In Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Education

I just watched a very inspiring Daily Show.

Now that’s not a sentence once expects to come across very often (no offense, Jon), but it was an interview with Malala Yousafzai.  Malala, now sixteen, is an outspoken Pakistani activist for education as the most important tool for solving the multitude of problems facing humanity. I’ve got to hand it to her father as well for clearly being the guiding role model in her life. She was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for her efforts, but fortunately for all of us, she made it.

Malala shares this view with me, my parents, and the innumerable other immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children thinking that education would enable greater opportunities in life.  This is why now, in the midst of our government’s ridiculous shutdown, I look around at the ailing public school system of this once-great country and feel very sad.

The other day I was astonished to learn that the high school that my friends and I spent four years of our lives, receiving the FREE education that sent us on to good universities and even medical school, had slid down a hole. It was now gang territory, with police cars frequently on patrol. Some families are being forced to make a ridiculous choice – give up their homes to  move to a better public school district, or fork out  the tuition for private school. How did this happen?

Well, some people may blame the shifting demographics. Yes, the community make-up is now much less white middle class than it used to be fifteen years ago, when I graduated.  But is that really all there is to it? Blaming demography smacks of – and I’ll say it outright – racism. No, what’s really at the bottom of it, as always, is economics. Many of those kids filling up my old high school probably have hard-working parents. Probably some of them have two or more jobs to make ends meet, legally or illegally, doing the work that no one else wants to do. So life’s probably tough and there’s probably little time left over to supervise the math homework. And this is to say nothing of the state of the school itself – I have no idea how much financial resources are now available to my old school district.

I hope it’s better off than the sorry state of Philadelphia schools. Philly is another place I’ve got fond memories of, having spent six years of my life in grad school at Penn.  What fundamentalist religious groups elsewhere have tried to do with bombs, Pennsylvania Republicans have managed to accomplish by mucking around with their budget – namely, to rob a generation of their right to an education. The great irony of this fate befalling Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and birth place of the US Constitution, cannot escape notice. So many come to the United States seeking better lives, and education as the means to achieve it.

It seems that not a year goes by that I don’t hear of some atrocious piece of idiocy concerning budget cuts to public school programs – at all levels, including the valuable public university system. The saddest thing – I just don’t understand why. What does crippling education accomplish, except to undermine the very future of this country? It’s scary as hell because to me it’s personal. If my newly-arrived parents, knowing nothing about the US system, had unknowingly placed me in a school that was struggling, my life would be very different right now.

As people like Malala courageously fight to ensure that every child has the chance to get a decent education, she puts our politicians to shame.  She may only be sixteen, but she exhibits so much more maturity than the clowns in power, I hope they take a lesson from her.

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