We Can be Ready, According to the Law
To my American sensibilities Norwegian classrooms are uninspiring. The students are neither punctual nor serious enough for my standards. Casualness among the teachers is too common. I have seen a lot in my year of travels.
In the modern world, we are all global citizens. The products we consumed were produced halfway around the world, the benefits got realized in another locale, and the social and environmental consequences affected far away others who played no part in the production, consumption, or profit. Satellites see all. Our web of connectedness is as awesome as the array of all the stars visible and invisible on a dark night.
We have Twenty First Century problems, we need Twenty First Century solutions. To wait for the laws of nature to correct our human primate problems would be doom. To expect the laws of God to provide remedies invites greater problems of authority: Whose God? Who sez?
The answer for the problems of mankind is mankind. Specifically, an educated public. All the people steeped in literacy, numeracy, and humanity. All the people capable of answering questions as well as creating their own. All the people steeled to take their place in society, aware of the past and emotionally and intellectually armed to address the future.
Preparation, not training. Preparation for democratic life is difficult, resistant to quantification, and non-linear; it’s strategic. Training is specific, for a task and temporal; it’s tactical. To be educated is to be prepared. To be prepared one must be educated.
This week was the spring seminar for the Fulbright Grantees in Norway. In the auditorium of Helg Engs Hall at the University of Oslo, we gathered to share our work, take some questions, and revel in the presence of so many people who are amazing in their own rights tell about the amazing work they are doing. I told my wife that I got to speak with people who are going to save my life with medical advances, save our planet, and take us to new heights in appreciating the human experience with their art. I got to keep company in some rare air.
I presented my observations of the Norwegian Upper Secondary schools, “Vidergående skoler.” 10 minutes was scant time to wax about the 36 schools I visited, the 109 workshops and lessons I presented, or the 4,138 people to whom I have presented.
No, I had to keep my message succinct, and I think I did: The Kids are Alright! The concerns I mentioned at the start of this post are legion among American visitors. I heard them all before I arrived. Americans in Norway repeated them to me with the air of providing great insight. Some Norwegian parents and teachers have expressed all those concerns to me at some point. While my travels to vidergåendeskoler continue I have seen enough to say, “The kids are alright.”
Norwegian teens have asked deep questions, they expressed true enthusiasm for learning, so many students wanted to hear more, most lessons conclude with some student staying after to share their own insights. The kids are alright.
Norwegian youth also have the law on their side. Education is a Constitutional right. This right guarantees a remarkable similarity in the quality of education regardless of geography. The American trope of bad neighborhoods=bad schools does not apply.
But there is another special way in which Norwegian children and teens are able to make the most of the education they get, they are richly supported outside of school as well. The young people of Norway have health care, they have a stability in home lives, their parents have jobs that earn a living wage.
All of these conditions were decisions in a democracy manifested into Norwegian law. Norway is a small country to be sure but also a beacon from a high latitude to show the possible. By contrast there is no right to healthcare in America, the differences in educational experiences are wide, kids are poorer, families are more at risk from low-pay and unstable work. Worry must be an unwelcome companion for tens of millions of American kids.
The American kids are alright too, it’s just we have voted to make it harder to get to alright, harder to stay at alright. The US constitution doesn’t have one word about education or health or dignified work. If the American youth have to struggle so mightily to get an education, then can enough of them actually get prepared? We need every young person in America able to address our Twenty First Century problems, but will we? I’m not too worried about the children of the northern lights or their problems. In Norway an education and a chance at a dignified life are rights, according to the law.