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John Florez: We must teach our children to reach for the stars

SHARE John Florez: We must teach our children to reach for the stars

Curiosity, imagination. Go West, young man. Reach for the stars, follow your dreams. That defined the American character.

Curiosity, imagination — it's human instinct. You see it in toddlers with all its splendor; they don't know that they don't know. They try to walk, keep falling and keep on trying. If you observe children closely, they are constantly failing. They don't seem to care; it's the price of growth.

Have you noticed how some adults keep growing until the day they die? John W. Gardner, in his commencement address to the San Jose College class of 1969, told students he was less interested in the lessons they learned than how long they will keep the capacity to learn. "Some people keep it as long as they live. Until the day they die, they keep a sense of wonder, of curiosity, of zest. They care about things. They reach out. They enjoy. They risk failure. They discover new things about themselves." He asked them to look around to see how many older people have lost "... their zest for life? Or their curiosity? Or their capacity to care? Or their willingness to learn new ways? How many are trapped in fixed attitudes and habits, like gnarled tree trunks hardened into set positions?"

Societies are no different. They die not of old age; rather, because people in them have stopped growing. And that may be the greatest danger to our nation, including Utah. At a time when our world is changing rapidly and becoming more interrelated, we seem to be clinging to the familiar, turning inward, protecting what we have rather than venturing outward. The world is now driven by technology, the Internet, demographics; and the currency needed to succeed is knowledge, imagination, creativity and innovation.

We created an educational system for the Industrial Revolution that was the envy of the world, and that now is falling behind other nations in the new economy — globalization. And rather than retooling Utah's educational system to prepare our children and adults to succeed in the new economy, we seem to think that doing the same is good enough. "We held education harmless," our governor and lawmakers were content to announce. In this fast-changing world, standing still is not an option. Successful business leaders know that they must keep pace with their current environment in order to stay in business. Elected officials seem more concerned about their own survival, making incremental changes to our educational system in a world that is changing exponentially.

Our Utah leaders must have the courage to restructure Utah's education and training system that will prepare children and adults with the knowledge and skills for an ever-changing world that requires imagination and creativity, rather than the rote memorizing of the industrial era. The Skills Commission offers a beginning framework for change (www.skillscommission.org). China and India are making the necessary investment and leaving the United States behind. The old fixes — smaller classes, teacher pay and outdated textbooks used by politicians to give taxpayers the appearance of improving education — will not do. In a wireless era, where information is timely and accessible worldwide, our students should not be encumbered by school walls and outdated information. Individuals must be motivated and inspired by teachers who are supported and able to teach students to be constant learners with a love of learning.

It starts by electing leaders willing to risk, learn, listen, create a vision and invite all to share in making it a reality. Leaders must surround themselves with the best, believe in the abilities of teachers and create an environment where they are valued and respected. Holding the system harmless is a recipe for failure. We must reach for the stars.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.