Given my relentless need to understand the peculiar, it has always struck me as remarkable that ordinary folks who complain about taxes and rail about the cost of living will agree to school referendums that raise those taxes and make it harder to get along in order to build another school, increase the size of the present school building, support the expensive sports programs, or (as recently happened in St. Paul, Minnesota) provide $9 million a year to assure the kiddies the latest electronic toys. Our little town of slightly over 1200 tight-fisted people (which shows no sign of growing) also recently passed a referendum to add on to the practically new school building — including (of course) a third gymnasium. The whole thing defies logic. So I have come up with three possible explanations and will toss them out there and see which one strikes the reader as the most plausible — unless there is a fourth I haven’t thought of yet.

1. Despite the fact that they complain about the failure of the schools, parents don’t really want their kids to learn about their world. They complain when their kids have to do homework.  They think the teachers are under-worked and overpaid and have little or no sympathy for them when they demand higher salaries. They want cheap baby-sitters who will take the kids off their hands for most of the day — as long as possible. Thus, they fight for the sports programs and scream like wounded banshees when anyone talks about cuts in those programs. The sports programs give the parents pride and it also keeps the kids occupied, off their hands, and out of trouble after school. And newer and bigger buildings are something they can point to with pride: they make the parents feel good about themselves, as if they are making some sort of real contribution to education. Or…

2. Parents feel guilty because they see so little of their kids and want to make it up to them by supporting school referendums that build larger and more impressive buildings or the latest teaching fad. They get vicarious pleasure out of the successes of their kids on the playing fields and are convinced that sports teach the kids important “life-lessons” (which they are too busy to teach themselves). It makes them feel good about themselves and convinced that they are supporting the schools. Or…

3. As good, practical Americans, parents believe only in those things they can see and touch — or can be quantified. Sports are highly visible and have scads of figures for them to play with and buildings can be seen and boasted about. “Our town went to State last year and has the newest and largest school with all the latest advances in technical know-how.” Technology rocks — it’s what’s out there and proves to us all that our kids are getting the latest and best available tools to lead them to success — which is to say a high-paying job after they graduate. “Everyone knows that electronics are the newest and latest thing and must therefore be an invaluable educational tool. But teachers? Give me a break. They work short hours and are already paid way too much for the easy jobs they have. Don’t talk to me about raising their salaries.” For the practical, down-to-earth parents teaching is way too ephemeral and they simply don’t understand why paying teachers a living wage would draw better people into teaching and raise the educational level of the schools far faster than the biggest school building or the latest electronic toy. But successful sports programs are highly visible, as are the shiny new buildings and playgrounds. It’s all about the tangible.

Needless to say, I prefer the third explanation. What do you think? It is truly a puzzler. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three explanations?


16 thoughts on “Conundrum

  1. Hugh, I have seen many small towns in southwest Minnesota flounder and fail to do what they should for their kids’ academics because they can’t get over that awful fixation on sports. But I don’t think the Cottonwood referendum was about that. Actually there is measurable growth there – the population has grown by 50 percent since 1970, and it is one of the very few towns in that part of the statevto hsve any population growth over the ladt two decades. (Sorry, but i wrote the town history book last year !) And i learned in a visit last week with a longtime school employee enrollment is exploding. They are adding a lot of classroom space, and the gym will be used as much for PE as sports. They are getting some of the largest class sizes they have ever had.

    So I don’t know if Cottoneood /Lakeview fits the otherwise really troubling trend of over-emphasis on sports you correctly point out. In too many places, there is indeed this be

  2. …belief that the whole world turns on sports. The rest of our education and our society — no doubt our very future — suffers greatly. I recall a line from the Michael Douglas movie “Black Rain” from 1989. Douglas plays an American cop who is chided byba Japanese cop: “all you Americans are good for any more is movies and music.” You can probably substitute sports for movies or music and the point would be the same — we really are not a culture of substance any more.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dana. I am given to understand that the boost in enrollments at the local school is due largely to the addition of pre-school to the usual k-12 enrollment. But the main point I try to make is not about Cottonwood; it’s about America’s lack of willingness to pay for what really would help education.

