Teach our Children Well: Some Lessons

Today, I am headed to a marvelous store, The Cookery in Sherlington, Virginian, to celebrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 86th birthday and sign copies of my book, Teach Our Children Well. It is a book with many of the signs from the January 2017 Post-Inaugural March — not the negative signs. No, it is a book about the future and fighting for the values we hold dear. It has signs with children mostly — with parents, grandparents, guardians, people of all ages and stages voicing their support for those who are underserved. It is not an anti-Trump book; it is a book heralding values we want preserved and enhanced.

In preparation for the Cookery signing and celebration event, I was re-reading my essays in the book and as many authors know, sometimes you re-read your own work and see things in it you did not see before or did not remember you wrote. I want to quote a passage:

“….the power of the signs at the marches across the world needed to be memorialized and preserved and remembered. They were too powerful to be lost with the passage of time. And their messaging needed to serve as a constant reminder of the true power of the people. And we needed our children and our children’s children to see that there is value in speaking up and out, that grown men and women of all shades and shapes can raise their collective voices through their signs and peacefully shout out about what matters to them….”

I am speaking up and out on two important topics these days and I hope you will consider joining me in one or both of these efforts. The college admissions scandal is terrible but what it really does is shine a bright light on inequality across our nation. There are those who can and do use their money and influence, surely often legally. And it works to bring more wealth and power to those in power. And there are those who do not much money and influence and they struggle mightily to find their place in America (and other nations). And when the latter group gets to the top, they are asked (directly or indirectly) how they got there. No one asks the rich or the powerful white men how they got to their perch. So, let the fiasco with bribes extend far beyond this incident (which will surely grow in my view) and look at the bigger questions that it raises about fairness, about decency, about power, about truth, about transparency.

Recently, there have been many small non-elite colleges closing and I am fighting to save one of them in particular — Southern Vermont College. And it is my hope that this effort messages to everyone the importance of the frgile small colleges that serve high percentages of Pell eligible and first gen students of all ages and at all stages. These are colleges that, for the most part, enable students to get to and hopefully through higher education at greater rates than expected based on statistical percentages.

But, for this post, I want to talk about the naysayers, those who do not believe in or seek to fight to save a college. They cave and they don’t take risks. There aren’t even vaguely Quixotic. Yes, the model of higher education for small colleges needs to change — drastically — if these small, low endowment places are to survive. But we need to try. Dollars are an issue. So is political will. So is vision. So is commitment. But we will never enable change if we just shut the doors and walk away — with the creditors paid and the legal liabilities reduced.

At Southern Vermont College, although there was an announcement of a closure, the Board bravely stood up and filed a Notice of Intent to Appeal. Yippee.

I was shocked by some of the folks who seemed to be passive and unwilling to step into the fight. It’s easy to place blame on the college’s failure on a myriad of factors (some untrue) and I get that saving one’s own hide sometimes trumps (pun intended) all else. I also get that those of us who speak up are not universally loved. Change never was a popularity contest.

But, if one doesn’t use one’s voice, if one doesn’t try, then we don’t message the power of the people and the importance of our values. The Notice of Appeal is only the first step of many. It is not an assurance that the college will stay open. But, without the appeal, there is no hope for survival. And, even if we fail, our integrity, our spirit, our effort will show to our children and our children’s children that we value education, that we value small colleges that took risks on the students that were admitted, that worked hard to enable student success. Some alums have recently stood up and said: the College stood up and fought for me; I will fight for it.

So, bravo/brava to the Board and those joining the effort. And for those who want to see the effort’s beginnings, go to: www.gofundme.com/save-southern-vermont-college. It’s worth a visit even if one does not donate.

I am being reminded by my own message: don’t be deterred by the detractors and the haters and the complainers and the wafflers and those who want to cast blame rather than owning their own acts. Own the present and the future regardless of how and why the College crumbled with such alacrity and speak up and out with one’s voice — loudly. Speak about the need to help those who need help. Speak about the inequalities in our nation. Speak about saving a place that has literally saved thousands of students in its existence (founded in 1926).

And if someone or some institution saved you, pay it forward. Save Southern Vermont College and send a bigger and wider message that non-elite small colleges matter. For real. Speak.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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