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There’s a 100-page book written by a high school dropout that should be read by all high schoolers, college education students, teachers, and politicians. Michael J.Fox of movie and TV fame wrote his little manifesto “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned” after receiving a number of honorary degrees and doctorates from leading universities while speaking at their graduation ceremonies. He usually opened up his speech with these two sentences: “What the hell were you people thinking? You are aware that I’m a high school dropout?!!” It always brought the house down.
Fox always wanted to be an actor so he dropped out of high school early to work in his chosen craft. He made enough money acting in Hollywood as a teenager to have a tiny apartment on his own. He finally earned his General Equivalency Degree (GED) at age 32 after he had registered his son for kindergarten—and two years after he learned he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. I’m sure that learning to live with that devastating disease has granted him a philosophy of education and life that we can all use. He more or less adopted Mark Twain’s education motto “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” In the first chapter of his book Fox uses a metaphor about a full jar that reminds us we must learn new things all the time.
In a college classroom a professor fills a big pickle jar with golf ball-sized rocks. He asks the class: “So, who thinks the jar is full?” Hands shoot up. He then pours sand into the jar filling it to the brim. He again asks the question: “Who thinks the jar is full?” Some raise their hands. Then he brings out a six-pack of beer and pours several into the jar—to the brim. He then declares: “The jar is now full. This jar represents your life. Make sure the first ingredients are the big stuff…the rocks—your family, your work, your career, your passions. The rest is just sand, minutiae. It’s in there. It may even be important. But it’s not your first priority.” It seems to be a good metaphor to remember.
Degrees Are Not Necessary For Success—But Lifelong Learning Is
In another chapter Fox reminds us of other dropouts who have overcome the lack of a formal education to make their mark in the world. He names a few Oscar-winning actors first: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Hillary Swank, John Travolta, Sean Connery, and Al Pacino. Here are just a few dropouts who became billionaire dropouts: Richard Branson (Virgin Music and Virgin Atlantic Airways), steelmaker Andrew Carnegie, who later spent millions building 25,000 public libraries across the United States, Henry Ford who built cars, doubled his workers wages, and said “History is bunk,” and John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, who still holds the title of the world’s richest businessman. And then we have the dropout geniuses represented by Thomas Edison, the holder of 1,093 patents (the most in the world), and Albert Einstein, the e=mc2 guy whose parents were told when he was three he was dumb and he would never amount to anything.
Spending 18 years attending classes and 36 years of my life working in the education field, I have always been interested in how we educate our young--and old. I feel I have some credibility. I taught high school English, Creative Writing, and Journalism for eight years before spending 28 years in school administration as an elementary school principal, a high school principal, and at the district level as director of district personnel, and several years in employee relations (negotiations). I have also taught school administration at North Dakota State University and education seniors at Concordia College. I also served for three years on a national university committee that evaluated and studied student teaching programs in the United States.
A Teacher: “You’re Making A Big Mistake, Fox, You’re Not Going To Be Cute Forever”
Born in Canada, as he entered high school Fox was working as an actor at the Vancouver Arts Club every night in a long-running hit play. He would get home well after midnight and was so tired in the morning he would tell his parents he was driving to school—but would end up sleeping in his pickup bed for much of the morning in a local park. Here he was, getting terrific reviews for his acting while he was flunking out of his first morning class—drama! He tried to make a deal with the teacher, but she was hamstrung by regulations and refused to give him credit for his work on stage. He dropped out because he was also failing his other classes. His social studies teacher told him: “You’re making a big mistake, Fox. You’re not going to be cute forever.” He thought: “Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough.”
