President's Corner

‘The Only Investment That Never Fails’

by Karl V. Hertz


Thoughtful minds tell us that we should pass along our stories and the tales of historical figures. In some cases, these people have achieved greatness--Churchill believing in the darkest hours of World War II that Britain would be victorious; Mandela never giving up his beliefs even through all the years in prison and Sharansky tapping out the message on the gulag wall to his fellow prisoners: "Sharansky is here; we will fight this together."

It is in telling such stories that we reveal ourselves.

At times, school administrators feel alone. This is especially true for superintendents. Yet, we must help our communities go beyond the moment.

Eleanor Roosevelt did just that. As the president and the nation geared up for war, Mrs. Roosevelt urged her husband and the country, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in her book No Ordinary Time, to never stop fighting for (1) equality of opportunity, (2) jobs, (3) security for the needy, (4) the end of special privilege for the few and (5) preservation of civil liberties for all.

So there are standards to which adults in a democratic society shall be held. Many of our children continue to go to school in buildings with buckets catching the water from leaky roofs, and many go wearing coats to shield them from cold interiors. It is fashionable today to say that all children can learn, and of course, that is true.

Just as certainly, fate has impeded the efforts of some kids because they do not have the same support as young people who are advantaged. The struggle to build social capital for our poor kids is one of the most important tasks in the United States today.

Perhaps a good start would be a new kind of national standards--standards that would require policymakers to establish and achieve an equal educational environment for all children. To establish standards for itself and to encourage widespread, thoughtful conversation for the entire citizenry is an appropriate role for the federal government, says Professor Nel Noddings of Stanford University.

We realize there are few self-made women or men in our profession. All of us have had people who taught us, who gave us a chance to show what we could do and who, in fact, encouraged us to take the next step professionally--when if left to our own instincts, we might have continued to dwell in the security of the position we had at the time.

A passage that is a particular favorite of mine regarding what we owe to other people comes from the great photographer Joseph Karsh. He says: "It is rarely possible to repay directly those who have rendered us great personal kindnesses. Nature does not often collaborate with us to permit simple repayment, whether the debt is from son to father, from soldier to comrade or from pupil to master. We may never be able to pay directly for the gifts of true friendship--but pay we must--even though we make our payment to someone who owes us nothing, in some other place and at some other time."

Thoreau tells us, "Goodness is the only investment that never fails." So let me close by suggesting that our attention to goodness, academic excellence and justice, especially for our poorest kids whose sorrows should stay close to our hearts and minds, is an excellent way for us to repay the greatest personal kindnesses done to us over the years.

You see, we educators still have promises to keep, and we will keep them!

(This column is based on remarks I delivered at the First General Session of the AASA National Conference on Education on Feb. 27 in San Diego.)