Da Vinci in the Delta

portrait-FraunhoferYou may have never heard of Joseph Fraunhofer, but you’ve benefited from his genius. Fraunhofer was a German orphan who was apprenticed to a cruel glassmaker named Weichelsberger at the end of the 18th century. He was only 11, but Weichelsberger fiercely kept him from attending school. The glassmaker saw more of a profit in keeping the boy hard at work. In 1801, Weichelsberger’s workshop collapsed, and Fraunhofer was trapped underneath the rubble.  He may have been lost to the ages, but as Fate would have it, Prince Maximillian, the future king of Bavaria, showed up to help the cleanup effort, and took young Fraunhofer under his wing from then on. He demanded this orphan receive a proper education.

As a result of his schooling, Fraunhofer combined his glassmaking experience with his natural scientific ability and became the father of modern optics. He invented what we now call the spectrometer, and it is because of his work that we can figure out what things are made of just by analyzing the light coming at us from them. If you’ve ever heard scientists talk about what chemical elements far away stars are made of, and thought “How do they know that?,” our orphan genius in the Bavarian rubble is the reason why. Doctors can now even measure glucose levels for people with diabetes without the use of needles, because of Fraunhofer’s light spectrum work.

1545132_origFraunhofer’s story fascinates not because he was meant for greatness, but perhaps because we may never have benefited from his genius were it not for his chance meeting with someone who insisted on having him educated. But his story is not so unique. History is full of brilliant minds born poor and disadvantaged.  Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example. Surely you’ve heard of him. Da Vinci was an Italian genius born out of wedlock. He had no real last name. Da Vinci literally means “From the town of Vinci,” because he was not a legitimate son of his father. And yet, his father insisted on getting him his formal education. The rest is history. What amazing art, engineering, inventions, and scientific study could have been lost to the sands of time had this unwanted son been passed over for more promising pupils?

And yet that’s what we’re talking about doing in Mississippi- taking a pass on giving a full education to some of the kids, so the ones we prefer will get the top dollar teaching.

Here’s the logic “school choice” advocates talk about in shadowy rooms, behind closed doors: You can send your tax dollar to Jackson, but you’re not going to get the whole dollar back. Some of that dollar is gonna go to the kids in West Point, the kids in Jackson, the kids in the Delta. Or, you could send your tax dollar to downtown Madison, and that whole dollar is gonna be spent on Madison kids… “Our”…kids.

Let’s just sidestep the obvious tone of such claims for the time being, and focus on money.

The choice of approaches is basically the choice between creating two Mississippis, one each for the Haves and the Have Nots, or creating one Mississippi, flourishing and growing. Shannon Eubanks and others have written extensively on this. I’d highly recommend a side tour.

mississippiIf you elect to create two Mississippis- one for your kids and another for somebody else’s, ignoring for the moment the problems it causes morally, patriotically, racially, socioeconomically, and spiritually, you will be missing out on the genius left untapped in neglecting the poorest of the poor. We all will. Mark my words: One day, and maybe one day soon, a kid will be born in Mississippi whose genius might just be enough to save us and move us up from 50th. The problem is, she won’t be wearing her Nobel Prize around her neck at age 5. You won’t be able to find her eventual Wikipedia page when your charter school looks over her application. Do you really want to take the risk of letting her languish in an underfunded school?  When you could have pushed for full funding, for every kid in Mississippi, all along?

It may feel so empowering to hold onto your money tight, to grip it in your fist and not let go. But the smart thing is to invest it. Ask anybody, from Wall Street to Jesus Christ. Me, Me, Me won’t grow Mississippi. Us, Us, Us is how we rise. Together.

shaw mississippiEvery now and then great minds are born who can change the future of a society.  The great societies are those which don’t allow those minds to go uneducated. Unfortunately, there’s no way to search for them before it’s too late. Oddly enough, it’s like farming crops. You can’t tell which seeds are going to give you the best plants just by looking at them. You have to plant them all and water the whole field.

