My View                                                    Page 14-15 


Road Signs and Danger Ahead  


My wife and I were on a motor trip through England and Scotland planned for us by a friend who was a travel agent. She had booked us for a weekend at a hotel on Lake Windermere and recommended a scenic drive through a mountain pass between the nearby town of Keswick and the western coast of England on the Irish Sea.

On Saturday morning, we drove to Keswick and found the recommended route. It was so narrow, no passing was allowed. In spots, the road was no wider than a wagon track, and it evolved into a series of steep curves. The scenery was delightful, but I lost sight of it as I concentrated on driving. Then, as we approached the apex of the route, we came upon a series of six roadside signs with crucial information.

The first sign read, “Approaching crest, be alert!”

Around another curve, a second sign announced that beyond the crest, the road was a startlingly steep downgrade. I don’t remember the precise angle, but it was very steep.

A third sign advised, “Approaching crest — shift into lowest gear.”

Around another curve, a fourth sign directed, “Prepare to apply brakes.”

The fifth sign evoked attention with “Steer with care, both hands on steering mechanism.”

Then at the crest, a huge sign with foot-high letters that read, “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!”

We stopped and stared down the steepest roadway I have ever seen — a vertical roller-coaster track plunging into a valley with a rocky stream. We gasped and began to descend. Going down, we each held our breath, and I had an urge to drag my heel on the road to slow the car’s momentum. It was a harrowing ride.

On the valley floor, we stopped and got out to regain emotional equilibrium. The valley, the rock-laden river and the mountains were magnificent, and we cruised the valley road beside the rocky stream for miles before returning to our lakeside hotel.

A Germane Message
As we drove, we talked about the signs and their warnings and recommended actions. We were grateful for both.

The signs provided three categories of information: (1) warnings to make travelers aware of potential danger; (2) advice on actions to protect from potential danger; and (3) combinations of warnings and advice. The categorization was helpful because the directions of what to do (apply brakes, shift to low gear, steer carefully) were presented in a context of why (steep grade on other side of crest) one should do these things. The dramatically large sixth sign recapitulated, by implication, the messages of the other signs, making them impossible to ignore.

Our mountain road adventure is a symbol of everyday experiences in which we need to recognize warnings and take actions to prevent or cope with danger. Just as on the mountain road, warnings and appropriate actions are critical to safety along the road of everyday living.

I’ve reflected on the symbolism of the signs and tried to imagine comparably germane messages for our nation at this moment. We live in a seemingly interminable election season, and we need now and again to clear our minds of data overload from the 24/7 news cycle and the cablecasts that demonstrate the consequences of a world with more media than news. We need to contemplate with clarity the threats to our national life.

In this time of super PACs and Tea Party politics, we are truly, I believe, in danger. The flood of information available to us presents and implies almost incessantly both explicit and tacit warnings of potential danger that resides in and/or emerges from all our social, political and economic institutions and elsewhere, and I covet wisdom to identify appropriate actions.

Threat to Schools
Examples of profound danger are the threats aimed at our public schools. Since colonial times, Americans have been exceptional in public investment in education. We established universal primary education, and then in the late 19th century, the so-called “high school movement” enhanced our national life with widespread secondary education supported by public funding and involvement. Following World War II, collectively we made additional public investments in higher education via the GI Bill and other initiatives that made us the strongest and most prosperous nation in the world.

Now, however, one of our two major political parties has veered into a hard right turn against education by direct and explicit support for initiatives that have reduced public funding for schools. Their embrace of the privatization of public schools inevitably will limit access to schooling and shift fiscal support to private sources seeking return on their private investments.

Those mountain signs with their warnings and advisements have left me considering this: What will happen to America when the stated purpose of schools becomes producing profits for global corporations rather than developing the capacity for lifelong learning and responsible civic participation in our democracy? And what shall be the consequences of making schools accountable to corporate investors rather than to their students?

Ponder those questions as you remember the sixth sign: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Linton Deck is an AASA life member residing in Asheville, N.C. E-mail: ldeck@bellsouth.net


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