By Jim MamerAt a time when our country’s educational system is sliding down our government’s priority list, it takes reminders like this one, by noted California educator Jim Mamer, to set us straight and offer some much-needed inspiration.

By way of introduction, Mamer’s colleague Stan Corey, founding superintendent of Southern California’s Irvine Unified School District, weighed in with this tribute:

John Steinbeck said, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that they are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts, since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

Jim Mamer, who retired from Irvine Unified this spring, is such a teacher. For thirty-five years he has brilliantly taught the Humanities to Irvine students. In appreciation for his outstanding career he was asked to give the Graduation Address at Northwood High School. In it he has outlined the most urgent educational concerns of thinking people. I urge you to read his thoughts and consider how you can help bring change.

Mamer’s June 22 speech at the Northwood High graduation follows.

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Parents, Faculty and Graduates:

I have a confession to make. I’m beginning to feel somewhat past middle age. Partly this is because I started teaching before any of you, in this graduating class, were born. Partly it’s because I started teaching in Irvine when some of your parents were my students and, recently, this has happened with enough frequency that I began to fear that if I didn’t leave soon I was bound to have a student tell me that her grandmother had been one of my students. So, we get to leave together.

But I wish I could say that I am leaving at a time when I’m not as worried as I am about where we are headed. I’m not referring to the economy — I don’t have that much time. I’ll stick to the pressures on education. Specifically, pressures that you might not be aware of and pressures that I think you can all help to counteract, even if only by constantly asking questions and, of course, voting. Given who I am and what I teach, I’m most concerned about the future of the arts and humanities. And my concern spreads to the colleges most of you will be attending.

It is, of course, possible that many of you haven’t noticed what has been happening because all of you, all of you who have attended Irvine schools, have attended schools with a variety of opportunities, but it is important to realize that Northwood is an exception. I’ve been lucky to work here, where this community, where you parents, have continually attempted to fill the gaps left by what has been cut, year after year, by the state.

As a result of these substantial community contributions those of you graduating today have had extensive programs in sports, music and theater. Can you imagine how different the last four years would have been without these?

Unfortunately, schools, colleges and universities across the country are still facing constant calls for budget cuts. This is nothing new. Since the beginning of my career the cuts get larger and larger with every crisis and the suggested remedies become more and more frightening. One “remedy,” one that you are all aware of, is the extremely rapid increase in the costs of college; but that is only one example. Many proposed changes are more fundamental. The current pressures are on how American society views education itself and how this is redefining what is important; redefining what needs to be taught.

In the time I have I can only summarize these pressures, but I do so with the hope that all of you will decide to create a discussion where there is none. We are not helpless unless we want to be.

First of all, consider how we Americans have come to measure educational success. There is an increasing reliance on mostly state-approved multiple-choice exams. These may seem harmless enough, but when you consider what is tested, and what is not, they have serious consequences. I don’t have to explain the rush to state-sponsored, multiple-choice, easy-to-score, illusions of accountability to any of you graduates, but if any parents or relatives are not sure what I’m talking about, ask any of the students to explain. They have hours and hours and hours and hours of experience.

In 35 years of teaching, I’ve learned a lot from you and from the students who came before you. Beyond any doubt, you have taught me that real learning is more complex than is the ability to pick out the correct answer from a short list.

Now there is nothing wrong with measuring progress. There is nothing wrong with accountability. The question is, accountability in what? None of these state exams measure progress in love of learning, they do not measure progress in imagination or artistic achievement, not progress in music, not progress in increased scientific curiosity, not progress in an increased commitment to human rights, or in confidence gained, or in stories written. None of that is sufficiently easy to measure.

The increasing tendency to see schools, colleges and universities as businesses has led to a focus on what most clearly results in immediate economic reward. And while economic growth is important, a myopic fixation on the short term has dangerous consequences. Just last week, the L.A. Times ran a front-page story asking if a college degree is still “worth the cost.”

And recently there has been serious talk of encouraging new college students to choose a major, to focus early, and to graduate in three years. While I realize that there are real reasons for some to finish in three years, most of the articles I’ve read suggest students refrain from taking classes that don’t apply directly to a career.

Don’t do it. If you can afford it, explore whatever interests you. Learn another language and spend a year abroad. Take a few courses in philosophy or in ethics along with the courses in accounting and microbiology. Life right after high school, in college or not, should be a time where it is normal to discuss random topics all night long — stopping only when the sun takes away the dark and reminds everyone that a new day is coming.

What I want you all to realize about this more “efficient” educational future is that whatever remains untested, or whatever is not immediately applicable to a career, becomes unimportant. The humanities and the arts, creativity and music, are being diminished at every level.

Consider how many times you have heard reference to a crisis in math and science. Now consider how many times you have heard it reported that, as a country, we suffer from a crisis in the study of history and literature and music. I keep waiting — but such a news report suggests a comedy skit more than a serious warning.

Without much discussion, without any discussion, we are allowing decision makers to discard programs that develop skills that I believe are needed to make life richer and foster an appreciation for diversity. We are allowing others to discard programs that, I believe, are needed to keep democracy alive. Your significant contributions to maintain many of these programs in Irvine gives me hope that many, maybe most, of you agree with my concerns. But how long can this community hold out against national trends toward more efficient, businesslike schools, and severely limited opportunities?

I ask each of you — graduates, educators and parents — to remain concerned with our collective future by, at least, being wary of reactionary pressures toward educational efficiency. Significant learning is often accidental.

As voters, as college students, as citizens, don’t limit your choices to what is immediately rewarded. Reach out and stretch yourselves. Demand accountability in more than what can be measured with Scantrons. Demand accountability in increased love of learning. Demand accountability in increased commitment to human rights. Demand accountability in imagination and music. And please, if only to make me happy, refuse to engage in discourse and argument by slogan and stereotype.

Thanks. I will miss you.

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