When talking with my grandkids about returning to school this fall — to the building, with other kids, not the dining room table — I was reminded of a school day of my own years ago.
“Bobby.” I heard my name called on the second-floor landing of A. B. Davis High School in Mount Vernon, N.Y. The caller was Mr. Leone, Joseph Leone, my biology teacher and college adviser. “Why haven’t you signed up for the SATs?” he asked.
Neither of my parents had attended college, my mother had died eight years earlier, and my father, a vacuum cleaner salesman, had his hands full with two active kids. When I think about the controversies surrounding school openings this fall, I think, too, of the critical role of teachers in the lives of their students. That certainly was the case for me.
Mr. Leone wasn’t alone in affecting my life for the better. I was going to drop out of college after my first year not only because of the cost, but also because I questioned why I was there. I entered to be a minister, but had become disillusioned with organized religion. My college adviser, Mildred Martin, helped me sort through the financial and philosophical questions and urged me to appeal my financial aid award, and I continued as her student.
Other teachers stand out as well. Miss Calabrese and Miss King, in elementary school, “Pop” Phillips in high school, Mark Ebersole in college, and Kay Moore and Robin Williams in graduate school.
The past year of living and learning with Covid in our path and in our shadows revealed the inequalities of access to teachers like the ones I’ve known. When teachers are diverted from their main responsibilities, teaching and advising, they can’t fulfill their roles to the fullest. It is especially difficult for them to be effective when students lack access to broadband and Wi-Fi, a quiet place to study, and supportive adults to help them with difficult assignments.
A distinguished psychologist once said that we human beings are the “teaching species.” All species must learn enough to leave the nest, but humans turned teaching into a “calling,” a vocation dedicated to preparing the next generation with knowledge, skills and values. As a result, teachers have a moral, social, civic and historical responsibility for not only educating each new generation but also, in this way, creating the future.
We must remember the vocation, the calling, of teaching. As the historian Jacques Barzun said, “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
At the beginning of our nation, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson stated that public education was at the heart of democracy. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” Adams wrote. “There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Jefferson expressed similar sentiments. It is unfortunate, therefore, that some local school boards see teachers simply as employees, instead of as those who inspire discovery and awaken students’ imaginations, as Mark Van Doren and Robert Frost said.
But while the Founders argued that schooling was a local responsibility, they were adamant about the public benefits to the nation. They believed that education should be public; is critical to democracy because it prepares an informed citizenry, able to ask questions; is important because it prevents aristocracy and promotes meritocracy; should be free from religion and ideology; should be equal and equally available to all citizens; and is a public investment that is worth the cost.
While the ideals of the Founders foundered on the compromises made to create a republic, they nevertheless created within the Constitution the mechanisms for correcting early mistakes and providing the means for continuing the pursuit of a “more perfect union,” which we have shown the ability to do.
As we help our kids and grandkids, or relatives or neighbors’ kids, prepare for a new school year, let us acknowledge the noble profession of teaching, perhaps by remembering our own teachers, and do what we can to fulfill the Founders’ aspirations for true equality of education in America.
Robert A. Scott, Ph.D., is president emeritus of Adelphi University; the author of, or contributor to, 18 books and monographs; and the author of hundreds of articles on higher education and social issues. His latest book is “How University Boards Work” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018; Eric Hoffer Prize awardee, 2019).