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Are We Depriving Our Children of the Pursuit of Happiness?

Is our dysfunctional education system depriving our kids of access to the most central of American values?
 
 
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Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Given that it’s the day after the 4th of July, I imagine many of us will do a little reflecting on the meaning of that phrase, which sits at the very foundation of our history as a nation, and will likely be repeated with haunting regularity in the coming days.

Since becoming a parent I think much more about the meaning of that last clause – “the pursuit of happiness” – than I did before my daughter was born. I think about my own happiness, certainly, but much more about hers, and how my partner and I can best make sure she is able to live a life that eventually conforms to whatever version of “happiness” suits her own, personal definition of the term. I do not pretend to know what that definition will be, and I don’t see it as my job to carve that path for her (that is part of the beauty of living a life of one’s own) – but I do believe that giving her the opportunity to make whatever choices she would like to make is likely the greatest gift I can give her. It was the gift my mother gave to me, and I fully intend to pass it on.

What makes choices like these – the choice to chase one’s own dream, to live the life one most wants to live – possible in 21st Century America? Many things (money, compassion, grit and blind luck among them), but perhaps nothing more so than education. Access to quality education remains a crucial dividing line in our nation: college graduates earn 84% more over a lifetime than high school graduates, and educational attainment is still the greatest predictor of an individual’s overall income. And while income does not by any means automatically equate with “happiness,” is it also true, as my brother in law once pointed out to me, that it is wildly difficult to pursue “happiness” when you cannot feed yourself or your children, or when every day is a struggle to keep your head above water.

And yet, such is the future to which we appear to be condemning a large swath of this nation’s children. They are poor and low-income, many different colors, but all increasingly cut off from the kind of educational opportunities that will lead them to make whatever choices they chose for their lives. Some are leaving under-funded, under-resourced and overcrowded schools without degrees, and running straight into a more than 50% joblessness rate. Some are graduating under similar circumstances, but finding that the education they received in school has neither prepared them for the rigors of college, nor the greater diversity of the world they are about to inhabit.

Even for those who do obtain a college degree, the scenario remains grim. Though unemployment among new college grads is now just 7.2% (a drop from previous years), a full two-thirds of recent college graduates are carrying student loans, averaging $24,000 – while just 37% of those loan holders have been able to pay those loans back on time. As Pamela Brown points out in her piece on student debt in this week’s education newsletter, it’s a recipe that spells disaster for our children’s future – and for the survival of the “American dream.”

As many of us head into the holiday celebrations that honor our nation’s birth, I hope we’ll pause to consider how far millions of us who share this soil remain from having access to the pursuit of happiness we hold so dear – particularly as it pertains to educational opportunity. I hope we’ll also use it as an opportunity to think hard about how we can ensure that future generations have no less an opportunity to better their lives through education than those who came before them did. 

When I was young, my grandmother made sure to impress upon me that education is the one thing nobody can ever take away from you. Our job is to make sure that for our nation’s children – all of them – the opportunity is still there.

Elizabeth G. Hines is AlterNet's education editor. Follow her on Twitter: @mseghines.
 
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