National Public Education
27May/170

“My Father Taught Me to Be the Best”

In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek warrior Diomedes meets the Trojan prince Glaucus on the battlefield.  Diomedes, who has been killing Trojans right and left, is amazed to find one more young man coming out to fight him, and demands to know who he is.  Glaucus responds by first noting that such questions matter little in the general scheme of things, since we are "but leaves, born to die and be scattered by the wind", but, if he wishes, he will tell about himself.

He is a grandson of Bellerophon, the famous warrior who tamed Pegasus, the flying horse, and who killed the monster Chimaera and defeated the Amazons.  He then sums up who he is by saying, “My father told me over and over to always be the best, and to hold my head high so as to not disgrace my noble ancestors” (Book 6, lines 207 ff).

Today we pull back from saying we are “best” at anything.  It seems so self-centered, so haughty.  But this is not quite what Glaucus is saying.  He does not say he is the best, but that his father taught him to be the best.  He says nothing about his achievements; it’s only his attitude, his goals, that he mentions.  He’s not talking about himself as much as he is  about his relationship with his father and his relatives.  The point is not what he has done, but what his family has taught him to do, through their actions and their words.  This is how he defines himself; not by his achievements, but by his connections to his loved ones; by the aspirations and goals that his family has taught him.

Isn’t this what we want for our own children?  Not that they say “We’re number one,” but that they feel they should always try be the best at what they do; to always aim for the top and never settle for less.  This will enable them to find their own personal satisfaction, regardless of whether this involves wealth, or fame, or whatever kind of success they want.  In the words of another of my favorite authors, Thomas Jefferson, it will show them “how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life which chance has placed them” (Jefferson’s comments on the value of education in his Notes on Virginia).  It will lead them to the kind of internal happiness that we want for them.

How, then, could we accomplish this in today’s world?  Primarily, of course, through our own personal excellence and our interactions with our children, just as Glaucus’ father did for him.  But we also have a more communal way to foster that excellence in our children, and that is through our public school system.  It, too, can say to our children, “always be the best and hold your head up high.”

But clearly our American public school system is not saying this right now to our children.  There are isolated pockets of excellence, but overall there is a pervasive tone of of mediocre status quo throughout the schools.  All the data for a generation has put us at or near the bottom of the developed world.  The achievement scores of our students, particularly in the upper grades, have been unchanged for 50 years.

And it seems we have decided that there is little we can do to change this.   We are no longer trying to make our public schools engines of excellence.  All the new ideas are about how to make private schools for a few, not public schools for all.  We are content, it seems, to settle for something reasonably good, since we cannot find a way to make the schools excellent.  We are no longer telling, or showing, our children that they can be the best.  Rather we are saying to our children in the public schools, collectively, that we are "teaching you to be average."

I say this with all due respect for the teaching profession.  I myself taught in public schools for 40 years and certainly did not try to settle for anything like an average level of success.  But the data is there; this is where we have ended up.

My point is that our neglect of our public schools is an affront to our own beliefs of how best to raise children.  We know what we want for our children, and it is certainly not that they should go through life thinking that they are somehow average.  Why, then, settle for this in a public program?  It's our program.  We control it; it's our money, through our taxes, and its our leaders, whom we have elected, who run it.  Why not show all our children, through that program, that they can be "the best"?

 

Peter Dodington

May 27, 2017