By now the last of the summer vacations are memories, and most of America's 55 million schoolchildren have shouldered their backpacks like draft horses shrugging into harness. You wonder why the littler ones--like these kindergartners in Carlsbad, Calif., who started Aug. 18--don't topple over backward. (Are they cantilevered?) And what the heck do those teenagers have to be so moody about? Chillax!
Some folks measure their lives by the calendar, others by the changing weather or the steady march of seasons: baseball, football, basketball and so on. But a lot of us, first as children and later as parents, march to the beat of the school year. It shapes our mealtimes and travels and the very surge and sag of our gross domestic product. In the vast span of human civilization, universal public education is a novelty; and yet, in the fortunate lands where the idea is a reality, it fills such a large cultural space that we can scarcely take it all in.
School is where some doors swing open, revealing vast opportunity. It's also a place where other doors gradually close. A child enters imagining a world full of ballerinas who are also detectives who also cure cancer and slowly works backward toward real life. Figuring out how to channel life without narrowing it, how to gather direction and velocity without sacrificing freedom--these are heavy weights for young shoulders.
So of course we're hearing in this election season all the usual hand-wringing and exhortations about the state of education in America. But few of the arguments about school choice and vouchers and teachers' unions are new, and none provide a quick fix to our students' performance compared with their peers around the world. Closer to home, we do what we can, which is why back-to-school shopping may be our one truly recession-proof industry. We can drive less when gas prices rise; we can cut back on movies or fancy meals. But we'll never stop filling those backpacks and buying those new jeans, because giving up on school is the one thing we cannot afford.