Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Road Signs and Danger (Public Education

by Linton Deck

We were on a three-week motor trip through England and Scotland planned for us by a friend who was a travel agent.  She had booked us for a weekend into a hotel on Lake Windermere and recommended a scenic drive through a mountain pass between the nearby town of Keswick and the western coast of England on the Irish Sea.

On Saturday morning we drove to Keswick and found the recommended route.  It was a mountain road so narrow no passing was allowed.  In some spots the road was no wider than a wagon track, and it  evolved into a series of steep curves carrying us up the mountains.  The scenery was delightful,  but  I lost sight of the scenery as I concentrated on driving.  Then, as we approached the apex of the route, we came upon a  series of six roadside signs with crucial information.   

The first sign read, “Approaching crest, be alert!

Around another curve, a second sign announced that beyond the crest the road was a startlingly steep downgrade.   I  don’t remember the precise angle, but it was very steep.

A third sign advised, “Approaching crest -- shift into lowest gear.”

Around another curve, a fourth sign directed, “Prepare to apply brakes.”

The fifth sign evoked attention with: “Steer with care, both hands on steering mechanism.”

Then at the crest, a huge sign with foot-high letters that read, “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!”

I stopped the car and we stared down the steepest roadway I have ever seen --  a vertical roller coaster track plunging into a valley with a rocky stream running through it.  We gasped, eased forward and began to descend.  Going down we each held our breath, and I had an urge to drag my heel on the road to keep the car’s momentum under control.   It was a harrowing ride.

On the valley floor we stopped and got out to regain emotional equilibrium.  The valley, the rock laden river, and the mountains were magnificent, and we cruised the valley road beside the rocky stream for  miles before seeking a highway back to our lakeside hotel.

As we drove, we talked about the signs that had warned us of danger and recommended action to reduce the risks.  We were grateful for both warnings and recommendations. 

The signs provided three categories of information: (1) warnings to make travelers aware of potential danger, (2) advice on actions to protect from potential danger, and (3) combinations of warnings and advice.   The categorization was helpful because the directions of what to do (apply brakes, shift to low gear, steer carefully) was presented in a context of why (steep grade on other side of crest) one should do these things.   The dramatically large sixth sign recapitulated, by implication, the messages of the other signs and made it virtually impossible to ignore the warnings and advice.   

Our mountain road adventure is an allegorical symbol of everyday experience in which we need to recognize warnings and take actions to prevent or cope with danger.  Warnings and appropriate actions are critical  to safety on the mountain road, and warnings and appropriate actions are  necessary along the road of everyday living as well.

For several weeks I have reflected on the symbolism of the signs and tried to imagine comparably germane messages for our nation at this moment in history.   We live in a seemingly interminable election season, and we need now and again to clear our minds of data overload from the  24/7 news cycle and the cablecasts that demonstrate the consequences of a world with more media than news.  We need to contemplate with clarity the threats to our national life.

In this time of super PACs and Tea Party politics we are truly, I believe, in danger.  The flood of information available to us presents and implies almost incessantly both explicit and tacit warnings of potential danger that resides in and/or emerges from all our social, political, and economic  institutions and elsewhere, and I covet wisdom to identify appropriate actions.

Examples of profound danger to our nation’s future are threats aimed at our public schools.  Since colonial times, Americans have been exceptional in our support and public investment in education.  First we established universal primary education, and then the so-called “high school movement” in the late 19th century enhanced our national life with widespread secondary education supported by public funding and involvement.  Following World War II, collectively we made additional public investments  in  higher education via  the  G.I. Bill and other initiatives that made us the strongest and most prosperous nation in the world.

Now, however, one of our two major political parties has taken a hard right turn against education by  direct and explicit support for as well as tacit endorsement of initiatives that have reduced public funding for schools and embracing the privatization of our public schools in actions that inevitably will limit access to schooling and shift fiscal support to private sources seeking return on their  private investments.

Remember the mountain signs with their warnings and advisements, and then consider:  What happens to America when the stated purpose of  schools becomes producing profits for global corporations  rather  than  developing  the capacity for life long learning and responsible civic participation in our democracy, and what shall be the consequences of making schools accountable to corporate investors rather than to their students?

Ponder those questions and the issues they represent and remember the sixth sign:  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

© Linton Deck, 2012             
ISTM 66 – 930 words

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