My father remembers exactly where he was in the South Pacific when he learned that "Mr. Roosevelt is going to send us to college." Dad’s first thoughts: "Now I won’t have to walk behind a mule the rest of my life!"
For many in the Greatest Generation, the GI Bill was the ticket to a brighter future. Some, like my dad, became science and agriculture teachers. Some, like my father-in-law, became ministers. Many became business innovators or the trailblazing farmers who fully implemented scientific agriculture. Education opened the doors to America’s exceptional post-War economic boom, when our nation was recognized as the world leader in its commitment to learning.
You don’t have to look far to see we have fallen behind. In a 2010 study, out of 34 countries reviewed, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Over a generation, the U.S. slid from 1st to 12th among 36 developed nations in the proportion of young people with college degrees. Korea, Canada, Russia and Japan all outpace us.
While U.S. education often seems politicized, from both sides of the spectrum, our international competitors have gone about building cultures where education is valued and accessible. They see education as the foundation for personal and national achievement, no matter whether that education is technical, academic or professional.
Naturally, we in 4-H are deeply concerned with the current and future welfare of Alabama’s youth. As the youth outreach program of the USDA and the Land Grant Universities, we believe in what our kids can achieve and we are deeply committed to the power of learning.
In December, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree was 4.1 percent. It was 7.7 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some college, 8.7 percent for those with a high school degree and no college, and 13.8 percent for high school dropouts. A high school grad earns 3/5 of what a college grad earns. There are even positive links between education and strong marriages and physical wellbeing.
Of course, those of us in 4-H would be remiss if we did not note the educational impact 4-H has on young people. There are health and social benefits for youth, but there is also a "bottom line" link.
Kids in 4-H have higher educational achievement and higher motivation for future education. Young people in 4-H:
• Report better grades, higher levels of academic competence and an elevated level of engagement at school;
• Are nearly two times more likely to plan to go to college; and
• Are more likely to pursue future courses or a career in science, engineering or computer technology.
One of the most exciting developments is a new approach to science, math and technology. 4-H Inquiry Learning focuses on hands-on experiences to get kids to ask real, scientific questions – and seek answers for themselves. Our field surveys of kids suggest they lose interest in science and math because the subjects are presented in a manner that is often "boring," with an emphasis on taking notes and memorizing facts and formulas. Research also shows "learning for the test" doesn’t have the long-term impact of "learning by getting your hands dirty."
4-H Inquiry Learning has implications beyond the computer lab and factory floor. Studies show good science education is a solid basis for building the skills employers seek and entrepreneurs need: observing, questioning, planning and communicating. The orderly investigation of facts and the search for explanations is equally useful to the plumber, poultry producer or attorney.
Since Paleo-Indians’ first settlement of our state, the notion of improvement and the hope for a better future have been fundamental, driving traditions in Alabama. That is what led to the tremendous acceptance and impact of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Services, since people were eager for new and better ways to feed their families and sell all that newly-acquired surplus farm produce.
In Alabama 4-H, we have a slogan: "4-H is Where You Live." That could also serve as a charge to us as educators, 4-H volunteers, Extension professionals and concerned adults. If we were to also recognize that learning and education are "where we live," that would empower every Alabama school and community to tirelessly advocate for their children’s academic and intellectual growth. From Bayou la Batre to Bridgeport, our state’s future depends on it.
Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.