By Frank Wessling
Schools are opening any day now. We no longer wait for Labor Day to commence a new school year. Pressures to get children into school and keep them there longer are pushing against old routines while air-conditioned buildings make it more tolerable for faculties as well as students to cut short the old summer vacation.
It was once sacred writ in Iowa that schools could not open before Labor Day, and certainly not until after the state fair. Colleges frequently waited until mid-September before classes started.
The rhythm of life has changed from the days when half of Iowans lived and worked on farms or were affected directly by the ebb and flow of agriculture. Very few children today have farm chores taking up part of their time. Most spend much less time these days with jobs and more with electronic toys and “hanging out” with friends.
The new rhythm for children and young adults inches toward a longer school year with a different mix of work and play. This is supposed to help by cutting down the long summer “vacation” from academic work, when whatever was learned the previous year leaked out of young brains and had to be reinserted before more learning could begin.
It makes sense that a shorter time away from the discipline of study would help children progress more steadily in learning. A longer school year with more instruction time should be good. Also good is fresh emphasis on competence among teachers and on using new media effectively for learning.
To older people a smartphone in a teenager’s hand is simply a telephone. To the child it is a lifeline to the world, a prodigious memory bank, a portable library, a consultation room, a confessional, a new age teddy bear.
We need to encourage use of that tool in every possible way that helps our children appreciate and grow in knowledge of history, religion, other people and their languages, mathematics, science, music and other arts. We don’t want to keep children tied to school desks all the time. There is no need for that today. If we’re smart enough, we can show them how every quest of theirs, everything they wonder about, every good impulse of their spirit can lead to answers and the excitement of further questing and sharing through that tool. It isn’t just for gossip and calling home to ask what’s for dinner.