May 24, 2016

Service, education, and progress

By Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

This weekend we turn our solemn attention towards a group of professionals who put service before self, those who recognized at some point in their lives that a greater good exists beyond just their personal interests. On Memorial Day, we remember the service men and women who, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated in his Gettysburg Address, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

While public education has always been the glue that binds our citizens together and forms the foundation for our democracy, the preservation of the remarkable experiment that is the United States is due in great part to the ultimate sacrifices of the brave women and men who agreed to wear a uniform of our armed forces. Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest proponents of public education among our nation’s founders, was also quick to remind that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

The notion of remaining vigilant is not exclusive to the military, of course. It is an obligation we all bear — even as it pertains to our education and how we help develop future generations. One simple yet effective way we remain vigilant about our education is to get involved with it.

Admonitions to get involved, to make a difference, to be active guardians of our present and future abound this time of year, with high school and college commencements taking place nationwide. That involvement will take many shapes and forms. Frequently, however, it also means leaving one’s comfort zone.

“It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a commencement speech at a North Carolina college in mid-May. “That is a temptation that educated people must reject. There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it strongly. But at times when you are sure that you’re absolutely right, go and find somebody who disagrees. Don’t allow yourself the easy course of the constant ‘amen’ to everything that you say.”

Behind Rice’s comments is one of the interesting paradoxes about education. To paraphrase Socrates, “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” This observation can be a bit unsettling, but it can also serve as an inspiration to become a lifelong learner — and to make a difference in our education community.

Indeed, it is only our commitment to make a difference in our schools, neighborhoods, and communities that ensures our nation’s progress. True, “Progress doesn't travel in a straight line,” as President Obama reminded Rutgers University’s class of 2016 in their commencement address last week. “It zigs and zags in fits and starts. Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody. But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists,” he concluded, “progress has been this nation's hallmark.”

The connection between progress, education, and selfless service dates back to the earliest days of the Union. 19th-century educational reformer Horace Mann once said that “Public education is more than the greatest single idea of the republic; it is the bedrock on which our democracy has to stand.” As we approach what some have called “America’s most sacred secular holiday,” we thank those service members — and their families — who gave so much to ensure that our collective progress continues. The best way we can honor their sacrifices is by renewing our commitment to make a difference. Our veterans have always been on the front lines to preserve the American dream, and we salute them all.