Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #003. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 23, 2007

My wife and I spent most of September in China. I'd love to tell you about what we saw, heard, smelled, tasted, but this column isn't a travelogue. Still, what we learned 13 time zones away has direct bearing on what we in Central Minnesota will be doing two weeks from today.

On Nov. 6, citizens in the St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids-Rice, Rocori, Albany, Sauk Centre, Big Lake, Holdingford, Upsala, Pierz and Long Prairie-Grey Eagle school districts will be asked to approve levy referendums. On this issue, acting locally and thinking globally point clearly in the same direction.

You have heard much in recent weeks about why the money is needed and what it will be used for. (Disclosure: My wife is co-chair of the St. Cloud school group's levy campaign.)

To all the arguments in favor of these levies add this: 1,300,000,000 Chinese people are open to the world to an extent we barely comprehend, and they know education is the key to the 21st century.

Quest for knowledge

One tour guide summed it up — "Our life is changing every day." Everywhere we went in China there was talk of teaching and learning. The Chinese passion for education has deep roots, going back to centuries when imperial bureaucracy advancement depended on examination performance.

Reverence for educators has survived the drastic challenge of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when intellectual accomplishment could cost you your job, even your life. Memory of that decade makes education all the more precious to the Chinese. They know what it is like to be without it, and it is now clear that the national priority is education for all children. We visited schools where children's excitement was palpable. In a rural village, elementary and middle school students pestered us to help them with their English pronunciation. (English is a required subject in all schools.)

National and regional governments are pouring resources into the schools. There is no penny-pinching, no "I don't have any kids in school so it's no concern of mine." The whole society understands that schools and teachers are the means to future success for the country. It is so easy — and so comforting — to condescend to China. It is equally easy — and even more dangerous — simply to fear China, or only criticize it for its labor and human rights practices.

I'm no apologist for tainted pet food or the demonizing of the Dalai Lama, but China is learning and evolving fast, and I doubt the open windows can be shut. We in the United States have become complacent. We think we're No. 1, and in many ways we are. But if we scrimp on education, there are 1.3 billion Chinese whose "lives are changing every day," and they will outpace us.

The greater good

When you go into the voting booth Nov. 6 (and you should, because it's a defining American privilege) you may be tempted to think narrowly: "I can't afford taxes for education to teach other people's kids." If you think about China at all, you perhaps consider only the economic competition, balance of trade, cheap goods, and outsourcing, and "saving money" is your chief concern. In the face of China's passion for education, however, this pinched thinking is terribly short-sighted. Stinginess now will cost us dearly down the road.

Administrators and teachers know what to do to create a 21st century system of public education. We will have the opportunity next year to urge state legislators, who, with the governor, have a constitutional responsibility for education, to act on the report of their own commission that is studying what it will take to bring all students up to national and state standards. In the meantime, though, our school districts need our levy support.

The money is not for frills. It's to keep good things going. Act locally, think globally. Next summer, when the world's attention is fixed on China during the Beijing Olympics, let's be proud we in Central Minnesota did our part to make sure the United States wins the Education Gold.

And one more thing: I haven't even mentioned India.