Months ago, when I started this series delving into the sacredness of life and the sacredness of the things that sustain life, I started with something I learned in third grade—our needs for existence are FSAW: food, shelter, air, and water. The concept I was taught by Mrs. Christie made and impression. It stuck with me all these years later and shaped the way I see the world.
Third grade, in general, was a memorable year in terms of my education. We learned about the United States Postal Service, the water cycle and types of clouds. I learned to make a bed with my fists and thumbs to tell B’s from D’s. I dipped my own candle. The list goes on.
Expanding on the lesson taught to me all those years ago, I have come to the conclusion that FSAW, while certainly accurate to a point, is not fully inclusive of the things we need. At the start of this series, I had three additions to the list: healthcare, education, and rest. The Pathways in Compassion ministry opened my eyes to a need I had overlooked, connection. I imagine that my list is done growing, but I thought the same back in August. Such is the way of learning, when we are open to it, our minds and ways can change.
Perhaps the strongest case I can make for the sacredness of education and learning is Jesus himself. Among the many names and titles we have given him is “teacher." Part of our lives as Christians is learning to live as he taught us. There are so many types of knowledge and so much to know, but not one bit of it is separate from God. We can get into debates about ethics and morality in how we use that which we know, but the essence of all of knowledge is rooted in the divine. And when knowledge as simple as how to wash our hands can alleviate suffering and protect us from avoidable death, how can we not include education in our necessities for life?
It is easy for me to get tripped up in talking about education as I quickly find myself swimming in the ocean of things that are known or can be known that stretches into the depths of the unknown. I don’t necessarily believe in a prescriptive form of education that enumerates all the things one ought to know. Where we are in life and what we do with ourselves certainly has an impact on the knowledge we will seek out.
Education can and should be a lifelong endeavor. While this society tends to focus our investments in education towards children, I know my need for learning didn’t stop when I reached the age of 18. As I write this very piece, I have found some questions that I hope to dig into to gain better understanding of our perspective on education in general.
If we are fundamentally sacred, and the things that sustain life are sacred; then the education that keeps us safe from disease, nourished and fed, water and air clean, that provides healing when we are sick—this too is sacred. Beyond that, the things that enrich our lives, like art, do not come without education in some form. Music, literature, dance - all of it requires the passing on of knowledge. And so I wonder, if education is sacred, what does it look like to live this belief?
These questions typically lead me to assess the systems we build, as their reach is far greater than my own. Some years ago I had the honor of spending some time learning from Hubert Price. He was a civil rights activist and state representative who guided me as I began to dip my toe into community involvement. Many of our conversations centered around schools and our education system. He directed me toward a fact of our system here in Michigan—the way per pupil funding works. In our state, each district is given an amount of money per pupil, per year.
There are different ways we can know something. I got a high-level understanding of this funding system from Hubert. This pushed me to learn further, so I researched what these per pupil amounts were for districts across the state.
Around the time these conversations with Hubert were taking place, the difference between per pupil funding for Pontiac, where I live, and Rochester, where I grew up, was $842 (using 2014 figures). This per pupil number may feel insignificant, until it is expanded out by enrollment for each district. In 2014 the Pontiac City School District enrolled 4250 students. Their per pupil funding from the state was $7,080, or $30,090,000 for the whole of enrollment. If they had received the level of funding from the state that Rochester Community Schools received per pupil, their total funding from the state for 2014 would have been $33,665,500—a difference of over $3,500.000. I had focused on Rochester because I grew up there and I knew that we had a very good school system. Of course, there are those districts, like Farmington or Bloomfield Hills, that receive even more state funding ($9,925 and $11,884 per pupil for 2014, respectively). At Farmington per pupil funding levels, Pontiac schools would have had an additional $12 million for their 2014 budget, or $20 million at Bloomfield Hills funding levels.
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to understand this imbalance in funding in another way. I attended a presentation on the Underground Railroad in Michigan, put on by a former mayor of Pontiac at the auditorium of Pontiac’s only high school. It was my first time in one of the Pontiac schools and it was eye opening and unsettling. The first thing I noticed was the lack of signs of life. When I was in school, the halls were filled with posters and flyers, things happening with different sports, clubs, theater, and such. The whole way to the auditorium I searched for evidence of what life was like for these students, and I found none. Areas clearly designed for furniture sat empty. Most striking, however, was the auditorium itself. At first glance, it was unremarkable. As we tried to find a seat, that assessment changed. The number of seats broken and in some state of disrepair was enough that we couldn’t just simply sit down in any open seat. Upon finding some that appeared in good working order on the surface, we learned otherwise when seated.
The numbers of the budget can feel so abstract, but they are concrete. They are auditoriums filled with working seats. They are sports and clubs and extracurricular activities. They are teachers and books and computers and so many things that make up our education. Are the kids in Bloomfield or Farmington just fundamentally more sacred than those who live in Pontiac, or any of the other districts on the low end of the funding spectrum? I don’t have the perfect answer to questions on funding our schools, but I do think it is worth asking when we see disparities of millions of dollars depending on your zip code.
Something as massive and important as our public education system can’t, and shouldn’t, be influenced by just one person. There are, of course, more intimate ways to be involved in honoring the sacredness of education that can happen on a more individual level. Perhaps you are willing to tutor or host a book or supply drive. Here at St. John, we collect supplies and then build school kits for Lutheran World Relief every year. Many community organizations are happy to host guest teachers or lecturers that fit their area of focus. If you have an area of expertise that you would be willing to share with others, seek out a fitting organization and see what might develop. Groups like time banks and mutual aid frequently host these sorts of informal learning opportunities. Of course, if you feel the call to support access to education, but don’t feel comfortable in the role of teacher or tutor, financial support is always welcome. Here are some specific organizations to get you started.
The Oakland Literacy Council believes that all people have a fundamental right to literacy. With support from our funders, we pair trained, compassionate tutors with adult learners until they become proficient readers, writers, and communicators. As literate adults, they make our communities and our democracy stronger. They contribute to our economy, exercise their voice in their communities, and give their children a solid educational foundation. The Oakland Literacy Council is the only organization dedicated solely to ending adult illiteracy in Oakland County, a large metro Detroit community of 1.25 million people. Visit their website to learn about the impact the organization has made in people’s lives, make a donation, and get started in the process to become a tutor with the organization.
Maybury Farm is a working farm that educates thousands of children about the sources of their food and fiber with a focus on appreciate and respect for the animals and the land. Contributions of time, knowledge, and money all help the programs at the farm run. If you have an interest in teaching, a volunteer docent position may be for you. Trained docents educate the public at their assigned station. Additional training is available for those interested in providing complete farm tours.
Started in 1994 by the members of All Saints Episcopal Church, Bound Together provides tutoring, a hot evening meal, as well as enrichment programming in the arts and healthy lifestyles to elementary and middle school students. Volunteer options for the organization go beyond just tutoring and include set up and supervision before the program begins, help with preparing and serving the meal, as well as behind the scenes type work with the website or administrative assistance.