Vol. IV, No. 1, Summer 1990

Our Schools

The Environment of Education

by Arthur Mallory

In attempting to describe education as schooling we usually think of a formal process often unrelated to what we consider to be "life's real experiences." On the other hand, education as training is as old as life on earth and has been absolutely essential to mankind's survival. Skills and understandings necessary to life have been passed on from generation to generation in some manner, either formal or informal, and only in the more recent years of man's total history on the face of the globe have we begun to think of education as a formal process--outside of the family, away somewhere in a schoolhouse--with some other adult in charge of our children.

Formal education in America is big business. Last year, over 65 million students from kindergarten through university level attended classes in the nation's 90,000 public and private schools (elementary, secondary and higher education). They were taught by nearly three and a half million teachers, and aided along the way by countless bus drivers, cooks, clerks, custodians, secretaries, administrators, and other support personnel. The cost to the nation? Well over 304 billion dollars. If we count not only the students and those who teach them, but also parents, spouses, children, grandparents, and others who are surely interested, it is clear that education is one of the "biggest" things that we do as a nation.

During the decade of the '80s more interest was shown and more was written about American education than during any other ten year period in our nation's history. One of the best known studies of this time was A Nation at Risk, written and distributed by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This study suggested that a "rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools was responsible for our nation being at risk.

But enough about the scholarly studies concerning the quality of education in the nation. So much for the statistics about the bigness of the education industry. What is education in America, specifically in the Ozarks, really like? On any given school night across America, listen in during the evening meal in homes with school age children, and "school" will undoubtedly be one of the chief topics of conversation. But the discussion will not be about A Nation at Risk or any of the other 50 or so studies which came out during the last decade. What the family will be talking about is what happened that day, in their local school, in a particular classroom. The talk will concern a student member of the family, a teacher who has a name and a particular instructional style, and a certain topic of learning. In other words, education, for most people, is not a national abstraction, but is related to the local school and is a very personal and a very specific activity.

I know it is for me. Each year as my father and I make our annual rounds of the Ozarks cemetaries where our family members are buried, individual graves reveal the extent to which my ancestry is linked to the teaching profession. My great grandfather Sam Claxton, his son, Jason, and my mother, Ferrell Claxton Mallory, all taught several terms at the same one-room rural school, Colewater, in Wright County. Great-grandpa Sam had an eighth grade education, grandpa Jason went through the tenth grade, but my mother had two years of college work at State Teachers College in Springfield before she began her teaching career.

My father, Dillard, began teaching as a 16-year old in 1923 at the Nation school, in Webster County. He had 72 students (several of them older than the teacher) in grades 1 through 8. My father taught for 50 years in Ozarks schools.

I can vividly remember my own school days, especially that first day! I can name all the teachers I had in all 12 grades of my public schooling, and can recall most of my fellow students. I have no difficulty in remembering what I consider to be the more important lessons learned in school, some associated with "the books," and some not.


Joann and I took a special interest in the schooling process of our four children and often visited the schools they attended. We became personally acquainted with their teachers, and familiar with their academic and extracurricular performance and activities.

By making these personal references, I mean to suggest what I believe is true for most of us--we do not depend on statistics or national reports to tell us what we believe and feel about education. We look at our local schools, the schools in our own neighborhood or town, the schools our children attend, and rely on our own personal experiences and observations to determine the quality of the education available there.

I believe there are three broad criteria that help define the level of excellence that can be found in any particular school system. These measures I call access, a supportive family, and a willing learner. As we consider the educational environment of the Ozarks, it may be helpful to look at these standards, and to apply them to our own schools, or to other schools with which we are familiar:

Access. Perhaps for Mark Hopkins, a log with a teacher on one end and a student on the other was a suitable environment for learning, but in modern times a more appropriate facility means a clean, secure, comfortable building in which learning can take place. The student needs a way to get to school, a safe bus ride, perhaps. Other access factors to education include up-to-date textbooks coordinated with a curriculum which meets the needs of the community. Most important of all, access is through well paid, well prepared, quality classroom teachers who know their subject matter and who care about the children and youth they serve.

A Supportive Family. This means parents and guardians who understand the value of good schools; who support the school program by providing adequate funding through taxes; who speak positively about the school and teachers; who insist on good study habits by their children, and who demonstrate such habits in their own lives; who encourage their children to be obedient to the constituted school authority; and who participate actively in their student's education by regular visits with teachers, seeking to know what role they can play in support of their children.

A Willing Learner. It is virtually impossible to help a person learn against his or her will. The family and school have a mutual responsibility to help the child want to learn and to be eager to attend school. This is done, primarily, by seeing to it that the young child has many successful school experiences. At some point, however, the older child and young person must become responsible for their own learning. Society must learn to accept the fact that the school and the family alone cannot (and should not) be held completely accountable for the success of the educational efforts of older children and young adults who simply choose not to try.

How do schools in the Ozarks measure up to these standards? It is, of course, impossible to generalize, for there are at least as many answers as there are school districts, but I believe that any given school in the Ozarks has the potential of being as good as any in the nation. Opportunities for excellence exist in all our schools, large and small, in part because of the traditional value Ozarkers have placed on education. Also, Ozarks emphasis on family, the self-help tradition of our rural roots, and our conservative political tendencies (which favor local control of institutions such as schools) are all qualities which are supportive of the values I have mentioned.

The best schools, I believe, are those whose patrons and administrators make sure that school facilities are carefully maintained and are a pleasant place for children to learn. Appropriate classroom materials, especially a variety of reading material, will be provided, and district salaries will be adequate to attract and retain well prepared and dedicated teachers.

The true educational health of our nation depends mostly on the personal effort the family and the learner in the local schools is willing to make. Those attending elementary and secondary schools in the Ozarks spend something like six hours per day, five days per week, 174 or more days per year for thirteen years involved in the schooling process. What an investment in time! How foolish it would be to waste this experience.

Arthur Mallory is an Ozarks native who was Commissioner of Education for the State of Missouri


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