workforce and felt that a degree would put me on a more even playing field. His main goal for me was never marriage; he wasn’t against it, but he always wanted me to be able to support myself. (A gift I have passed on to my own children.)
Supporting myself started with my paying for whatever degree I could afford. My daddy didn’t believe in paying for my college education because he felt the bigger lesson was in my paying for it myself. He felt that if I didn’t find a way to pay for it I wouldn’t appreciate it.
Today I smile as he helps my oldest daughter who now lives on campus herself. Daddy didn’t understand back then the difference between a two and a four-year degree, or the education that campus living itself provides, but what he did understand was that education would open doors for me that were closed to him.
A Different Generation’s Opinion of School
For my parents, education was about much more than school.
I was their child, their responsibility and it was no teacher’s job to teach me the values they held dear, and they owed it to me to teach me about money. My academic education was the teacher’s job; my character education was theirs.
I had to be educated in the value of hard work, in the importance of being honest, and in the necessity of helping others. I had to understand that respect was to be earned as well as given and that nothing in life worth having comes free. I didn’t learn any of that at school. I learned those things at home and in church.
On the few occasions that I did get in trouble at school, double jeopardy was not a concept I knew. “Double trouble” was more the norm at my house. I knew that if I gave my teacher any grief or broke any school rules I was going to get into more trouble at home than any punishment the teacher or principal could dish out – and paddling was still legal then.
The idea of a teacher or principal, or any authority, for that matter, having to earn my respect was a concept that I was never taught, and one that I do not understand today. When they said respect was to be earned and given, they meant that I was to respect myself and require that respect from others, but I was to give respect to those in authority.
Is There A Problem We Can Fix in Education?
Today people wonder what’s wrong with public education. I wonder why the problem isn’t obvious. Not too long ago two students were caught cheating. Both students are good kids, but they made a bad decision. While disappointing, and definitely not encouraged, high school is the place to make mistakes like this because students still have the safety net of parents, teachers, and administrators who are there to guide them. Had this happened in college, or the workplace, there would have been no safety net, no lesson learned, only consequences.
Unlike when I was in school, the policy for cheating today is a zero on the assignment. Additional discipline is considered double jeopardy.
While receiving a zero would have killed me – if Mom and Dad didn’t kill me first – many students today could not care less about a zero; they have too many opportunities to bring the grade up. By not having to pay for their error in judgement in a more effective manner, like, perhaps, using lunch detention to re-do the assignments with the highest possible grade being a 70, that school told those students that cheating is no bigger deal than if they had simply not done the assignment. The result is the same: a zero.
How Does This Decision Impact The American Dream?
The issue with the death of the American Dream comes down to what the kids are taught – both at school and at home. As my daddy started saying to me when he was in his 40s, “Carol, I have lived half of my life.” He knew that at some point, what I accomplished would be solely up to me, and he was going to do his best to make sure I was prepared. Even if his ways were sometimes too harsh, he knew how the world and the American Dream worked.
One of the students must have parents like I had as this student may not see the light of day this calendar year. The other though, well, I’m not sure that any consequence other than the zero was felt.
The latter situation is sad because as a society we can’t prepare students for college, or the workplace or begin to help them realize the American Dream, unless we help them gain the tools that built the American Dream: a good work ethic, integrity, and a willingness to earn the things they want.
Until we can help our students gain these tools, we can’t blame them for not being able to achieve more than we did — and the responsibility to teach these things is as much of a partnership between parents, the school, and the community today as it was thirty years ago.