Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke Thursday evening at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint about the importance of public education in Idaho. Robinson, a graduate of Coeur d’Alene High School who grew up in Sandpoint, credits her teachers in North Idaho for “giving me my mind.”
Robinson talked broadly about education in America, comparing it favorably to systems in places such as France. You hear, she said, “that American education has failed.” However, the fact that our country still emphasizes writing is a good thing, she said, and sets us apart from some European systems where university students sit in giant lecture halls and take exams once a year.
She critiqued the French system that “offloads” underperforming middle school and high school students into trade-focused and “professional” high schools, where it is difficult if not impossible for students to migrate to university-bound tracks.
In the United States, on the other hand, you can flunk high school, go to jail and still go on to higher education afterward, she said.
“We allow people to create and re-create themselves,” Robinson said.
In the cultural melting pot of public education, Robinson said, children are not “invited to step into an identity” of privilege or a particular religion the way they may be in private school. This gives them an education in the broadest sense – particularly if they’re interested in something like writing.
Robinson had many fond things to say about North Idaho – its landscape, community and verve for enjoying life.
“I think that we should consider that the pursuit of happiness has something to do with happiness,” she quipped.
To her, this is a far more important way to spend life than “getting into Harvard Business School so you can drink yourself to death at 50.” The kind of lifestyle North Idaho offers also provides a profound kind of education for its inhabitants, vastly superior to slaving away for money.
“If you give up the possibility of knowing the world in a broad and deep way” and instead do things to profit people you never see, Robinson said, then “you are not free.”
The audience reaction was enthusiastic.
Theresa Renner, a Sandpoint mother of two, confessed she’d been expecting to be bored, but was entranced instead.
“Marilynne Robinson changed the way I view American education, she really did,” Renner said.
The event was organized by the grass-roots campaign Reclaim Idaho. Co-creator Luke Mayville, now an author and postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, provided Robinson’s introduction.
A “proud graduate” of Sagle Elementary and Sandpoint High School, raised by a working single mother, Mayville said he was thankful for people willing to pay taxes into the system that supported him in childhood, “even if they never knew my name.”
Mayville supported Robinson’s talk with discussion of Idaho school funding. “In the state of Idaho, your educational opportunity depends on your ZIP code,” Mayville said.
If you’re born in Boise, he said, your public education opportunities are different than in Boundary County, where the school district has moved to a four-day school week due to budget cutbacks.
Boundary isn’t the only one, either – 43 school districts in Idaho have a four-day school week due to finances.
“We believe there is a crisis facing Idaho schools. It’s an underfunding crisis and it’s also an inequality crisis,” said Mayville.
Reclaim Idaho focuses its efforts on public education, health care and public lands.
“The crisis facing public schools is part of a larger crisis facing the middle class, and whether Idaho will continue to aspire to be a middle-class society,” Mayville said. “If public education is the ladder” by which people climb into the middle class, “health care costs are the primary thing that pull people out of the middle class, down and down into foreclosure.”
Reclaim Idaho will host its second event at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Sandpoint with the launch of a statewide Medicaid for Idaho tour, beginning in Farmin Park with a collection of speakers sharing their health care stories.