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Friday July 25th 2014

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Outtakes 7/12/12

MORE THAN WORKERS On July 7, St. Joseph School in Greenville, Miss. was destroyed by fire. The 62-year-old, red brick high school played a key role in my life. My father was in the first class, graduating in the top five of his class—that only had five students. I graduated 25 years later, finishing at the top of a class of 48 students, many of which were second generation Italian- and Lebanese-Americans.

That school was embedded in my soul. I often dreamt about walking its halls. Its demise prompted me to think about the nature of education and how far off base our expectations concerning it have become.

St. Joe produced men and women who knew their Roman Catholic faith and how to be solid members of society. Most classmates immediately went to work upon graduation or joined the military. Some went to the nearby community college, Mississippi Delta Junior College.  A few of us enrolled in universities.

But more importantly St. Joe taught us how to reason and think. We studied Shakespeare and read the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. We debated points and had to defend our positions.

We didn’t measure our success or that of teachers by some standardized test. Instead tests were used to give useful feedback about where we were in the subject and to diagnose how to improve our progress. No one’s pay was tied to those tests.

Our teachers didn’t see their job as creating an educated workforce, as Gov. Rick Scott and his contemporaries like to describe our children today. The faculty at St. Joseph aspired to educate its charges to be good men and women. Reading, writing, math and science were all part of the process as were humanities, arts and physical education. They wanted to help their students reach their maximum potential.

The concept of “educated work force” would have seemed to be socialism or even communism in the 1970s, but here we are over three decade later with our most conservative politicians setting workforce development as the primary purpose of public schools.

The students and teachers of the old St. Joe wouldn’t have fit in the new educational model that has been established in Florida and other states. We would have been labeled failures and, worse, unemployable. What St. Joe did produce was doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, successful business owners, teachers and one newspaper publisher.

What are schools producing today? Thinking human being or test-taking robots.

I fear the latter is true.