OutTakes: Hey! Didn’t I teach you not to do that?

Soon as three o’clock rolls around

You finally lay your burden down

Close up your books, get outta your seat

Down the halls and into the street

Up to the corner and ‘round the bend

Right to the juke joint you go in

“School Day” – Chuck Berry

Commentary by Edd Merritt

Well, it is nearing summer, that time of year when parents wonder what happened over the course of the school year, what the teachers did wrong because their kids aren’t finishing it at the top of their classes and, if so, what those same teachers are going to do to correct it. Maybe it’s the school board’s fault. It must have something to do with that body’s approach to staff and administration. Is the district too big? Too small? Should we remain our own district or should we consolidate so that superintendents can set aside two hours of each week when they are not in meetings? What will Act 46 bring to the table?

As I was cleaning my desk top, I ran across a piece I had cut out of my graduate school alumni journal about a professor who championed learning more about what occurs beyond school walls than simply what occurs in the classroom. His name was Lawrence Cremin, and he was an educational historian and president of Columbia University’s Teachers College when I was a student there. I took his class in educational history, in which he emphasized the variety of sources from which people learn. He is quoted as saying, “When the American public thinks about education, they think about schooling.” He felt that was too limiting a vision, and he cited “other educators,” such as television, computers, family, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. He longed to go back to a time when “context and content were more organically linked.”

My bias is with him. Before technology came into the picture in such a strong way, the community of living and learning played a strong central role. People learned how to make things from others around them. There was a good deal of learning by doing. Thomas James, another educational historian, said, “Numeracy (like craft making) was learned by doing things that required it. Learning by doing, the community created community members versed in its ways.”

Now, let’s take a simple verse from my own past.

My mother bought her meat at “Piggly Wiggly” from the fresh-meat man whose name happened to be Julie Wera, a native Minnesotan who grew up about 30 miles from my town. He was larger than life to me, however, insofar as he was a member of the 1927 New York Yankees—the Babe’s bombers that also featured Lou Gehrig. Julie only stayed briefly in the Yankee lineup as a third baseman and pinch runner, but that was all I needed to know to tell me that he knew as much about meat as he did about baseball. And that his meat was light years better than any found in any other store in Rochester. Shopping at his counter meant 10 minutes of cutting steaks and 20 minutes of baseball tips. Piggly Wiggly, as a result, became not simply the store around the block, it became a sort of mission in our end of town, a place in the community where learning occurred about many more items than simply its stock of groceries. And my ten-year-old enthusiasm to learn was evident. I actually leapt at the chance to go shopping with my mother. Was it schooling? No. Learning? Yes.

As we move, almost oblivious to the process, into an age where inter-human contact comes through touch screens, earplugs or computer decks, I begin to wonder how we will define community. We can be members of large groups of people in urban centers, yet because each of us has our own technological communication devices, we’re forming a totally different kind of community than that of 30 years ago. Pogo is right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If one of government’s top priorities is to form a human community that is unbiased to its members and fair to all, then this has become a challenge—not only to those elected to office but to the whole population.

We cannot look to Montpelier or Washington and say that what government is doing wrong is the politicians’ fault. It is, in fact, our fault.

Does democracy provide the union and strength we need to exist as a country? Are we too large to contain common threads of thought and practice?

When states or regions form around principles that we may not share, should we look beyond conflicting principles to attempt to identify those that will bring us closer together rather than push us farther apart?

How and where do we learn about these principles? Can schools provide it all or does it take the Julie Weras of the world to bring a Louisville Slugger to the meat counter?

“Hey, don’t jump back too soon from that inside curveball! Let it break, then swing. Now, how thick do you want that sirloin?”