Friday, June 27, 2008

Sergeant York's School House

During World War I, the U.S. Department of War invited Robert Yerkes and his colleagues to develop and implement a series of tests examining the intellectual abilities of its soldiers. The tests known as the Army Alpha and Beta Tests constituted the first empirical aptitude and ability studies carried out with sample sizes (over 1 million participants) sufficient for rigorous statistical analysis. They uncovered appalling deficiencies in the education of Americans. The worrisome results jolted the country. Federal and state governments began to confront the challenges of offering an education to the broad populace that would meet the needs of a rapidly developing industrial nation. The test results eventually inspired the G.I. Bill of 1944.

The fabled World War I hero Sergeant Alvin C. York did not need sophisticated statistical analysis to recognize the shortcomings of education in his world. He owned a farm in East Tennessee and knew the problem first hand. After military service, he spent much energy and a large part of his own assets to found a secondary school for the children of Fentress County. The Alvin C. York Institute was founded in 1927. Classes began in 1929. Though much progress has been made since, great need remains. The Tennessee Economic Council on Women reports that 59 % of the women living in Fentress County graduated from high school in 2000. That is about 15 % fewer than in the nation, according to a recent National Women's Law Center report. Only 6 % graduated from a four-year college.

The Institute was eventually incorporated into the public school system. In 1980, the original building was deemed too expensive to repair. The old facilities were closed and new ones were built on the premises. Now the old building is slated to be torn down. It is registered in the National Register of Historic Places. Members of the York family and friends of the Institute are attempting to raise funds for its preservation.

The Tennessean's Rachel Stults reports in her article entitled "Family, preservationists rally to save York's dream" published Apr. 22, 2008, that the building's years may soon be counted. Restoration would cost a daunting $ 5-10 million. Neither the state nor the county government are prepared to provide this large sum for a project that does not seem to help address persistent urgent needs. Can there be a rationale for investing 10 million dollars in a dilapidated building far from any economic hub of note?

The answer is yes. Tennessee's countryside is beautiful. Costs of living are low. It is a perfect location for industries that do not need to be near metropolitan areas, yet want a seat in the U.S. Internet-oriented services and e-commerce come to mind. Such high technology-oriented enterprises commonly hesitate to settle in rural areas, because the local work force does not have the expertise they seek. Like any high school in this state, today's Alvin C. York Institute already attempts to seed the knowledge for such jobs. A learning center for computer sciences in secondary education would greatly enhance the effort. The center could lend OLPC to those who cannot afford a computer. The little machines are also known as XO computers. They constitute cost effective, robust and powerful slim clients. I wrote about them in my post on this site on December 7, 2007, and am writing this post on one.

Instruction in the use of computers would help the children to develop the understanding and the skills needed to embrace the world wide web and elicit interest in internet careers. The preparedness for college would improve. The center's seat in the building that Alvin C. York conceived to bring opportunity to his people through education would represent a beacon of hope for those who live in rural America and feel left behind by the innovations of the 21st century. It would demonstrate that York's dream can be fulfilled. The symbolism is priceless.

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