Three years ago, I started working as a communications administrator for a large school system. Early on, I wrote this essay in an effort to articulate why education matters so much to me.
(This'll probably be the last time I write much about education here -- I don't want my opinions confused with my employer's, and a communications staffer is always on the clock.)
What does "Superman" have to do with public schools?
In my study, I have a poster of an Alex Ross painting: classic DC Comics characters descending from a thundercloud. The painting is so detailed that Superman, Batman, and company look simultaneously realistic and mythological -- it recaptures the childlike awe and wonder I felt when I read the comics Mom bought for me at the corner grocery. It's my favorite poster, and I'd hang it in my office if I were confident that it wouldn’t cause misinterpretations of my professionalism. (Superheroes and office buildings rarely mix.)
There's something about that poster that reflects my attitude toward life in general and even toward my mission in the (name of school system withheld). I enjoy the straightforward representation of heroism in these comic book characters. In a cynical culture, I like being able to look at these iconic figures that stand for simple (admittedly simplistic) ideals. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Right Thing To Do was as clear for us, and the Power To Make A Difference as tangible, as it was for the fictional characters with whom we grew up?
The poster reflects my idealism. But it also reflects something worrisome.
Back in the 1940s, Superman, Captain Marvel and other comic books sold millions of copies every month. Today, each Superman comic sells less than 60,000 copies. Children don't read comics any more; they've got PlayStations now. (If only they were giving up comics in favor of other reading material!) Once an integral part of pop culture, comic books are now a fringe art form kept alive by a shrinking pool of collectors. The average age of a comic book reader -- the average age -- is the early 20s.
What does this have to do with my work and mission?
Public education is an institution that is on the cultural ropes, nationwide. The opposition comes from many different sources, including:
- those who believe that education has no value unless it is tied to a particular moral or religious philosophy,
- those who believe that any effort to serve all the public will be so broad and weak that it will ultimately serve no one, and
- those who believe that their responsibilities end at their yard’s edge.
In this cynical age, where resources are stretched and information overload is epidemic, this opposition comes easily.
I hold these beliefs close to my heart:
- We have a duty to improve our communities, and not to abandon our responsibilities to our neighbors (and we do have responsibilities to each other).
- We have a duty to educate others and ourselves, and to value learning over laziness and ignorance.
- We have a duty to become better than we are.
I look at that Alex Ross painting and I see characters from an art form that is disappearing. I am reminded that things that are an inherent part of our culture can easily slip into obscurity.
There are institutions -- public education being one of them -- whose missions are to make my beliefs come true. In the face of cynicism and inaction, however, those institutions may also slip into obscurity. Without vigorous public involvement in preserving and adapting these institutions for the future, not for their own sakes but for their missions', our entire culture will suffer.
I don't want to see public schools go the way of the comic book, but it could happen. I feel called to help hold the line against the cynicism and help build up the community's spirit. At the ripe old age of 28, there’s only so much I can do, but this is a place where I can have an impact.
There is no more idealistic undertaking than an effort to give all of a community's children the opportunity for a solid education. Like comic book characters, idealism isn't very fashionable these days. But I'll do my best to help promote this effort and combat the cynicism and apathy. Even if our community doesn't recognize it, our community needs idealism.
And our community needs our schools.