Quentin Johnson: Freedom requires education

Published 11:18 am Thursday, July 20, 2023

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Quentin Johnson

Quentin R. Johnson
SVCC President

On July Fourth, we celebrated our nation’s birth. On July 30, we will recognize National Support Public Education Day. Having both observances in the same month serves as an important reminder that freedom and education go hand in hand.

Education has roots in antiquity. In places where formal systems developed, such as ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, schools were often open only to specific classes of students: those of the upper and ruling classes, those in religious training, and those with the ability to pay tuition. Here in the United States, the first steps toward developing free, public education followed closely on the heels of our nation’s founding.

The Center on Education Policy (CEP), an independent research and information resource, explains it this way: “The Founding Fathers maintained that the success of the fragile American democracy would depend on the competency of its citizens. They believed strongly that preserving democracy would require an educated population that could understand political and social issues and would participate in civic life, vote wisely, protect their rights and freedoms, and resist tyrants and demagogues.”

Despite its importance, however, the spread of public education was uneven. Rural areas often had fewer options. Children of color were sent to segregated schools that lacked fundamental resources. Recent immigrants and people of non-Protestant religious faiths faced discrimination.

According to the CEP, “It took many decades and the force of civil rights legislation and court decisions before universal access to public education matured into the full pursuit of equal educational opportunity for all racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, as well as for girls and children with disabilities.”

That work continues. Many schools still struggle in their efforts to provide a high-quality education to all students. The National Education Association, an organization with three million members dedicated to excellence in public education, notes that some of today’s biggest challenges include adequate funding, school safety, fair testing policies, discipline, student absenteeism, and an ever-evolving catalog of legislative requirements.

Still, public education remains the cornerstone upon which our nation’s future rests. A robust education system is necessary to ensure that tomorrow’s voters understand topics impacting public policy. They must acquire financial literacy, a fundamental grounding in the basic sciences, and knowledge of existing and emerging technologies. They also need to understand the historical context and current status of social justice issues and environmental concerns. Furthermore, to move forward in peace, understanding one another across different cultural and socioeconomic perspectives is imperative.

Among post-secondary education options, public institutions often offer the best value. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average annual cost of attendance at a private, nonprofit four-year institution is $55,800 compared with $26,000 at public institutions. Community colleges have the lowest costs. For example, here at SVCC annual costs for tuition and fees average $4,695 for in-state students (and $10,698 for those who come from other states).

If you’d like to honor the role education plays in our country, here are some suggestions for things you can do: Read a book, or read a book to a child. Send a thank-you note to a teacher. Encourage a wavering child to maintain regular school attendance. Volunteer in a classroom or for other school-related activities. Support legislative initiatives that strengthen schools. And, finally, participate in life-long learning opportunities.

Dr. Quentin R. Johnson is president of Southside Virginia Community College, an institution of higher learning that provides a wide variety of education opportunities to a diverse student population within a service area that spans ten counties and the City of Emporia. He can be reached via email at quentin.johnson@southside.edu.