A few weeks ago I saw Winter’s Bone about a girl named Ree who wanted to stay in school despite an absent father and a mentally challenged mother. What struck me most was director Debra Granik’s realization of pickup truck society in rural Missouri where the men mostly cook meth and grow weed and the women somehow get by. If anyone there ever had an abstract thought it was probably Ree. Then a few nights ago I saw Harlan County, U.S.A., a documentary about a 1973 coal miners’ strike in Kentucky to try to get recognition of the UMW and a union contract.
The film crew went into a mining town and practically lived with the striking miners’ families and documented a lot more than the issues in dispute between the miners and the Eastover Mining Co. and the Duke Power Company. I couldn’t watch it all. These were people struggling for their very existence. There’s no way to describe their lives without sounding elitist. From what I saw of how they handled themselves as they tried to provide their families with the bare essentials to sustain life, there was no question about their ability to distinguish right from wrong and to fulfill their duties within their families and with respect to their jobs, but the idea of reading a book for pleasure or self-improvement may never have occurred to any of them. I found it hard to imagine that any of them had an opportunity for even a decent high school education much less aspirations for anything beyond that.
This all made me wonder how a society with a net worth of around $75 trillion could have left so many people out of the mainstream of Western culture and, even more worrisome, how so many of its leaders today could be promoting educations that are unlikely to transmit the learning that is necessary to appreciate and participate in that culture. Yes, we need to invest in education but the purpose of that education has to be twofold. Of course we need to send young people into the workforce with skills that equip them to compete in our globalized and technically and scientifically advanced world, but the effort is wasted if we don’t also give them the intellectual tools to realize their full human potential. I want to see an education system that encourages future carpenters and coal miners and future scientists and engineers to take AP English in high school and for those who go on to college, I want them to take something other than “Engineers English.”