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Speeches: Of Songbirds And Public Education

ScreenHunter_14 Jun. 29 11.18The best and most important commencement speech of the year was given author Jonathan Franzen, not Conan or Colbert. Speaking at Kenyon, Franzen delved into the psychological challenges of caring deeply about an issue that may or may not seem interesting or relevant or fixable to the rest of the world. In Franzen's case, the issue he cared about deeply was the environment -- trees and grass and clouds and all of that.  For most of us, the issue is education.

Being an environmentalist was frustrating and uncool and seemed hopeless, however, and Franzen spent many years trying to avoid thinking too much about the environment.  He went off and did a lot of other things and generally tried to avoid getting overly involved in environmental issues.  It was too much, and generally going so badly.

But Franzen could only not care for so long, especially as he became more and more fascinated with the lives of wild birds.  The birds became a point of entry for his return to environmentalism, an opportunity for him to move beyond his need to be cool (the world of "like") and his fear that saving nature was a hopeless task.

Reading through his remarks (reprinted in the New York Times here -- would love to see a video) helped me understand a bit more about my own on-again, off-again fascination with public education, the cynical and silly ways I write about school reform much of the time, and -- even more important -- the struggle so many of my friends and loved ones (and the general public) have talking about education.  

School reform is so conflictual, so overwhelming, and (still) not particularly cool.  And it occurs to me -- just a few moments left before my cynicism prevents me from continuing along these lines -- that maybe if we can help others find a small but powerful point of access -- the local school, school lunches, a mentoring program -- then we'd have a lot more allies and a lot less shrugged shoulders.

The importance of small, focused programs that are accessible to a much broader range of people isn't a new thought for many of you, I'm sure, but sort of a new one for me and others of my ilk, who constantly wagged their fingers at programs whose scope is obviously too small and narrow to make a difference on the aggregate level.  

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Loved (... or liked... or whatever...) Franzen's article. Also loved/liked/whatever the book Freedom. Thanks for posting this. Would have missed it.

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