"Too often the educational value of doing well what is done, however little, is overlooked," Washington wrote. "One thing well done prepares the mind to do the next thing better. Not how much, but how well, should be the motto."
These days, teachers, administrators and departments of education offer far loftier reasons for schooling our children. They say that students need to gain skills necessary to compete in the global economy. Cities and towns that can afford it allocate tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to build fancy schools and hope educational goals, in effect, can be purchased. Poor communities would build these schools if they could, believing that would solve their educational challenges.
Booker T. Washington knew otherwise. He said that valuable intangibles are too often forgotten in a dollar-and-cents world. He insisted, for example, that “the study of math which does not result in making students more honest” is flawed. Likewise, students studying history should be taught not just theories and facts; they should learn to be “more conscientious in receiving and counting ballots.”
In other words, he said, the virtues of honesty and good citizenship must be part of every curriculum.
He added courage, humility and public service to this list. Washington insisted that without what he called “moral instruction,” education is a failure “no matter how costly the buildings or apparatus used, or how modern the methods of instruction employed.”
Washington said that the future of our nation depended on educating children to “enhance [their] usefulness and produce that tenderness and goodness of heart which will make [them] live for the benefit of [their] fellow men [and women] and for the promotion of our country’s highest welfare."
Washington’s ideas might scare a lot of people today. But they shouldn’t. He wasn’t suggesting that students be lectured on the controversial moral issues of the day. He was saying that fundamental American values cannot and should not be disconnected from our children’s education. Our goal, after all, he said, was the creation of good citizens and good people, not just people with knowledge.
He understood that quality education could not be bought as if it were a commodity on a shelf.
For a variety of reasons, our system of education is dysfunctional today. Thousands of schools have intolerably high dropout rates. Educators mistake standardized test scores and fancy new buildings for signs of educational achievement. Whatever one’s views are about what constitutes an appropriate education, too many students are clearly not getting one.
The experiences our children have from ages 5-to-18 largely determine the rest of their lives. That's why these formative years need as much an emphasis, if not more, on good citizenship as is currently placed on the building in which students are taught.
Vague notions about how to deal with globalization aren't good enough to justify the current costs associated with our educational system. Without a sound educational philosophy - very much like Washington espoused - it doesn't matter whether we spend $600 or $600 million. Children will not be educated.
Schiffrin is an attorney in Pennsylvania and a Booker T. Washington scholar.