When Back To School Was About Learning

The Rain God SmallFor several weeks, advertisers have relentlessly bombarded the airways with “Back To School” commercials. Only two messages are embedded in these sleazy assaults on education: YOUR KIDS MUST HAVE POPULAR BRANDS OR THEY WILL NOT BE POPULAR and BUY MORE OF OUR STUFF THAN YOU NEED SO YOU CAN FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF WHEN YOU DONATE THE SURPLUS TO THE POOR. The first message is shamelessly promoted by for-profit organizations while the second message is shamelessly promoted by non-profit organizations. Nowhere is there a message about learning.

There was a time when things were not this way. Years ago, society cared very much about learning. The Russian launch of Sputnik had clearly demonstrated that an educated society accomplished more than a happily ignorant one. A national effort was made to improve the quality of education in America and it was successful. In those days, the school year did not start until after Labor Day. September was the month when we went back to school. Shopping for beginning the school year was simple: we got new pencil boxes filled with new pencils, a new gum eraser, a new compass, a new protractor, one new notebook and one or two packs of notebook paper. The most prized new thing we got was a shiny new mechanical pencil. If you carried a mechanical pencil in your shirt pocket, you looked very smart. The real lucky dogs had a small pad of graph paper sheets displayed prominently behind the mechanical pencil.

No one got a new wardrobe back then. Christmas was the time when clothing was refreshed, even though kids hated getting clothes for presents. That was the adult way of putting coal in your stocking without using a stocking. There was no such thing as a book bag. Everyone had a book satchel. These were made of heavy canvas and they were all olive drab with dark colored buckles and fasteners. Blue ink from fountain pens was used to decorate these humble pouches with the same of your sweetheart or whatever fanciful image came to mind.

In those days, kids were not excited about going back to school so they could see their friends. Schools in those days were neighborhood schools. We were with our friends all summer long. Seeing them in school was no big deal. What was a big deal was being back in the classroom. We had no idea what projects our teachers had been cooking up for us all summer long but we were anxious to find out. We knew that some of the classwork and some of the homework would be boring and repetitious but we also knew that nuggets of genuine learning would be cast among the lectures and assignments. We knew that we would have opportunities to discover something neat, prove something nifty or verify something dazzling. Each time we did so, we felt our beings expand, we felt our minds a little more satisfied.

We paid a heavy price for such illumination: multiplication tables, state capitals, diagramming sentences, split infinitives and the most somber of all knowledge—gerunds. But honest-to-god learning was the reason we loved our teachers. We did love our teachers then because they did something no one else on Earth could do. They lifted us above our home lives. School was not the street. When you were in school, you could not act, you could not speak as if you were at home or as if you were in the street. That simply was not done. That was not tolerated. School was a different place. It was a more noble place than home or the street. Each of us knew school was, above all, a spiritual place, a place where being was expanded by understanding. When we got in trouble, we did not just feel guilty because we had broken a rule, we felt shame because we had violated a spiritual place. Back to school was not about brand names, trends and fashions. Back to school was about being allowed back inside the temple.

Then came the Age of Aquarius and the rise of the Counterculture. In the name of Liberalism, the temples were destroyed, learning was banished and replaced by official “enlightened” social propaganda. Ignorance, crassness and commercialism from the streets was not only allowed into the schools, it was installed in schools as curriculum and administration. Schools became little more than media outlets for government doctrine.

With genuine learning, and the concomitant expansion of spirit, thrown out of schools due to the incessant clamoring of the hoi polloi, schools have become little more than government organized marketplaces. Little wonder then that kids feel no wonder when they return. Beleaguered parents are rid of their kids at last. They try to console their troubled consciences with the expenditures they have made to swaddle their offspring in the trendiest fashions from the hottest brands but such is a Pyrrhic victory: the disciples are all in their places with bright shiny faces and unsinkable shoelaces but the temple long ago gave up the spirit.

When they go back to school, the youth of America face the decaying remnants of a great society that was once committed to spiritual expansion through learning. So tell me now, enlightened America, as we are about to go down the drain, WHAT IS YOUR FIRST DAY STRATEGY?
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