Father’s Day, public school, a love of reading

As Father’s Day approaches I have been thinking about what my Dad really enjoyed. After family, the unequivocal answer is learning. His primary resource was books, and that leads me to believe that I inherited my love of books and reading. My intent for these Turned Pages columns has been to share my love of reading, and the broader understanding of the world that can come from reading.

I have tried, without success, to recall when I first learned to read, and to recall when it became clear that, in addition to being entertainment, reading is an important source of knowledge. When guided by good teachers it broadens and enriches our understanding, and good teachers make it easier to relate the value of non-specific knowledge to everyday life.

My father was the oldest of seven children. Because of family and farm obligations he left school after fourth grade. For the rest of his life he devoted several hours every day to continuing the education he missed in school. He understood the importance of education, and how difficult it is to acquire without the structure of school and the guidance of teachers. He wanted his children to be ready for school and all the attendant benefits that he missed.

Dad was extraordinarily fond of learning by following his curiosity and exploring wherever it took him. He also believed in rote, and he drilled me on the basics. He did not use maxims, but he held it to be self-evident that people should learn everything possible, because everything you learn makes learning something new easier. My good experiences in school, especially in the first few years, are in large part attributable to his diligent efforts to get me ready.

My school years were positive except for a fourth grade teacher, a rough encounter with algebra and a few other isolated incidents. In my senior year I sought advice from a graduate of the university I thought I wanted to attend. He told me “his university” did not have a high regard for Alabama public schools, and he “suggested” other schools. That was my first recordable encounter with a genuinely arrogant north side of a southbound horse. At the end of the year he left for “a better opportunity.”

He should not have been in an official position, but the facts later became clear; he was correct about the school systems. Alabama public schools did not compare well to the rest of the nation. (My decision to apply elsewhere was based on economics, not his arrogance.) What my advisor did not acknowledge, and was not obvious to me at the time, was that the teachers in my public high school were excellent.

Years later, curiosity led me to learn more about why my school had such a fine faculty. The English, history, math and science teachers held advanced degrees, and more than half of them were graduates of what we today call top-tier schools. A majority of the other teachers had advanced degrees or had done graduate study. The long-term school superintendent had assembled a remarkable group of dedicated professionals, and the town held them in high regard and treated them with respect.

For a lot of complex reasons teachers and their profession are not as respected as they were in the 1950’s. Across the nation we freely criticize teachers and schools—some of it valid and some not. Critics target public schools, their bureaucracies, the teacher unions and all non-local political interference.

There is a lot about America that is contradictory, and our treatment of the teaching profession is only one example. Almost everyone I ask can cite one or more examples of outstanding teachers who helped them, or guided them through a major turning point in their lives. Everyone wants our schools to be better, and no one that I talked with has even hinted at eliminating public schools.

I am obliged to my teachers, including the not-so-good ones, and to the ideal of public schools. The school board in my town was good, and their success constitutes a good argument for local control of public education. At the same time the overall reputation of Alabama schools, then and now, makes me question the validity of that argument.

Dad taught me specific subjects, how to apply them and how to relate one bit of knowledge to another and develop concepts. Just as he believed that learning one thing makes learning other things easier, he was anxious for me to have multiple teachers because that would help me understand that the problems of life can be tackled from more than one point of view.

He also thought having several different teachers helps a person become better able to discern fact from fiction. I think of Dad’s simple premise whenever someone advocates simple one step solutions to complex problems—like education.

In memory of Claude Reynolds, 1911 – 1974

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