Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Access or Inspiration---Landscapes of Education

With beautiful words and images, Bonnie will continue to post reflections on our pilgrimage to Ireland in September. Deep thoughts keep coming from those experiences of standing on holy ground. Continue to guide us, Bonnie.

In the meantime, I gather the inspiration from those Celtic mists and hit the world of secondary education in the state of North Carolina with a leap and a bound. My travels, from Murphy to New Bern, are now complete. Having traveled now almost 3000 miles in a rental car (with "Eduard"--my GPS guide with a lovely Yorkshire accent), I have talked to students in over 75 high schools and 14 community colleges. With four college fairs per day, sometimes five, I have managed to scan the horizon of secondary education. It is not a pretty picture. In the western part of our state, I have seen high school seniors, already old before their time, stand in the corner of the gym, where over 50 college representatives stood eager for conversation about their school, huddled with friends in the corner, not even interested in considering future educational opportunities. In the east, I have seen student athletes, decked out in Friday football jerseys, dream of playing college football not even mindful of the long-term educational opportunities afforded with such a dream. In the central part of our state, I have watched as a counselor explained the reason for the student's lack of interest--"he is interested in only working for NASCAR--he doesn't want to go on to school." Foot ball is good and important to our southern culture and NASCAR has created opportunities for our state but where is the passion for learning? Where is the desire for improvement? Where is the burn to learn?

I have seen dirty sidewalks, unkempt hallways, poorly maintained doors and windows, unpaved parking lots, and a general sense of defeat and impossibility. Our schools are hurting, our teachers are overwhelmed, our students look like "deer caught by headlights"; our system is not working.

Yes, we need more money for education in our state. Yes, our students need to have more access--to be able to attend college or university regardless of economic status. But more than state appropriations, and creative access initiatives with financial aid and admissions assistance, we need inspiration. Access is good, but inspiration is essential. We need students who are eager to learn, who know the exciting possibilities that come from understanding more about their world, who are inspired to change their community, their world, their own lives. We need inspiration in our system--somewhere, somehow.

This is my question of these weeks: How do you inspire students to learn? Landscapes help--clean hallways and freshly painted walls do make a difference. Beauty inspires. Inspiring teachers inspire. Those adult mind guides---our teachers-- who are alert to their world, who can transmit knowledge through inspiration, are essential. And students need to know that there is more than they can see, that there are possibilities out there, that the clutches of poverty and ignorance need not bind them forever, that life can be meaningful, that truth can be discovered in the microscope in the science lab and in the blade of grass on the hillside. We have been saying that students need access to education. I am now saying that students need inspiration first, then access. For in my high school tour this fall, the missing ingredient was inspiration.

Back to the Celtic thread for a final moment---what I find really interesting in the study of monastic landscapes in early Celtic Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, Wales are the connections between inspiration and learning. At the center of the monastic community were also schools and colleges, as well as the expected chapels and holy groves for prayers. These educational places promoted the love of learning, the love of writing and painting, and the love of nature in the religious community.

Inspiration matters. Hard to quantify, and even more difficult to transmit, but our high school students need it! And those of us laboring in higher education, where inspiration comes a little easier, need to be willing to share it with those who are in need at this given moment. Inspiration matters.

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