Salute to Education

July 16th, 2013
Raphael Sonenshein Ph.D., Executive Director, Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs

July 16, 2013 | Written by: Raphael Sonenshein Ph.D., Executive Director, Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs

Tonight we salute education. We honor teaching, and the institutions that make teaching and learning possible. Pat Brown would have loved tonight’s theme because to him the California Dream meant accessible education for all. With the passage of Prop. 30, perhaps for the first time since the age of Pat Brown, we can dream once again.

Thomas Jefferson would have appreciated this moment. Fresh off his success with the Declaration of Independence, this dreamer went back to Virginia and proposed a revolutionary “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” that was not adopted, a system of public schools that would send the best students to college regardless of their resources:

“…Worth and genius would thus (be) sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth….”

Jefferson’s goal? “Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity”

It was a version of Pat Brown’s dream, the Master Plan for Higher Education, long before its time.

We need dreams like these. Anybody can dream while sleeping. The world changes because we dream while we are awake.

And yet dreams require institutional backing. You can reach for the stars, but even astronauts need food, engines, and exact calculations. We can’t encourage dreams, and then not foster their realization.

President Rosser: You have made dreams a reality for thousands of students precisely as Pat Brown planned when the two of you walked the campus together more than two decades ago. Erika Glazer: You have made dreams possible for the Dreamers themselves, those with the merit and the determination but not the resources or documents to walk through the door. And Veronica Marquez: you have encouraged even the youngest among us to dream.

While we build these systems of education and opportunity, we should always keep our eyes on the core of it: teaching. Teaching is the oldest profession (not the one you think), and one of the most continuous and profound of all human activities.

Someday maybe teaching will be done by machine, and a computer program will teach me in 10 seconds to fly a helicopter, but hopefully we will never lose the human quality that makes teaching so magical.

People become teachers for the same reason a cellist practices and plays, an athlete works out and performs, because they just have to. To a teacher, the world is a feast of experience and knowledge, and she can’t wait to show us how to get at it. A teacher loves watching for the “aha!” moment when a student lights up with understanding.

These teachers leave imprints on us. From our earliest years, we watch them like hawks. We make wild, and inaccurate guesses about their personal lives. We notice their quirks, their tics, their offhand comments, their persnickety standards, their confidence in us when we doubted ourselves, their seemingly irrelevant stories, but most of all the things that they were passionate about that might not have ever been in the curriculum….

For me, it was Miss Helen M. Sullivan, 6th grade, Yantacaw School, Nutley New Jersey. She was a very effective teacher, but she was also crusty and tough as nails, and if truth be told, kind of scary.

But Miss Sullivan had a soft spot for the explorer and writer Richard Halliburton. Known today for having swum the length of the Panama Canal, Halliburton was quite a celebrity during a life that lasted fewer than 40 years. His final adventure, the one that killed him, was sailing a tiny boat, the Sea Dragon, across the Pacific Ocean from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

Halliburton’s life was the complete antithesis of this most conventional teacher, but his example made her dream. When Miss Sullivan reached for Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, and began to read to us about another adventure, her face softened and she got a faraway look. She got us thinking of places we had never imagined. To educate is from the Latin “lead forth or away”, and so it was that she led us away from New Jersey to the sands of Arabia.

We must keep this formula: encourage and foster dreaming by our youngest and oldest, provide the educational structure to nurture and set it afire with courageous teachers who live for the task, and use the explosive energy that this gloriously subversive process uncovers to renew our democracy.

There is more than just education and opportunity at stake. Democracy itself is being called into doubt as people feel that elections can’t make a difference, that their voices don’t matter, that great forces overwhelm them. Only an informed electorate can feel confident enough to bolster the confidence of democracy. Jefferson believed that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

What we pledge to do at PBI is to be alchemists, helping to turn the miracle of education into civic engagement, to show Californians especially for our youth but for all ages, from all walks of life, that they can make a difference, that if they engage in civil and civic dialogue, learn everything there is to know from all sides of the spectrum, explore what others believe face to face and through polling, observe people in open debate to shed light as well as heat, bring the best minds and greatest activism into the same room, that the result will be good, effective policy that shows our troubled people that democracy works, that they can make a difference, and that there is no better way to govern than to govern ourselves with wisdom and hope.

That will be a core commitment for PBI going forward.

We can’t rest on the laurels of California’s education of fifty years ago. We have to envision California’s education fifty years from now. We can’t look backwards except for inspiration, and there can be no excuses if we are going to make this dream business work.

An aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity. “In truth we are, and in practice we must be, one people, equal in privilege and opportunity.”- Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Inaugural Address, 1959. Thomas Jefferson’s vision, Pat Brown’s dream, our mission.

About the Author:

Raphael Sonenshein, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Pat Brown Insitute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. The institute is dedicated to the quest for social justice, equality of opportunity, enlightened civic engagement and the improvement of the quality of life for all Californians.

Click here to read his bio.