Fourth in a series on what to look for in college.
Cotton Center, one of the smallest independent school districts in the Texas Panhandle or the South Plains, has a total enrollment from pre-k through grade 12 of 100 students. By comparison to the largest 6A and 5A schools in West Texas, some might consider these 1A schools “widows’ mites,” learning environments that make a small contribution to the greater cause.
I think not.
As an architect, I value the quality of facilities for their positive impact on learning. I also know that passionate purpose and a commitment to young people in the charge of the school board, superintendent, principal, teachers and staff will overpower almost any perceived lack of quality in physical learning environments. Care and concern make education work, not embellished edifices or excessive enrollments.
The auditorium in which I spoke at Cotton Center ISD had textured plywood (T1-11) on the walls. It looked fresh, but unfinished and unpainted. Yet, as that “baker’s dozen” of juniors and seniors entered, every one of them shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, for instance, “Hi, my name is John. Thank you for coming to visit.” Every single student. I have talked to juniors and seniors at the largest schools in West Texas, and that powerful presence of self in relation to others is unfortunately rare.
These young people in seemingly meager little schools stewed in cauldrons of American republicanism are the centers of innumerable universes. Amherst, Olton, Dawson, Sands, and Klondike are just a few other examples like Cotton Center. Many play six-man football and every able-bodied high school student is on the team. (Some can’t field a team.) They may not win, but they play; they belong to something larger than themselves. They submit themselves to the authority of the coach for the purpose of engaging another squad from another place. Cotton Center has won one game in four years. But, according to the principal and superintendent Ryan Bobo, they are improving. Mr. Bobo cares about the students more than a win-loss record. He is respectful and respected. Commands to students and their responses would be the envy of any school leader in any setting—the epitome of purposeful education in a free society. Students appear to appreciate freedom and accept responsibility.
I talked to a young lady who will likely be the valedictorian of her class. She was matter-of-fact about it, not haughty or prideful. It is a mission for her, in that both her mother and grandmother had been valedictorian. She was bright and carried a conversation studiously, with knowledge of the human condition and an appreciation for the various pursuits and professions of life. She is well educated.
In this aging school, teachers ply their craft leavened with love and purpose. School leaders do what they need to do to serve the students with passion at the center of 100 universes. Unknown boundaries and limitless potential were appreciated, one student at a time.
Cotton Center recently purchased a used scoreboard from Lamesa ISD. Mr. Bobo and his band of volunteers retrieved it, probably on a lowboy, and set it up. The Cotton Center faithful were satisfied. It didn’t have video. There were no special effects. It kept track of the time, downs, yardage and the score, which seemed to have little impact on pride or purpose. Yes, Cotton Center wants its kids to play hard and do their best. That is the point of the game. Winning is important, but incidental.
People passionately helping other people, leading to productive and noble citizenship, may be the only salient purpose of public primary, secondary and higher education. These small schools embody Jeffersonian democracy at work in the community. If students emerge from places like this as better citizens, Cotton Center ISD and other similar school districts will have attained the highest purpose of any educational endeavor.
If such institutional values are absent in considering a particular university, look elsewhere for a place to study—a place where you can help build a free society. You may contribute to a university’s sustenance with a clear and concise focus for liberty, passion and community purpose. These foundations make a shared universe, and a good university, work.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.