  3. Of course, we could add colleges selling their souls to start football teams under the hopes of more revenue as the children of baby boomers graduate.

    To Dana’s point, I know people who never watch the news or read the paper. They watch ESPN or Entertainment Tonight. We are the United States of Entertainment.

  4. Hugh, I definitely got your bigger point, and hope that you saw that I got it in my earlier comment. I most certainly do not disagree with you. Our unwillingness to pay for what really matters has become a national crisis.

  5. i have never understood how some parents overlook the importance of teachers. they play a huge role in mentoring our future leaders and often spend more quality time each day with the children than the parents do! why wouldn’t one want to have the very best person available to mentor and teach those children, and pay them well? like you, i remain baffled at how the school systems seem more focused on ‘the best’ for the sports and not what is best for the students’ professional, emotional and spiritual futures.


    • Z, well said. I’ve had a few exceptional teachers over the years, and they will never know the great contributions they’ve made to my life. However, your key words are wanting the best teachers available to mentor and teach. As you may be aware, there is a huge political fight going on in Calif. over tenure. I personally believe it should be scrapped, because even in my limited personal experience, for every great teacher, there were a multiple of teachers on the tenure track and just going through the motions.

      But along with scrapping tenure, teacher pay should be increased, ALONG WITH an increase in the length of the school year. I’ve heard the arguments that without tenure, a teachers future might be at the whim of a superior. Well, Welcome to the real world that the rest of us live in.

      And to Hugh’s point, I also believe that we are building too many “buildings” while not nearly enough educated students. And for the life of me, I don’t understand the need to pass bonds to support gyms or football programs. Luckily here in the mountains, three recent bond proposals for such programs over the last few years have all gone down to defeat.

      Good post Hugh, and Z, I believe you are right on the money!!!

      • i think even the least-appreciative of students eventually reflects back and wishes to thank those teachers that made the strongest impression.
        i will forever remember ‘mr. gary’ who drew a line from one end of the chalk board to the other and discussed ‘infinity.’ he stated that eventually those two lines would meet….

        i will never know if he was testing us, trying to provoke deeper thinking, or what, but i was the only one who argued with his statement.. and every so often – weeks and months later, i might say, ‘no way.. it can’t happen…’

        he probably went home and chuckled about that youngest ‘williams gal.’

        i am also grateful for several english teachers, (you will RUE the day when..) who were amazing performers in the classroom.. and for sensitive creative writing teachers. i was able to thank several much later and tell them how they impacted my life.

        hugh, how often do you hear from your former students or athletes?

      • I hear from former students from time to time and a few are close friends. Strange to say, I hear less often from the tennis players with whom I was quite close.

    • Thanks for the input, Z. Needless to say, we are of one mind on this issue! As far as the big guy’s comment on tenure is concerned, I would agree that tenure is abused (I have seen it) but I have also seen the quality of the minds that often make the decisions on who should be kept and who should be asked to leave and there are very good people that lose their teaching positions — at all levels — because of the boobies who decide their future. But if the pay were increased to a living wage we would attract better teachers and tenure wouldn’t be that big an issue.

      • you are right – if the salaries were higher, there would be a much-greater pool of gifted people hoping for those jobs.. i’ve been told about a new university here in ecuador that’s just started the multi-layered plan of development.. i’m told that all of the classes will be in english..

        they are hiring top professors/phd who have the possibility of making up to 18,000 per month – more than the president – if i understood correctly. a special exception was made that says the professors can make a higher wage than the president… a very reliable source told me this, and i’ve visited the area and have seen the beginning stages. i am so very proud that they are focused on mentoring the very best and preparing them to step forward and be leaders when they finish their formal studies…

        we are hopeful that it’s a success and that the world takes note! intellect trumps sports!

      • You folks down there seem to have the answers while up in this part of the world we stumble around wondering what went wrong!

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