My name is Richard and I'm a recovering academic snob.

My addiction began at an early age. I became hooked on books when my father took me and my brothers to the public library every Saturday morning. Heading straight to the children's section to find how-to books, I dreamed of learning magic tricks, origami, and carving tiny turtles out of soap bars.

I never perfected any of those skills. My magic fooled no one, a waste basket served as my origami art gallery. And Mom put a stop to soap carving when my growing need for raw material began to threaten our family's personal hygiene.

I soon discovered reading about how to do stuff was easier and far more enjoyable than actually doing it. Over the years I came to understand when it came to learning, I was all about theory, not practice.

It was in my sophomore year of high school, when I was forced to take a wood shop class, that I first succumbed to academic snobbery. Those were the days when boys had to take shop and girls had to take home economics to earn a high school diploma.

Never having used my hands for anything more than turning pages, shooting basketballs, lifting hay bales and picking strawberries, I felt offended by having to use them to work with wood. While my more manually skilled classmates took pride in their professional quality coffee tables and bookshelves, I resolved to make my construction of a birdhouse last the entire semester. I think I passed the class mostly because my dad was the school principal.

When I entered college I planned to major in biology. Then came my encounter with a fetal pig. The assignment was to dissect it and identify the major organs. I was clumsy with the scalpel and clueless about what it revealed. Once again, for me learning by theory trumped learning by doing.

And so I became a high school English teacher. Literature and language required thought, not action. A perfect fit for an academic snob. And also, as it turned out, the key to career security. When the budget axe fell on schools, it avoided English teachers, falling instead on those who taught vocational/technical classes.

I only taught for five years, not seeing a career ladder except for counseling and administration, neither of which appealed to me. After a 30-year career as a university administrator responsible for the admission of new students, many of whom had to be turned away because they were academically unprepared, I've had an opportunity to reflect and write about public schools and their mission.

I've concluded academic snobbery largely explains why public education has failed to achieve its primary mission: to assure that all students, regardless of financial means, learning styles, home life and neighborhoods, have the opportunity to reach their potential. As it stands, only college bound students with supportive families enjoy that assurance. The achievement gap between the haves and have nots hasn't budged, despite well-meaning attempts to close it.

This recovering academic snob attributes that failure of schools to serve all students largely to the demise of career and technical education. Governor Brown has recognized the need to rejuvenate it with his 2013 budget.

But Carlsbad has the opportunity, with the opening of Sage Creek High in the fall, to address the need locally. It could learn from one of the few charter school success stories in North County, Vista's North County Trade Tech High School. The school accepts students who were unsuccessful in traditional schools and provides a curriculum that combines career/technical education with college prep courses, so its students get hands-on learning that provides bridges to a career in the trades upon graduation or admission to a community college or university.

It's not just the right thing to do for kids schools are failing to reach. It's in our best economic interest as well. The fastest growing population in California is the poor and undereducated. We can no longer afford the costs of academic snobbery.

Richard Riehl writes from La Costa. Contact him at [email protected]


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