America is in trouble.
The high price of gasoline is one symptom. Others include: (1) The dollar declines in value throughout the world. (2) Last year, the average life span of Americans decreased for the first time in more than a century. (3) We don't create enough good jobs for our children. (4) We depend on other nations for everything from oil to clothing to electronics. (5) Our electric energy grid is obsolete. (6) Water and air quality are worse than a decade ago. (7) We exploit imported cheap labor for service jobs. (8) Our entertainment industry is a disgrace. (9) We teach our children a 45-second thrill ride at Disneyland is worth a 90-minute wait in line . . . and then wonder why they experiment with drugs, high speed driving and extreme sports.
Neglect of education contributes to every one of these problems. Our ancestors would be shocked.
I ran across an old photograph inherited from my father. It shows 17 youngsters at the one-room schoolhouse in Uintah, near Ogden.
The teacher stands at the back. She wears a black dress with a white lace collar. Her hair is piled atop her head. She scowls a bit, perhaps because the sun is bright. The children squint. There isn't a smile in the bunch. One girl looks to be 6 or 7; two girls at the back look like teenagers. No one is overweight.
Clothing appears to be a conglomeration of home-made and hand-me-down; no worries about style fads at this school. Overalls have patches or holes. One boy has the toes of his shoes cut out. He has outgrown them, and he has no younger brothers to "fill his shoes" (literally). Their clothes are dark enough to hide evidence of many days' wear.
The third girl from the right is my aunt. She must have been about 8 years old, because my father was not yet in school. It's 1909 or 1910.
I also have my aunt's "notebook" — two small boards tied together with leather thongs. One side of each board is hollowed out and filled with wax. She scratched school notes into the wax, studied her notes at night, then smoothed the wax with a hot iron for the next day. Uintah parents couldn't afford paper or books.
Life was not easy in that small community. No one was affluent, by any means. People worked hard merely to survive. Some could neither read nor write. Yet, these turn-of-the-century settlers somehow found money to build a school and hire a teacher. They were willing to suffer whatever sacrifices necessary to make sure their children were educated. They knew it was the only way to solve the community's problems. That one-room school absorbed more of their meager resources than anything else in the family budget.
We who live in the 21st century should be ashamed!
Compared to my grandparents and their neighbors in Uintah, we give education precious little support. When was the last time anyone went without a meal to pay school taxes? Or went without a trip to Disneyland? When was the last time a family gave up cable television in order to pay schoolteachers?
Our elected representatives brag about the measly sacrifices they ask for education . . . and we let them get away with it. Shame on us!
Of course, legislators know we would rather have bigger houses than smaller classrooms. They know we would rather have newer cars than up-to-date textbooks. They know we would rather have tickets to ball games than well-paid teachers.
What will it take before we have as much wisdom and vision as those hard-working settlers in Uintah?
The nation cannot solve its problems unless its people focus on education with the same passion as those citizens in Uintah.
If your local legislator does not come to your school, church or civic club to talk about the needs of education, vote for someone else. And if your senator or Congress person does not emphasize education in his or her literature, vote for someone else.
It will take a generation — at least — to get America back on course. We won't solve our problems until we renew our commitment to education . . . in word, in deed, and in resources.
G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University. E-mail him at email@example.com