Monday, September 14, 2009

Musings on Education in Mississippi

Marks, MississippiImage by John Edwards 2008 via Flickr

One of the things I've been wondering about our state recently is the root of the hostility to education. I don't mean the politics involved or even the reluctance to properly fund it - these are problems in many areas. No, I mean the public attitudes toward the importance of education and the pride some people seem to take in their lack of formal education. I don't have any answers, but I will offer a tentative guess about one possible factor.

I wonder if at least some of the hostility to education in Mississippi is that it is perceived as a condemnation of who we are. If education is thought to be merely a way into making us more like people outside of Mississippi, it seems reasonable that it might trigger a negative emotional reaction. Nobody likes to be told that they are deficient in some way. Could promoting the value of education be interpreted by some as just such an insult?

I'm not suggesting that your average Mississippian takes pride in ignorance. Some certainly do, but I'm not suggesting that this is widespread. I just wonder if anything that triggers latent feelings of inferiority (e.g., describing our system of public education as "failed") might prompt defensive and even hostile reactions that make it difficult to solve the problem.

In the university environment, I have certainly encountered hostility and anti-intellectualism from students. It is generally presented as close-mindedness to new ideas (e.g., evolution) and seems to have a component of fear. Some students have expressed their perspective that they view higher education as nothing more than a ticket to a high-paying job and that they have little interest in learning anything. It seems like they are afraid that learning might lead them to change their worldview, something that some clearly find unacceptable. Naturally, this poses a great obstacle for some students, including some who would probably thrive if they could overcome their blocks.

What helps to keep me going are the handful of students who genuinely want to learn and who are able to break through the various barriers which restrain them. Unfortunately, it seems that many of them have no intention of remaining in Mississippi when they graduate.

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