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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Great Mind That Didn't Go to Waste: A Lesson from History

Growing up, The White Man never considered the possibility that he would not attend college. It was, after all, what people in his social class did after graduating from high school. And he certainly would never have dreamed of stopping his education short of a high school diploma--especially with his level of intellect. In fact, he early on set his sights on that pinnacle of academic achievement, a doctoral degree.

But while he was in college, getting to know the woman was soon to become his wife and the mother of their large brood of children, he began to reconsider the whole idea of a formal education. After all, neither of his parents had graduated from a four-year college. And none of his grandparents even had high school diplomas--not even the schoolteacher who considered 11 years of formal schooling quite sufficient preparation for enrolling in summer courses at the state college that eventually granted her a degree in elementary education.

So it is that none of the White Man's children have attended college--nor even matriculated into high school. And it's unlikely that any of them will, with the way public education has gone in the past half century.

Let's step back just three generations, to when my children's four great-grandfathers reached school age. They were farmers, all of them, which meant that by age six or seven they were already participating in the daily and seasonal chores that were vital to their families' livelihood. School was a building usually no more than a mile or two away, taught by a young person, usually single, who boarded with one of the local families. Fellow scholars were neighbors of varying social strata and educational ambition, but a good education could be had by those with the time and determination to receive it.

Time could be a problem. One boy was repeatedly needed on the farm, even during those few months every year when school was in session, and as a result it usually took him around two calendar years to advance one school year. By age fourteen, when he left the schoolhouse for good, he had not yet attained the fourth grade. This lack of education was a disappointment to him for the rest of his life, as he was never able to attain to the profession of his choice, but was doomed to a live of drudgery in the factory or on the farm. Another boy, however, never aspired to anything higher, and was glad to be free of the schoolroom once he reached the upper limit for compulsory education. The others got somewhat farther, one of them even making it through high school by riding his horse every day into the nearest city.

But what all these boys had in common was the expectation that they would leave their home on a more or less daily basis to get their educational needs met by, and with, their neighbors. And this arrangement did not extend beyond eighth grade, at least for country folk. There were no school buses; one ancestor boarded in town, only eight miles away, in order to attend high school; she being a girl, a daily horseback ride of that length was out of the question. And those who did attend high school only did so in order to reach a specific career objective, like teaching in a modern big-city school.

Fast forward a hundred years to the present day. The neighborhood schools have all been closed, the buildings themselves now fallen into ruins or housing farm machinery. Now gigantic school buses, each one containing several times the number of children formerly enrolled in a country school, lumber down country roads, blocking traffic in all directions while they pick up children as young as five years old. These they disgorge at a spacious campus to be educated with and by people unknown to their parents. But in order to even get in the door, the tots will need a birth certificate, a shot record, proof of guardianship, and, within a few more years, a state-issued photo ID linked to a federal registry. These barriers to entry are enough to keep out any children who don't see public school as their best route to the career of their choice--and whose parents support their independent mindset.

And such is the case with my family. My children would far rather spend their time learning at home and on the job than be cooped up in a classroom, and, as one who spent eighteen years as a full-time student, I can't say I blame them. Within the lifetimes of the older ones, school has stretched out from the 9 months it was when my parents were children to the current 10 months of the year. The 3 R's are still taught--after a fashion--but more time is devoted to social engineering of malleable young minds. Rather than being something temporary a young person does to get started in the workforce, schoolteaching has become a profession with certification, continuing education, and union membership. School has become so expensive that, were I to pay for enrolling even half my school-aged children, it would cost more than I make. And alas, with all this, children graduating from high school--and often, even college--are no better prepared to make it in life than my grandfathers were, working sixty or more hours a week by the age of fourteen.

If there were a community school within walking distance, charging perhaps one fortieth of my income per child, without any of the modern barriers to entry, I'm sure that some of my children would attend it. And it would no doubt be of considerable educational benefit to those who took advantage of it. But alas, that era is gone and unlikely to ever return. My children are still receiving an education--and a considerably good one--but not the sort of education they will ever be able to pass on to anyone but their own children and grandchildren; even though, with modern technology, they won't ever have to work nearly as long or hard to make a living as their great-grandfathers did, leaving plenty of time for self-study and self-improvement for as long as they live. But let's step back and look at one man, contemporary with my children's great-grandfathers, who grew up in that environment and, as such, was able to share the fruits of his learning with the entire world.

Linus Pauling (1901-1994) did not grow up in the country, but moved from city to city with his parents while his father was settling on a career. His father died only a few years after Linus began school, but lived long enough to see that his son was destined for greatness; he advertised in The Oregonian for suggestions of reading material for young Linus, who devoured every book he could get his hands on.

Without the drudgery of farm chores, Linus was able to learn as much or more outside the classroom as in it. He wandered over to a shuttered steel mill and helped himself to enough chemicals to set up a basement laboratory, and mastered the art of testing milk for butterfat content when barely a teenager.

By age 16, Linus had learned everything the city high school would teach him--even then, he was frustrated by the administration's refusal to let him take the classes of his choosing--and he dropped out of high school to enroll in college. I love this part: the high school that wouldn't cater to his educational plan granted him a diploma forty-five years later, after he had become the first (and still the only) person to win two separate Nobel prizes, in different fields, all in his own right. I'm sure he didn't think much of the oft-repeated mantra that high school dropouts are doomed to the lowest strata of society.

Linus showed such ability that he began teaching college courses while still a student--sometimes a course that he himself had only just completed. And he was able to earn enough while a student to completely pay for his college education--another norm that has essentially been lost forever. I barely earn enough, even working a full-time job with seniority and benefits, to pay for just the tuition costs of one student--with nothing left over for living expenses.

Linus Pauling was a groundbreaking researcher in three scientific fields--chemistry, biology, and physics--in addition to being a forerunner in the field of grass-roots politics. He first conceptualized the helical structure of DNA, being barely beaten out by colleagues Watson and Crick in determining that it was a double rather than triple helix. He was even involved in the development of the atomic bomb, but later led the drive to end above-ground nuclear testing when he realised the danger that it posed to the public health.

In 1941, at the height of his scientific career, he developed a then-incurable kidney disorder and turned his attention to the role of diet in preventing disease: specifically vitamins, which were unknown when he began studying chemistry in the first decade of the 1900's. His research and experiments on his own body were so successful that he was able, at age 86, to write How to Live Longer and Feel Better. He actually lived longer after the diagnosis of fatal renal malfunction than he had prior to it.

By living when he did, Linus Pauling was able to become one of The Twenty Greatest Scientists of All Time. He grew up in an age where a teen was free to experiment, innovate, and even teach college as a high school dropout. That age, like the man himself, has now passed into history.

What if a child today, with the same gifts Linus Pauling enjoyed, were to try to succeed under the current barriers to education and scholastic employment?

What if, but for those barriers, one of my children might be the next Linus Pauling?

1 comment:

  1. This was wonderful! So much what I needed to hear, too. Been placing so much emphasis on book work lately with the kids, that I have lost track of simple "learning". Thanks!


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