In a speech to Boston College’s graduating class of 2008, famed historian and author David McCullough reminded the matriculating seniors what education is all about —and what it is not. He makes a critical distinction between thinking you know something and actually having learned something.

An abundance of information is at our fingertips, he says. “Information without end… useful, often highly interesting, has value, often great value… it can save time, effort, it can save your life. But information, let us be clear, isn’t learning. Information isn’t poetry, or art, or Gershwin or the Shaw Memorial, or faith. It isn’t wisdom. Facts alone are never enough. One can have all the facts and miss the truth. If information were learning, you could memorize the world almanac and call yourself educated.

“Learning is not to be found on a print out, it’s not on call at the touch of a finger.

“Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books, and from teachers, and the more learned and empathic the better. And from work, concentrated work,” McCullough argues.

The lesson is – excuse the pun – that learning provides judgment. And information does not.

By every measure, a majority of Utah’s leadership lacked the critical judgment in voting against life-saving changes for students just last month, while they voted for Hollywood subsidies. Legislation that would have enabled students who are challenged in the best of times – let alone a pandemic – to have an education where they are safe and secure was defeated amidst a sea of misinformation.

 

In opposing HB 331’s creation of the Hope Scholarship Program, lawmakers threw out such non-sequiturs as scholarships take money from public education, and private schools lack accountability, familiar refrains taken from the decades-old playbook of opponents who advocate to protect the traditional public school system, above the student – in most cases, teachers unions and school boards’ associations.

Tragically Utah policymakers are not alone in succumbing to such drivel.

They willingly accept special interest information without external scrutiny and without the knowledge that comes from learning precisely the critical snowball effects of their actions. For example, simply knowing that only 21% of Latino and 25% of low-income Utah 8th graders can read at their grade level might prompt an educated – by McCullough’s standards – person to want to, let alone work to learn how to fix that. But that debate never ensued in this case and so many others like it across the nation.

Such learning requires a good teacher, in McCullough’s prescription, or great books that have been written and document past experiences. Books might uncover for Utah legislators the fact that, according to Utah-based expert and parent advocate Katherine Bathgate, ten states have programs like the “Hope scholarship that could be used for online learning, homeschool expenses, tutoring, educational therapies or tuition. Their parent satisfaction rates are high, and they have not negatively impacted public schools. States that have embraced educational choice programs are seeing greater academic outcomes.”

But instead of learning what such programs provide and why they are supported by an extensive and diverse array of people across the country, too many lawmakers are passive recipients of information, and become unwilling to change the status quo affecting their constituents, the people they have sworn to serve.

It comes most plentiful from groups funded by tax-payer dollars and who provide vital PAC money to their campaigns. In the case of Utah, opposing groups made the fallacious claim that the modest $36 million scholarship program that would have provided scholarships for students who have experienced bullying, cyber-bullying, or hazing would somehow hurt teachers and hurt children as a result. Would you have questions? Pushback? Me too. But some elected officials are all too happy to take that information as if the Angel Moroni himself delivered it.

“If we expand this line item, can we come back and say that it’s benefiting children?” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, a former teacher and Democrat representing the Salt Lake City area in the State House… “I don’t see strong accountability measures here. [There’s] very minimal accountability measures here…” Accountability? Where is the accountability for the children who are literally dying, or just “simply” not learning to read or write?

In arguing for the bill, sponsor Candice Pierucci countered opponents that claimed funds would be wasted. “Households with lower incomes would be given enrollment preference as would those whose children had experienced bullying, cyberbullying or hazing…We should absolutely be addressing bullying in our public schools, while also acknowledging that sometimes the best and safest option is to empower parents to get their child in a safe new educational environment.”

According to the state’s teachers union president Heidi Matthews, “educators have been crystal clear that what they need most are time, resources and respect and HB 331 delivers absolutely none of these things. None.”

Apparently the point of the bill is lost on them.

Just listen to Percy Pearson, who, according to the Deseret News, “runs a nonprofit for youth and is a case manager who works for youth in state foster care, who are experiencing homelessness and urged support of the bill because Utah children are increasingly vulnerable.

“’I’m just here to say that I’m burying kids. I buried seven all under age 15 in the last three years. This is necessary. This isn’t to be taken lightly on both parties. I understand money matters but these kids’ lives matter more. That’s why I’m here,’ Pearson said.”

As advocate Bathgate explains, “opponents’ arguments centered on investing solely in public education, rather than creating any new opportunities for families. But by investing solely in the current system, we ignore too many kids and families who are being left behind.”

Perhaps the fact that Utah’s lawmakers undervalue learning so much is why they cannot appreciate the importance of education for all students. While they were voting down HB 331, they were voting up $12 million to Hollywood so that Kevin Costner could film his new series there. Even as schools received a nine percent increase in funding but complained about funding for scholarships, the Utah legislature returned $193 million back in surplus tax dollars to Utahns.

Educated people understand the impact of a poor education on an individual’s potential to achieve independence and success. Well-educated people are not only higher income earners over time but healthier. Well-educated people are more resilient, have more determination, and in essence, grit, to get through the challenges life brings. In this session, Utah legislators chose Hollywood, over health, glitz over grit.

Always urging us to understand history, David McCullough underscores just how much John F. Kennedy understood the impact of education. Kennedy told the nation “we must educate our children as our most valuable resource. We must have trained people, many trained people, their finest talents brought to the keenest edge…we must have not only scientists, mathematicians and technicians; we must have people skilled in the humanities…”

Provo Republican Marsha Judkins should take Kennedy’s words to heart. An opponent of the program, she questioned why the state should pay for scholarships that private schools already offer. Most people would have learned that in American Government class: It is the job of society to provide for the priorities that will govern a nation. And when a provision the state offers fails, it is obligated to provide for that works.

But as another famous president once said “the buck stops here…” That buck in this case stops squarely at the door of Governor Spencer Cox, who set in motion the failure of this lifesaving program when he vowed to veto the legislation. “Now is not the time,” he said.

Gov. Cox is from a class of public officials that are in the enviable position of being able to gather an enormous amount of information at the drop of a pin. He might have started with summoning the best literature on the subject before making such a proclamation. But as McCullough says, being well educated requires more than information gathering. “Read, Read, Read! Make love of learning central to your lives,” he implores us. Through reading one learns judgement. And in this case, that judgement could have led to the understanding that no adult interest is more important than a generation of healthy, well-trained youth.