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 #115. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb. 4, 2017; in print Feb. 5

This column is about early childhood education. It starts at a great distance from that subject. Nearly 80 years of living and more than nine years of column writing have taught me that everything is connected to everything else.

As many of his supporters wanted, President Trump is systematically dismantling the previous eight years. If he and they have their way, the history of the United States can be written without any reference to Barack Obama.

Trying to eradicate two presidential terms is a big task. What I find even more alarming and dangerous is the effort to obliterate 400 years of human progress. The ideal of many extremists in the Trump camp is to write history without reference to science.

Scientists and their supporters are mobilizing to march in Washington and elsewhere around the world to protest the administration’s anti-science stance. More than 300,000 people connected so far by Facebook are making real in action a historical mandate stated boldly and succinctly by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow: “The Enlightenment must never bow down to the Inquisition.”

Organizers of the scientists’ march have said, “There are certain things that we accept as facts with no alternatives. The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution.” It’s not just that the president and vice president are skeptical, even dismissive. It’s that their suspicion is driving public policy. Scientists who work for the government have been forbidden to communicate with the public, and in some instances even with Congress.

Trump has tapped into shadowed nooks and crannies of the American psyche. One is the suspicion of science. It’s not universal, of course. The Catholic Church learned its Galileo lesson — if it’s a choice between Inquisition and Enlightenment, go with the latter — and has taken the lead in officially declaring Darwin and Genesis compatible. Still, “it’s just theory” and “not all scientists agree” become excuses to dismiss well-established facts (not “alternative facts.”)

Here is where climate change and early childhood education cross paths. Each takes time for its effects to become apparent — in one case dreadful consequences, in the other case desirable ones.

My point: Science, whether about the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or of the development of neural pathways in the infant brain, is a long-term enterprise, and we Americans want quick fixes. Submerged coastal cities and increased high school graduation rates are years away? Why bother?

Last month I attended the 13th annual Children and Youth Issues Briefing in St. Paul​. There was lots of expertise and lots of resources in that room.​ The United Way was a major sponsor. Our own Jon Ruis was one of the moderators. Other supporters included the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children and Minnesota’s Future​; the Sheltering Arms Foundation​; the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits​; and the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

We heard from Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief of staff, Jaime Tincher; from the director of the Minnesota Budget Project, Nan Madden; and from Speaker of the Minnesota House Kurt Daudt. Panels discussed “Building success through a two-generation (parent and child) approach, prenatal to age 5”; “Creating innovative career pathways for high school youth”; and “Emerging policies for children and youth” (which included two Minnesota state senators and two representatives).

Everything was instructive. What most riveted my attention was a bipartisan, multidisciplinary consensus, supported both by brain science and by research across decades, that shows the impact of early childhood education not just on graduation rates, but beyond, in successful careers.

A Brookings Institution report tells of the demonstrated effectiveness of Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program, which has been carefully evaluated since 1995. “At every stage (kindergarten entry, second grade, fourth grade, middle school, high school graduation), GSRP participants outperformed comparison groups on school success indicators.”

The conclusion is scientific, not a matter of opinion: Targeted, high-quality, well-funded attention to early childhood experience is the best investment that we, as a state, can make for our future. It’s a scientific fact as compelling and strong as “the Earth is becoming warmer due to human action.”

There’s neuroscience. There’s also the science of economics. It’s more than a decade now since Art Rolnick of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve famously demonstrated that “high-quality, parent focused, Early Childhood Development programs that begin at birth can make an extraordinary difference in outcomes both for the child and for society.”

Minnesota has a $1.4 billion surplus. Dayton proposes an additional $75 million for early childhood program support. That’s just 5 percent of the projected surplus. The surplus is money we paid to ourselves (not to “the government” as an alien “them”), and it makes financial as well as moral sense to spend some of it where it will get what Rolnick — using both neuroscience and economics — calculates is a 16 percent return on investment.