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Fundamental freedoms rest on solid public education

As I See It

With the coming and going of another Independence Day — with the ice cream, watermelon, Sousa marches and fireworks pleasant memories — it’s back to work.

In our history as a nation, few dates are more important than July 4th. So, I beg your indulgence as we linger in the spirit of the Fourth and reflect on what freedom is and what it means to us.

What is freedom? Traditionally, Americans believe they have a right to do anything they want to as long as their actions don’t infringe on someone else’s rights. Inherent in that definition is the right to pursue gainful employment in the field of one’s choosing.

In fact, Americans believe so strongly in providing the opportunity for success in the work world that we voluntarily tax ourselves to provide public education to all our youngsters.

At first blush, our commitment to public education seems laudable and sufficient to arm young people with the tools needed to find their place as a productive member of society. Laudable, yes, but sufficient, no.

The world is changing faster than many of us aging Boomers can keep up with. Knowledge is increasing at a frightening clip. The capacity to keep up and adapt to change is tantamount to success. Merely commanding knowledge of what was known years ago is a prescription for failure in today’s world.

The sweat jobs of years gone by are just that — gone by. Now, everyone from the rocket scientist to the factory floor worker has to continuously upgrade their skills in light of new technology. There is no choice.

Is the public education that we are providing our youngsters giving them the skills to cope with an ever-changing environment? Simply stated, the answer is no. Part of the problem lies with parents and their attitude toward education and part is within the education system itself.

Our parents, the World War II generation, strongly believed that education was the ticket to ride. Our homework and report cards were scrutinized and deficiencies caused loss of privilege. In many cases, today’s parents show little interest in their children’s schoolwork. Thus, even if the current system of education were adequate, parents are not supporting it. This has created nothing less than a crisis in America.

Each year, tens of thousands of inadequately educated children are dumped into the workforce to fend for themselves in an environment where one cannot fend without proper education.

In 1950, 15% of the jobs required a college education while 65% required nothing beyond a willingness to work. Fifty years later, in 2000, the percentage of jobs requiring a college diploma was still 15%. However, the percentage of manual labor jobs had decreased from 65% to 15%. Thus, the vast majority of today’s jobs require skill training beyond high school, but not a college degree.

In order to possess both the freedom and the opportunity to pursue happiness, we must change the situation. The very foundation of education must be challenged and a more effective model developed. Children must be taught how to learn rather than how to remember some obscure facts long enough to pass a standardized test. I don’t mean this as criticism of teachers. They are forced to teach to the standardized tests or subject their schools, and themselves, to disciplinary action. No, teachers are not the problem. The system itself is the problem.

What we need is a complete strategic overhaul of American public education. No sacred cows allowed, everything subject to review and change. Our society desperately needs to put pressure on parents to be actively involved in their children’s education. And, we need to redefine education itself.

Seemingly, kids are either being prepped for college or a retail checkout counter. Between these extremes lies all manner of job opportunities requiring technical skills beyond high school but not necessarily college. The construction industry, for instance, is literally begging for apprentices to work in the high-paying building trades. As for college, kids are daily pursuing degrees in fields where no jobs are to be found and end up flipping burgers with a bachelor’s degree in some obscure field.

On a related note, we need to scrap the notion that public education is only for the young. Participation in the global economy, of which we have no choice but to participate, requires that existing workers have their skills regularly updated at public expense or we’ll watch the jobs go elsewhere.

I am acutely aware that education provided me the springboard into the middle class. I was blessed with parents who understood the value of education and promoted its value relentlessly.

Today’s youngsters, in many cases, do not have the parental encouragement that I enjoyed. That is unfortunate beyond description. All the efforts many parents put into struggling to provide the material wants for themselves and their children pale by comparison to the importance of preparing their kids for a meaningful future.

In an effort to make the situation better, Venture Publications Inc., the parent of the Mississippi Business Journal is departing from its traditional role of publishing only business news and diving into the waters of education.

In October, we are publishing NEXT: A Guide to Life After High School in Mississippi. The book will showcase career information localized to Mississippi. It is not a college prep manual since much of the content will deal with careers not requiring a college education. We are distributing the book to all 10th, 11th and 12th graders in Mississippi (over 100,000 copies) in hope that it will spark interest in some of these young people to think about and prepare for their future.

We are deeply appreciative to Dr. Henry Johnson, superintendent of the Mississippi Department of Education, for his willingness to partner with us on this new, untried venture. Further, we are indebted to the public underwriters who believed in the concept and stepped up to the plate with financial support for the project. Those agencies are the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, Institutions of Higher Learning, Mississippi Employment Security Commission, Mississippi Development Authority and the Secretary of State. Finally, our advertiser partners are critical to the success of this project and we are indebted to them for their support and encouragement.

This publication is not the solution to the problem of education in Mississippi. That solution will require tremendous effort and years of work. However, in the meantime, we hope that we succeed in re-directing the lives of a few of Mississippi’s youngsters toward gaining the skills to propel them forward in their pursuit of happiness.

Thought for the Moment — The only road out of poverty leads by the schoolhouse. — William Winter

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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