I had the privilege to speak a number of times at the Democratic National Committee Convention. The messages I delivered would have been identical had I been similarly invited to the Republicans' event. This talk was delivered at the Faith Forum in a session entitled "Common Ground for the Common Good." I was asked to speak about education as a values issue.
I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this forum. When Joshua (Dubois) and Paul (Monteiro) asked me to speak about education as a value issue, I was delighted.
You see, I grew up in a tradition Jewish family for whom education was itself a value. It was NOT just a means to an end -- the slogan "to get a good job get a good education" was seen as self-evident, but not to the point.
What resonated more for us were the watchwords of the United Negro College Fund: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
It was understood that we were endowed by our Creator with certain UNAVOIDABLE RESPONSIBILITIES and first among them was to develop our potential to learn as much as possible of the vast body of knowledge and wisdom in this world, and then return to it whatever small or great addition we had the privilege to innovate.
My wife Ann and I have tried to transmit this value to our 3 children, 2 of whom are here with me this week – Max is back in VA preparing for college (NU); Julia is an engineer in emergency management and disaster recovery after four summers as an intern for Speaker Pelosi. And Jennie, lucky for me as I prepared for this session, is education policy advisor to Governor Tim Kaine.
The Talmud, our sea of learning in the world of knowledge and wisdom, debates the question, "Which is more important, STUDY or ACTION?"
It is a relevant debate to a consumer-driven society that measures output and productivity and market activity.
The answer, from 2000 years ago, is study, because study leads to action. KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM MOVE US FORWARD, ACTION ALONE JUST MOVES US AROUND.
It is foolish to speak of "no child left behind" when we aren't sure ourselves where we are going.
The Talmud also affirms that the world exists because of the breath of school children. But I worry that we live in an environment that has made it harder and harder for children to breathe -- and I refer here not to air pollution, but breathing in the educational atmosphere.
From a values point of view, that's tantamount to abuse and neglect.When we deny our children, teenagers and young adults the resources to become the very best they can be, we mock the devotion to new life that brought them into this world.
When we minimize our community responsibility to educating our children by teaching to tests rather than nurturing critical thinking, by eliminating physical fitness education, and art and music departments and elective and co-curricular opportunities, by reducing classroom hours to cut costs, by ignoring the importance of math, science and technology for all kids, we suck the air from our future and leave a vacuum in its place.
I hope we continue to hold as self-evident that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Without a solid high school education, a young person is more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system, to become pregnant as a teenager or cause an early pregnancy, to seek an abortion, to live a hand-to-mouth existence. A quality education is part of the inalienable right to life.
Without the guidance of competent, well trained and honorably compensated teachers, a young person is hampered in making educated choices to find the path that benefits self and society. Opportunities close. Dreams are replaced by the status quo. A fully funded education is part of the inalienable right to liberty.
Without access to affordable early childhood education and child care, a child's ability to develop reading and language skills is delayed from its most effective moments. Reading books that make imagination take flight and learning the richness of expression open the possibilities to deeper satisfaction.
And without access to affordable higher education through scholarship support and tax credits, that same child's early development can be stymied by the crushing debt of the necessary step from merely adequate to excellent. An affordable education is part of the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
You want values that provide common ground for the common good? Look no father than the foundational documents of our society.
Allow me, please, one more plea for you to work your hearts out within and without our faith communities for the change we can believe in.
I lead a congregation that is, within the Jewish community, as diverse as they come. Age, race, economic profile, abilities, sexual orientation -- we have them all. My Executive Director speaks her native Spanish better than I speak English. We even have Republicans.
I teach them what I learned from my earliest Jewish education – that collaborative learning, that is, conversation, argumentation, challenge, struggling together, provides the best opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us and see beyond the horizon.
I talked to a bunch of people about today – my daughter, who articulated Gov Tim Kaine's values, my colleagues, my friends, and the folks who share the responsibility to spread the vision of Sen. Obama and Sen. Biden. You see, education, even at my age, is not the same as individual achievement.
We are more than a collection of test scores and diplomas. We are a community, responsible FOR each other and responsible TO each other.So let us again pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. Let's make that our common ground.