Later in life he mused about his dropout decision: “Was I nervous at first? No, I was pumped. I knew this was the right step for me, although one of the reasons it might have been so easy to make up my mind was that my brain, like the brain of any eighteen-year-old, was still under construction. Teenagers blithely skip off to uncertain futures…because the adolescent brain isn’t yet formed enough to recognize and evaluate risk. That’s why we can talk young men and women into fighting wars, and MTV and ESPN 2 are crowded with tattooed Mohawk-wearers leaping buses with skateboards….A teenager’s prefrontal cortex is still growing, still connecting up with other parts of the brain…Not a lot of reasoned thinking going on there.” After serving a dozen years as a high school principal to thousands of teenagers in Fargo, I can ruefully, and sometimes heartily, agree with Fox’s summation of the teen years.
And Now Education Has To Battle The Trump Years
There is no doubt that King Donald’s selection of Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education, who in her entire lifetime never entered a public classroom at any level as a student, signaled that the Republican Party has the goal of destroying America’s public education system. The Republicans have been trying to do this for decades. When public schools were integrated by court decision, they defunded the public schools in the South and established private schools for whites only. George W. Bush’s Leave No Child Behind was designed to have all public schools fail in a little more than a decade. We finally caught on.
Minnesota Governor “Toolittle” Pawlenty and his Republicans slashed money to K-12 and the college and university systems when they were in office. Tuition to the University of Minnesota and state universities has dramatically increased in the last two decades. There is no relief in sight. More than 30 states have spent less money on students today than they did back in 2007 at the start of the Great Recession, with some spending 10% less. In Minnesota we are facing teacher shortages because teacher salaries have not increased enough to maintain experienced staffs. Over 25% of new teachers in Minnesota leave the classroom after just three years.
The average American teacher is forced to spend $600 of his own money in order to have enough workable tools in the classroom. In fact, in the United States today two-thirds of all classroom supplies are bought by teachers instead of school districts. Over 90% of teachers also spend their own money to furnish basic supplies for students whose families cannot afford them. In total, teachers spend over $1 billion on supplies that should be furnished by school districts. How can students learn to read, write, and learn how to use computers and laptops if they don’t have the supplies and equipment to do so? A Tulsa, Oklahoma teacher making $35,000 a year got tired of spending up to $3,000 of her own salary to buy supplies, so she stood on a street corner, begging for supply money. Her sign read: “Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps!” In a week of begging she picked up $25,000 while her efforts went viral around the world.
The Richest Country In The World Is Refusing To Fund Education At All Levels
We already know the funding of K-12 programs has been declining for years in states dominated by Republican politics, but the situation in higher education is probably worse. We are running into a funding and ideological crisis at the same time because only 36% of Republicans feel that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the direction of the country while 58% feel it has a negative effect. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, Democrats come to an opposite conclusion with 72% saying higher ed has a positive effect on the country while only 19% of Democrats feel it has a negative effect.
As an example, Pell grants used to cover 79% of college costs for the poor and moderate-income students attending college. Pell grants now furnish only 29% of costs—and the 2017 GOP House Budget Committee wants to cut another $75 billion over the next ten years. That is a cut of $1,060 per year for over eight million low-income students with Pell grants. That’s while tuition and other costs are increasing.
Fox makes an important point in another chapter. He always enjoyed reading everything he could get his hands on. In later years he compared the curriculum of New York’s Hunter College with his experiences of educating himself through the years. He found that his life experiences came very close to the outline of Hunter’s undergraduate program. He wrote: “Laying out those college courses, I can make a case that I fulfilled the requirements for each particular course—while having absolutely no idea I was doing it. I might have skipped class, but I didn’t miss any lessons.” Early in his career he could only afford a tiny apartment where he took his dirty dishes into the shower with him. Later he made millions acting in movies and TV.
In his chapter on physics, he wrote: “A lesson in physics can be as simple as standing under a falling rock---or pissing into the wind….or attempting to stuff ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag.” That’s how we often unwittingly learn about the universe. As a victim of Parkinson’s he became a learned expert in the field of stem cell research and in the 2006 Congressional campaign he spent a lot of money campaigning for 17 pro-stem cell candidates. Fifteen of them won seats in Congress. He learned enough to hold his own with cellular biologists discussing brain chemistry. Fox learned an important lesson from John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, who always told his players;”It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”