Bean Soup and the Crisis of Education

Washington Times  9.23.97
Balint Vazsonyi

In recent years, I have had prime rib at the Prime Rib in Washington, swallow's nest in Hong Kong, and the famous soup of black truffles by Paul Bocuse. Yet the most memorable meal of my life consisted of a bowl of rather basic bean soup. The year was 1945. The place: Budapest, Hungary.

After several months spent in cellars, more than a million people tried to figure out how to live in bombed-out buildings without windows, water, heat, food, electricity, telephones, or transportation. The seven glorious bridges that used to connect Buda with Pest had been blown up by the retreating Germans. Families with members on different sides of the Danube river could not ascertain who had survived World War II, and who had not.

At last, a temporary footbridge was thrown across reasonably intact pillars in the south of the city. As soon as word of it got around, a remarkable migration was underway. People on both sides of the Danube made for the bridgeheads. Great "rivers" of humanity formed on the main thoroughfares, fed by "tributaries" from the smaller streets. Once at the bridge, people stood in line for hours to be allowed across as soldiers tried to make sure the two columns, moving in opposite directions, would not overload the makeshift bridge.

Near the bridgehead on the Buda side, three old ladies set up a couple of vast cauldrons in which a soup of red and white beans was cooking. Thousands of us stood in line to get a bowl - our only meal in the middle of a cold and windy day of pilgrimage.

Such was life when, a few weeks later, the schools reopened. I sat with dozens of other hungry nine-year-olds in a classroom with no windows or heating - only a blackboard and broken pieces of chalk manipulated by our teacher who, like the rest of us, had one faded outfit to wear day in, day out. But she knew a great deal, and she knew how to pass it on. In three months, we covered the curriculum for the year. From that class came world-renowned musicians, a chief surgeon at John Hopkins, a department chair at Dartmouth College - to mention but a few.

Given the foregoing, it is difficult to view our ongoing debate on education as relevant. Money? All the riches of the planet could not solve our problems. Standards, testing - how will those help when it is the framework we have lost altogether? To restore it we will need many more parents who take an interest, teachers who have knowledge to impart, and students who are told in no uncertain terms what is expected of them. What we don't need is a Department of Education that spends its time and our money on "enforcement" (what in heaven's name has enforcement got to do with education?), and on churning out thousands of pages about speech codes and sexual harassment.

Some years ago I was buying an item in Bloomington, Indiana, costing exactly $100. The salesgirl, a student at Indiana University, took out her calculator to figure the 5 per cent sales tax. "Please," I said, "put it away for my sake. Surely, you know how much 5 per cent(!) of 100 is." The girl looked at me with non-comprehension, then punched in "100," followed by "5" and the percentage key. She pointed silently to the window of the calculator, in which "5" had materialized.

America used to be a country where children walked miles to a little schoolhouse in which dedicated teachers guided them to self-sufficiency, producing the kind of self esteem which comes solely from work well done. Families used to make do with less, so the next generation could learn more.

That was when education was an opportunity and not a "right," when Hollywood still sent us films like Spencer's Mountain with Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara. In it, the eldest boy of a large family applies for a scholarship which turns out not to be available that year. His father has to choose between completing the new house he had long dreamed about, or a college education for his son. Without much ado, he makes his decision - the same decision parents have been making for centuries.

The reality is that money has come to stand in the way of education. Remember the saying "it's worth as much as what you paid for it"? That still goes. Because we make it appear as if there was unlimited money - other people's money - to pay for their basic education, our children are wasting their formative years. If citizens paid for it directly, they would make sure teachers are competent. If citizens paid for it directly, they would make sure the curriculum reflects common sense. Those prospects ought to be worth supporting school choice and vouchers.

It seems that politicians are discussing everything under the sun, except the two points that, alone, matter: What are our children to learn, and who is going to teach it to them? In this most hypocritical of ages, it is as if we were debating the pros and cons of "haute cuisine" while our children are no longer even provided bean soup.