What do well-educated people bring to their loved ones, to their jobs, to the voting booth, to their communities, to forging peace, locally and globally?

cover art for School documentary DVDTWAICB Director Sandy Sohcot writes: Having started my professional life as an elementary school teacher, I’ve always been very concerned about education. I can still remember a comment from one of my 5th grade students following a social studies class about evaluating sources of information: “You have opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking!” The privilege of connecting with learners as a teacher and/or mentor, whether they’re in kindergarten or getting ready to graduate from high school, still ranks for me as one of the most meaningful life experiences, especially when I see their sense of excitement about learning.

More recently I have become immersed in education once again, primarily with The World As It Could Be Program (TWAICB), and in other community engagement activities. I was especially motivated when the creative arts were among the first public school programs to be drastically reduced or eliminated during the years of economic recession and severe budget shortfalls. I had seen how the creative arts elements utilized by Destiny Arts Center, Youth Speaks and the San Francisco Mime Troupe Youth Theater Project in developing our first production about the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enabled the students involved in the project to grasp the abstract concepts about human rights, and then gave them the vehicle to express their ideas. We developed the TWAICB curriculum to not only deepen learning of the UDHR, but also to demonstrate the value of the arts as part of a quality education.

While I’m surrounded by dedicated teachers, administrators, and leaders of community arts-based organizations, all of whom are committed to providing quality education, I’m increasingly concerned that the public debate about public school policies, such as expanding charter schools or offering vouchers for more choice, has distracted us from a much-needed focus on what education is about and why providing public education has been a core priority since the beginning of U.S. history.

The League of Women Voters offers a helpful outline of the history of U.S. education, opening with the statement: From the very beginning of our Republic, a well-educated citizenry was thought to be essential to protect liberty and the general welfare of the people.

Facing History and Ourselves‘ recent documentary “School: The Story of American Public Education” also provides compelling information about public education as part of the fabric of the U.S. The first part of the 4-part series, covering the period 1770-1890, notes that America faced a major challenge of creating a united country out of 13 colonies after the Revolution. It was the work of Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Horace Mann and others that sought to create a “common system of tax-supported schools that would mix people of different backgrounds and reinforce the bonds of democracy.” From the beginning, it notes the complexity of examining education as a human right: “A wealth of research illustrates how this noble [education] experiment—the foundation of the young republic—was a radical idea opposed from the start by racial prejudice and fears of taxation.”

If education was seen as vital to helping a young America forge common bonds among a diverse population so as to sustain a vibrant democracy, then surely a common educational system is essential today, as we grapple with connecting people across urban and rural environments, wide ranges of socio-economic situations, and diverse racial, ethnic and cultural experiences. To help address these highly complex issues, I believe we must begin by considering these questions:

  • How can our public school system be a positive force in preparing people to not only live vital lives, but also contribute to their communities and our democracy as a whole?
  • What makes a person well educated?
  • Why should everyone care about a strong public education system, even if they do not have their own children directly impacted?

If we can gain greater clarity about these concepts, we can delve deeper into what it means to experience the right to an education as a student and as a community. More to follow!