“Minimally Adequate”

Monster.com dida series of commercials in the late 1990s that tried to capture the sense of how you likely didn’t want to be whatever it is you turned out to be. (The kid who says “I want to claw my way up to middle management” was one of my favorites in that commercial.) The commercials were funny and sad at the same time because you really couldn’t imagine yourself ever saying anything close to that when you were a kid. You wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a firefighter, an astronaut or other things we all think about when we’re kids. Yet, some of us ended up just like the kids said, arguing with the jackass in the next cubicle about who stole whose stapler.

I thought about that commercial todaywhile reading something a friend sent me about a movement in South Carolina to change the state’s constitution. Apparently, 1895 Jim-Crow-style language argued that every kid had a right to a “minimally adequate” education. It’s been more than 110 years since that’s been written and yet “minimally adequate” still controls the dice in that state.

I go back to that Monster ad in my head and find myself imagining the dinner conversation at a typical SC house:

Mom: Did you get your minimally adequate education today, son?
Son: Yes, Maw, I did. We learned about nouns. Next semester, it’s verbs!
Mom: Hell, son, if you don’t quit now, you’ll get adjectives and such next year as a senior.

It’s not funny and I’m glad to see thatsome people are taking a run at this thing, trying to force the state to take education more seriously in the state. Still I worry that in a time in which education is more important than it’s ever been, conditions for teachers still lead to heavy burnout, thanks to low pay, bad classroom conditions and an assortment of other problems.

Part of the reason is that people believe “if it was good enough for me…” which is so far from true anymore it’s not even funny. (Hey, if that’s true, why aren’t we doing math with slide rules any more or exposing the kids to asbestos, mimeograph machine chemicals and ruler-toting nuns who have a license to kill?) The other part of the reason isthe argument that A made earlier in the election season: It’s easier to tell people, “This will cost money” and create an immediate threat (I have no money, this will cost money, this will not immediately help me feed my family. Screw funding the schools.) than it is to convince them of a more nuanced argument (If you pump money in to the kids, they’ll get smarter. When they grow up and use those smarts, we’ll have better innovation, the economy will improve and we’ll be better at what we do. Also, we won’t be looking up the ass of every other country on the planet when it comes to financial and sociological conditions, but it’s going to take some time.).

A long time ago, I told my father I wanted to work in the same factory he was working in. It was the same one his father and his father before him had worked in. Dad said no, you’re getting an education, a demand for which I’ve never ceased to be grateful. I know what a good education can create for children and I know what the lack of one can yield as well. Because of that, I feel horrible for the kids at those “minimally exceptional” schools taught by the “vaguely adequate and underpaid educators.”

In this world of slashed workforces and crashed economies, they don’t have a chance.

Not even at clawing their way up to middle management.

6 thoughts on ““Minimally Adequate”

  1. The concept of “investment” seems to be lost for a lot of people these days, which is really too bad. This is particularly frustrating re: education, which always seems to deliver a large return relative to the initial cost.
    But some folks you just can’t reach, I guess.

  2. I did two years with an AmeriCorps program, and I spent about one day a week in rural schools in Northern California. The rest of my time was scientific fieldwork, but many programs are 100% educationally focused.
    Obama has indicated he wants to increase AmeriCorps programs to total 250,000 members, from the current 75K, (from ~30K when I was in). I think that will be a huge step towards more energetic teaching environments as well as a great recruitment tool for future teachers who might never otherwise get the classroom exposure.

  3. issues with “adequate” education will persist in this country until the anti-intellectual drumbeat is stilled.
    why would a kid value their own education when they continually hear “smart” people ridiculed?
    why would a kid respect their teachers when they continually hear that teachers are deadbeats?
    when our society begins valuing education, many of the problems will resolve themselves.

  4. In my town, which fortunately is suburban and thus relatively well-funded, our public schools still have to fight tooth and claw, for ever dollar. There was a letter that I remember vividly, because it inspired me to write my first letter to the editor. It argued that the school board should eliminate funding for all sports, all arts and music, and basically any extracurricular activities. And that schools should be only funded to the level that created “minimally satisfactory citizens. There were two of us, actually, that wrote back, both longtime members of the top 100-nationally ranked music education program.

  5. mdh, I love the idea of expanding AmeriCorps. I know I probably wouldn’t have ended up teaching if it hadn’t been for the department chair at my college asking me if I’d like to give it a try. I was absolutely terrified. Really–sweating, shaking, nearly throwing up. But once I got past that (about two weeks in), I was hooked.
    I wonder how many people there are out there who would not only be great teachers, but would really love doing it, but haven’t given it a try either because they’re scared or think they wouldn’t like it. If something like AmeriCorps could get them in the classroom, I’m all for it.

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