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Students, just work like dairy farm kids

Jeff Churchwell Published on 09 August 2013

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“My father was a farmer and my mother was a farmer, but my childhood was very good.

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“I am very grateful for my childhood because it was full of gladness and good humanity.”

—Roberto Benigni

While growing up in Wisconsin, my three best friends in high school all worked like men on their parents’ dairy farms.

Today, they’re a lawyer, a doctor and a preacher, respectively – and they probably don’t smell now like they did then.

All three would get up at 5 a.m. and clean udders, milk cows, clean milkers, water animals, clean and refill footbaths – all before breakfast. Predictably, some days, to get to school on time, they wouldn’t get the chance to shower – so smelly, they went.

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And there they were – tired, aromatic and completed with their homework. Meanwhile, there I was, the town kid – rested and clean but academically unprepared for the school day.

I’m not trying to be subtle; the message here is clear. On the farm, dairy kids work like all Americans – parents, teachers and their students – must work in and for school to help pull the U.S. from the dregs of the educational milk storage vat.

A recent CNN survey has revealed for certainty what many already feared: after testing the top 34 industrialized countries, American students – yeah, that’s you from California, and Abner from Idaho, and Priscilla from Florida – rank 17th in science and 25th in mathematics.

Sad but interesting is that, depending on whatever chart or graph you may look at, we Americans spend an awful lot of money for insufficient production.

This would never go in the dairy business.

But the kicker is that we also rank at the top in money spent on fast food and tech gadgetry and the newest clothes and overpriced entertainment and just about everything else materialistic.

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For years now, we – the grandsons and granddaughters of America’s “greatest generation” – have, frankly, been greedy and lazy and overly assuming, and this has been no more clear than in America’s classrooms.

But we’ve legitimized these behaviors for too long because of the claim that we were “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Take a look around, people. We’re barely “one nation,” not solely under “one God” and sadly quite divided. And as for “with liberty and justice for all,” I’ll let you come to your own grim conclusion as to that.

The reality now, folks, is that this sort of unwarranted, pro-American nationalism doesn’t mean anything anymore in this 21st century global society. Listen! I’m all for a sense of nationalism when it comes to an American unified upward movement in education.

But I believe that to be truly “one nation, under God” and “indivisible,” we have to humbly admit errors, radically change course and really push forward – hard.

This means that autoworkers and their kids, government workers and their kids, manufacturing workers and their kids, retailers, laborers and yes – even dairy farmers and their kids who are not exempt, at times, from milkin’ it in the classroom – must put forth genuine, sincere efforts to acquire a real education that competes with the likes of ... let’s pull one out of the hat and say Japan.

Japan’s international academic rankings put its nation second in the world in science and fifth in mathematics.

Despite the fact that they don’t consume either enough cheese or milk, they must be doin’ something right. I feel that maybe ... let me take that back ... that there is no doubt that it is because of the following:

1. School-age Japanese go to school 240 days a year; kids here go 180. Since we have a hard time at math in America, I’ll tell ya: that’s 25 percent more.

2. At a critical time in young people’s developmental lives, Japanese students are required to wear uniforms; not in America. Why do I think that this is such a big deal for the U.S.?

There’s way too much time, attention, distraction, money and elitism involved with today’s adolescent clothing choices. Please excuse my expression of teenage anti-individualism, but uniforms are accepted in the armed forces, many businesses and sports, so why not school?

Frankly, youthful displays of individual expression are much less important to academic development than conforming with humility and respect to entities more focused and developed than their 16-year-old egos.

But this would mean that, if you have a child or two this age in your household, you then won’t have someone in your home who knows absolutely everything.

3. The Japanese can’t acquire their driver licenses until 18; it’s 16 with parent permission here. Honestly, such independent transportation negatively aligns a student’s life – socializing and employment have become more important than education.

4. Before the end of the school day, Japanese students clean their classrooms; Daryl the custodian does ours. This exemplifies just one of the many traditions that both humbles Japan’s students and displays an ingrained consideration for adult authority, a constant tenet in Japan.

C’mon and admit it – wouldn’t this be fantastic to see this in our schools or even in our homes today?

5. Schools in Japan promote few electives because they realize that fiscal success is dependent on a firm grounding in mathematics, science, social studies, English and Japanese; such is not the case in this nation.

There, extracurricular clubs take responsibility for other areas of study and interest; here, some extracurricular sports and activities are the shining-but-shallow centerpiece of the high school culture.

6. Because entrance exams are required to get into certain schools which, in turn, go on to determine students’ career paths at an early age, there is an intense family and social focus on student accomplishment in Japan; unfortunately, America still has its social promotion and fluid standards that both undermine the importance of learning the subject matter and learning it now.

No doubt, if Japanese educational practices and standards were implemented in America come this September, you and Abner and Priscilla and most of the rest of America would throw a collective fit. But if we’re going to turn our educational and, in turn, our economics around, maybe it’s a fit we need to throw.

Speaking of throwing, this means that you and Abner and Priscilla must throw down that iPod and that phone and the remote and reprioritize your lives.

This means that when you have tykes of your own someday, you will have to promote the same throw-down and promote a new culture in which the acquisition of an education is more important than that of a car.

This means that the parents and students of America gotta work like the parents and students from a dairy farm – harder, smartly, thoroughly.

When I saw my three best friends from high school this summer at my 35th class reunion, they were happy to see that the town kid finally got what they knew from the start. And looking at the state of education, I’ll bet that they’re gonna smell better than me now, too.

Though still the best place in the world to live, our nation is getting into a more and more dangerous position – and much of the blame falls upon the shoulders of our less-than-stellar educational performance.

And it’s not gonna be Republicans and it’s not gonna be Democrats who fix it; can you understand that?

It’s gonna be the responsibility of the person in the mirror to either continue to or begin to work harder, smarter and more thoroughly like a dairy farm kid.

Whether you believe it or don’t believe it or don’t even listen to it, the brutal fact is most all kids across America must change priorities, habits and then, eventually, the culture to warrant a genuinely earned educational and economic pride in the U.S. again.

’Cause, if we don’t, the world is gonna leave us behind. PD

Churchwell is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a perpetual milk-drinker who thrives on 1 percent to this day.

Illustration by Fredric Ridenour.

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