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For a number of years in this country a debate about education has raged and still rages. The government periodically steps in to change the way teachers teach or change the standards students must meet or invent new tests to measure student learning. But it seems that nothing changes for long. People pass the buck about who is responsible for the perceived problems our country faces in education.

Some people blame teachers for not being good enough at what they do. Teachers blame parents for raising kids who lack respect for authority and disrupt classes so that others can’t learn. Some people blame the government for putting too much responsibility on the teachers to raise children in schools, feeding them, counseling them, and at times, clothing them because the students’ own parents are too irresponsible or impoverished to raise their own sons and daughters. They have ceded that responsibility to the schools and to government.

All of these arguments have validity, for no one entity is to blame for the education problems we have in 2012. Perhaps as a country we have lost sight of what is important. Perhaps parents, teachers, and students focus on the process of education rather than the goal of education: learning. I don’t profess to have an answer to what is wrong with the schools in America, but I do know if students were interested in learning, in stoking their own curiosity to understand their world, which is inherent in all people, we wouldn’t have many education problems in the United States.

In some countries students want to go to school but can’t. Either they don’t have the money (because it costs money to go to school), or they aren’t allowed to go because they are female or not of the right social class or some other reason. Many of America’s young people don’t realize how lucky they are to go to school. Perhaps if they understood this, they would embrace this privilege and work hard in school to get a good education. Some students truly want to learn and find a way to attend school no matter if their lives are threatened or they are targeted by those in control of the countries they live in. Some speak out against others who try to keep them from getting an education. Does that sort of thing happen today? Perhaps not in America, but it happened to a young girl last week in Pakistan.

According to, Malala Yousufzai, a fourteen year old Pakistani girl was targeted by the Taliban and shot when she was on a bus waiting to go home from school. Why was she a target? Because she dared to defy the Taliban, because she dared to go to school, and because she dared to write about what life was like for a girl in Pakistan who lived under the Taliban’s control. She used her voice, her writing, to spread the word across the world that girls should be allowed to go to school and learn. The Taliban calls what she says an “obscenity.” They were determined to keep her and other girls from attending school and learning. They have vowed to kill her if she survives this attack. As I write this, she is hospitalized . She was shot twice, once in the neck and once in the head. It’s a miracle she was not killed, but she has a long fight to regain her health.

Malala used her voice, the only weapon she had, the only weapon many of us have, to fight against oppression. We must remember this lesson she is teaching us. We must be brave like her to fight against anyone who might try to limit us or keep us in our places or limit our voices and, therefore, our influence. To do otherwise is the true obscenity.

Why did this young girl make such an impact on my thinking? It is partly because I am a teacher and partly because I am a writer, but I have long identified with others who know the value of an education. My teachers told me and my rural classmates that the only way we would make something of ourselves was to become educated. I believed what my teachers said, and I still believe it. That is one of the reasons I became a teacher. The other reason I was so touched by this girl’s fight is that I see our own public schools struggling. I see students who would rather smoke pot or work or play video games than to learn what teachers are trying to teach. I see parents who think it is the responsibility of the teacher alone to educate their children. I see principals who believe in the next “great” idea whether it is technology, new standards, Response to Intervention, or whatever other new educational “fad” happens to be popular at the expense of requiring personal integrity and responsibility from students, parents, and teachers.

I have been a high school English teacher for the past 10 years, so I am familiar with public education and public schools. I’ve taught at three schools in Wisconsin in my career and had practicum experience in Florida, Georgia, and Wisconsin. What I don’t often see in students is a hunger for knowledge, a relentless pursuit of learning, a desire to outperform the next person because they want the highest grade in the class. In fact, often those students who outperform others are not admired; they are maligned. This I have never understood. Many students equate being smart with being unpopular and “nerdy.” They sabotage their own futures for fleeting approval from people they often won’t see after high school. In our culture we idealize vapid celebrities and vilify hardworking, successful, smart students and adults alike. Why would students aspire to be smart and successful in a climate like that?

It’s time America, and by extension, America’s schools underwent a sea change to embrace the discipline required to learn what is not easy, to work hard for what we want and not to expect that just because we are breathing and show up in class or to our jobs that we should get an A or a pay increase. It’s time we recognize how privileged we are to live in a country that provides education to all its children. It’s time students took responsibility for their own learning and work hard to understand their school work and the world around them. If we don’t have this change, I believe we will do all the children of the world who can’t go to school but who hunger for knowledge a huge disservice.

Education should be valued. Malala Yousufzai knows this. She knows that education is the pathway to her dream of becoming a doctor. She risked her life for her education. Would we do the same?