Every event in a young persons life is a teaching moment, whether we recognize it as such or not. Every first sound, every new sight, every new sensation is an opportunity to learn, especially in the first few years of our lives. And as people grow they continue to learn new things and ideas and ways to behave. They don’t learn these things in a vacuum though. They learn from the people around them and the people they see in the world. Whether or not you have a child of your own, you are a teacher to someone; we all are.

In order for the state of our educational system to be repaired and once again become an institution of learning and advancement instead of a money sucking day care center, American society needs to face up to our shared responsibility as teachers of the young. A quick reminder of where we went astray may be in order. American financial might in the 20th century provided an era of leisure and consumption previously unknown. As incomes rose and technology advanced, people began to buy more things to do their work and increase their leisure time, in the process, losing the lessons gained from physical labor. As their leisure time increased, technology created entertainment that required less and less intellectual involvement and more introspective enjoyment, causing social skills and interaction to suffer. These qualities of physical work, intellectual development, and social mores combined to develop what was once known as character and often blossomed into traits like respect, appreciation, imagination, empathy, congeniality, and compassion. These traits, once learned, would, in most cases, transcend into all aspects of social and personal life and help continue our national prosperity. But if life got better, people got worse.

Don’t get me wrong here. Technological advancements are a wonderful thing. But they do not take the place of humanity and the ability to coalesce with a community. Technology offers humanity the opportunity to expand our knowledge about our world and each other by giving us more time to explore new lands and ideas. It does this by making the machinations of daily life more efficient, freeing up more time for people to enjoy. But rather than use this opportunity to our advantage, we have allowed ourselves to become slave to it. Instead of turning the increased productivity into an asset for a better quality of life, we have insisted that our own productivity increase to match that of our machines. The result, of course, is a net result in no more, and in some cases less, leisure time than we had before. Less time for our families. Less time in our communities. Less time to teach our children those things that create character.

But the children have been watching and learning anyway. They have learned that work is more important than family. They have learned that imagination is just a click away. They have learned that money makes the world go ‘round. And they have learned that “me” is the most important person in the world. Parents, too tired from a long days work or home late after a long commute, would rather spend the few hours with their children filling them with fun and adoration, instead of teaching them about respect and responsibility. Or they would rather pamper themselves, ignoring the kids altogether as they run wild through the house. Kids have learned that it is easier to do what you want than what is expected, as the punishment is likely to be minor or non-existent, and rarely ever consistent. The result is a generation that expects to have what they want, when they want it, and the way the want to have it. We are now moving into the third consecutive generation that has been raised under these increasingly slacking conditions and the result is a society that shows little respect and gets little respect from anyone outside a given age group, and one that can barely communicate with each other, let alone the rest of the adult world. Such a societal shift isn’t always easy to see until it’s gone on for some time, and this is no exception really. All generations complain about “those darn kids today…” but the truth is that it’s becoming less of a generic grumble and more of a reality.

So what does any of this have to do with the school system anyhow? After all, isn’t this an essay about education? The answer is like connecting the dots in a child’s coloring book. In order for a child to be taught the basic intellectual skills to function in the modern world, they first have to have the character traits instilled in them that will allow them to function in a formal learning environment. In order for these traits to be instilled, parents have to take a more active roll in helping their child develop them. In order for parents to spend more time with their kids, we need to accept the fact that our priorities, as a society, need to shift.

Such a dynamic change of thought requires some proof of pay-off, so let’s take a look at the benefits of having an educated public. First off, business needs skilled labor to operate. In fact, so many businesses are claiming a lack of educated Americans to fill their jobs as an excuse for outsourcing their work offshore or encouraging illegal immigration. Quality education would negate that excuse. A more educated public would also likely have a higher rate of employment, which would ease tax burdens on social welfare programs and increase personal wealth across the board. An educated public is less likely to have rampant crime or rundown communities. And an educated public would probably be more stable and peaceful, working together to solve the next human challenge instead of fighting for a piece of the pie. To me, these seem like very valuable returns for my investment in time and money.

So, we must stop paying lip service to the empty mantra of “Education Comes First” unless we intend to back it up with actions. Parents must be responsible for nurturing the traits necessary for a child to succeed in formal education, especially respect and responsibility. Parents and teachers must work together to demand respect and responsibility be applied to the learning process by backing each other up instead of working against each other as if the child’s happiness were the prize in a race. Business must become more flexible for families by allowing the pace of commerce to relax a bit, or adjusting their business plans to help accommodate the time families need to make their children into good adults. And society must promote personal interaction and development as more valuable than pure wealth attainment. Young people must be taught that their role in society is to learn the traits and skills that will allow them to become productive adults instead of having their whims indulged at every turn. Educators must choose to put their student’s needs ahead of their own by dispensing knowledge without bias or omission. And we must show our children that we value education by offering them safe, clean buildings, accurate and complete information, and qualified teachers and accountable administration officials.

If you teach a child to throw rocks at windows, you can’t very well be angry with him when you come home and all of your windows are broken out. He is just using the knowledge he learned in the way he was taught. In the same vein, if we allow our children to sit in front of a television or video game for hours at a time, if we allow them to ignore their teachers or disrespect us as parents, if we give them everything they ask for and expect nothing in return, we can’t blame them for becoming uneducated, disrespectful, anti-social adults.

It will do us no good to reform the way we spend our education dollars, or to restructure our teaching methods, or mandate specific mastery of specific skills, or make any other superficial changes to the system without repairing the foundation that we send our children off to school on. Without an educated society we will eventually become one of two things: either a society of ignorant peasants working for the man or a culture of autonomy, too locked into the solitary, technological grid to relate to others or contribute much to anyone. Of course, behind door number three is the promise of an educated society. Which door will you choose?