You may think full funding for public education will mean not getting your tax money back.  The truth is, you will get it back- you’ll just get it back by living in a better state. In a better future.

Don’t let the Da Vincis in the Delta slip through the cracks. Fully fund education for all Mississippi kids.



  1. paula boulanger

    You make some good points in this story. But I have to say that I really don’t think that funding is the issue in our public school systems in Mississippi. I think the biggest problem is how we spend those funds. Surely if there is a genius student in any school system in Mississippi our teachers and administrators would have the intelligence to spot this and find a way to move that child along. I think the biggest challenge in those poor counties and inner city school systems is not the money we throw at their education – it is the family environment they come from. Giving those children the encouragement, basic social skills, self esteem and the WANT to learn and be educated. Maybe that takes more funding – but it really comes from the outside the school system. Our current funding should be enough to teach kids how to read, write and figure out problems. I think that the “what” and “how” we teach elementary students should be re-evaluated. Apparently something isn’t working with the drop out rate and teen pregnancy that we have in Mississippi. Money doesn’t solve those issues. You are in the school system, so you probably know more than I do, but I do say the summer session and one semester that I taught in public schools was extremely disappointing from the administrative side. It was a long time ago, but the lower level high school students that I taught were basically just there to get through – no one really cared if they learned the material, just get them passed through. I applaud and respect all school teachers that are there to make difference – it is a very hard job and their efforts are greatly appreciated.

    1. jacomans (Post author)

      Right. So much of what affects student achievement is out of the school’s control- 70% by most measures. And yet school’s are held accountable for those students’ achievement ANYWAY. While “throwing money at the problem” won’t necessarily solve it, we DO know that underfunding the schools only worsens the problem and ties the schools’ proverbial hands behind their back. I agree with you 100% when you say “Our current funding should be enough to teach kids how to read, write and figure out problems.” AMEN. Unfortunately, our state legislators refuse to follow the simple funding law which has explained in clear terms exactly how much money the schools need in order to accomplish just that.

      We educators don’t want anything extra. We simply want what the law says we need in order to teach the kids “how to read, write, and figure out problems.”

      1. Alan Branson

        The original reply to your article asked the question I hear so many times – why should we increase funding rather than just focus on improved use of funding?

        I don’t understand why the concepts of funding levels and uses of funding should be exclusive conversations/strategies. The education attainment levels in the state have a lot of ground to make up – shouldn’t we be funding education at least at the levels prescribed by law while also looking for ways to use funds better – to achieve even more than what will be possible with more funding alone.

        1. jacomans (Post author)

          A “both, and” approach! I like it!

    2. lhp

      You would think that genius would be easy to spot and that anyone who ran across a genius in their school would do whatever they could to nurture that genius and allow it to bloom. In my unfortunate experience, however, the geniuses who appeared in my town’s schools had to go to a private school to get that genius nurtured. A terrible school district, you might say. But no! It is perenially at the top of all the districts in Mississippi. In fact, a district officially told me to my face that is was simply not possible to meet the needs of the profoundly gifted.

      Fortunately, the two brothers and the math prodigy came from families that expected genius and were financially prepared to make the move from public to private schools. Had these boys been in families that didn’t know how to make the move or who couldn’t afford to do it would likely never have graduated from high school at 14 or won the National Calculus Prize. They wouldn’t be working at Microsoft or delving into theoretical physics with the likes of Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking. No one, including themselves, would likely ever know of the talents they have.

      In my classroom, I am panning for gold. I am there to serve all my students, but I look out for these gold nuggets, students who were born in ill-favored circumstances with sparkling gifts which will tarnish if not polished. I know that there are geniuses out their who weren’t so gifted at choosing the right parents and school. That is my mission. My mantras are these: There may be schools that serve poor children, but there should not be poor schools. Every child deserves the same kind of education as Sasha and Malia Obama and Ivanka Trump. That we don’t all believe the same thing is telling on our society. Our country is only as strong as its weakest link. Mississippi is a truly weak link indeed.

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