September 10, 2014

Education: Still the best investment of all time

Columnist Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times recently used the story of a 14-year-old girl in Vietnam to underscore the point — proved true countless times in countless ways — that education is the best investment of all time for a family and for a society.

We take so much for granted in our nation, especially about our schools. Yet this country was founded by people with foresight and wisdom that has withstood the test of time. Among the genius strokes our Founding Fathers crafted for the new nation was the radical notion of free public education. They believed that every adult member of a community should fund the education of all the community’s children, as a way of ensuring that the community would continue to flourish and thrive.

It was simple: Free public education for all, as a shared obligation and a rich reward. It resulted in a trained work force, informed electorate, and ongoing expertise in matters of sustenance and survival.

Kristoff reinforced the point by telling the story of a malnourished Vietnamese teen who woke early every morning in a daunting effort to get an education. After he first wrote of her plight, his readers donated $750,000 to the aid organization that was helping her, Room to Read.

Two years later, Kristoff returned to see what had become of that effort, right after the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. The stories became merged by the fact that the obstacles facing girls’ education exist worldwide. In rural Vietnam, though girls do not face kidnapping to obstruct their efforts to obtain an education, they do face enormous pressure to stop their schooling at age 15 to start working and help their impoverished families.

As Kristoff wrote, “Poverty holds far more girls hostage worldwide than any warlord.”

The young girl Kristoff wrote about was one such example, coming from a family in deep poverty and ill health. Her mother had died of cancer, leaving behind large medical debts. Her father moved to the city for higher pay, returning only on weekends. So at 14, this young girl became the head of the household.

Kristoff said that schooling became possible only because “Room to Read” paid for school fees, books, a uniform, school bag and bicycle, while also providing a broad range of counseling and training.”

When Kristoff returned to see what the money had wrought, he found the girl, now 16, near the top of her 11th grade class. She still wakes at 3:30 every morning and commutes an hour each way to school. She has only one uniform, which she washes in a bucket each evening and hopes it will dry by morning.

Her plan is to continue to the university to study economics and her school administrator believes she will do it. “She is very poor, but very tough and is making an incredible effort to succeed,” he said.

Wrote Kristoff: “The bottom line is that a village girl of prodigious talent is now a star at a good school and potentially headed for college and a professional career because readers were willing to invest in her.”

Then came his major point: “It puzzles me in my travels that the donors who invest most in education are fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims from Saudi Arabia. Often in Africa and Asia, I see madrassas that they have established to inculcate reactionary attitudes, because they understand that education is the best tool kit to change societies. We don’t even compete.”

He added: “If a single aid group like Room to Read can create opportunity for millions around the globe, think what we could do as a nation.”

Resources are a major factor, but so are our society’s attitudes toward education.

Kristoff mentioned to the young Vietnamese girl that American students might not be happy to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and that in fact many are tardy to schools that are located much closer than hers. She was shocked.

“Education is the priority for me, so getting up very early, going a long way — those are very minor inconveniences when I’m able to pursue an education,” she told him. Americans used to know and deeply appreciate the value of education. We have wandered from those visions of our Founding Fathers, who knew that free public education for all was the best and only reliable foundation of an enduring democracy.

It is worth restating again and again: Public education has always been the glue that binds us together. Supporting it is still the best investment for our shared future.