While so many Americans are spoiled for education – apathetic kids barely willing to crack open a textbook – Nigerian children are being murdered for it.
In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head because she was at risk of becoming intelligent.
Maung Maung Lay, a Burmese refugee, needs a mere $10 to keep him in school next year, but might not get it because this is, after all, a refugee camp.
Boys and girls in parts of Chicago – parts that sometimes feel like a different country – have to risk life and limb walking across gang lines just to get to school.
It makes me recall our old excuses:
“When I was a kid, we all had to share the same book in a one-room schoolhouse.”
“When I was a kid, I walked seven miles in the snow to get to school.”
“When I was a kid, I went $50,000 into debt to pay for my education.”
And the world says back:
“When I was a kid, my school was blown up by terrorists.”
* * *
The dangers have changed, and with them the way we value education. In the West, it was once a luxury, then it became a privilege, and then a right, and now it’s nearly a commodity. That evolution has led to a huge – and increasing – pricetag on learning, but I’m not sure it’s led to a parallel rise in our appreciation for it.
In America we pay boatloads for a good education. We shell out tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance to learn from bright professors on manicured campuses. Many will be paying off their student loans for decades.
We go into debt. A lot of bitter, begrudging debt.
And then we whine.
Did I just fork over a hundred grand to help pay the football coach’s seven-figure salary? I’ll be in the hole for the next decade and I still can’t find a decent job? This degree had better be made of pure gold for what I paid for it.
Some of the whining is legitimate. After all, it’s not really whining if you’re getting pickpocketed for four years of your life, right? It doesn’t count as complaining if you’re being robbed, does it?
But as wildly frustrating as the student debt tally is becoming, and as exorbitant as the monthly payments chopped from your bank account are, maybe we can suck it up a little more in light of the facts. Because, yeah, we may be getting hustled, but at least we’re not getting killed.
We need to connect the dots.
* * *
While we simmer over absurd costs, regulations, and budget priorities, our peers are literally dying for the chance to go to school.
Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are poster-children for the perils of the average school day. But Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are littered with stone schools toward which kids clamor despite the risks.
And the risks really are great: extortion, ostracism, enslavement, death.
This past weekend, militants took hostages at Anbar University in Ramadi, Iraq. Malala Yousafzai was shot to keep her from attending school, a threat faced by many young girls in hyper-conservative states — and frankly, Malala owes much of her fame to the fact that she survived; what about all the girls who didn’t? Boko Haram killed 29 in February at a federal college in Yobe, gunned down 20 last July at another school, massacred 40 at a college in September, and captured hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls earlier this spring for the purpose of denying them education and selling them into slavery.
Boko Haram literally means “Western education is forbidden.” That’s right: a terrorist organization – groups typically identified with political, religious, or geographic affiliations – has gone with a title calling out secular schooling. They pretty much named themselves “Anti-Smart-Kids”; that’s how much they hate school and what it stands for.
Dingy schools in far too many countries are forced to worry whether the local extremists will decide to throw a grenade into a classroom. Teachers are compelled to consider their plan of action for the day they hear gunfire just outside the thin yellow walls. Students come to class and are constantly reminded of the danger by the sight of armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter of their grade school.
How is all of this possible?
It’s almost like the terrorists know more than the rest of us just how valuable a good education is, and that’s why they target schools. They realize that educated girls and boys grow up to remold the world. They know smart kids can unseat dictators, can dismantle dangerous paradigms, can cast off the shackles of ideological slavery.
If these kids learn English – if they simply become literate – they might be able to land a job with one of the international companies in the area. If they get their hands on technology, they might start a business and become self-sufficient. If they read politics or theology or philosophy or history, they might question whether the world is bigger than their own backyard.
What could be scarier than that?
Education is how you change yourself. Education is how you change society. The chance to hear trained teachers might allow some kids to escape the junkyards in which they’re living.
Americans, take note so we don’t fall back into our own junkyards of ignorance and indifference, about the world or about our own schooling.
When we waste our education, ours becomes a wasteland.
When we fail to see that a good education is how we’ll change the world, we’ll fail to appreciate what “world-changing” means.
Both here and especially abroad, we need to stop feeding the government machine and the war budget and start providing more books, more computers, more classrooms, and – for heaven’s sake! – start paying teachers more.
And ask: Would I be willing to cope with poor, crumbling, under-resourced, and un-air-conditioned schools? Would I walk for hours and miles to get there? Would I pay a hundred thousand dollars? Would I risk having to pay with my life?
All across the world, kids are taking that risk because they know the value of education.
We need to remember.
So, free lesson of the day: education is so valuable that in some places around the globe today – this very day! – young people just like us are paying with their lives.