A modest proposal for saving the world

Posted: Apr 20, 2001 12:00 AM
I hadn't intended to save the world just yet, but my weekend is free so here goes. Having pondered the many problems plaguing America - from teen delinquency to pregnancy and drug abuse to, well, urban sprawl - I've finally figured out a single solution that will solve most of them. This quasi-epiphany came to me as I was, in fact, pondering urban sprawl. As I said, my weekend's free. Everybody hates urban sprawl. It eats up the countryside, disturbs nature, misplaces habitats and is usually bereft of style and taste. What's not to hate? Yet we seem unable to stop it. Much as people hate sprawl, they love what sprawl offers - escape from inner cities, which people hate even more. You can sense the cycle building here. Urban decay begets sprawl begets further urban decay in a circular conundrum of frustration, inefficiency and self-destruction. Until now. Here's the deal. People abandon inner cities for all sorts of reasons, but mainly they leave in search of better family environments - better schools, cleaner, safer neighborhoods, pleasant neighbors who don't immediately prompt one to check the trigger lock on one's concealed weapon. The way we stop sprawl, obviously, is to stop people from leaving inner cities. But how? Easy. We make inner cities more appealing by offering in these blighted cores what people seem to find in sprawl areas. Yes, I know, hardly a new idea. Politicians, bureaucrats and city planners have been trying to salvage inner cities for decades, building parks, cleaning up derelict buildings and weedy lots. Yet, people sprawl. That's because we're focusing on the structures - the symbols of decay - rather than the people who inhabit them. Buildings and parks don't do things; people do. So the answer to inner-city flight, urban sprawl and almost everything else is people, the most important of whom are teachers. After all, the single greatest reason families move to the 'burbs is to find better schools. And the core of any school - the heartbeat, soul and bones - is the faculty. Not the building, though buildings are nice. Not the computers, though they're nice, too. The teachers. Thirty or 40 years ago, public schools managed to produce literate students without benefit of state-of-the-art buildings or computers or even air-conditioning in my neighborhood. The difference between then and now is simply the quality of the teachers combined with yesterday's environment of discipline. All the smart women back then - today's doctors, lawyers, scientists and, OK, journalists - were teaching math, science and English. We need them back. Not necessarily women but anyone with the passion and talent for teaching. We need to bring the best brains back to school by reinventing the teaching profession as a competitive, respected profession with standards, examinations and rewards. Put bright, accomplished adults into classrooms; make respect mandatory, discipline swift and pay commensurate with other white-collar professions - say, $60,000 to $70,000 a year - and voila: Children will be happier; adults will be delighted; society will enjoy a cultural and intellectual renaissance. I realize that my idea has a few wrinkles. We would have to dismantle the teachers union, for instance, as well as weed out the bad teachers and reprogram the good ones. But the theory is rock solid: Great teachers make great schools, which breed great students, who build great communities, which thrive when well-educated, upwardly mobile, ethically conscious, morally vibrant people stick around. Crime goes down; grades go up; social pathologies subside. As a bonus, urban sprawl gets a vacation and the world is saved. You're welcome.