Why you should care

Because instead of erecting statues of generals, we should build monuments to purveyors of wisdom.

Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve lagged woefully behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.

When I was 15, I had some of the same teachers who had taught my mother. They recognized me, more often than not, because her genes are strong, but I also recognized them because of how often she spoke of them and the effect they’d had on her. The pleasingly inelegant lady who would wave her hands about while instructing how us to draw meaning from books, even children’s books; the graying, George Clooney-esque astrophysicist who, I later learned, had cribbed much of his persona from Carl Sagan. These are the people who make high school worthwhile — let’s be honest, it’s not the social tsunami most 15-year-olds endure — and who prepare us for the rest of our lives. In fact, they may matter more than anyone else we encounter at that formative age. So why don’t we set that in stone?

Building statues is one way communities decide on, and indicate to the world, what they value. There are statues of generals, presidents, reformers, ministers, Oscar Wilde and, in the Loire Valley, a jarringly naked statue of Leonardo da Vinci. What we don’t have are statues honoring the thousands of extraordinary teachers who, day in and day out, motivate American youth, keep them from dropping out, spend their summers crafting lesson plans and make a visible, lasting difference.

“If someone walks down the street and sees a statue of Martin Luther King, that communicates, well, this gentleman must have been pretty important,” says Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “but the power of that statue isn’t confined to that moment. Statues are fixed to the landscape, they hang around over time — and over time, those monuments influence people’s thoughts.” Translation: If you build it, they will care.

Teachers might be valued more for their wisdom and dedication. Hell, they might even be paid more.

It comes down to who gets treated like a hero. Statuary has traditionally suffered from the same biases as the once-popular “great man” theory of history, which sees the past as driven by (and, in what I’m sure is a coincidence, written by) a variety of mostly white men. Statues — along with street names and other forms of public monument — disproportionately memorialize men; teaching in elementary and high school is one of the few professions that has long been dominated by women. Maybe if teachers were lionized and literally carved into the landscapes of our neighborhoods, kids and parents would treat them less like overworked employees and more like esteemed experts. They might be valued more for their wisdom and dedication. Hell, they might even be paid more.

There is one snag, teachers: You might have to be dead. In some communities, there are laws against naming streets after living people, presumably to avoid a sudden change in status following an unfortunate YouTube video or criminal misstep. (In 2016, a 75-year-old who’d once been named Teacher of the Year was accused of sexually assaulting a student.) But even statues of long-gone teachers might inspire young people to pursue careers in education, or at least to respect their teachers as individuals deserving of our highest praise.

“Monuments and statues tell two different stories,” Alderman says. “The story of the past they’re referencing, and the story of how that monument was created — when it was created and by whom it was created.” Often, he adds, communities get a new statue because activist groups push for funding and make it happen. Which means change starts at the community level: Pick a teacher (OK, a dead teacher) and start writing letters. If enough people declare their lives were measurably changed by an educator, maybe we can change the landscape too.

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