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A Failure to Value Teaching

March 20, 2004

In "Nobody Likes a Brainiac" (Opinion, March 14), Jo Scott-Coe correctly identifies a central problem among the plethora plaguing education in America. The underlying anti-intellectualism one encounters in American culture has found an insidious nest, bizarrely, in the education system itself. Fear of excellence and a distrust of accomplishment are twin debilitations in this process.

I am fortunate to teach in a marvelous public school setting: the Hamilton Humanities Magnet in the L.A. Unified School District. Our magnet's faculty boasts two talented PhDs. My master's degree is in English literature. Other members of our faculty also have master's degrees, not in education but in their subject areas.

From one side we are asked the question: Why do you teach high school? -- as if our chosen profession were some sort of underachievement, a debauchery of our talent, a signal of defeat and disappointment. Sorry, we became teachers because we wanted to become teachers. And from the other side we hear charges of highfalutin' elitism, accusations of showing off and trying to make other people look bad.

The way we see it, our act of teaching is, in itself, part of our own ongoing pursuit of knowledge, along the way trying to make a little magic happen, a little heart stir, a sudden brain surge, maybe even a life changed, our feeble human version of fiat lux. The only thing that really matters to us is our students' mental growth. That's the miracle that keeps us growing too.

Docendo discimus: We learn by teaching. This is why many come into the profession, only to be beaten down by mismanagement, conflicting interests and a deeply rooted distrust among the public. I applaud Scott-Coe's insight and examples. I wish this message could be heard and understood by more citizens of this most conflicted democracy. Then something essential might change.

Barry Smolin

Los Angeles

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My husband is a brilliant high school English teacher. When our son told his local Harvard alumnus interviewer that he planned to follow in his father's footsteps, the man was incredulous: "You're going to Harvard to become a teacher?"

After graduating with honors from Brown this June, with a major in East Asian studies, my son will, it seems, have his work cut out for him, challenging this anti-intellectual prejudice about and among teachers.

Mimi Kennedy Dilg

Van Nuys

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