From the Outpost: What it means to be ‘educated’

Small

The term “a gentleman and a scholar” has become something of a cliche, but it perfectly described Larry Small, who died Sunday.

Before his death on Sunday, Lawrence F. Small was the living emblem of Rocky Mountain College. He taught history there for decades, served as dean and as president, founded the Institute for Peace Studies and literally wrote the book about Rocky, “Courageous Journey,” a history of the school.

My mostly-on relationship with Rocky goes back 14 years, but that’s not how I knew Small. Instead, he was a member of the Geriatric Writers Kaffeeklatsch, whose Wednesday afternoon meetings I try to attend.

I was always glad to see Larry Small there. Afternoons at the Kaffeeklatsch often lapse into nostalgic storytelling. Longtime Gazette and Outpost columnist Roger Clawson once interrupted the sinuous plot of one of writer Gary Svee’s meandering tales to call it the “Möbius anecdote.”

But Larry had bigger fish to fry. He wanted to know what was going on at Rocky, and in education in general and in the whole wide world. His observations and insights were welcome and to the point, glimpses into a mind that still thought deeply and well.

In recent months, his health hadn’t permitted him to attend the Kaffeeklatsch, so we occasionally took the Kaffeeklatsch to him. Sharing coffee and dessert on his patio was a pleasant and edifying experience.

David Crisp

David Crisp

The term “a gentleman and a scholar” gets bantered about loosely these days, but it seems to me that Larry Small embodied those terms in all their best senses: unfailingly polite, well spoken, thoughtful, unostentatious. The words he used to describe Rocky in his book apply just as well to him: “a passion for education undaunted by the rigors of frontier life, scarce resources, depression, and war.”

Examples like his are worth keeping in mind as the state, and nation, struggle to find where education fits into our conception of governance. Why pay for public schools anyway?

One recent survey at Farleigh Dickinson University found that people who said they had heard “a lot” about Common Core standards actually did less well responding to questions about what is in the standards than people who said they had heard “nothing at all.” Like much about American education, the fight over Common Core has become an ideological battle over a mirage.

In Montana, Rep. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said in a recent Outpost that “the child’s education isn’t the responsibility of the state. It’s the parent.”

He is arguing against a proposition with a long pedigree. The first public high school in America was established in 1820. Even before that, Puritans required each town of at least 100 families to have a grammar school. As early as 1779, Thomas Jefferson favored three years of taxpayer-supported public education. By 1870, every state had free elementary schools.

The reasons are obvious to most of us, if not to Sales. Puritans just wanted everybody to be able to read the Bible—but once people started reading books, just look where that led.

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Supporters of public schools realized that a representative democracy depended for its survival on a voting populace able to weigh information needed to make intelligent decisions. Without public education, voters might be so ignorant of science, for example, that they could believe it’s perfectly safe to pump millions and millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But Sales wasn’t really so much arguing against public schools as against the idea that he should have to pay for them. He would rather send his kids elsewhere.

The argument boils down to the notion that public schools should be paid for by those who attend them—which would mean they would no longer really be public schools at all.

While public schools are struggling, higher education is bordering on full-blown crisis. Costs are escalating, and both Rocky and Montana State University Billings are both battling financial woes. More and more people are questioning whether college makes any sense at all.

When I was in graduate school, a professor once asked me what I hoped to get out of it. I replied, “Wisdom.”

“Perhaps,” he said, “you are drinking at the wrong fount.”

Perhaps I was. But it strikes me that Larry Small’s life makes a better case for education than I ever could. It’s not about getting a better job. It’s not about getting a handsomer resume.

It’s about living the well-considered life, in all of its rich complexity and uncertainty. We don’t need schools to create more good-paying jobs. We need them to create more Larry Smalls.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997.

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